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

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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  • unclebuck

    Have followed labeling on food packaging for about 40 years, but have not seen some of this good information will make things easier. Thanks for the good work.

  • CalgaryDiabetic

    Good advice. When I first developed diabetes I ate a diet of boiled rye and lean meats and lost 85 lb and the BG was near normal range. Bread is not as good(unless super heavy as pumpernikle)most kinds available in America are fluffy stuff that turns immediately into blood sugar better to eat cotton candy of which only 50% turns immediately into blood sugar.

  • pjdaly45

    I have been eating multigrain bread thinking it was healthy. Evidently it is not so.

  • Rog

    I bake my own bread made from 100% whole wheat that I get from a small country store. They have the 25 lb bags of wheat and grind and put in bags. I always buy 10 lbs at a time. I bake at least one loaf a week.

  • Steve Parker

    Liberal intake of whole grains (3 or more servings per day) is associated with lower risk of death and lower incidence of type 2 diabetes and several cancers.

    I hate that “multigrain” marketing trick. The first ingredient is not whole grain, but “enriched bleachd flour.” They add coloring agents to make it look like whole grain bread.

    I think the bread manufacturers like the processed, refined flour because of it’s longer shelf life.

    -Steve Parker, M.D.

  • acampbell

    Thanks for all your postings – great information! And I wanted to respond to CalgaryDiabetic’s comment about the typical kinds of bread available in the U.S. Unfortunately, many of the choices available in our grocery stores are mostly refined, and tend to have a higher glycemic index. It might take a little searching to find a true whole grain bread – check out local health/natural food markets in your area. And of course, you can always bake your own bread!

  • Megawatt

    I buy a bread from Pepperidge Farm which is labled as 100% Whole Wheat and very thin sliced. It has 3 grams of fiber per serving (3 slices)20 total carbs and the first ingrediant is “unbromated stone ground 100% whole wheat flower”.

    The first ingrediant does not sound healthy. Is it?

  • acampbell

    Hi Megawatt,

    Actually, your bread sounds like a great choice. The term “unbromated” means that potassium bromate (an additive that is used to give dough more elasticity) hasn’t been added to the flour. Also, unbromated flour usually has a higher protein content, which helps give the bread more structure and stability. So, enjoy your bread!

  • Diana McKenzie

    Thank you so much the information is informative. I would like to bake my own bread and I would like to know if white whole wheat is okay to use.

  • acampbell

    Hi Diane,

    Yes, you can use white whole wheat flour in place of all-purpose flour when baking.

  • Marilyn

    Thank you so much for a very informative article. I was just diagnosed with diabetes 3 days ago, and am having a hard time trying to figure out the best foods to eat. I started using Pepperridge Farm 100% Whole Grain Bread, first ingredient: whole wheat carbs 20g, sugar 3g, protein 5g (serving size, 1 slice) Do you think this is a good bread choice and also, I just eat one slice a day (in the morning). How much bread (slices) is recommended per day, in case I desired another slice later on? Thank you so much for your help. Food choices are confusing but I’m learning..

  • jim snell

    From my experience I would ask myself the following?

    a) what is desireable daily carb/calorie load.

    b) split into breakfast , lunch and dinner allotments and snacks.

    c) stack up the proteins, carbs , vegetables/ fruit to meet that desired load.

    d) one really needs to have a good guess on your daily hearty exercise energy/body process burn to come up with a desireable food/energy load for the day that is slightly less than what your body needs but gets you close to energy balance.

    That is what I do, crazy as that may seem. There are many fine diets out there from all sorts of perspectives but I like the mediterranean diet best.

    Amy can give you better ideas. In the end, the question is not how many slices of bread I can eat; but what stackup of the proteins, carbs, vegetables, fruits will give one the best leg up on diabetes.

    Unfortunately bread and grains are the “high energy” foods to provide lots of energy. If you are moving 2 ton stone blocks by hand for the pharohs tombs and monuments – you probably can eat all you want.

  • acampbell

    Hi Marilyn,

    Yes, this sounds like a good bread choice. You can have more bread during the day as long as you “count” it in terms of your carbohydrate choices. If you haven’t done so already (and I know you’ve just been diagnosed), you should meet with a dietitian to discuss meal planning and carb counting. The dietitian can help you determine how much carbohydrate to aim for at each of your meals and snacks, and that way, you can decide how you want to “spend” your carb choices — with bread, cereal, pasta, fruit, milk, etc. It can seem confusing at first, so that’s why it’s a good idea to work with a dietitian.

  • Kelly

    The top list – just wanted to note – popcorn is a terrible food, isn’t it? It may be whole grain, but it raises blood sugar and makes you feel terrible quite frankly. And although flax and legumes are not whole grains – aren’t they good choices?

    New year, new leaf – any tips for easy and tasty recipes/sites that little kids will eat are very appreciated. Want my little people eating cleaner.

  • acampbell

    Hi Kelly,

    Actually, popcorn is anything but terrible. Popcorn is indeed a whole-grain food, and it packs more antioxidants than many fruits and vegetables. Three cups of air-popped popcorn has less than 100 calories and 18 grams of carbohydrate (about the amount in a small piece of fruit). Certainly, if you eat too much of any carbohydrate food, your blood glucose will go too high. Too much oil, salt, and butter are what can turn popcorn into a less-than-healthy food. Yes, flax and legumes are quite healthy — but as you said, they’re not whole grains. Remember that you need a variety of foods in your eating plan. As for kid-friendly recipes that are healthy, check out these two Web sites: and