The Mediterranean diet encourages consumption of whole grains because they are naturally rich in many important nutrients. The fuller, nuttier taste and extra fiber in whole grains help keep you feeling satisfied longer. Traditional Mediterranean grains include bulger, barley, farro and brown, black and red rice. The diet also includes products made with whole grains or whole-grain flour such as bread, breakfast cereal, pasta and tortillas.
Whole grains are tiny, but because they contain all three parts of the grain they offer the nutritional benefits of the entire grain — vitamins, minerals, dietary fiber, and other natural plant compounds called phytochemicals — while containing low amounts of nutrients we need to eat less of, such as saturated fat and sodium. These health-promoting nutrients reduce the risk of heart disease and some types of cancer. Whole grains may also play a role in reducing the risk of developing type 2 diabetes and improving blood glucose control.
Grains are seeds, mostly from cereal grasses. These include barley, corn, kamut, millet, oats, rice, rye, spelt, teff, triticale and wheat. Some grains come from plants that are not grasses, among them buckwheat, amaranth and quinoa. Although different from each other in use and flavor, all whole cereal grains are made up of all parts of the grain — the bran (the fiber-rich outer layer), the endosperm (the middle part) and the germ (the nutrient-rich inner part).
The bran is the highly nutritious outside layers that surround and protect the kernel. The bran is rich in B vitamins and trace minerals, including iron, copper, zinc and magnesium. The bran contains most of the dietary fiber found in grains and also some protein and phytochemicals, which are substances that contribute to the plant’s self-defense against viruses, bacteria and fungi and help protect the human body against chronic diseases, including heart disease, cancer and diabetes.
The germ is the smallest part of the seed. It is rich in trace minerals, unsaturated fats, B-vitamins, antioxidants and phytochemicals. Antioxidants found in whole grains include vitamin E, selenium and phytochemicals. Antioxidants are substances that can protect the body from harmful substances known as free radicals, which are products of metabolism that disrupt our natural cancer-fighting abilities.
The endosperm is the largest middle part of the kernel, comprising over 80% of the whole grain by weight and containing most of the protein and carbohydrates.
Refined grains lack the rich nutrients found in the germ and bran. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires food manufacturers to restore (enrich) B vitamins and iron to white flour and many grain products. Researchers have also identified other healthful components of whole grains that are not replaced by grain enrichment and fortification. Health benefits of whole grains may be due to the synergy of all these components.
The best way to identify whole grain foods is to refer to the ingredient listing on the food label. Foods with the whole grain ingredient listed first are whole grain foods. Keep in mind, however, that you can also benefit from eating foods with whole grains listed as the second or third ingredient.
Whole grain ingredients include the word “whole” in front of the name of the grain. If whole grains are listed further down on the list of ingredients, the product is not considered whole grain. However, oats are always whole grain, whether they are rolled or instant. The food product’s name will be another clue to discovering whole grain foods. If the food name includes “whole grain” or “whole wheat,” the product contains whole grain ingredients.
Eating whole grains in place of refined grains offers higher intakes of fiber, vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals. Whole grain foods such as cereals, pasta, brown rice, breads and snack foods can add variety to your selections.