How to eat more whole grains in 5 steps

Despite popular “low grain” trends over the last few years (read gluten-free, low-carb and Paleo diets), whole grains are seeing an increase in popularity. So much so that more and more products are now labeled as containing “whole grains”. But in all this marketing hype, we’re left to figure out how to eat more whole grains.

This is the second part of my series on whole grains, the first part (why eat whole grains) covered the meaning of whole grains, as well as their benefits. In this section, we’re going to see how to eat more whole grains in 5 easy steps.

1. Understanding whole grains

To recap quickly, a whole grain will contain the whole kernel, i.e.:whole-wheat

  • The bran – the outer layer.
  • The endosperm – the main part of the grain, which can be ground to make flour.
  • The germ – the component which will germinate if planted.

Refined grains will consist mainly of the endosperm, which is made by and far of carbohydrates, a few vitamins and minerals, and very little fiber. With the industrial revolution and the motorization of mills, came the realization that refined flours were easier to cook with, had an improved texture and taste, and had a longer shelf life.

However, in the process, almost all the fiber and a large portion of the vitamins and minerals are lost. And a few good decades later, a whole lot of studies are confirming that those are actually the ones conferring grains their health properties.

2. Know your portion size

The recommended daily amount of whole grain, according to the USDA, ranges between 6 and 7 “ounce equivalents” respectively for adult women and men. They define one “ounce equivalent” as containing 16g of whole grains. In layman terms, this translates as:

  • 1 slice of bread
  • 1 cup of ready-to-eat cereals (puffed or flaked)
  • ½ cup of cooked rice, cooked pasta, or cooked cereals
  • 1 biscuit, mini bagel, small muffin, pancake, small flour tortilla, full-size corn tortilla

They also recommend that 50% of our daily intake should be made of whole grains. Unfortunately, there are several pitfalls out there:

Whole grain label starts at 51% whole grain

According to the FDA, to be labeled “whole grain”, a food must contain at least 51% of whole grains by weight. This does, however, mean that 49% can be junk (see Learn to decipher labels below). A whole wheat cookie is still a cookie…

Recomposed whole grains rather than a whole kernels

In most processed products (all bakery products, for example), the final “whole grain” is actually a combination of bran, endosperm, and germ that were initially separated, then mixed back together. Those processed whole grains have a lower content of fiber and nutrients than their original intact kernels.

“Whole grain” doesn’t always mean “rich in fiber”Burger with whole wheat bun

A whole grain product is not a guarantee that you will get optimum fiber intake. So if increasing your intake of fiber is one of your prime concern, be aware that eating processed whole grain products will not be enough. You’ll need to increase your consumption of fruits and vegetables.

Processed whole grains will still trigger blood sugar spikes

Even though these will be less than for refined grains, they will still send you reaching for your next sugar/starch fix sooner than whole kernels (think porridge oats vs. steel-cut oats).

Watch out for the Whole Grain Stamp

The basic Whole Grain Stamp, although confirming that the product contains at least 8g of whole grains per serving, doesn’t mean it doesn’t contain a whole lot of sugar, solid fat, salt, and other additives. Look out rather for the 100% Whole Grain Stamp, which will contain a minimum of 16g per serving, i.e. 1 of your 6 or 7 whole grain daily recommended servings.

We don’t need to eat more grain products

Americans, by and far, eat too many grain-based products on a daily basis, so the idea here is not to add whole grains to your diet, but to cleverly substitute some of your refined grain products for healthier whole grain ones.

3. How to spot the right whole grains

Step 1. Think.

No matter how many claims of “high-fiber content” and “whole grains” a highly-processed, nutrient-poor product can make, it remains a highly-processed, nutrient-poor product. Breakfast sugary cereals for kids are a prime example. A lot of them have jumped on the “whole grain” bandwagon, yet their first ingredient is sugar and they’re loaded with additives and colorings. Same for biscuits and other snacks. If this isn’t a product that would qualify as unprocessed, clean and nutrient-rich otherwise, being labeled “whole grain” will not change that.

Step 2. Learn to decipher labels

Now that we’ve eliminated the wolf-disguised-as-lamb gang, let’s focus on those products like bread or pasta. Those are processed food, but they will naturally find themselves in your pantry. When shopping for them, make sure that the whole grains are top of that list, or second, just after water.

whole wheat bread ingredients

Step 3. Aim for the whole kernel.

The ultimate whole grains are, well, grains that still look whole. If you compare porridge oats (which are steamed and rolled) and steel-cut oats, you can clearly see that the latter still look like a whole kernel, cut in pieces. Same for rice. If you can still see the bran on the grains, you’re on the right track. Millet, buckwheat, and quinoa, for example, are prepared whole. This makes popcorn (minus added butter) is the ultimate whole grain snack!

4. An easier approach: the magic carb-to-fiber ratio

The theory

Ok, by now you can see that adding whole grains to your diet might not be as easy as it first seemed. Luckily, Harvard researchers studied over 500 grain-based products in two major grocery stores and came up with an easier solution. They found out that the healthier products had a minimum fiber to carbohydrates ratio of 1:10.

In practice

What does this mean? It means that if you check any whole grain product label, you can just focus on the grams of carbohydrates given for 100g, then check the fiber amount.

Example 1: Ancient grains whole bread

Ancient-Grain-Nutrition-PanelIn this example, the carbohydrates total 38g per 100g of product, and the fiber, 7g. Divide the carbohydrates by 10. We obtain 3.8. So there must be *at least* 3.8g of fiber in this product.

At 7g, this product easily passes the test. This is incidentally a whole grain gluten-free bread. Being gluten-free, it contains quite a few added ingredients, some of it being refined starches.

Ingredients – Water, whole grain brown rice flour, tapioca starch, corn starch, whole grain millet flour, whole grain sorghum flour, whole grain teff flour, egg whites, corn dextrin, cane sugar, canola oil, potato flour, honey, rice bran extract, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, whole grain quinoa, whole grain teff, ground flax seed, flax seeds, whole grain millet, whole grain amaranth flour, hemp seeds, baking powder, yeast, xanthan gum, salt vinegar, enzymes (calcium sulfate & enzymes)

 

Example 2 – Whole grains English muffins

Whole-Wheat-Bread-LabelHere, the carbohydrates per serving are 29g. Based on this, the amount of fiber should be 2.9g. Instead, the fiber content is only 2g. It’s not a large difference, but enough to flag potential no-nos here.

When checking the ingredients list, the whole grains only appear after the enriched wheat flour (refined flour enriched in vitamins and minerals) and the water. The muffins also contain some preservatives and other additives.

Ingredients – Enriched wheat flour [flour, malted barley flour, reduced iron, niacin, thiamin mononitrate (vitamin b1), riboflavin (vitamin b2), folic acid], water, whole wheat flour, farina, sugar, salt, yeast, calcium propionate and sorbic acid (to preserve freshness), wheat gluten, soybean oil, grain vinegar, monoglycerides, soy lecithin, soy, whey (milk).

 

NB – I have actually really battled to find any bread that was labeled “whole grain” and did not meet the above guideline, which is fabulous by my standards. I didn’t check any cereals, snacks or biscuits though!

5. How to add whole grain to your diet

Based on the fact that the average American diet already contains enough grain-based products, the main idea to increase your whole grain intake is to replace some (half, ideally) of your refined grain products by 100% whole grain ones. Or three-quarters of your refined grain products by 50% whole grain ones.

This doesn’t have to be done overnight, but here are some pointers to steer you in the right direction.

  • Swap your white bread for whole wheat bread. If you don’t care much for the taste of whole wheat bread, look out for a 50/50 bread with maximum fiber content.
  • Swap your normal pasta for whole wheat pasta. It is a bit of an acquired taste, but I find that, in most recipes with sauce, the difference in flavor disappears.
  • Swap your white rice for brown rice. It does take a little longer to cook though, so bear this in mind.
  • Swap porridge oats for steel-cut oats. Again, they take longer to cook so give yourself a little bit more time.
  • Start experimenting with seed-like grains, such as quinoa and millet, instead of rice, couscous, and porridge.

Replace refined flour in your recipes with whole grain ones. Be careful though, unrefined flours are heavier than refined ones and will change the texture of your cakes and biscuits. Start with replacing a quarter of your refined flour and increase the quantity from there on. Or simply look out for new recipes using whole grain flours.
Those will also bring a different, stronger (more nutty) flavor to your baking. Recipes who will do well with the change include cakes where the amount of flour is minimal (typically less than 150g of flour per cake), which contain nuts or which use spices for added flavors.

Have you figured out how to eat more whole grains yet?

I hope so, but if I have missed any tip or advice on how to eat more whole grains for your fellow clean-eaters out there, please send them in the comments below so we can all benefit.

Remember one thing though. These are vitally important changes to make for your health. Yet, they are easy (whole grain products are everywhere and are on the rise) and cheap (they actually don’t cost that much more than your refined products). And because whole grains fill you up more than refined grains, you might end up eating less, recouping the little extra cost. Win-win.

And if you’ve missed the first part of my Whole grains series, Why eat whole grains, be sure to catch it there!

4 Comments

  1. Thabo

    August 14, 2018 at 9:32 pm

    Thank you for yet another great article. I just read your whole grain article and this was helped me learn more about how to choose the right whole grain which was something I wasn’t aware of.
    I will start looking at labels really well from now on and I am so grateful your article had all the information I need to start shopping well for whole grains

    1. Isabel

      August 15, 2018 at 11:05 am

      Yes, unfortunately, these days anything “healthy” is selling, so the clever marketers out there are labeling rather unsavory products as “whole grains” in a bid to make us forget about the other rubbish they put in. This is, in particular, the case with kids food, like cereals, or snack bars, so keep an eye on that fiber-to-carb ratio! Go well 🙂

  2. Kevin McNamara

    August 14, 2018 at 10:24 pm

    Hi Isabel,
    Wow that was a great post! I have always used rolled oats for my porridge but definitely will go and buy some steel cut oats at my local health store. Another really informative post. I am right behind you when you say the kids cereals are full of sugar. The FDA obviously gets paid a lot of money to allow these brands to keep selling them and advertising them to kids. Absolute scam that is keeping kids obese and in some cases killing them. Bit of a pet hate of mine. Thanks again for opening my eyes to the benefits of whole grains,

    Kev

    1. Isabel

      August 15, 2018 at 1:09 pm

      I hear you. “Healthy” is selling these days, so almost any product is labeled as being healthy, regardless of whether they actually are! (gluten-free sugar-laden yogurt or fat-free jam anyone?) I suspect that having some whole grains in sugary cereals is better than refined grains, but the product still shouldn’t be touted as healthy. In France, they now have a color-coded system, so people can see at a glance whether a product is red, orange or green, i.e. healthy or not, regardless of what it promises on the packaging. Quite like it. Keep well 🙂

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