Whole grains have been unjustly caught in the backlash of “carbphobia” in recent years. While highly processed grain products can be detrimental to health and should be limited in the diet, evidence shows that eating whole grains regularly confers many benefits, including the ultimate prize of human longevity.
Yet, according to a report by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, “more than 95% of all age-sex groups fail to consume the recommended amount of whole grains, which is 50% of the total grains consumed.”
The health boosting properties of whole grains have been scrutinized by scientists widely and often. Most striking is that researchers often conclude that consuming whole grains can increase lifespan. Two meta-analyses published in recent years confirm this assertion.
A 2016 study in BMJ covering 45 scientific reports concluded that whole grains can extend lifespan by reducing eaters’ risk for heart disease, cancer, diabetes, respiratory and infectious diseases. The report suggests that eating just 90 grams of whole grains a day shaves risk for all-cause mortality by 17%. That amounts to about 3 servings per day, or 1 slice of whole grain bread, plus one cup of whole grain cereal and a half cup of cooked rice. Not a lot to feed the meter in exchange for some extra time on the planet, among additional health perks.
See also: The Reign of (Whole) Grain
Another 2016 meta-analysis published in Circulation looked at data from 786,000 participants over 14 studies. The research team reported similar findings. Subjects who ate the most whole grains had a 16% reduction in all-cause mortality when compared to those who ate the least whole grains.
The Grain, The Whole Grain and Everything Around the Grain
At the core of understanding the nutritional gold of whole grains is to grasp the biology of the grain itself. Each whole grain is an entire seed from a plant, explains chef and dietitian Abbie Gellman, MS, RD, CDN. Each seed contains the bran, endosperm and germ. “When grains are used in their intact, unprocessed form, the grain’s nutritional value remains high and dietary fiber is retained.”
As she explains it, the bran is the outer layer of a whole grain and is made of mostly fiber. It supplies B vitamins, iron, copper, zinc, magnesium antioxidants and phytochemicals—natural plant-based chemical compounds that have been studied for their role in disease prevention. Another bonus? Bran and fiber slow the breakdown of starch into glucose, which creates a more stable environment for blood sugar.
The endosperm is the starchy middle layer containing mostly carbohydrates, a little protein, and vitamins and minerals.
The germ is the nutrient packed core (seed) that contains B vitamins, vitamin E, phytonutrients, healthy fats and antioxidants.
Gellman adds a bonus benefit for expanded perspective: “The combination of plant-based protein, complex carbohydrates and dietary fiber in whole grains helps to increase feelings of fullness and is a sustained energy source.” In other words, consuming whole grains provides better odds of staying satisfied between meals and decreasing “hanger” pangs that strike when blood sugar dips.
Getting More Grains
A simple way to gauge whether a food product is high in whole grains is to read nutrition labels. If whole grains are first or second on the list, the item should be what you’re looking for. If you really want to sharpen your grain game, go straight to the source and learn to prepare unprocessed whole grains such as amaranth, kamut, barley, spelt, brown rice, wild rice, quinoa, buckwheat, bulgur, oats, millet and wheat berries. There are many other whole grains, so do a little research to understand your options and various preparation methods.
See also: Ask the RD: What Are Ancient Grains?
Whole grains are versatile, economical and require little to no technique to prepare. If you can measure grain and water or broth and remember to season—you’ll be golden. Whole grains make a perfect main or side dish and can be customized with different seasonings, herbs, spices, sauces and dressings. They travel and keep well, and most can be portioned and frozen, even after preparation.
Sanna Delmonico, MS, RDN, associate professor at The Culinary Institute of America, recommends exploring all the world of whole grains has to offer. “Their size, texture, and taste can vary, so personal preferences and the specific recipe/dish may dictate some of the choices,” she says.
Pro Tips for Every Day Cooking
“Whole grains can be found pre-packaged in bags or boxes, or in the bulk food area, making it easy to purchase as much as you like,” says Gellman. “You can also find par-cooked grains in the freezer aisle. Some are shelf-stable in microwavable containers.”
The New York chef and consultant is a big fan of batch cooking whole grains to have them available for whatever the occasion demands.
“One of my favorite things to do is cook a huge pot of steel cut oats then place half-cup portions into a muffin tin,” she shares. “Place the tin in the freezer and once frozen, simply pop out the ‘oat pucks’ and place in a resealable freezer bag for up to 6 months. To reheat, place one serving into a microwave safe bowl, add a small amount of water, cover, and microwave for 2-3 minutes. Top with fruit and nuts, or sautéed veggies and a fried egg.”
Delmonico also cites batch cooking as an efficient method in her arsenal for whole grain prep. Her favorite summer lunch is a whole grain salad bowl. “I make a batch of whole grains over the weekend, then turn it into a different salad every day,” she shares.
“I put the grains at the bottom of my container with some garlic vinaigrette, then add leftover cooked vegetables (I might have beets, carrots, broccoli), then fresh vegetables like sprouts, cherry tomatoes and cucumbers, and crumbled feta cheese. Finally, I top it with lettuce or arugula. At lunch time I shake and serve my salad. I often add chopped, toasted almonds or walnuts for more crunch. This year I am on the fonio bandwagon and am planning to enjoy it in our summer grain salads.”
Gellman agrees that a grain bowl can be an exciting and satisfying meal. “Nothing beats food in a bowl with a mixture of flavors and textures. A few versions I like include the following:
- Breakfast: steel cut oats topped with sautéed veggies (like last night’s leftovers!) and a fried egg.
- Lunch/Dinner: Whole grains are the base of the bowl, so include one-half cup (cooked) to keep you satisfied. Any whole grains work well, but Gellman recommends those with more toothsome texture and flavor like farro, quinoa, wheat berries or barley. Add protein (plant-based like beans or tofu or animal-based like chicken, tuna, or hard-boiled eggs); veggies (raw or cooked); dressing; and top with some crunch, like nuts or seeds.
Gellman also offers the following ideas to help expand your repertoire for using whole grains creatively.
- Basic pilaf: Plain brown rice can be boring, but the simple act of sautéing some onion and garlic first then adding the rice and using a chicken or vegetable stock changes the whole dish. Serve as a side or use as part of a vegetable stuffing like a pepper or acorn squash.
- Stir fry: Leftover whole grains, from brown rice to farro to quinoa, can all be integrated into a quick stir fry. Simply choose your favorite protein and vegetables. Sauté the protein and veggies, then add the whole grain and a sauce to the pan and you’ve got dinner in no time. You can also keep the whole grain separate and serve the stir fry on top of it.
- Soup/stew: Add to soup and stew to bulk it up and add nutrition and flavor.
Delmonico also cooks a batch of a plain whole grain every week and incorporates it into her family’s meal plan as follows:
- Instead of always going to the oatmeal well, she experiments with other whole grains as a hot breakfast cereal. She suggests trying quinoa, millet, or brown rice with some fresh or dried fruit, nuts, and/or honey.
- Like her colleague Gellman, she adds cooked whole grains to soups (minestrone, vegetable, and so on) for interesting texture and flavor.
- She makes a quick whole grain side dish or main course using the following method: Sauté onion and garlic; add cooked vegetables (including: carrots, asparagus, peas, broccoli, chard, corn); add cooked chicken or cooked beans (optional); add cooked grains and heat through, then season to taste. Seasoning options include soy sauce, parmesan cheese, citrus zest, hot sauce, fresh chopped parsley, chives and/or cilantro.
See also: Chef Abbie Gellman prepares whole grain recipes
Whole Grains and Baking
Delmonico feels that more focus should be put on understanding the differences between whole grain flours and intact whole grains. For instance, what is the difference between whole wheat flour and wheat berries (the intact form)?
“Both flour and intact forms are sources of fiber, phytonutrients, vitamin E, folate, and so on,” she explains. “They are equally nutritious, you could say. But they are not the same in terms of glycemic response, or how high and how quickly your blood sugar increases after eating them. Whole wheat flour is actually similar to refined white flour in its glycemic response, while intact wheat berries have a much lower glycemic response.”
Why does this happen? Delmonico explains that when we eat intact whole grains, blood sugar rises more slowly and steadily than when we eat whole grain flour. That’s because the intact fiber in the bran acts like a physical barrier, preventing the digestive enzymes from getting at the starch inside, thus slowing carbohydrate absorption. When you pulverize the grain into flour, the fiber is still there, but it is in such small pieces that it is really easy for digestive enzymes to get around it and get to the carbohydrate, which makes blood sugar rise more quickly.
“I tell my students whole grain flour is great but that they should eat intact whole grains too,” Delmonico says.
Another baking tip she has for helping the eaters in your life transition to whole grains from processed and refined grains: Use a half-and-half blend of white flour and whole wheat flour, which can be used for muffins, cookies and quick breads. “Because the whole wheat flour contains more healthy fat, it is prone to rancidity, so store your mixture in an airtight container in the fridge or freezer and bring it to room temperature before baking,” she advises.
What About Fussy Eaters?
In general, grains have a fairly neutral or slightly nutty taste that can take on the flavor of other ingredients, observes Gellman. She recommends cooking grains in flavorful liquids that add sweet or savory profiles as you wish.
“Cooking brown rice in vegetable stock can add some flavor to a standard side dish.
Topping it with toasted nuts adds texture and crunch,” Gellman explains. “Or how about cooking oatmeal in a combination of water and apple cider? If it tastes good, everyone is more likely to eat it, right? Cook the oats in flavorful liquid plus spices like cinnamon and then add fruit, nuts, and honey.”
Whole grain dry breakfast cereals are delicious and convenient, and whole grain hot cereals are too. Beyond that, some kids (and adults!) need what Delmonico calls “whole grain training wheels,” to make the transition. One easy switch she suggests is to mix half brown rice with white rice. “Soak brown rice in a good amount of water for an hour, then drain and mix with the white rice, cooking for about 30 minutes. Soaking ahead allows the brown rice to cook in the same time as the white rice,” she says. “Another option is bulgur. Bulgur is cracked whole wheat that takes much less time to cook and can substitute for rice.”
Finally, kids and adults love pasta and whole grain pasta can be delicious, but its strong flavor needs to be paired thoughtfully, Delmonico says. “It works well with earthy flavors like onions, cheeses, and mushrooms, or mild flavors like peas and snap peas.
See also: Whole grain recipes to try from The Culinary Institute of America
Whole Grains for Whole Life!
Unlike refined grains, which have been ransacked of their nutrients during processing, whole grains offer eaters a more complete package of health benefits. Empower yourself with the science and try some of the tips, tricks and recipes in this article to add years to your life and life to your years.
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