Whole Grains In Your Diet

By Dr. Karin Kratina, PhD, R.D.

You probably know that whole grains are a great source of fiber, but did you know that whole grains have many additional health-promoting benefits? Whole grains contain vitamins, minerals, and hundreds of phytonutrients, including antioxidants, that work together with fiber to help reduce your risk of chronic diseases.

Research shows that as little as 3 to 6 servings of whole grain foods each day will reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer, stroke, and diabetes; improve weight management, and lower cholesterol. Unfortunately, the average American eats less than one serving of whole grain foods per day. In fact, more than 30% of Americans never eat any whole grain at all!

The Difference between Whole Grain and Fiber

To make sure you don’t miss out on all these health benefits, it’s important to know what whole grains are and how they differ from fiber. We need both whole grains and fiber in our diet. Fortunately, this is easy to do.

Whole grains are grain kernels that contain all three parts of the kernel just as they are found in nature. The three parts are:

  • The bran, or outer layer of the grain, that provides fiber, vitamins, and minerals
  • The endosperm, the grain’s powerhouse, that provides carbohydrates and B vitamins for energy
  • The germ, which is rich in vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients, including antioxidants, that are known for their excellent disease-fighting properties

Most people know that fruits and vegetables contain phytonutrients, but did you know that whole grains have up to five times more antioxidant activity than do most fruits and vegetables. And some of the antioxidants in whole grains are not even found in fruits and vegetables!

Clearly, the health benefits of whole grains go well beyond fiber. But fiber, too, has benefits.

Fiber is a plant substance that cannot be digested or absorbed by the body, so it passes through the small intestine almost entirely intact. Fiber helps keep the digestive tract in good working order. There are two types of fiber:

  • Soluble fiber mixes with liquid and forms a gel to slow digestion and absorption. It helps improve cholesterol and blood sugar levels. Soluble fiber is found in dried beans; oat, rice, barley and corn bran; and fruits and vegetables.
  • Insoluble fiber aids digestion by absorbing water and moving intestinal contents more quickly. It helps promote regularity, prevents constipation, and reduces the risk of certain cancers. Insoluble fiber is found in whole grains, wheat bran, and vegetables.

Fiber also may help with weight management since foods with fiber often take longer to chew, giving you more opportunity to realize when you are full.

Whole Grains and Fiber

All whole grains contain fiber. However, fiber foods do not necessarily contain whole grain. For that reason, it’s best to look for whole grain foods first.

The key to finding whole grains is simple: Know which words to look for on the package. Start with the ingredient list on the package. Look for the word “whole” in front of whatever grain is named first in the ingredient list, such as whole wheat, 100% whole wheat, whole oats, etc. Words like stone-ground, wheat, 7-grain, organic, cracked wheat, multigrain, and bran on food labels can be misleading since these products may not contain much whole grain at all. Even food labeled “ Made with Whole Grain” may not contain a significant amount of whole grain. Your best bet is to read the ingredient list carefully.

Some food companies are making it easier to find whole grains. Packages that have the basic Whole Grain Council stamp must contain 8 grams of whole grains or a half serving of whole grain per labeled serving. Other companies are choosing to put the number of whole grain grams per serving on the packaging. For example, Nature’s Own All Natural Specialty Breads have a large banner noting the whole grain grams per serving in each loaf.

You also can look for the FDA-approved health claim on food packages: “ Diets rich in whole grain foods and other plant foods, and low in total fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol, may reduce the risk of heart disease and certain cancers.” If this statement is on the package, it means the food inside contains 51% or more of whole grain ingredients by weight.

It’s important to remember that some whole grain foods have more fiber than others. For example, 100% whole wheat bread has more fiber than brown rice. But, whole grain foods with less fiber will still give you the health-promoting benefits of whole grains.

Just because a food is high in fiber does not mean it is a good source of whole grain. Many high fiber foods, such as bran cereals, have little if any whole grain. In fact, it is rare to find a whole grain food with more than 4 grams of fiber, unless an isolated fiber, such as bran, has been added.

So, be careful! High-fiber foods might not contain the important nutrients found in whole grain. Finding whole grain foods is not hard, though. There are many kinds of whole grains to enjoy, including whole wheat, oats, cornmeal, barley, brown rice, and even popcorn!

Know your Gram and Serving Sizes

  • Experts recommend at least 3 to 6 servings of whole grains foods each day for optimal health. A serving is approximately one ounce, or one slice of 100% whole wheat bread, ½ cup of brown rice or one ounce of whole grain breakfast cereal. Put another way, people should eat 48 grams of whole grains daily.
  • Experts recommend women consume 21-25 grams and men consume 30-38 grams per fiber each day. The chart below shows the fiber content of various foods.
The Bottom Line
Don’t miss out. Enjoy the great taste of whole grains and let the natural defense system of phytonutrients, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals, and the digestive benefits of fiber help you take care of your health today!

Fiber Content of Various Foods

Lentils (1/2 cup for beans)

8

Black beans / Pinto Beans

7.5

Chickpeas

6.0

Kidney beans

5.5

Peas

4

Potato, baked with skin (1 med)

4

Pear, with skin (1 medium)

4

Apple, with skin (1 medium)

4

Apricots, dried (1/3 c.)

4

Figs, dried (2)

4

Quick Oats (1 c. cooked)

4

Strawberries (1 c.)

3.5

Nature’s Own All Natural 100% Whole Wheat (1 slice)

3

Nature’s Own All Natural Honey Wheat (1 slice)

3

Orange (1 medium)

3

Banana (1 medium)

3

Cherries (1 c.)

3

Tortilla, whole wheat (1)

3

 Peanuts, dry roasted (1/4 c.)

3

Popcorn (3 c. popped)

3

Kiwi (1 medium)

2.5

Pita, whole wheat (1)

2.5

Carrots, raw (1/2 c.)

2

Cabbage or spinach

2

Broccoli or asparagus

2

Cauliflower

2

Prunes, dried ( 3 medium)

2

Grapes (1 1/2 c.)

2

Brown rice (2/3 c.)

2

Spaghetti, macaroni or pasta (1 c.)

2

Tortilla, Corn (1)

1.5

Mushrooms (1 c.)

1

Tomato (1/2 medium)

1

Cucumber (1/2 c.)

<1

Celery (1 stalk)

<1

Tofu, firm (3 oz.)

<1

White, French, or Vienna bread

1

White rice (2/3 c.)

1

Cornflakes (1 c.)

1

 
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