Whole Grains: Let's Start at the Very Beginning

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Quick! How many servings of whole grains should we eat? No peeking! Seriously, how many?

Nutritionists advise that we eat three servings of whole grains every day. Three. Every day. (Right, like when was the last time that happened?) But let's start, okay, by figuring out what it means. You, me, all of us. Let's go.

"By now you've heard the news...for a myriad of reasons, it is important to eat more whole grains. They are an excellent source of antioxidants and are believed to lower triglyceride levels. They are associated with a reduction in the risk of heart disease and cancer. They are a great source of dietary fiber, minerals, and many B Vitamins, including folic acid. They can reduce the severity of asthma and the frequency of migraine headaches. They have been shown to aid in weight management and reduce the risk of diabetes." ~ read Brazilian Brown Rice from Whole Grain Gourmet

Okay, so let's eat more whole grains. But how?

What ARE grains?

Grains are the edible portions -- the seeds -- of cereal plants. It's easy to recognize some grain foods, say rice, wheat and oats but there are many forms to get to know, once we're ready. Here's a fun surprise -- popcorn is a whole grain too!

What IS a whole grain?

A whole grain includes the bran, the endosperm (also called the kernel) and the germ. The bran is an outer layer composed of fiber which protects the kernel. The kernel is composed of starch granules. Inside the kernel is the germ; it is composed primarily of vitamins, minerals and unsaturated oils and is a concentrated source of energy.

If a grain is 'whole grain', all three remain intact (thus 'whole') and nothing's been stripped away.

In contrast, a grain that has been "refined" -- that means it's been processed -- it is usually no longer a whole grain. Important fiber and nutrients have been stripped away.

Some times, the difference between a whole grain and a refined grain is all about marketing. For the longest time, I thought that brown rice was a variety of rice. Then I learned that all rice starts off with a brown outer layer of bran. When the rice is 'refined, the bran is stripped away, leaving -- yep, you got it -- white rice.

How can we tell what's a whole grain and what's not?

We start by reading labels, choosing foods that start off with whole-grain ingredients high on ingredient list. (Why high on the list? Because the higher on the list, the more there is of it in the food.) Look for ingredients like brown rice, oatmeal, whole-grain corn, whole oats, whole rye, whole wheat or wild rice.

Avoid foods labeled with tempting marketing phrases like 'multi-grain' and 'stone-ground' and '100% wheat' and 'cracked wheat' and even 'seven grain' and 'bran'. They're usually not whole-grain foods.

Are some grains healthier than others

Identify the most healthful grains by checking the list at World's Healthiest Foods -- barley, brown rice, buckwheat, corn, millet, oats, quinoa, rye, spelt and whole wheat. To make it easy, let's ask -- and I want us all to answer, in the comments, too, so get ready:

Which of these ten grains do you recognize? Me, I recognize them all but it surprises me that corn is on the list. (Isn't corn full of calories and carbs? Isn't it the stuff used to make high-fructose corn syrup? We'll come back to corn.)

Which of the ten grains have you tried? Hmm. I've tried them all but honestly, barley, buckwheat, millet and spelt go faaar back, like 15 years far back. What about you?

Which of the ten grains do you regularly cook and eat? Brown rice, oats (thank goodness for my morning oatmeal!), quinoa and whole wheat. That's four, not bad, with six left to work on. What about you?

Which ONE grain are you willing to tackle in the next week? Hmm. Well, I think I'll start at the beginning, with barley. What about you? Pick just one, whichever one is most accessible, approachable, doable. The one that's the least scary. Baby steps are fine, really.

More Resources
How to Eat More Whole Grains from the Mayo Clinic
Tips for Eating More Whole Grains from MyPyramid

BlogHer food editor Alanna Kellogg is learning more and more about healthful cooking for her food column Kitchen Parade and her food blog about vegetables, A Veggie Venture.

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