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Grains — most commonly wheat and corn — are consumed by most populations around the world. While some people argue that we shouldn’t eat grains, most health experts agree that grains should be a part of our everyday diet. But choosing whole grains, rather than refined ones, is the most nutritious choice.

Why you should choose whole grains

A whole grain is an entire grain, in the proportions found in nature. It includes the bran, germ and endosperm. A whole grain can be processed — cracked, split, flaked, ground — and still remain a whole grain.

But refined grains, such as white rice and enriched wheat flour, contain only part of the grain. These refined grains give baked goods a softer texture and an extended lifetime but make the product less nutritious.

Health benefits of whole grains

Whole grains are healthier because they contain higher amounts of vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids, antioxidants, phytochemicals, and fiber, which will help you feel full and better maintain your weight.

Whole grains are particularly good for preventing:

  • Cardiovascular disease. Soluble fiber helps lower cholesterol. Fiber may also help prevent heart attacks and strokes.
  • Type 2 diabetes. Essential minerals help reduce the risk of developing diabetes.
  • Cancer. Phytoestrogens (plant estrogens) found in whole grains may protect against some cancers. So too might essentials minerals, such as magnesium, selenium, copper and manganese.

And they are good at maintaining:

  • Digestive health. Insoluble fiber helps move waste through the digestive tract.
  • Longevity. A report from the Iowa Women’s Health Study linked whole-grain consumption with fewer deaths from non-cardiac, non-cancer causes.

Healthiest grains to choose

According to The World’s Healthiest Foods, the following are the healthiest grains, meaning they are nutrient-dense, familiar, readily available and taste good. These grains help in all the ways listed above and in other ways mentioned below.

  1. Whole Rye. This cereal grain has more nutrients per 100-calorie serving than any other whole grain. It has four times more fiber than whole wheat and 50 percent of the daily recommended amount of iron. It also promotes weight loss, helps prevent gallstones and prevents breast cancer.
  2. Quinoa. OK, this is actually a seed, not a grain, but it’s widely considered a grain, so we’ll include here. It is super nutritious, especially for vegans because it is a complete protein. It is also high in vitamin E and calcium and low in fat. Quinoa is gluten-free.
  3. Oats. Oats help enhance immune response to infection and stabilize blood sugar. Oats are gluten free.
  4. Barley. Barley is a great source of fiber and selenium and a good source of phosphorous, copper and manganese. It also helps prevent gallstones.
  5. Millet. This grain is a good source of manganese, phosphorus and magnesium. It helps with the development and repair of body tissue, helps prevent gallstones and protects against breast cancer.
  6. Brown Rice. Brown rice is an excellent source of manganese and a good source of selenium and magnesium. It’s also high in fiber, rich in antioxidants and helps stabilize blood sugar.
  7. Buckwheat. Also not a grain; it’s technically a fruit seed, but it is used like one in cooking, and it’s a good substitute for grains because it is gluten-free. Buckwheat helps control blood sugar and helps prevent gallstones.
  8. Spelt. This grain does not seem to cause sensitivities in many people who are intolerant of wheat. It is an excellent source of manganese and a good source of protein, copper and zinc.
  9. Corn. Corn is high in antioxidants and is a good source of fiber. It also helps with blood sugar control.
  10. Whole wheat. This popular grain is rich in B vitamins and vitamin E. It’s also low in fat.

The above 10 might be the healthiest and most available, but these other grains are healthy, too:

  • Amaranth
  • Bulgur
  • Farro
  • Freekeh
  • Kamut
  • Teff
  • Wheat berry

Whole grains taste great cooked plain (often with herbs and veggies,) in pilafs, in hot and cold cereals and even in salads. To get the most health benefits, you should choose or grow your own whole, sprouted grains.

Considerations for vegans and vegetarians

One thing to consider is that many vegans and vegetarians consume too many grains in their diets, which can actually have negative effects on your health for some people, so it’s important to eat the right amount.
Here are some things to consider when deciding how much grain is right for you:

  • The US Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend three servings of grains per day, with half of these being whole grains. A serving is 1/2 cup brown rice or pasta, one slice of whole grain bread, one very small whole grain muffin or one cup whole grain cereal.
  • Harvard’s Healthy Eating Plate reserves a quarter of your plate for whole grains.
  • The vegan food pyramid calls for six to 11 servings of whole grains per week, with a serving size being 1/2 cup.

And if you’re looking for a good source of whole grain products, check out Bob’s Red Mill and Arrowhead Mills.

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