Your Guide to Whole Grains — And Why They’re So Good for You

By Matthew Kadey, R.D. |

If you’re still mostly a white-bread person, it’s time to make the switch to whole-grain foods. The anti-aging reasons for doing so are hard to argue.

why are whole grains good for you

There wasn’t much talk about whole grains versus refined grains back in the day. We ate our Wonder® bread sandwiches for lunch and enjoyed them. But food science has changed a lot over the past few decades. The research is clear that whole grains of all stripes are nutritionally superior to their processed and paler cousins.

If you’ve been slow to make the switch, it’s a great time to hop aboard the whole-grain train. Food companies have been hard at work to make whole-grain products tastier and easier to find. Explore the health benefits — and flavor variety — that comes with adding more whole grains to your daily meals.

What Makes a Whole Grain, Whole

By definition, a grain is considered whole if it still contains the original three parts of the seed:  bran, germ, and endosperm.

With refined grains, like those found in white pasta, white rice, or all-purpose white flour, the bran and germ are stripped away when they are milled. This leaves behind only the starchy endosperm.

Why is that a bad thing? The bran and germ are where most of the fiber, protein, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants are found in grains. Those are the components of food that keep us feeling full or help protect us against disease. Many refined grain products are enriched with a handful of nutrients like folate and iron, but that doesn’t replace all the nutrition that is lost.

Dietary guidelines recommend that at least half of our daily grain servings should come from whole sources. But most Americans buy far more packaged food products made with refined grain ingredients than whole grains.

Recommended reading: What Are Ultra-Processed Foods — And Should You Avoid Them?

Healthy eating and fitness go together! SilverSneakers classes and events are happening daily at participating gyms, online through SilverSneakers LIVE, and at community centers near you. Activate your free online account to get started.

The Many Health Benefits of Whole Grains

Making the switch from refined grains to whole ones is a smart move for healthier living — even if you still eat some refined grains from time to time. Their impressive mix of nutrients have been shown to have a positive impact on the health conditions below:

  • Heart Health
    A study of more than a million people in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that consuming whole grains instead of refined ones can lower the risk for heart disease and death by all causes.
  • Diabetes
    Researchers at Harvard University discovered that eating more whole-grain foods, such as whole-grain breads and breakfast cereals, was significantly associated with a lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
  • Cancer
    A diet that contains a larger proportion of whole grains can slash the risk for certain cancers, including colorectal and pancreatic, according to a study published in the journal
  • Belly Fat
    Research in the Journal of Nutrition found that older adults who consumed at least three servings of whole grains every day accumulated less belly fat than their peers who chose more foods that contained refined grains. Excess weight in the middle is linked to a higher risk of health problems including heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

Which foods are whole grain?

There are a lot more of them than you probably realize. Expanding the variety of whole grains in your diet can expose you to a broader spectrum of nutrients. It also adds excitement to your meals through different colors, textures, shapes, and flavors. Use this list to add some new ones to your dietary repertoire:

  • Amaranth
  • Barley
  • Black (Forbidden) Rice
  • Brown Rice
  • Buckwheat
  • Bulgur
  • Einkorn
  • Farro
  • Freekeh
  • Kamut
  • Kaniwa
  • Millet
  • Oats
  • Quinoa
  • Rye
  • Sorghum
  • Spelt
  • Teff
  • Triticale
  • Wheat berries
  • Wild Rice

Where should I buy them?

Most grocery stores carry a large variety of whole grains, both flours and intact grains. But if there is a bulk-food store in your area, that can be an affordable place to buy the exact amount you need.

Whole grains stay fresh much longer than produce, but they’re still better when they haven’t lived in your pantry for too long. That’s because their outer layer, known as the germ, contains oils that go rancid over time. Most whole grains keep for about six months. Whole-grain flours last for about half that time but storing them in the refrigerator or freezer will extend that by a month or two.

How do I know of a product is made with whole grains?

Don’t assume that a product is 100% whole grain until you investigate the product label. Many people are fooled into buying refined grains in disguise.

Loafs touting things like “made with whole grains,” “7-grain,” “multi-grain” or “rye” are often made mostly with nutritionally inferior refined flour. Manufacturers may include some whole grains like whole wheat or whole rye flour in the mix, but the amount added is anyone’s guess.

The first item listed on the ingredient label should be a whole grain rather than “wheat flour” or “enriched flour.” That’s just another way of saying refined white flour. Ingredients are ordered from highest to lowest amounts in the package. Products with the FDA regulated label “100% whole grain” cannot include any refined flour.

Recommended reading: How to Read the New Nutrition Labels — And Why It Matters

Are any of the whole grains better for me than others?

While whole grains are all good for you, try to eat ones that are still wholly intact. They are even less processed and require more chewing and effort from the digestive system to break down. Research says this may improve your blood sugar levels.

When you’re able, choose wheat berries (which look similar to brown rice) instead of whole wheat bread, steel-cut oats instead of rolled oats, and buckwheat groats (the hulled seed of buckwheat plant) instead of buckwheat flour pancakes.

Subscribe to our newsletter
It's quick and easy. You could be one of the 13 million people who are eligible.
Already a member? Click to discover our 15,000+ participating locations.

Follow Us

How can I boost my whole grain intake?

There are seemingly endless and tasty ways to accomplish this nutritional goal. Here’s how to easily incorporate them into your regular mix of meals:

  • Use brown rice or quinoa in stir-fries.
  • Add barley or spelt berries to soups.
  • Try a side of farro or freekeh instead of potatoes.
  • Tuck into a bowl of steel-cut oat porridge for breakfast.
  • Upgrade your salads with cooked whole grains like wheat berries, sorghum, wild rice, quinoa, or millet.
  • Make homemade veggie burgers with bulgur.
  • Fill tacos and burritos with brown rice or farro.
  • Substitute whole grain flours while baking. You can usually substitute 1/3 to 1/2 of the white flour in a recipe with whole wheat without any discernable difference.

What recipes should I try?

If you’re looking to make a whole-grain swap for tonight’s dinner, here are two great recipes that deliciously fit the bill.

Chicken Quinoa Soup

Makes 4 Servings

  • 2 teaspoons oil
  • 1 yellow onion, diced
  • 2 large carrots, chopped
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 pound boneless, skinless chicken thighs, sliced
  • 1 cup sliced brown mushrooms
  • 2 sliced celery stalks
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 4 cups low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth
  • 1 cup quinoa
  • 1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
  • 1/2 teaspoon red chili flakes
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • ½ cup chopped parsley
  1. Heat oil in a large saucepan; cook onion, carrots, and salt for 6 minutes.
  2. Add chicken thighs, mushrooms, celery, and garlic; cook 5 minutes more.
  3. Add broth, 1 cup water, quinoa, Italian seasoning, chili flakes, and black pepper. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer until quinoa is tender, about 15 minutes.
  4. Garnish with parsley.

Pumpkin Apple Baked Oatmeal

Makes 6 Servings

  • 1 cup steel-cut oats
  • 1 1/2 cups rolled oats or rye flakes
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon cardamom
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup sliced almonds, walnuts or pecans
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 cup pure pumpkin puree
  • 1/2 cup milk of choice
  • 4 apples, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons maple syrup
  • 1/2 teaspoon ginger powder
  • 2 cups plain Greek yogurt
  • 2 cups blueberries
  1. Cover steel-cut oats with water and let soak for at least 4 hours. Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease a 9×13-inch casserole pan.
  2. Drain steel-cut oats and stir together with rolled oats, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, cardamom, salt, and nuts together in a large bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk together eggs, milk, and pumpkin. Add liquid mixture to oats and gently mix until everything is moist.
  3. Place apple slices in the bottom of the baking dish and drizzle on maple syrup and sprinkle on 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon and ginger powder. Top with oat mixture. Bake until topping is set, about 35 minutes.
  4. Serve wedges warm topped with yogurt and blueberries.

Recipes by Matthew Kadey, R.D.

See our sources:
Dietary guidelines: U.S. Department of Agriculture
Whole grains and heart disease: The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition
Whole grains and diabetes: BMJ
Whole grains and cancer risk: Nutrients
Whole grains and belly fat: The Journal of Nutrition

Activate Your FREE SilverSneakers Online Account

Get hundreds of free SilverSneakers On-Demand videos and stay in touch with us by creating your free online account. You don’t have to be a SilverSneakers member to get on-demand workout videos, health and fitness tips from SilverSneakers, and more.

SilverSneakers members can go to thousands of nationwide gyms and fitness locations, plus take SilverSneakers LIVE online classes led by specially trained instructors and designed for all fitness levels and abilities – at no additional cost. If you have a Medicare Advantage plan, it may include SilverSneakers. Check your eligibility here.

Already a member? Get your SilverSneakers member ID, search for locations near you, and all the health and wellness resources you need by logging in to your online member account here.

Find out if your health plan already includes the SilverSneakers benefit.  CHECK YOUR ELIGIBILITY