Consumers are often told to increase consumption of fruits and vegetables as they contain many disease-fighting nutrients.
Whole grains are often overlooked and are also an excellent source of these key nutrients.
Experts agree that incorporating whole grains into a healthy diet has many added health benefits including reduction in heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes and obesity. There are few foods that offer such a diverse array of health benefits.
The United States Department of Agriculture recommends that half of our consumption of grains should come from whole grains.
What does that equate to? For most adults, a minimum of 3 to 6 servings of whole grains per day would satisfy this recommendation.
So, what is a whole grain?
Anything that contains wheat, rice, oats, cornmeal, barley, and other grains discussed below would be considered a grain product.
Grain products can either be whole or refined. A whole grain is actually the seed of a plant and it contains three parts: the bran, the germ, and the endosperm.
The outer layer of the seed is called the bran and this provides a rich source of antioxidants, B vitamins and fiber.
The germ, otherwise known as the "baby" of the seed, provides protein, vitamins, minerals and healthy fat.
The source of food supply for the seed is called the endosperm, which is the main source of carbohydrates. To be considered a whole grain, the seed must contain all three of these components. Through the processing of refined grains, the bran and the germ are removed, leaving a less nutritious product. Many refined grains are enriched with vitamins and minerals, but whole grains are still a healthier option.
There are many different types of whole grains, each of which provide unique health benefits. When thinking of ways to increase consumption of whole grains, most people think of wheat bread, oatmeal and high-fiber cereals.
Oatmeal is an easy way to incorporate whole grains into your diet and get your day off to a great start. Oats contain a unique type of fiber that is especially helpful at lowering cholesterol. To experiment with different types of oats, try steel cut oats for a chewier, nuttier flavor.
Many people choose whole-wheat bread rather than white bread. Make sure when you are choosing a wheat bread that the ingredient is listed as whole wheat; just plain wheat refers to the refined version and is lacking in many of the key nutrients.
In addition to whole wheat bread, there are many whole grains that are often overlooked.
Barley provides an excellent source of fiber and may help lower cholesterol.
Buckwheat is the only grain known to have high levels of the antioxidant rutin, which may help improve circulation and have some protective effects against heart disease.
For a quick and easy side dish, try bulgur. These whole-wheat kernels are boiled, dried and cracked, so they only take about 10 minutes to cook.
Tabbouleh is a Middle Eastern salad made of bulgur, which provides an excellent source of fiber.
Rye provides a type of fiber that will help keep you feeling full, which is beneficial for anyone on a weight-reduction diet.
Quinoa provides a complete protein, which means that it contains all of the essential amino acids that humans are unable to produce on our own.
To be sure you are getting all of the key nutrients from your grains, read the nutrition labels and make sure all of these are listed as "whole" instead of "refined."
For those suffering from celiac disease or those trying to follow a gluten-free diet, try amaranth, buckwheat, corn, millet, quinoa, rice, sorghum, and teff to incorporate whole grains into your diet.
Try these tips to add more whole grains into your diet:
Add whole grains to your breakfast every day by choosing whole-wheat toast, oatmeal, high fiber cereals that contain whole grains, a whole-grain muffin, roll or bagel
Swap white bread for wheat bread, or choose whole-grain wraps
Add whole-grain crackers to any soup or salad meal
Try using whole-grain pizza crust
Choose popcorn for a healthful snack
Sprinkle oatmeal or whole grain cereals into yogurt for an added crunch
Use brown rice in place of white rice, or mix half and half
When baking, substitute half of the flour with whole-wheat flour
Try experimenting with some of the whole grains listed above for added variety. Don't be afraid to try new foods.
Melissa Tewes is the clinical nutrition manager at Meritus Medical Center. She has 16 years of experience as a registered dietitian and is also a certified personal trainer.