skip to Cookie NoticeSkip to contents

Your health and safety remain our top priority: Learn about our Safe Care Commitment | Use our Prescreen app before arrival for faster entry | Read the COVID-19 Vaccine FAQs

Header Skipped.

Great Gains From Whole Grains

Suzanne Proulx, MS, RD, LDN
Brigham and Women's Hospital

Previously published on

We were advised to eat less fat, so we piled on the pasta, bit into bagels and crunched on low-fat cookies. Popular diet books condemned carbohydrates, so countless sank their teeth into sausage, eggs and T-bone steaks. Either way, whole grains lost out, and in the process we missed out on their powerful health benefits. But what exactly are whole grains? What benefits can we hope to gain from eating them, and how can we easily fit them into our busy lives?

What Are Whole Grains?

Whole grains contain all three edible parts of a grain: the inner germ, the middle endosperm and the outer bran covering. This makes them rich in fiber, vitamins, minerals and a multitude of disease- fighting substances. By contrast, refined grains have most of their germ and bran removed during processing, resulting in a depletion of many of these nutritious compounds.

Examples of Whole Grains

  • Whole wheat berries, whole wheat bulgur, whole wheat couscous and other strains of wheat such as kamut and spelt
  • Brown rice (including quick cooking brown rice)
  • Corn, whole cornmeal, popcorn
  • Oat groats, steel-cut oats, rolled oats (including quick cooking and instant oatmeal)
  • Whole rye
  • Hulled barley (pot, scotch and pearled barley often have much of their bran removed)
  • Triticale (pronounced try-ti-KAY-lee)
  • Millet
  • Teff (reported to be the world's smallest grain and to have a sweet, malt-like flavor

Buckwheat, quinoa (pronounced keen-wah), wild rice and amaranth are not botanically true grains but are typically associated with the grain family due to their similar composition. They are also considered whole grains and can be found at health-food stores along with other less common grains.

What Whole Grains Can Do For You

The regular consumption of whole-grain foods can be an important step to:

  • Protect you from heart disease and lower your cholesterol level
  • Ward off certain cancers
  • Reduce your risk of diabetes
  • Promote digestive health
  • Keep weight off

This last point may seem shocking - after all, aren't carbohydrates fattening? Don't they raise blood sugar and insulin levels and make our bodies store fat? Well, that depends on what type of carbohydrate we are talking about. Both whole grains and refined grains are high in carbohydrates, but their effects on the blood sugar differ. Refined grains quickly raise the blood sugar while the fiber in whole grains help slow down this rise. In addition, whole-grain fiber helps us feel full so that we may be less likely to reach for that second helping.

From The Field To The Table

Grains are widely used in the making of bread products, muffins, breakfast cereals, crackers and pastas. How can you tell if these products contain whole grains? Skip right over the fancy names on the packages and read the ingredient list.

  • Choose foods that list whole or whole grain before the grain's name as the first ingredient. For example: durum whole-wheat flour, whole rye or whole-grain cornmeal. (An exception is graham flour, which is a whole-wheat flour.)
  • Don't rely on color to identify a whole grain. Ingredients such as molasses or caramel coloring may have been added.
  • The following terms do not necessarily indicate a whole grain: wheat flour, stone-ground, 100 percent wheat, seven grain, multigrain, pumpernickel, enriched, fortified, organic or bran. Remember, look for the word whole.

Taking Action

  • Start your day with a whole-grain hot or cold cereal.
  • Try whole-wheat varieties of pancakes and waffles topped with fruit.
  • Use whole-wheat pitas, whole-grain breads or whole-grain tortillas when making sandwiches. Switch to whole-grain pastas and brown rice. As an introduction, mix some whole grain into your regular pasta or rice.
  • Try whole-wheat couscous or quick-cooking brown rice; they cook in five to 10 minutes!
  • Substitute half whole-wheat flour in recipes calling for flour.
  • Top whole-grain crackers with hummus, low-fat cheese, or nut butters.
  • Wrap a whole-wheat tortilla around peanut butter and banana or eggs and salsa.
  • Munch on air-popped popcorn with a spray of olive or canola oil and a sprinkling of your favorite spices.
  • Snack on a mix of different types of whole-grain cold cereals with dried fruit and nuts or baked tortilla chips with guacamole, bean dip or salsa.
  • Make small changes over time by trying a new whole grain each month.

If you are currently lax in eating whole grains, add them in gradually. This will give your body a chance to adjust to the fiber. In addition, include at least 64 ounces of fluid a day. Finally, keep in mind that each type of whole grain provides a unique set of nutrients. So be adventurous regarding variety, and remember: Don't put it in your bowl if it doesn't say whole!


Cooking Methods

Never tried whole grains? You're missing out on some scrumptious flavors and interesting textures! The following guide may help:

Amaranth 1:3 20-30 minutes 2 1/4
Barley (hulled) 1:3 60-75 minutes 3
Brown rice 1:2 35-45 minutes 3
Buckwheat groats 1:2 15-20 minutes 3
Kamut berries 1:3 90 minutes 3
Millet 1:3 25-30 minutes 3
Oat groats 1:3 45-60 minutes 3
Quinoa 1:2 15-20 minutes 4
Rye berries 1:3 60 minutes 3
Spelt berries 1:3 60 minutes 2 1/2
Teff berries 1:4 15 minutes 2 1/2
Triticale berries 1:3 60 minutes 2 1/2
Wheat berries 1:3 45-60 minutes 2 1/2


For over a century, a leader in patient care, medical education and research, with expertise in virtually every specialty of medicine and surgery.

About BWH