The Role of Grains in a Healthy Diet

Dominique W. Brooks
grains in a healthy diet

Grains are the basis of a healthy diet. For years, we have been told to limit our intake of foods made from grain such as breads, rice, cereal, and pasta. With many mixed messages, it is easy to understand why you might be confused as to how to incorporate grains into a proper eating plan.

What Are Grains?

Grains are the seeds of various grasses, according to MayoClinic.com. They supply carbohydrates in your diet along with minerals and vitamins, and typically contain low amounts of fat. But grains that have been less processed - or whole - are better for you than grains that have been processed or refined.

The easiest way to know if the grain product that you are eating is whole or refined is to look at your food's packaging. If the food is a whole grain, the ingredient list will state just that - whole wheat, whole rye, or whole grain. Make sure it is listed first or second in the ingredient list. If the food is refined, the ingredient list will include phrases such as "white enriched" or "bleached wheat flour." Also, beware of manufacturers calling their foods "wheat" without the "whole." If a food contains whole grain, it will say so in the ingredient list.

Another way to tell the difference is by checking out the fiber content of the food. Whole grains are high in fiber while refined grains contain little or no fiber. For example, when choosing a breakfast cereal, look for "whole" in the ingredient list and two or more grams of fiber per serving.

Examples of whole grains are:

  • Brown rice
  • Barley
  • Oatmeal
  • Popcorn
  • Wild rice
  • Buckwheat
  • Cracked Wheat (Bulgur)

Examples of refined grains include:

  • White rice
  • Couscous
  • Grits
  • White bread
  • White pasta

Importance of Grains in a Healthy Diet

Including grains in your diet can provide you with necessary nutrients.

Energy Production

Grains provide us with carbohydrates, which are our body's main energy source; whole grains tend to provide more complex carbohydrates than refined grains. Our brains and nervous systems use primarily glucose (carbohydrates are broken down by our bodies to produce glucose) for fuel.

Fiber

Whole grains also provide us with insoluble fiber, which is not digested by the body. Dietary intake of high fiber foods helps with weight management and reduces the chances of becoming obese. Because fiber is bulky, it also allows you to remain satisfied long after eating - lessening your chances of overeating or extra snacking.

Fiber also plays other important roles in a healthy meal plan:

  • Prevents constipation, which can lead to conditions such as diverticulitis
  • Lower cholesterol levels
  • Lowers risk of heart disease
  • May decrease the risk of developing diabetes

Vitamins and Minerals

Grains also provide important vitamins and minerals that are needed for normal functioning of your body. Whole grains contain these nutrients; refined grains may have them added back after the refining process.

  • B vitamins: These vitamins play a role in metabolism in your body and in the function of a healthy nervous system. Examples of these vitamins include thiamin, riboflavin, and niacin. Another B vitamin called folate (folic acid) is important for pregnant women; taking folate during the pregnancy can lower the risk of spina bifida and neural tube defects in the baby.
  • Iron: Much of the iron that you get through your diet comes from meats. However, grains also contain iron and are major sources of iron in our diets.
  • Minerals: Grains provide magnesium which helps build bones and selenium which protects the cells in the body.

Eating Grains Each Day

How much grain a person should consume each day depends on age, physical activity, and sex. According to United States Department of Agriculture, most Americans do eat enough grains each day but most of these are not whole grains. One-half of your grain servings should be whole grains.

According to the Whole Grains Council, at least half of all grain servings should be whole grains. Adults should consume at least six servings of grains each day with one ounce being considered a serving. Children up to age eight should consume three to four servings of grains each day and boys and girls up to age 18 should eat between five and seven servings.

This amount may vary if you are more physically active. Your dietitian can help you make adjustments in your diet if needed.

Including More Whole Grains in Your Diet

Here are some suggestions for increasing your intake of grains.

  • Choose brown rice over white rice.
  • Select whole wheat or whole rye bread over white bread.
  • Eat whole wheat pasta (or a whole wheat blend) over white pasta.
  • Use oats or crushed bran in recipes in place of bread crumbs.
  • Add whole grains to meat dishes to add extra body to the dish.

Placing more of a focus on getting enough grains and whole grains into your healthy diet can help improve your long-term health.

The Role of Grains in a Healthy Diet