Whole grains are one of today’s biggest food trends, and their popularity is showing no signs of slowing down. Nutrition experts agree that whole grains are a key component of a nutritious diet: they provide important dietary fiber and help to prevent serious health problems such as heart disease and diabetes. Because they take longer to digest, they also keep you feeling fuller longer and are less likely to cause blood sugar spikes and crashes. As a result, health-conscious consumers are increasingly bypassing the refined carbohydrates found in many everyday products such as bread and breakfast cereals and are instead looking for whole grain, clean label alternatives.
If you’re looking to make your diet a little more nutritious, choosing whole grains instead of refined grains is a great place to start, as it’s a relatively easy switch that doesn’t have to disrupt your eating routine. Here are nine of the best whole grains to consider the next time you’re at the grocery store or at your favorite restaurant.
1. Whole wheat
Whole wheat is very easy to incorporate into your diet, as a wide range of products, including pasta and breads, come in whole wheat versions. Just be sure you’re reading the label correctly: the products labeled “100% whole wheat” are the ones you want to add to your shopping cart. (Products labeled “made with whole wheat” are not made exclusively with whole wheat; they may contain just as much—or more—refined flour as whole wheat flour.)
Oats are an excellent source of avenanthramide, an antioxidant that helps to protect the heart. Minimally processed oats are usually the best choice. For example, steel-cut oats are generally preferable to instant oatmeal (partially because instant oatmeal products tend to contain high-fructose corn syrup or other undesirable additives).
3. Brown rice
Choosing brown rice instead of white rice is another easy choice to make. With brown rice, you obtain about 75% more nutrients—including important antioxidants, magnesium, phosphorus, and B vitamins that are found in the bran and the germ of the grain—than you do with milled white rice.
4. Whole rye
According to research from The Organic Center, a nutritional nonprofit, rye provides you with more nutrients per 100 calories than any other whole grain. For example, rye offers four times more fiber than standard whole wheat and can give you almost half of your daily recommended iron intake. Just be sure to look for “whole rye” at or near the top of the ingredients list, as many rye products (such as pumpernickel or rye bread), are also made with a high proportion of refined flour.
A grain with Middle Eastern origins, freekeh is a low-carb form of ancient wheat. When the plant is young, its kernels are harvested and roasted, leaving you with a product that you cook just like rice. However, freekeh is even more nutritious, offering up to four times more fiber than brown rice. In addition, once consumed, freekeh acts as a prebiotic, which means that it stimulates the growth of the good bacteria that aid digestion and help to keep your gut healthy. Although it was once a niche grain, freekeh has become much more readily available in recent years, so chances are good that you’ll be able to find it at your local grocery store.
6. Whole grain barley
In a recent USDA study, people who regularly ate a half-cup of whole barley reduced their cholesterol levels by nearly 10%. Fortunately, barley is easy to incorporate into your diet, as it’s a highly versatile grain: it works well in soups, adds a hearty bite to salads, and can even be served as a side dish mixed with raisins or dried apricots. Again, when shopping for barley, make sure you’re choosing the whole-grain variety: the most commonly available form of barley is “pearled” barley, which means that the bran and germ (and most of the nutrients) have been removed.
One of the many advantages of buckwheat is that it can be tolerated by most people with celiac disease, which means that it’s a good substitute for other gluten-containing flours. It’s also one of the best grain-based sources of manganese, which boosts brain function, and magnesium, an important mineral that helps to regulate the nervous system and enhances bone structure, among other things.
Bulgur does have some of its bran removed during processing, but for practical purposes, it’s still considered to be a whole grain. Like barley, it’s very versatile—the most popular use of bulgur is for the delicious Middle Eastern salad known as tabbouleh—and it’s a good source of iron, magnesium, and protein. In addition, just one cup of bulgur contains nearly 75% of your dietary fiber for the day.
Although it’s technically a seed, quinoa is usually classified as a whole grain because it shares many of the same properties and is used in many of the same ways. An ancient power food from South America, quinoa contains plenty of protein and omega-3 fatty acids, which offer a range of health benefits from fighting inflammation to reducing the risk of heart disease.