High-quality whole-wheat flours and wheat products are readily available, but other whole grains are also healthful. The most common grains in food products found on grocery store shelves include: whole wheat, oats, popcorn and brown or wild rice. Other whole grains might not be as easy to find, such as buckwheat (or kasha), cracked wheat (also called bulgur), whole rye, whole-grain cornmeal, whole-grain barley, quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wah), amaranth, millet, spelt and triticale.
Allow shopping time to read food labels. Look for breads, cereals, flours, pastas, side dishes and snacks where whole grains are the primary ingredient, which typically is listed first. For instance, look for foods where "whole oats" or "whole wheat" or other whole grains are the first ingredient.
Wheat flour is another name for refined white flour and is not the same as whole-wheat flour. Labels such as "multi-grain" or "seven grain" do not necessarily describe health-promoting, whole-grain products. Some foods advertise that they are "made with whole grain," but the primary ingredient is refined flour. Check the ingredient list on the food label to make sure the whole grain is listed first.
Not all foods containing whole grains are healthy choices. Adding product stabilizers to extend shelf life or adding sugar or other sweeteners can reduce a food's health-promoting qualities.
Whole grains are complex carbohydrates, which break down gradually to provide long-lasting energy, while also contributing to satiety - feeling satisfied, rather than hungry. This means that eating a breakfast that includes whole-wheat cereal, oatmeal, whole-wheat toast or bagel, for example, can provide long-lasting energy for morning activities.
Eating a variety of health-promoting whole grains has been shown to reduce the risk of bowel disorders, some cancers, heart disease and stroke, obesity and type 2 diabetes.
If you're not in the habit of eating whole-grain foods, add them gradually. Add whole-grain crackers to a snack plate. Mix cereals, such as a whole-grain cereal with a family favorite that might not be 100 percent whole grain. Or mix tri-color pasta with whole-wheat pasta. These gradually introduce health-promoting whole-grains into a family's diet.
Adding too many complex carbohydrates (and fiber) at one time might cause a stomach ache as the digestive system struggles to adjust. It's a good idea to increase consumption of fluids, particularly water, to aid digestion.
Try to make at least half of your grain foods whole grain. Most adults are advised to eat six ounces of grains each day with half of those grains being whole grains.
In general, eating moderate portions of a variety of foods - including whole grains, fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy products and lean meats, fish and poultry, nuts and cooked dry beans - is recommended.
For more information on grains, go to www.mypyramid.gov and click on "Inside the pyramid."
Lynn Little is a family and consumer sciences educator with University of Maryland Cooperative Extension in Washington County.