Carbs get a negative rap because so many people reach for the wrong ones: refined carbohydrates in white bread, candy, , sugary cereals and all sorts of other treats and drinks. However, a low intake of whole grains is actually the leading dietary risk factor for death and disease in the U.S., according to a 2019 study published in the Lancet.
Working these healthy grains into your diet can help prevent health problems like heart disease, diabetes, colon cancerand possibly asthma and Alzheimer’s. On the flipside, eating too many refined carbs is linked to negative outcomes, like a higher risk of ticker trouble.
“Whole grains are a key component of any nutritious diet,” says Stefani Sassos, MS, RDN, the Good Housekeeping Institute’s registered dietician. “Abundant in fiber, whole grains have a range of healthy benefits, from supporting healthy digestion to promoting better glycemic control. Start slow and keep it simple by swapping some refined carbohydrates in your diet for 100% whole-grain versions.”
These 15 grains are worth keeping at the top of your shopping list.
This one is pretty easy, as long as you don’t let food marketers trick you. It can be readily found in bread and pasta products, but make sure the label says “100% whole wheat.” Terms like “multigrain” and “wheat” don’t cut it. When you’re shopping for any whole-grain product, look at the ingredients and make sure the whole grain is at or near the top of the list. Each serving should contain at least 2 or 3 grams of fiber.
Oats are particularly rich in avenanthramide, an antioxidant that protects the heart. When you’re shopping for this whole grain, whether you see the word “whole” or not doesn’t matter the way it does with wheat products. Oats in the ingredients list mean the product is made from whole oats.
But if you’re buying flavored oatmeal, avoid those that contain high-fructose corn syrup. Even better, stick to the unsweetened kind and mix in some fruit or a touch of honey or maple syrup.
When you choose white rice over brown, around 75% of its nutrients — including nearly all the antioxidants, magnesium, phosphorus, and B vitamins contained in the healthy bran and germ — are left on the milling-room floor. Whenever possible opt for brown rice, which includes brown aromatic varieties like basmati and jasmine. Get even more exotic with red and black rice, both of which are considered whole grains and are high in antioxidants. Though technically a grass, wild rice is also considered a whole grain and is rich in B vitamins, such as niacin and folate.
Rye has more nutrients per 100-calorie serving than any other whole grain, according to nutritional research from the nonprofit The Organic Center. It has four times more fiber than standard whole wheat and provides you with nearly 50% of your daily recommended amount of iron. One problem: Most rye and pumpernickel bread in grocery stores is made with refined flours. Be persistent and look for “whole rye” on top of the ingredients list to get the healthy benefits.
This Arabic grain is a low-carb form of ancient wheat that has up to four times more fiber than brown rice. Freekeh kernels are harvested while they’re young and then roasted. They contain more vitamins and minerals, such as immune-boosting selenium, than other grains. Once in your stomach, freekeh acts as a prebiotic, stimulating the growth of healthy bacteria that aid digestion. (This is different than a probiotic, which is a beneficial live bacteria you consume). Look for it in Middle Eastern markets, natural food stores and on Amazon.
People who ate a half-cup of whole barley regularly during a five-week USDA study saw their cholesterol levels drop by nearly 10%, compared to those who went without. Try adding raisins or dried apricots to quick-cooking barley and serving it as a side dish. Just make sure it’s whole-grain barley, not “pearled,” which means the bran and germ have been removed.
Many people living with celiac disease can tolerate this whole grain, along with quinoa, amaranth, and sorghum. And it’s one of the best grain-based sources of magnesium, a wonder mineral that does everything from ease PMS symptoms to improve nerve functioning; and manganese, which boosts brain power. And hooray for that— a great excuse to enjoy a good buckwheat pancake!
For all practical purposes, bulgur is considered a whole grain, even though up to 5% of its bran may be removed during processing. It’s so good for you, though, we’re putting it on the list. The grain, which is used to make tabbouleh salad, is a great source of iron and magnesium. The fiber and protein powerhouse (a cup contains nearly 75% of the dietary fiber you need for the day, and 25% of the protein you should get) can be used in salads or tossed in soups. Plus it cooks in only a few minutes.
Though it’s technically a seed and not a grain, this ancient South American power food is packed with more protein than any other grain, and each uncooked cup of the stuff (about three servings) has 522 milligrams of omega-3 fatty acids. Your family will likely enjoy its light, nutty flavor for a change of pace at the dinner table. And it keeps well, so it makes an easy make-ahead lunch to pack for work or school.
Most of the couscous you see in stores is a form of pasta made from refined wheat flour. So when you’re eyeing the aisle for the healthiest couscous pick, look for the whole-wheat kind, most easily found in natural food stores. If you skip the refined version and go with the whole-grain type, it will net you 5 additional grams of fiber per serving.
Corn can be extremely healthy for you when it’s whole. A good source of B vitamins, magnesium and phosphorus, whole corn is also thought to increase healthy gut flora, which can ward off diabetes, heart disease and chronic inflammation. Yellow corn is also high in antioxidants.
The easiest way to eat it? Popcorn. You can buy the kernels and pop them in a microwave using a paper bag, or do it the old-fashioned way on the stovetop.
This grain is a winner when it comes to protein: According to the Whole Grains Council, it has all nine essential amino acids, making it a complete protein. It has plenty of magnesium and phosphorous; it may also be anti-inflammatory, and it’s safe to eat for those with celiac disease. Amaranth can be added to soup, cooked into a porridge or popped like popcorn!
This grain is much more popular in other parts of the world beyond the U.S., but is gaining in popularity here in part because it’s gluten-free. Sorghum is also high in antioxidants and phytochemicals (which may help control cholesterol), as well as manganese, a mineral that’s critical for a healthy metabolism. Like amaranth, sorghum can be popped like popcorn; it’s also a great base for a grain bowl.
An ancient wheat grain with a nutty taste, farro is full of fiber and is a healthy source of iron and magnesium. A quarter-cup of the grain packs in 6 grams of protein; though it’s low in gluten, it’s not completely gluten-free so it’s not a good choice for those with celiac disease. Try tossing some cooked farro into a salad or using it as a base for a seafood or meat dish.
Technically a seed but considered part of the grain family, teff is loaded with calcium and high in resistant starch, a type of fiber that’s great for maintaining steady blood sugar levels. It’s also gluten-free and is found in many gluten-free products. Try baking breads, muffins, or cakes with teff flour for its sweet and nutty taste.
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