The Best Whole Grains To Reduce Your Risk of Disease, Say Dietitians
Whole wheat pancakes, buckwheat noodles, mushroom barley soup—wherever we go, grains seem to follow. And this should be no surprise. In addition to being a huge part of our diets, some people often seek out certain grains for their nutritional benefits as many are filled with fiber, packed with vitamins and minerals, and can help lower the risk of disease. According to Hartman Group's 2017 Health and Wellness Report, 58% of consumers are looking to add more whole grains into their diet because of this.
It is important to know, however, that not all grains pack the same punch. For instance, refined grains, which are grains that have been modified from their original state, are a lot less healthy than whole grains. "These grains are modified from their original and natural form, thus reducing their nutrient and dietary fiber content," explains Lon Ben-Asher, MS, RD, LD/N, "This could lead to worsening blood sugar control and reduced satiety potentially leading to weight gain."
The Importance of Whole Grains
On the other hand, whole grains are cereals and pseudocereals that have retained their endosperm, germ, and bran, which are the nutritional powerhouses of the grain. This makes whole grains much healthier than refined grains. "Whole grains give us a great deal of fiber, which will help you feel full and satisfied, along with other important vitamins and minerals," explains Catherine Perez, RD of Plant Based RD and an Ambassador for One Degree Organics, "When looking at the healthiest whole-grain foods to buy, look at the ingredient list. Ideally, the first ingredient should be whole grains, whole wheat, whole oats, etc."
To help better navigate the world of grains, we put together a list that showcases some of the healthiest, and not-so-healthy, grains out there. From ones that are teeming with fiber to others that can pose health risks if not eaten in moderation, here are the most common grains ranked from best to worst by nutritional benefits.
Wheat, although found in a variety of different products ranging from fresh pastas to baked goods, may be one of the least healthy grains due to the fact it is often processed. "Wheat [and rice] may be the least favorable as it pertains to health simply based on the possibility of the process of refinement," explains Ben-Asher, "[Refinement] removes the bran, the storage powerhouse of fiber, vitamins, and minerals, and germ, [which] provides natural healthy fats." Ben-Asher notes how this contributes to reduced satiety and fullness, and overall nutrition. Wheat also contains a high amount of gluten. Tip: It is important to note that whole wheat is far more healthy than refined wheat. Because of this, look for products labeled "100% whole wheat."
Even though white rice is delicious, it should be enjoyed in moderation due to the fact that it is highly processed and may even cause blood sugar spikes. According to research done by Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH), eating white rice regularly may increase the risk for type 2 diabetes. Because of this, it is important to diversify the different types of rice that you include in your diet—for instance, opt for brown, red, or wild rice instead of always reaching for white.
Corn, which often graces holiday table settings and picnic barbecues, is a popular food that is packed with both antioxidants and fiber. However, it is also very starchy—according to WebMD, just one cup of corn has 110 grams of starch. Based on research done by the Mayo Clinic, consuming starch may be linked to weight gain. Because of this, corn, in its most natural form, such as on the cob unbuttered, is much healthier than corn that has been highly processed. "For the ultimate health benefit, minimally processed is best," says Perez, "It's very easy to pop your own popcorn kernels, and then you can flavor it yourself too."
If you like to start your day off with a big bowl of oatmeal, then you'll be happy to hear that oats are full of nutritional benefits. "Oats contain large amounts of beta-glucan, a type of powerful soluble fiber associated with reducing bad cholesterol in the body," says Karen Kawolics, MS RDN LD, MEd, NBC-HWC, and Noom Senior Health Coach (National Board Certified Health Coach), "Beta-glucan has also been given credit for helping to regulate blood sugar levels, providing a sense of fullness, and aiding in colon health." In addition, according to research done by Harvard Health, oats can help lower the risk of heart disease and diabetes. However, it is important to choose oat products that have been minimally processed, as they are more nutritional. For instance, steel-cut or Irish oats are much healthier than quick or instant oats, as the former has been processed less.
Barley, the hearty cereal grain that is often used in both sweet and savory dishes, has been around for ages. According to Wikipedia, it is believed to have been cultivated in Eurasia as far back as 10,000 years ago. Besides its rich history, it also boasts a laundry list of nutritional benefits. For starters, it is high in fiber, magnesium, selenium, and B-vitamins. "You can also find lignans in barley, which is an antioxidant that is associated with lower risk of cancer and heart disease," explains Perez.
Teff, the fine grain that has roots in Ethiopia and Eritrea, is known for its rich earthy flavor and high protein, iron, and fiber content. It is also gluten-free and a great option for those who suffer from celiac disease. In fact, a research study done in the Netherlands found that celiac sufferers who integrated more teff into their diet found an overall reduction in celiac symptoms. This tasty grain also has a low glycemic index, which is great news for diabetics.
Buckwheat is a popular grain that is often ground into flour and used in recipes to make tasty dishes, such as pancakes and pastas. It is a great ingredient to incorporate into your recipes as it is packed with nutrients including iron, magnesium, and the antioxidant rutin. "Rutin is the main antioxidant found in buckwheat that is associated with lower cancer risk, inflammation, and blood pressure," explains Perez. Fun fact: Surprisingly enough, even though "buckwheat" has the word "wheat" in it, it does not actually contain any wheat at all. "Buckwheat, despite its name, is actually gluten-free and does not contain any wheat or gluten," says Perez.
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Freekeh has had quite the moment recently, and we can understand why. The ancient grain, which is a type of wheat that is popular in Middle Eastern and North African cooking, has high amounts of calcium, zinc, and iron. It also is said to have higher levels of fiber and protein than brown rice. However, those who require a gluten-free diet should note that freekeh does contain gluten.
Amaranth, a small round grain that is often used in recipes as a substitute for rice or pasta, is not only high in protein but is gluten-free, too. This grain, which is technically a pseudocereal, also has a long list of health benefits. "Amaranth is a source of many important minerals including manganese, magnesium, selenium, copper, phosphorus, and iron," explains Kawolics. In fact, Kawolics shares that just one cup of amaranth has 105% of the recommended daily intake for manganese, which is an important mineral for brain function. "It's also rich in magnesium, an essential nutrient involved in nearly 300 reactions in the body," she adds. Kawolics recommends adding amaranth into muffins, breads, and pancakes for a simple nutrition boost.
Quinoa bowl lovers rejoice—quinoa is one of the healthiest grains out there. "Quinoa is one of the healthiest grains on Earth," explains Ben-Asher, "It is very nutrient-dense with vitamins and minerals, dietary fiber, and antioxidants, and is a complete plant-based protein including all 9 essential amino acids." It is also gluten-free, making it a perfect ingredient for those looking for gluten-free alternatives. Fun fact: According to Harvard Health, there are over 120 known varieties of quinoa, with the white and yellow varieties being the mildest in flavor.
Here are some delicious recipes that include these healthy grains: