Include more whole grains in your daily diet

What to Know

  • The difference between whole grains and refined grains
  • Why whole grains are a healthy diet staple and how much we need
  • How to tell if a packaged food is made with whole grains

Grains are an important part of a healthy diet, including during pregnancy and while breastfeeding. Along with starchy vegetables, fruit, legumes and dairy, grains are made up primarily of carbohydrates, which the body turns into glucose, the form of energy preferred by every type of human cell.

Given the energy required to grow and nurse a baby, whole grains are fabulous building blocks for both of you! And as with all types of whole foods, whole grains also contain nutrients that are important to good health and well-being

What’s the difference between whole grains and refined grains?

Whole grains 101

Whole grains contain the entire (or “whole”) grain seed. A whole grain seed is made up an endosperm, bran and germ:

  • Endosperm: The largest part of the grain seed and where most of the starch is found. It is low in vitamins and minerals but contains most of the calories of the grain.
  • Bran: The “outer shell” that protects the grain seed. It is high in fiber, B vitamins and antioxidants.
  • Germ: The part of the grain seed from which the new grain seed sprouts. It is high in B vitamins and also contains some protein, minerals and healthy fats.

Whole grains can be eaten in their whole form, such as including wheat berries into a salad, or after various forms of processing. For instance, bread that is 100% whole wheat is made from wheat berries that have been milled into whole wheat flour. As with most other categories of food, the less processed a whole grain, the better.

Examples of whole grains:

  • Brown, black, and wild rice
  • Oatmeal (steel-cut oats are the least processed)
  • Quinoa
  • Barley
  • Wheat
  • Wheat berries
  • Corn
  • Millet
  • Teff
  • 100% whole grain flour and the products made from it (whole grain bread, whole grain cereal and whole grain pasta)

Refined grains 101

Refined grain seeds have been processed to remove the bran and germ so only the starchy endosperm remains. As a result, they are stripped of valuable nutrients like fiber

Most refined grains are enriched, which means that certain B vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin, niacin and folic acid) and iron are added back after processing. However, fiber and other vitamins, minerals and antioxidants are not added back.

Examples of refined grains:

  • White rice
  • White flour and the products made from it (white bread, regular pasta, most breakfast cereals and most baked goods such as cookies and muffins)

Health benefits of whole grains

When you eat whole grains, you get the whole package of health benefits. You benefit from the energy provided by the starchy endosperm but also the healthful effects of the fiber, B vitamins and minerals such as iron that come with the bran and germ.

Fiber. High-fiber foods promote the feeling of fullness and also help promote bowel movement regularity and help manage constipation, a common side effect of pregnancy.

B vitamins. The B vitamins thiamin, riboflavin and niacin help regulate metabolism and the nervous system. Folate (folic acid) is needed to form new blood cells. Adequate folic acid is especially important for women who are of childbearing age because healthful diets with adequate folic acid may reduce a woman’s risk of having a child with brain or spinal cord birth defects

Minerals (iron, magnesium, selenium and others). The many minerals in whole grains play a multitude of important roles in the body. For instance, iron is needed to help red blood cells carry oxygen throughout the body, magnesium is used in building strong bones and selenium helps support healthy immune functioning. Iron-deficiency anemia is common in women of child-bearing age, so a diet rich in whole grains may be helpful in reducing the risk of iron deficiency.

Studies repeatedly show that diets rich in whole grain foods and other plant foods (and low in total fat, saturated fat and cholesterol) may help reduce the risk of heart disease and certain cancers. Whole grains may reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes.

How to tell if a packaged food is whole grain

Grains in their pure forms such as barley, oats, wheat berries and brown rice are quite obviously whole grains. But it can be trickier when it comes to packaged, processed foods such as bread and cereal. Packaged foods may contain whole grains, some combination of whole and refined grains or just refined grains.

Check the front of the package and look for labels that say “100% whole grain.” Foods labeled with the words “multi-grain,” “stone-ground,” “100% wheat,” “cracked wheat,” “seven-grain,”” or “bran” are usually not whole-grain products. The 100% Whole Grains Council Stamp also indicates a whole grain product.

On the back of the package, review the ingredients and see if any whole grain is listed first. Make sure the word “whole” appears before any grain ingredient. If it just reads “wheat flour,” it is mostly refined or white flour with an unknown amount of whole wheat flour added.

Just as with other classes of foods, the less processed the whole grain and the fewer added ingredients, the better.

What to Do

Try to eat all whole grains

While the USDA advises that you make sure that at least half of the grains you eat are whole grains, we’re encouraging you to go for 100%, By doing so, you’ll gain much greater nutrient value, you’ll discover you eat more flavorful foods and your baby is more likely to develop healthy taste preferences. So choose brown or wild rice instead of white rice and whole wheat (or rye or oat, etc.) bread instead of white bread.

Fill about a quarter of your plate or bowl with whole grains

About half of the remaining space on your plate should be filled with non-starchy vegetables and fruit, and the remaining quarter should be lean protein.

Make sure you are getting enough folic acid/folate to support the healthy development of your baby

Take a prenatal multivitamin and eat whole grains rather than relying on enriched grains.

Enjoy a variety of whole grains and whole grain products

No one particular whole grain is healthier than another. They each have unique nutritional profiles, and by eating a variety you’ll get a wide array of vitamins and minerals.

Experiment with less-processed versions of whole grains

Try steel-cut oatmeal and quinoa instead of oat bread and quinoa pasta.

Cook ahead so you always have some on hand

Batch cook one big pot of a whole grain at the beginning of the week and then use it for a variety of dishes. Dip into the stash when you want to add some chew, flavor and fiber to your meal. Once you feel comfortable using one kind of whole grain, try another!

Here are some ways to consume whole grains:

  • Grain bowls: Think of grains as a basic building block, and weeknight meals become effortless! Customize your healthful bowl with raw and/or cooked vegetables, herbs and crunchy nuts or seeds, and toss with a vinaigrette. Add a poached egg or some sliced chicken to make it extra filling.
  • Salads: Sprinkle whole grains into salads to add fiber, a nutty flavor and a nice chew.
  • Soups: Cooked wheat berries, farro or barley can be sprinkled on top of a finished soup to add texture or served more generously under stew to sop up all of the good soupy flavor.
  • Baked goods: All cooked whole grains can be added to pancake or waffle batters, quick breads, muffins and even vegetable fritters.
  • Stir-fries: Rice is obvious here but spelt’s shiny outer layer that stays intact when cooked also makes it ideal for sautéed dishes.
  • Breakfast cereals, porridges and granola: Think outside of just oatmeal. Every whole grain can be cooked plain and then loaded up with add-ins (cinnamon, yogurt, fresh fruit and toasted nuts) for a hearty breakfast. Many grains, such as quinoa, are also great additions to homemade granola. Start every day with a whole grain to guarantee you are getting at least one serving daily. Try these suggestions:
    • ½ to 1 cup cooked steel-cut oats, quinoa or farro (warm or cold) + ¾ cup plain Greek yogurt + 1 cup berries
    • 1 to 2 slices 100% whole grain toast + 2 tablespoons nut butter + sliced banana
  • Snacks: Try 3 cups of air-popped popcorn sprinkled with a little salt, garlic powder, rosemary or other favorite seasonings (alone or mixed with a few tablespoons nuts for extra staying power). For another nutrient-packed whole grain snack, try 1-2 brown rice cakes spread with a thin layer of hummus and topped with sliced tomato and cucumber or other vegetable.
  • Baking: Depending on your palate and the occasion, you can substitute all or some 100% whole grain flour for the refined flour called for in a recipe. Some whole grain flours are lighter than others and those whole grain flours intended for pastry are the lightest of all.

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