The Whole Grain and Nothing But the Whole Grain (Part 1)

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Every day you make choices about what to eat. If you have diabetes, you’re likely thinking about how many carbs you can or should eat, and how you’ll spend those carb choices. Many of you are making a conscious effort to eat more fiber, too. And maybe some of you are even trying to fit more whole grains (whatever that means) into your eating plan.

Nutrition and meal planning can be baffling enough without trying to have to decipher just what the term “whole grain” means. And it may not be quite what you think.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans urge us to “consume 3 or more ounce-equivalents of whole-grain products per day.” Unfortunately, most of us are lucky if we eat a single ounce-equivalent, or serving, of a whole-grain food per day. So, what are whole grains, anyway?

Whole grains contain three layers: bran (outer layer), endosperm (middle layer), and germ (grain core). Each layer provides us with specific nutrients and health benefits. The bran provides fiber, phytonutrients, B vitamins, and minerals. The endosperm contributes carbohydrate, protein, and B vitamins. And the germ supplies vitamin E, B vitamins, unsaturated fat, phytonutrients, and antioxidants.

Refined grains (think white flour and white rice) have the bran and germ layers removed, which means that many of the nutrition and health benefits have been removed, as well.

Compare these examples of whole-grain and refined-grain foods:

Whole Grains

  • Amaranth
  • Barley
  • Brown rice
  • Buckwheat
  • Bulgur
  • Oatmeal and whole oats
  • Popcorn
  • Quinoa
  • 100% whole wheat bread
  • Wild rice

Refined Grains

  • Cornflakes
  • Couscous
  • Grits
  • Pasta, enriched
  • Pretzels
  • White bread
  • White rice
  • White flour
  • Wheat flour
  • Multigrain bread

Are most of your “grain” choices from the top column or the bottom column? And are you surprised that some of the foods in the bottom column aren’t considered to be whole grains? You may be wondering why “multigrain” is in the refined column. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the term “multigrain” means that a food must contain at least three different types of grains—but the grains don’t necessary have to be whole grains; some or all can be refined. Also, don’t be fooled by the words “stone ground,” either. There’s no federal ruling on what this term means, so companies can call a grain (whole or refined) product “stone ground” as long as they’ve run it under a stone at least once.

There are a lot of other interesting, although lesser-known, whole-grain foods, too, such as millet, teff, triticale, and wheat berries, to name a few. By the way, flaxseed, sunflower seeds, and legumes (chickpeas, lentils, and black beans, for example) aren’t considered to be whole grains.

While it may seem confusing, you can learn to distinguish a whole-grain food from a refined-grain food by carefully looking at food packages and labels. Here’s what to look for:

  • The words “100% whole grain” on the label
  • “Whole,” “whole wheat,” “whole oats,” or “whole rye” as the first ingredient in the ingredients list
  • At least 3 grams of dietary fiber per serving on the Nutrition Facts label

Check out the “grain” foods in your cupboard or pantry. How many are whole grain?

Next week, we’ll look at health benefits of whole grains and ways to finagle whole grains into your eating plan.

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