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

Every day you make choices about what to eat. If you have diabetes[1], 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[2], 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[3] 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

Refined Grains

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:

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.

  1. diabetes:
  2. fiber:
  3. Dietary Guidelines for Americans:

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Amy Campbell: Amy Campbell is the author of Staying Healthy with Diabetes: Nutrition and Meal Planning and a frequent contributor to Diabetes Self-Management and Diabetes & You. She has co-authored several books, including the The Joslin Guide to Diabetes and the American Diabetes Association’s 16 Myths of a “Diabetic Diet,” for which she received a Will Solimene Award of Excellence in Medical Communication and a National Health Information Award in 2000. Amy also developed menus for Fit Not Fat at Forty Plus and co-authored Eat Carbs, Lose Weight with fitness expert Denise Austin. Amy earned a bachelor’s degree in nutrition from Simmons College and a master’s degree in nutrition education from Boston University. In addition to being a Registered Dietitian, she is a Certified Diabetes Educator and a member of the American Dietetic Association, the American Diabetes Association, and the American Association of Diabetes Educators. Amy was formerly a Diabetes and Nutrition Educator at Joslin Diabetes Center, where she was responsible for the development, implementation, and evaluation of disease management programs, including clinical guideline and educational material development, and the development, testing, and implementation of disease management applications. She is currently the Director of Clinical Education Content Development and Training at Good Measures. Amy has developed and conducted training sessions for various disease and case management programs and is a frequent presenter at disease management events.

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