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Great grains for great health

Over the years, the United States Department of Agriculture has updated their dietary recommendations, coming up with colorful graphics for the “Basic 7,” “Basic 4,” “The Food Guide Pyramid,” and today’s “My Plate” nutrition guide. What also has changed with the evolving guides is the grouping of breads, rice, flour, and pasta, which is now called “grains.” 

We’ve come a long way since white bread, but if you’re not sure about the range of grains available today, their nutritional benefits, and just how to incorporate them into your diet, it’s a good time to get to know quinoa, barley, amaranth, brown rice, and more.

“People are finding that there’s a variety of grains that are helpful with bowel health, heart health, blood sugar control, and weight management,” says Virtua registered dietitian Barbara Darcy-Castorina.

Packed with fiber – a complex carbohydrate that our body cannot digest or absorb – whole grains helps us feel fuller without packing on the calories. Instead of digesting or absorbing fiber, our bodies use it as a “broom,” says Darcy-Castorina, improving digestion and moving waste through the colon. Much-touted soluble fiber, plentiful in grains such as oat bran, dissolves in water and binds to fatty substances in the bowel, lowering cholesterol and helping our bodies process sugars.

When wheat, corn, and other grains are milled into meal or flour, the end product may be refined white flour, popular for its softer texture and taste appeal compared to coarser, darker flours, but often stripped of nutrients. Even when enriched with B vitamins such as thiamin, riboflavin, and niacin, more processed flours often still lack fiber. “For maximum health benefits, we should eat at least three to six servings of whole grains every day,” says Darcy-Castorina, who notes that we should aim to eat 25-35 grams of fiber daily. Check the nutritional label on your foods – if there are 5 grams of fiber or more per serving, this is a high-fiber food. A good source of fiber is 2.5 to 4.9 grams of fiber per serving. With a higher intake of whole grains and fiber though, remember to increase your fluid intake to reduce intestinal gas.  

You can get a serving of whole grains in just one slice of whole-grain bread, a half cup of cooked cereal such as oatmeal, three cups of low-fat and low-salt popcorn, or a half cup of quinoa as part of a side dish.

Not sure about that last one? Grains such as quinoa, farro, buckwheat, and amaranth were once only found on the shelves of small health food stores, but today you can find these nutritious grains in just about any supermarket. “There’s adventure in shopping for grains with different tastes, textures, and benefits,” says Darcy-Castorina. Swapping in these different whole grains not only gives us the nutrients and fiber we need, but they’re “bulky” and help us feel full longer, so we are less likely to nibble too soon after eating. 

Incorporating whole grains into your diet can be easy with these ideas:

  • Substitute part of the white flour in recipes for cookies, pancakes, waffles, and muffins with whole wheat or another whole-grain flour.
  • Try brown rice or quinoa in baked green peppers.
  • Use whole-wheat or brown-rice macaroni in your favorite mac and cheese recipe.
  • Add barley to soups and stews.
  • Add bulgur wheat to stir-fry for a new texture. 

Darcy-Castorina notes that we can set a good example with our children while they’re young by serving them whole grains every day. Help your children acquire a taste for baked multi-grain chips and granola bars in place of fried potato chips and candy bars. 

“Experiment with different grains, and see what you think of the new textures and tastes,” says Darcy-Castorina. “Chances are, you’ll feel better, see some weight change, and bring down your lipids as part of the reward for being adventurous with whole grains.”

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