On a quest for the healthiest grain? Here's what to eat for fiber, protein

Corrections & Clarifications: An earlier version of this article included a quote that misrepresented enriched grains. 

While only 12.3% of U.S. adults meet the recommended fruit and vegetable intake, the grains group isn’t one that Americans have trouble getting enough of, MyPlate says. Grains show up in many parts of our day – cereals and bagels in the morning, sandwiches at lunchtime, rice at dinner or popcorn while watching a movie.

But while the quantity may not be an issue, the quality is: the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends more of your grain intake be from whole grains than refined.

Here are the healthiest options within that whole grain category.

What are the healthiest grains?

Grains are an important source of fiber, B vitamins, complex carbohydrates and minerals like iron, magnesium and selenium. The carbohydrates in grains are crucial because they’re “direct and easy sources of energy for your body” says registered dietitian Chris Mohr.

While all whole grains will provide these nutrients, there are a few that stand out. Farro, oats and quinoa may be the healthiest grains because of their heavy fiber content.

“Fiber’s not the sexiest nutrient to talk about because of the benefits, but it’s critical for health,” Mohr says.

Dietary fiber helps you feel fuller, aids in digestion and helps prevent constipation. Research presented at the 2021 American Society for Nutrition conference found fewer than 1 in 10 U.S. adults meet their daily fiber recommendations. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend eating 28 grams of fiber per day based on a 2,000-calorie diet.

You’re also getting protein with these three options. One hundred grams of oats contains nearly 17 grams of protein and 10.6 grams of fiber. A portion of farro of the same size contains 15.4 grams of protein and 6.6 grams of fiber. For cooked quinoa, it’s about 3 grams of fiber and 4.4 grams of protein.

For comparison’s sake, the same portion of white rice contains about 2.7 grams of protein and 0.4 grams of fiber.

But while these three are great options, Mohr says you ideally want to eat a variety of grains to get different nutrients.

The USDA recommends at least half your daily grain intake be whole grains, which contain more vitamins and nutrients than refined grains. Mohr says we shouldn’t be scared of refined grains but should make sure they’re enriched.

The refinement process gives grains a finer texture and longer shelf life – we see this in cereal, white flour, white bread and white rice, for example. Today, many refined grains are enriched, which means they add back nutrients like B vitamins and iron but not fiber. Fortified grains also add folic acid, which Mohr recommends including in your diet because even whole grains don’t include much of it in their natural form.

Folic acid is recommended during pregnancy because of its role in DNA and RNA formation, but it’s important for everyone. The benefits of folate include improved digestive system functioning and preventing common cancers, cardiovascular disease, infertility, stroke, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Check the packaging or nutrition labels to tell if a refined grain is enriched. Organic products may not be fortified.

What are whole grains?

To understand whole grains, you first have to understand grain kernel anatomy. The kernel is made of three parts:

  • Bran: Hard outer coating of the grain that contains vitamins, minerals and fiber

  • Germ: The “embryo” of the germ – it’s able to sprout into a new plant and contains B vitamins, minerals, protein and fat

  • Endosperm: The largest part of the grain kernel that supplies energy to the plant and contains carbohydrates, proteins and some vitamins and minerals

Whole grains are just as they sound – the entire grain kernel remains intact. When you refine grains, it strips the grain of the bran and germ and uses just the inside endosperm. This removes most of the grain's vitamins, minerals, fiber and protein.

How to get more healthy grains in your diet

It’s important to know how to look for whole grains when you’re grocery shopping. You can’t use a darker color as a judge, because breads and other grain products are sometimes dyed with molasses, according to Mohr. You have to look at the ingredient list.

“You want the words ‘whole grain’ to be at the beginning of the ingredient list,” he says.

The easiest swap is to consciously add in more whole grain products to tip you over to that “more than half” whole grain recommendation. This could be trying whole grain bread instead of whole wheat or white bread, having brown rice or wild rice every once in a while if you normally eat white rice or looking for whole grain bagel options, Mohr says.

Whole grain cereals can be another good addition to your mornings – routinely consuming ready-to-eat cereals, especially whole grain ones, is associated with significant increases in overall dietary fiber intake.

Discover more health tips for your daily diet:

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: What are the healthiest grains? The debate on refined vs. whole