The second someone starts talking about grains, it’s not all that uncommon for our minds to jump to pasta, rice, and bread. And while it’s hard (or maybe just heartbreaking) to find flaws in a thought process that ends with macaroni and sandwiches, the truth is that grains are about a lot more than just carbs. Luckily, we’ve got you covered with some of the basics that are sure to put you on the path to becoming a grain brainiac. A grainiac, if you will.
What Are Grains?
Right now you’re obviously saying to yourself, “Well, they’re not just carbs, if that’s what you’re asking.” Great, so what are they then? Simply put, grains are seeds, which means that they are basically tiny nutrient-filled pockets that contain just about everything needed for them to turn into full-on plants. Broken down more technically, grains generally contain three major parts: the bran, or the fiber-rich outer skin; the germ, which is chock-full of antioxidants, vitamins, essential fatty acids, and the works; and the endosperm, which is the largest part of the seed and is mostly made up of starch (here’s where the carbs come in) and protein.
Are There “Good” Grains and “Bad” Grains?
When you start characterizing a food as “chock-full of antioxidants” and super “fiber-rich,” it’s weird to turn around and talk about how grains can be pretty bad as far as healthy eating goes. As with any food, grains aren’t all good, and they’re not all bad. The key to healthy consumption is learning to differentiate between the grains that are good for you and the ones that aren’t really worthy of a place on your plate. For the most part, this means passing on the not-so-good-for-you refined grains and opting instead for whole grains.
What Makes a Grain Whole?
There’s the color factor – whole wheat bread just looks healthier at this point because it’s darker than white bread. But to break it down further, the major differentiating factor between whole grains and refined grains is that refined grains are stripped of two of the three components of a grain when they’re processed. They lose the bran and the germ, meaning that they lose the healthiest parts of the grain – ie. vitamin E, B vitamins, fiber, healthy fats, etc. The only thing that they’re left with in the end is the starchy endosperm, which is generally pretty nutrient-poor and results in empty calories. Whole grains, on the other hand, have to retain 100% of their essential (and usually ultra-healthy) components – the bran, germ, and endosperm – to be classified as whole.
Are All Whole Grains Nutritious?
There’s another step to making sure that you’re consuming healthy grains, that goes beyond distinguishing between whole and refined grains. While it would be a lot easier if it was that simple, it’s important to note that some whole grains are a lot less nutritious than others. For example, if you’re comparing oats to rice, oats are naturally a lot more nutrient-rich than rice, even if both are in their whole grain form. Of course, if you’re having rice regardless, you’re far better off opting for a whole grain variety than white rice. In the end, it’s all about learning to distinguish between different kinds of grains to learn what’s healthiest, and then, also understanding each individual grain on a singular spectrum.
So What are the Healthiest Whole Grains?
A diet full of healthy whole grains has a long list of benefits, not the least of which are improving digestive health and preventing diseases like cardiovascular ailments, type 2 diabetes, and cancer. If you’re looking to up your intake, some of your best (as in, healthiest) bets include: whole rye, quinoa, millet, buckwheat, spelt, barley, oats, whole wheat, freekeh, and bulgur.
What’s the Deal with Gluten?
When you bring gluten into the mix, things get a tiny bit more complicated since trying to consume only “healthy” grains starts to mean a lot more than just eating “whole” grains; it becomes about trying to identify which grains are fair game for a gluten-free diet and which ones it’s important to steer clear of. What might come as a surprise, though, depending on how well-versed you are on gluten-free grains, is that there aren’t actually that many grains out there that contain gluten. There’s barley, wheat, and rye, but that’s about it. When you start looking at grains that are gluten-free, though, the list suddenly gets a lot longer. We’re talking quinoa, rice, buckwheat, corn, millet, amaranth, wild rice, oats, and some lesser-known grains like teff and sorghum.
If you don’t think you are getting the proper amount of nutrients from your diet, learn more about how WellPath can help create a customized solution for you.