A UVA Heart & Vascular Center Initiative

What Are Whole Grains, Anyway?

Posted July 09, 2014

Nutrition labels sure can be confusing, and the array of contradictory diet trends out there is enough to make your head spin. Let’s get back to basics.

What Is a Whole Grain?

All grains start out as whole grains. The term “whole grain” refers to the grain in its most natural state, before any refining or processing takes place. Whole grains consist of three parts:

  • The bran, or outer skin, which contains antioxidants, B vitamins and fiber.
  • The germ, which has the potential to sprout into a new plant and also contains B vitamins, protein, minerals and good fats.
  • The endosperm, which supplies the plant with essential nutrients for survival and contains starchy carbohydrates, proteins and small amounts of vitamins and minerals.

Why Should We Eat Whole Grains?

When a grain is refined, it’s usually left without the bran and the germ, which means about 25 percent of the grain’s protein is lost, as well as many important nutrients. Choosing whole grains over refined grains is a great way to add protein, fiber and many important vitamins and minerals into your diet.

Studies have shown whole grains offer these benefits:

  • Reduced risk of stroke
  • Reduced risk of type 2 diabetes
  • Reduced risk of heart disease
  • Better ability to maintain a healthy weight
  • Reduced risk of inflammatory disease
  • Lower risk of colorectal cancer
  • Healthier blood pressure levels

Some of the most common, easy-to-find whole grains include:

  • Amaranth
  • Barley
  • Buckwheat
  • Bulgur
  • Corn (avoid the words “degerminated corn” and look for whole corn instead)
  • Farro
  • Millet
  • Quinoa
  • Rice (white rice is refined; look for brown rice or try an exotic rice like black or purple)
  • Rye
  • Sorghum
  • Spelt
  • Steel-cut oats
  • Wheat (100% whole wheat)
  • Wild rice

Find Whole Grain With One Simple Trick

“When I teach patients about whole grains, I show them how very easy it is to know when a product is made with whole grains,” says UVA clinical dietitian Katherine Basbaum, MS, RD. “When reading a label, if the first word after the word ‘ingredients’ is WHOLE, then they are guaranteed a whole grain.”

If you’re having a tough time making the switch to whole grains entirely, Basbaum recommends starting out gradually by making half of your grains whole, and then work your way up from there.

Avoiding refined grains and opting for a variety of whole grains is a great way to add fiber, vitamins and minerals to your diet. Learn more about what counts as a serving of whole grains.

Information adapted from The Whole Grains Council.