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Whole grains: High in nutrition and fiber, yet low in fat
From MayoClinic.com
Special to CNN.com

Grains come in many shapes and sizes, from large kernels of popcorn to small quinoa seeds. Also called cereals, grains are the widely varied seeds of grasses, which are cultivated for food.

All types of grains are good sources of complex carbohydrates, various vitamins and minerals and are naturally low in fat. But grains that haven't been refined — called whole grains — are even better for you. Whole grains are better sources of fiber and other important nutrients, such as selenium, potassium and magnesium.

Anatomy of a whole grain

All parts of the grain contain valuable nutrients.

Grains are the seeds of plants. When whole, they include the bran, germ and endosperm — all of which contain valuable nutrients.

  • Bran. Forming the outer layer of the seed, the bran is a rich source of niacin, thiamin, riboflavin, magnesium, phosphorus, iron and zinc. The bran also contains most of the seed's fiber.
  • Germ. The part from which a new plant sprouts, the germ is a concentrated source of niacin, thiamin, riboflavin, vitamin E, magnesium, phosphorus, iron and zinc. The germ also contains protein and some fat.
  • Endosperm. Also called the kernel, the endosperm makes up the bulk of the seed. It contains most of the grain's protein and carbohydrates and has small amounts of vitamins and minerals.

Whole grains vs. refined grains

Whole grains haven't had their bran and germ removed by milling, making them better sources of fiber — the part of plant-based foods that your body doesn't digest. A high-fiber diet can help lower your risk of heart disease, cancer and diabetes. A high-fiber diet may also lower your risk of other disorders, such as hemorrhoids, irritable bowel syndrome and the development of small pouches in your colon (diverticular disease).

Refined grains, such as white rice or white flour, have both the bran and germ removed from the grain. Although vitamins and minerals are added back into refined grains after the milling process, they still don't have as many nutrients as whole grains do, and they don't provide as much fiber.

You can eat whole grains plain, add them to other dishes or use them as ingredients in baked goods. Rice, bread, cereal, flour and pasta are all grains or grain products. Choose the whole-grain versions — rather than refined grains — as often as possible.

Whole grains Refined grains
  • Barley
  • Brown rice
  • Buckwheat
  • Bulgur (cracked wheat)
  • Millet
  • Oatmeal
  • Popcorn
  • Whole-wheat bread, pasta or crackers
  • Wild rice
  • Corn flakes
  • Couscous
  • Enriched macaroni or spaghetti
  • Grits
  • Pretzels
  • White bread
  • White rice

Ways to enjoy more whole grains

Many foods made from whole grains come ready to eat. These include a variety of breads, pasta products and ready-to-eat cereals. Look for the word "whole" on the package and in the ingredient list. Make sure whole grains appear among the first items listed. Try to choose items with at least 3 grams of dietary fiber per serving.

Mistakenly thought of as fattening, grain products can easily fit into a healthy-eating plan without necessarily leading to weight gain. Excess calories are what lead to weight gain, not simply the carbohydrates found in grains or other foods. However, watch out for grain products laden with sugar or fat — such as pastries, dessert breads and croissants — as they're high in calories and provide few nutrients.

Add more grains to your meals and snacks using these ideas:

  • Enjoy breakfasts that include high-fiber cereals, such as bran flakes, shredded wheat or oatmeal.
  • Substitute whole-wheat toast or whole-grain bagels for plain bagels. Substitute low-fat, multigrain muffins for pastries.
  • Make sandwiches using whole-grain breads or rolls.
  • Expand your grain repertoire with whole-grain complements, such as kasha, brown rice, wild rice, bulgur or whole-wheat tortillas.
  • Feature wild rice or barley in soups, stews, casseroles and salads.
  • Add whole grains, such as cooked brown rice or whole-grain bread crumbs, to ground meat or poultry for extra body.
  • Use rolled oats or crushed bran cereal in recipes instead of dry bread crumbs.
  • Toast grains to bring out their nutty flavor before adding them to recipes.

Whole grains have historically been considered the staff of life, as they form the basis for many healthy meals and snacks. Eating a variety of whole grains not only ensures that you get more nutrients, but also helps make your meals and snacks more interesting.

  • High-fiber foods
  • Flaxseed: Is ground or whole better?
  • Healthy diet basics: Using a food pyramid
  • Vegetarian diet: A starter's guide to a plant-based diet
  • Dietary fiber: An essential part of a healthy diet
  • Legumes: Using beans, peas and lentils instead of meat
  • Poultry, meat and seafood: How to's of high-protein foods
  • Dairy products: Selecting, storing and serving
  • Vegetables: How to select, store and serve these healthy foods
  • Fruits: How to select, store and serve these healthy foods
  • Healthy diet decisions: Do you know what to eat?
  • July 25, 2005

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