I heart whole grains
It is very well established in the scientific literature that people whose diets are rich in whole grains have lower risks of cardiovascular and coronary heart disease than people who eat less of these foods. The effect size varies by study, but a reduction in risk of ~20% (if not more) is pretty typically seen. There are several mechanisms that researchers think is behind this protective effect: the cholesterol-lowering effect of the fiber from whole grains, antioxidant activity of their phytochemicals, and the phytoestrogen effects of compounds called lignans, which are linked to protection against both heart disease and certain types of cancer. And don’t even get me started on all of the B-vitamins.
If you want to direct some love back at your heart, a good goal to set is to try to make at least half of your grains whole. (Plus, it sounds catchy.) Many people who try to incorporate more whole grains into their diets tend to default to choosing whole wheat bread instead of white, or brown rice instead of white rice. Which is a terrific start. But there are SO many more ways to include whole grains in your diet–many of which you may already be doing without realizing it– that it’s worth looking beyond bread and rice for a moment.
Breakfast is the easiest place to start a whole grain habit, because there are so many choices.
- Whole grain cereals abound, but be careful of brands that claim to be multi-grain; they may or may not be made with multi-whole grains. Check the ingredient list for the word “whole” to be in front of the first ingredient or two. Cheerios, Total, Wheaties, Shredded Wheat, Fiber One, All Bran and Grape Nuts–among many others– are all nationally-distributed whole grain products, as are most products made by Kashi, Barbara’s Bakery or Nature’s Path. Look for cereals that have at least 3-5g of fiber per serving.
- Oatmeal is a whole grain, and the rolled oats you buy in the cylindrical tub are one of the most economical, tasty and easy choices for a whole grain breakfast. If your morning routine doesn’t have space for making hot oatmeal, Starbucks sells a to-go version that is a very reasonable portion, without added sugar. Proceed with caution when it comes to those instant flavored oatmeal packets, as most brands are loaded with sugar, even healthy-seeming brands like Kashi Heart to Heart, which contain 3 tsps of added sugar PER PACKET! Quaker does make a Lower Sugar Instant Oatmeal that has a reasonable ~1 tsp of sugar per packet, and McCann’s makes a few sugar-free instant oatmeal varieties. Opt for those and you can control how much added sweetness goes in.
- There are other good whole grain hot cereals out there, too. Wheatena is the whole grain version of farina or cream of wheat. Rolled barley flakes are a nice change of pace from oatmeal, too. Kashi’s Go Lean Hot Cereal is marginally better than their oatmeal as far as added sugar goes (2 tsps instead of 3 per packet), but its convenient packets make it an easier way to do hot whole grain cereal at work. Two gluten-free options I keep around are cream of buckwheat and quinoa flakes. Also, Bob’s Red Mill makes an accurately-named Mighty Tasty GF Hot Cereal made with brown rice, buckwheat, sorghum and corn, for those of us unable to enjoy their tempting multi-grain hot cereal varieties. There is justice in this world, after all.
- I especially heart pancakes and waffles in their whole grain versions. If you’re making them from scratch, you’ll usually use a mix of whole wheat flour, oat flour or buckwheat flour–with or without a little bit of white flour to lighten it up. But plenty of store-bought whole grain mixes are also available: King Arthur Flour , Bob’s Red Mill , Hodgson Mill , and Arrowhead Mills all make multiple whole grain varieties. I always keep frozen blueberries in the house in case an impromptu pancake-making session ensues and I need to accssorize.
- Obviously, whole grain toasts (Whole wheat, whole rye, etc..) are an easy breakfast option. But if you’ve got kids who refuse the brown-colored breads, a new variety of whole grain white wheat is trickling into the market which may offer a good compromise when they reach you. White wheat is a variety of wheat that lacks the compounds responsible for the color and stronger taste in the common variety of red wheat, but nutritionally, it’s still considered equivalent. So far, the two major brands who are using it are still mixing it with refined flour: Sara Lee Soft and Smooth made with Whole Grain White bread is disappointingly only made with 30% whole grain; and Wonder’s Made with Whole Grain White bread is probably about the same, though I couldn’t get exact numbers. Um… hello? What’s the point? I suppose that these products could be a marginally better choice than all-white Wonder bread for the hard-core white bread holdouts, but I’m optimistic that someone will come out with a 100% version soon. King Arthur Flour is one of the few companies to sell Whole White Wheat flour, so try it out in baking in place of refined flour and see if anyone can even tell the difference.
Whole Grains for the rest of the day
- Popcorn is a whole grain. Snack on it instead of pretzels, which are often made from refined (non-whole) wheat flour
- Barley is a whole grain, whereas “pearled barley” is technically a refined version. However, faster-cooking pearled barley still has enough fiber and iron to make it an honorary member of the whole grain club, so feel free to use it without any guilt, as it provides the same nutritional benefits. What’s better than a hearty mushroom barley soup for lunch? You can also swap pearled barley for arborio rice in a risotto. Back in my gluten-eating days, I adored this ridiculously easy recipe for barley risotto. But fellow celiacs, beware: barley does contain gluten, so this is one whole grain we’ll have to pass on.
- Whole Wheat Couscous cooks just as fast as regular couscous; in less than 5 minutes, you’ve got a cooked whole grain, ready to serve. I especially liked it with spicy stews or chili.
- If you like the fluffy little couscous grains but can’t eat them because they’re made from wheat (or even if you can but want to try something new), try naturally gluten-free millet. It’s a whole grain that cooks just like rice and it looks just like couscous when cooked. I use 3 cups water:1 cup millet and a pinch of salt (but I’ve seen a ratio of 2:1 and that produces a less fluffy but still very good batch). If you’re feeling decadent, toss a pat of butter into the cooking water as well
- Quinoa isn’t technically a grain (it’s a seed), but it has all of the same benefits of whole grains on top of the fact that it’s one of the few vegetarian sources of complete protein. It’s got an earthy flavor that stands out more than, say, a millet does. And it comes in khaki color or pretty red varieties! So try it and see if you like it! I usually ether make it plain and serve it as a side dish, but occasionally I’ll use this recipe for Quinoa Stuffed peppers as a main dish.
- You’ve heard me sing the praises of Teff and Buckwheat in previous posts, so I won’t elaborate on them any further except to remind you that they are whole grains, they are delicious, and you can use them in anything from crepes to cookies to sexy side dishes.
As you can see, there are a lot of whole grains to love–and a lot to love about them. So go on and take a few out on a date to see which you like. Your white basmati rice will still be there for you when it’s time for Indian takeout, but in the meantime, live a little!Did you like this? If so, please bookmark it, RSS feed.