Real Whole Grains: The Ultimate Good Carbs
Get to know the tastiest healthy ingredients you aren’t cooking with enough
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Sesame Fried Egg and Mushroom Quinoa Bowls; photograph by Olga Ivanova
You probably already know you should be eating more whole grains and fewer processed foods made from refined white flour. But there’s another distinction to make when it comes to grains. Whole-kernel grains (also called intact grains) like wheat berries, brown rice, quinoa, buckwheat, and amaranth are minimally processed whole foods that offer extra health benefits beyond what you get from whole-grain flours. They’re also very flavorful and can add variety (and fun!) to your home cooking. Here’s what you need to know to start getting more of these real whole grains on your plate.
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What are whole grains?
All grains start out “whole,” meaning with the bran (fiber-rich exterior), endosperm (carbohydrate-rich inner layer), and germ (the vitamin-rich core) portions of the seed — the kernel — together, the way the plant grows in the field.
What grains are whole grains?
As the word suggests, in an “intact” whole grain, the kernel, or seed, has been harvested and only the indigestible outer hull has been removed. Think: whole oat groats, wheat berries, and quinoa, for example.
Whole grains vs. whole wheat. Not all whole grains are wheat, but wheat is the most common grain that’s milled into flour. Whole-wheat flour starts off as an intact whole grain, and then is milled to the fine powder sold by the bag. All the nutritious parts of the grain may remain, including the B vitamins, magnesium, and antioxidants, but the texture has changed, which affects how the body digests it. Also, depending on how the wheat was ground, it may or may not actually be 100% whole grain, despite the label.
Whole grains vs. refined grains. Refined wheat flour (also known as white four) is processed even more, removing the bran and the germ (and the fiber and vitamins they contain, though some vitamins are added back in the case of enriched flour), leaving only the nutrient-poor starchy part of the grain. From a health and nutrition standpoint, intact whole grains are best, but 100% whole-grain flour and whole-grain products made from it (such as whole-grain bread and whole-wheat pasta) are better than white flour goods.
Whole grains list
There’s a world of delicious whole-kernel grains, aka intact grains, to explore. Here are some of the most popular. Look for them at your grocery store and online from companies such as Bob’s Red Mill.
Barley. One of the world’s most popular grains, barley is prized for its chewy texture and is especially good in soups.
Brown rice. With the bran and germ still in place, brown rice is the healthy version of regular white rice. Try short-grain and long-grain brown rice in many recipes, including salads, Buddha bowls, and fried rice.
Buckwheat groats. These versatile seeds of the buckwheat plant can be cooked like risotto or pilaf and many other ways; toasted, they’re known as kasha.
Farro. The term farro is used to describe three ancient forms of wheat: einkorn, emmer, and spelt. Enjoy farro in recipes like salads and grain bowls.
Millet. Another ancient grain, millet is a staple in many parts of the world, including Asia and Africa. In recipes it can cook up fluffy, like couscous, to more sticky — great for veggie burgers.
Oat groats. This is the whole grain that oatmeal is made from. It’s the least processed form, followed by steel cut oats, old-fashioned oats, and instant oats. Try oat groats in breakfast bowls.
Quinoa. Related to amaranth, and first grown in the Andes 7,000 years ago, quinoa is high in protein and available in white, red, and black versions. Consider quinoa for recipes including grain bowls, salads, and veggie burgers.
Wheat berries. Whole wheat kernels, aka wheat berries, include the bran, germ, and endosperm. Enjoy the chewy texture in recipes such as salads and soups.
Wild rice. Despite their similar names, wild rice and brown rice are different species. With a more robust flavor and toothsome texture, wild rice stars in pilafs, soups, and casseroles.
Teff. This staple crop in Ethiopa and Eritrea, a member of the millet family, is best known in the United States as the flour used to create that region’s spongy injera pancakes. Try the whole grain in porridge and energy bars.
What are the health benefits of whole grains?
A diet rich in whole grains is one of the hallmarks of the healthy eating pattern known as the Mediterranean Diet. It’s been associated with a reduced risk of chronic diseases, including heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
A healthy diet with lots of whole grains can put you at a lower risk for certain cancers, including colorectal cancer. The American Heart Association recommends eating six servings of whole-grain foods per day in part because they help lower cholesterol.
Products made from 100% whole grains or whole-wheat flour do have health benefits. They are typically good sources of fiber, for example. But the healthiest whole grains — the whole-kernel or intact grains — are minimally processed and have even more benefits. For example, intact grains don’t tend to spike blood sugar because they’re digested more slowly than flours. Research also shows that intact whole grains leave you feeling fuller than foods made from whole-grain flour.
How does fiber benefit your health?
Another major benefit of adding more intact grains to your diet is the extra fiber. A recent Centers for Disease Control survey revealed only 7 percent of adults consume the recommended amount of dietary fiber per day. A cup of cooked brown rice has 3.5 grams of fiber — that’s 15% of the daily recommended amount. The same amount of quinoa contains an impressive 5 grams.
Of course, fiber is necessary for good digestive health. But the fiber in whole grains is also an important prebiotic. That means it’s food for your beneficial gut bacteria. This type of fiber supports a healthy microbiome, which can reduce inflammation and contribute to better overall health.
What are the best whole grains to start cooking with?
The best whole grains to make are the ones you enjoy the most — and the ones you have time to cook. Quinoa, millet, amaranth, and teff all cook quickly, in about 15 minutes. Other whole grains can take 45 minutes to an hour, but you can use an Instant Pot or another pressure cooker to speed things up. And remember, in many recipes you can swap whatever whole grain you have for the one called for.
14 delicious whole-grain recipes
The following recipes give you plenty of options for bringing good-tasting and good-for-you intact whole grains into your rotation.
Grain bowls are a meal format with infinite variations. For this particularly winning one, you top bowls of fiber-packed quinoa with savory mushrooms, protein-rich edamame, and fried eggs. Garnishes of seaweed ribbons and green onion make it feel like something you ordered at the trendiest cafe in your neighborhood. But this is loads healthier and more affordable because you made it yourself. Brown rice would work as well as quinoa in this meal.
Amaranth and millet cook together to create the risotto-like base for these grain bowls created by a Denver chef. You’ll have multiple pots going to also roast tofu, steam veggies, and create a silky miso-tahini sauce in just an hour. But the payoff for some juggling is a restaurant-worthy dish you’ll want to make again and again.
This recipe uses a generous tablespoon of the anti-inflammatory spice turmeric to put a fresh, earthy — and yellow — twist on brown rice. It’s topped with two types of legumes (black beans and lentils) and a quick, fresh pico de gallo. (For a short-cut, use your favorite store-bought salsa.) Finish off these satisfying bowls with a creamy swirl of cashew cheese sauce. The big flavors and serious quantity of fiber will satisfy your cravings and keep your blood sugar stable.
This Mexican-inspired twist on stuffed peppers is deceptively healthy for a meal that’s so much fun. Hearty black beans and brown rice stand in for the usual beef, and spices including cumin, coriander, chili powder, and oregano take the flavor to a whole new level. If you like your Mexican food on the spicy side, substitute hot chiles for the mild ones called for here. Serve with chips and guacamole for a feast the family will love. And consider doubling the recipe or making this one ahead — the flavors improve overnight in the refrigerator.
Millet is a wonderful yet overlooked whole grain. It’s similar to couscous in size with a mild, sweet, and nutty flavor. This simple recipe combines millet with scallions, garlic, spinach, nutritional yeast, and cheddar cheese for a dinner that’s fast, flavorful, healthy, and comforting all at the same time. If you’re looking for a dairy-free dish, you could omit the cheddar — the nutritional yeast will give it plenty of savory, cheesy flavor.
When it comes to risotto, you probably think of arborio rice, the short-grain white rice whose starchy quality helps make the dish so famously luxurious and creamy. But it’s far from the only grain you can make a risotto with. You can whip up a risotto-style dish with many whole grains, but farro, an Italian grain with a complex nutty flavor, is especially delicious. If possible, use a homemade chicken or vegetable stock for the best flavor. The grains soak it up as they cook, so it makes a big difference.
If you cook for quinoa skeptics, this craveable recipe just might win them over to team whole grains. Quinoa, kale, garlic, breadcrumbs, cheese, and spices come together to form golden, crispy, irresistible fritters. For the easiest cooking, follow the recipe’s advice and cook the quinoa ahead (or even shape and refrigerate the patties ahead) — the patties will hold together better so you can fry them and flip them without them falling apart. Try swapping arugula or Swiss chard for the kale.
Wild rice is a sleeper secret ingredient. It’s an intact whole grain that’s packed with flavor and is rich in beneficial phytochemicals. These filling meatless burgers really show off what wild rice can do. The patties cook up dense, chewy, and juicy on the inside while turning brown and crisp on the outside. Once the rice is cooked (you can do it a day in advance), the burgers come together in only 30 minutes. Top them with all your favorite burger accompaniments, such as lettuce, tomato, pickles, red onions, bacon, cheese, and mayonnaise. They’ve got the heft and earthy flavor to stand up to it! If you like, double the recipe to have plenty of patties to stash in the freezer for later use.
Research shows that the less processed oat cereals are, the less they spike your blood sugar. That’s a very good thing in a hot breakfast cereal — it means you’ll feel fuller longer and have sustained energy. Put your own twist on this recipe with your preferred type of milk and add all your favorite toppings. The best part of this recipe is that you can put the oats in the slow cooker at bedtime and wake up to a hot breakfast.
If you’ve never wrapped up your lunch in a big collard green leaf, what are you waiting for? It’s the perfect nutrient-dense wrapper for a wide variety of ingredients, and this one cradles an appetizing (and vegan, gluten-free) blend of wild rice, grated carrots, and edamame. The surprising addition of a handful of red grapes adds the perfect amount of juicy sweetness. No collard greens? You could sub cabbage leaves.
This vegetarian loaf is packed with meaty, robust flavor thanks in part to the brown rice that helps it hold together. Mushrooms also add savoriness and serious depth of flavor. If possible, make this dish a day or two ahead. Not only will the flavors improve as they meld, but you’ll also get perfectly clean slices that look good enough to Instagram. Looking for a special-occasion mushroom loaf? Try this version with mushroom gravy.
The ingredients in these filling grain bowls will remind you of Thanksgiving, but you’re going to want to make this recipe year-round. Creamy cubes of roasted sweet potato, fresh greens, tart dried cranberries, and crunchy pumpkin seeds get served over a bed of chewy wheat berries. The simple vinaigrette is fragrant with cinnamon and fresh sage. Wheat berries can take about an hour to cook, so you may want to make them ahead or do them in your Instant Pot, which cuts the cooking time in half.
Toasted buckwheat (aka kasha) cooks to tenderness in just 15 minutes. While that’s happening, you can saute pancetta to crispiness, wilt down some kale, and poach eggs to go on top. Total time: 30 minutes.
One of the most delicious ways to incorporate more whole grains into your diet is in soups, and this recipe is a perfect example. It starts with aromatic vegetables, including onion, celery, and carrot. A little garlic and a few ounces of pancetta give the broth a distinctly Italian accent. The recipe calls for borlotti beans (also known as cranberry beans), but if you can’t find them, cannellini beans or chickpeas would be great substitutes. Before you add the toothsome farro, you’ll puree some of the broth and bean mixture to achieve a cozy, creamy texture. Don’t forget some crusty (whole-grain) Italian bread on the side!
More ways to eat healthy
Keep reading to get additional ideas for adding healthy foods to your diet.