Grains are a staple food in households around the world.
They have three parts: the bran (the nutritious outer layer), the germ (the seed’s nutrient-rich embryo) and the endosperm (the germ’s food supply, which is high in starchy carbs).
Whole grains are simply grains that have all three parts intact. They’re typically high in iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, selenium, B vitamins and dietary fiber (1).
Interestingly, choosing whole grains over refined grains has been linked to lower risks of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer and more (, , , ).
Here are 14 healthy whole-grain foods.
Oats are among the healthiest whole grains you can eat.
They’re not only packed with vitamins, minerals and fiber but also naturally gluten-free.
What’s more, oats are rich in antioxidants, especially avenanthramide. This antioxidant has been linked to a reduced risk of colon cancer and lower blood pressure ().
Oats are also a great source of beta-glucans, a type of soluble fiber that aids digestion and nutrient absorption. An analysis of 28 studies discovered that diets rich in beta-glucans can lower “bad” LDL cholesterol and total cholesterol ().
Just make sure to choose whole oats, such as steel-cut oats, oat groats and rolled oats. Other types of oat like instant oatmeal are more processed and may contain unhealthy added sugar.
Summary Oats are a healthy whole grain packed with nutrients. They’re also a great source of beta-glucans, a type of soluble fiber that has been linked to various health benefits.
Whole wheat is a popular and incredibly versatile cereal grain.
It’s a key ingredient in baked goods, pastas, noodles, couscous, bulgur and semolina.
Though wheat is very popular, it’s also highly controversial due to its gluten content. Gluten is a protein that can trigger a harmful immune response in certain people ().
However, if you belong to the majority of people who can tolerate gluten, whole wheat is a great addition to your diet, as it’s a rich source of antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and dietary fiber (1).
Be careful to only select foods labeled “whole wheat,” rather than just “wheat.”
Whole wheat contains the entire grain, including the fibrous husk, bran and endosperm. Conversely, regular wheat is stripped of the husk and bran, which are loaded with nutrients.
Summary Whole wheat is a nutritious alternative to regular wheat and a rich source of antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and dietary fiber.
Rye is a member of the wheat family and has been consumed for centuries.
Research shows that dietary fiber can slow down the absorption of carbs in your gut, causing a slow but steady rise in blood sugars, instead of spikes (, ).
Rye flour comes in several forms such as light, medium, dark, rye meal and pumpernickel. Both light and medium varieties are typically more refined and not considered whole grain, while dark rye flour, rye meal and pumpernickel flour are more likely to be whole grain.
That said, it’s best to look for the word “whole” on rye flour when shopping as some manufacturers may add refined rye grain flour to the mixture.
Summary Whole rye is a healthy whole-grain alternative to wheat. It comes in many forms, but only dark rye flour, rye meal and pumpernickel flour are considered whole grain.
Though its name may try to fool you, buckwheat is not related to wheat.
It’s a pseudocereal, which means it’s a seed that’s used in a similar way to cereals.
What’s more, buckwheat’s husk is a great source of resistant starch, which is a type of dietary fiber that passes to your colon where it feeds your healthy gut bacteria ().
Research has shown that resistant starch can improve blood sugar control and digestive health and aid weight loss and heart health (15, ).
To cook buckwheat, simply add one cup of the groats (kernels) to two cups of water and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and let the groats simmer for 10–15 minutes or until tender.
Summary Buckwheat is a gluten-free whole grain that’s packed with nutrients. It’s also a good source of resistant starch, which feeds your healthy gut bacteria.
Bulgur wheat, commonly known as cracked wheat, is popular in Middle Eastern cuisine.
This whole grain is often added to soups, stuffed vegetables and salads such as tabbouleh. It’s prepared similar to rice, but its texture more resembles couscous.
Research has linked higher intakes of bulgur and other whole grains to less inflammation and a lower risk of heart disease and cancers like colorectal cancer (, ).
However, bulgur wheat contains gluten, which makes it unsuitable for a gluten-free diet.
Summary Bulgur or cracked wheat is a popular, nutrient-rich whole grain used in Middle Eastern cuisine. It’s commonly added to soups, stuffed vegetables and salads like tabbouleh.
Millet is an ancient grain perhaps best known as an ingredient in birdseed.
However, it has been a part of human cuisine for thousands of years and is considered a staple ingredient in India, China, Africa, Ethiopia, Nigeria and other parts of the world.
Research has linked millet intake to health benefits such as reduced inflammation, lower blood triglycerides and improved blood sugar control (, ).
Although it’s thought of as a cereal, millet is a grain that’s classified as a pseudocereal. Some believe it to be a whole-grain cereal because it’s consumed in a similar way (23).
Summary Millet is an ancient seed that’s classified as a pseudocereal, as it’s consumed in a similar way to cereals. It’s incredibly nutritious and gluten-free.
Barley is a versatile cereal grain that has been consumed for thousands of years.
While it’s not as popular as other whole grains, it’s incredibly healthy.
Barley is available in two main forms: whole (or hulled) barley and pearled barley. However, only hulled barley is considered a whole grain, as it’s minimally processed.
One cup (148 grams) of whole barley flour provides 14.9 grams of fiber, or 60% of an adults’ DV (25).
It’s worth noting that barley contains gluten, so it’s unsuitable for a gluten-free diet.
Summary Whole barley is a healthy whole grain that has been used for thousands of years. Only whole (hulled) barley is considered whole grain, while pearled barley is refined.
Spelt is an ancient whole wheat that has been grown for thousands of years.
Nutritionally, spelt is similar to modern whole wheat and a rich source of manganese, magnesium, phosphorus, zinc, iron, B vitamins and fiber. However, it has slightly more zinc and protein, compared to whole wheat (26).
Like all other grains, spelt contains antinutrients, such as phytic acid, which can reduce the absorption of zinc and iron from your gut. This is not a big concern for adults on a balanced diet, as other foods provide more zinc and iron, but it can be a problem for vegetarians and vegans.
Fortunately, you can reduce antinutrients by sprouting, fermenting or soaking the grains.
It’s also important to note that spelt contains gluten and is thus unsuitable for a gluten-free diet.
Summary Spelt is a nutritious, ancient whole grain that’s becoming more popular. Though it contains antinutrients, such as phytic acid, they can be reduced by sprouting, fermenting or soaking the grains.
Quinoa is a South American grain that has been hailed as a superfood.
This ancient grain is packed with more vitamins, minerals, protein, healthy fats and fiber than popular grains such as whole wheat, oats and many others.
Quinoa is also a great source of antioxidants, such as quercetin and kaempferol, which can neutralize potentially harmful molecules called free radicals. These molecules have been linked to chronic diseases like chronic inflammation, heart disease and cancers (, ).
Though people use quinoa like a cereal, it’s really a pseudocereal — a seed that is nutritionally similar and consumed in a similar way to cereal grains ().
Summary Quinoa is often called a superfood because it’s loaded with vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants. Though it’s thought of as a cereal, it’s really a pseudocereal — a seed that is consumed in a similar way to cereal grains.
Brown rice is widely recognized as a healthier alternative to white rice.
That’s because it’s a whole grain, meaning it contains the entire grain including the bran, germ and endosperm. Meanwhile, white rice has both the bran and germ removed.
As the bran and germ are nutrient-rich, brown rice contains more fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants — 3.5 ounces (100 grams) of cooked brown rice pack 1.8 grams of fiber, while 3.5 ounces of white rice only provide 0.6 grams of fiber (30, 31).
Brown rice is also naturally gluten-free, making it a great carb option for a gluten-free diet.
Research has linked several compounds in this grain to some impressive health benefits.
For instance, brown rice contains lignans, which are antioxidants that reduce heart disease risk by reducing blood pressure, inflammation and “bad” LDL cholesterol ().
Summary Brown rice is a healthier alternative to white rice, as it contains the entire grain. Conversely, white rice is stripped of its bran and germ, making it less nutritious. Brown rice may reduce heart disease risk by various means.
Corn or maize (Zea mays) is an incredibly popular whole grain.
It’s a staple food around the world and grown in higher quantities than wheat and rice.
Whole, unprocessed corn is high in manganese, magnesium, zinc, copper, phosphorus, potassium, B vitamins and antioxidants. It’s also naturally gluten-free (33).
Corn contains lutein and zeaxanthin, which are antioxidants abundant in yellow corn. Several studies have found a link between these antioxidants and a lower risk of macular degeneration and cataracts, two leading causes of blindness (, ).
What’s more, corn contains a good amount of fiber. One cup (164 grams) of boiled yellow corn provides 4.6 grams of fiber, which is 18% of the DV (33).
Summary Whole, unprocessed corn is very nutritious and packed with vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants. Two antioxidants of interest are lutein and zeaxanthin, which have been linked to a lower risk of certain eye diseases that can cause blindness.
Popcorn is one of the healthiest snack foods you can eat.
It’s a special type of corn that pops under high heat. Corn kernels contain a tiny amount of water, which turns to steam when heated and causes the kernels to burst (36).
Most people don’t realize that popcorn is a whole-grain food. It’s high in important nutrients like manganese, magnesium, zinc, copper, phosphorus and many B vitamins (37).
What’s more, popcorn is incredibly high in fiber — 3.5 ounces (100 grams) provide 14.5 grams of fiber or 58% of the DV (37).
It’s best prepared on your stove or in an air-popper. Avoid purchasing prepackaged microwave bags of popcorn as they may contain potentially harmful chemicals (, ).
In addition, some commercially prepared varieties may be smothered in high amounts of unhealthy fats, salt, artificial flavorings or sugar, turning this healthy snack into something very unhealthy.
Summary Popcorn is a healthy snack that’s considered a whole grain. It’s best homemade on your stove or in an air-popper, as commercial popcorn often has extra unhealthy ingredients.
Whole-grain bread products are an easy way to add whole grains to your diet.
They’re widely available and come in many varieties, such as rye breads, whole-wheat bread rolls, whole-grain bagels, whole-grain tortillas and others.
One particularly healthy whole-grain bread is Ezekiel bread, which is made from a variety of whole grains, such as wheat, millet, barley and spelt, as well as several legumes.
What’s more, the grains and legumes in this bread are sprouted, meaning they have been soaked in water allowing them to germinate. This increases their nutrient content and reduces antinutrients that are commonly found in whole grains (40).
One thing to note is that many whole-wheat breads are made from wheat grains that have been pulverized, which diminishes the beneficial effects of whole grains. So if you purchase whole-grain breads, it’s best to choose those with visible grains or seeds.
Summary Whole-grain bread products are an easy way to add whole grains to your diet. Be sure to select breads with visible grains or seeds, as they’re more nutritious.
Whole-grain pastas are made from the entire wheat grain.
Thanks to their higher fiber content, whole-grain pastas tend to be more filling (, ).
However, they’re made from whole-wheat flour that is pulverized.
This diminishes many of the beneficial effects of whole grains, which means whole-grain pasta is not as healthy as intact whole-grain foods like quinoa and brown rice.
Nonetheless, if you choose to eat pasta, it’s better to choose whole-grain over regular, as the former contains fewer calories, more nutrients and has more filling fiber.
Summary Whole-grain pastas are another simple way to add whole grains to your diet. They have more fiber than regular pasta, which can help you stay full longer.
Whole grains are minimally processed and thus more nutritious than refined grains.
Replacing refined grains in favor of whole grains has been linked to various health benefits, such as a lower risk of chronic diseases like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancers and more.
Fortunately, there are plenty of healthy whole-grain options to choose from.
If refined grains are a part of your diet, try swapping them for some of the whole-grain alternatives listed above to reap their health benefits.