How to Eat More Whole Grains

Got millet?

10/22/20234 min read

This post begins a series on how to eat more of a several kinds of nutrient-rich foods that have been shown, across the board, to both support human health and longevity and have lower environmental impacts than most (if not all) animal foods.

Today we start with whole grains.

Unfortunately, whole grains tend to get a bad rap since the highly non-specific term “carbohydrates” (or “carbs” for short) has been demonized in popular nutrition. But just as jellybeans are a far cry from black beans, so refined sugars and flours are quite different in their makeup and health effects from whole fruits and whole grains.

Why are whole grains healthy?

Whole grains have consistently been associated with increased lifespan.[1] There are probably many reasons this is the case, but among them are (1) whole grains are high in fiber, (2) whole grains have nutrients and minerals that are often missing in refined products like flours (having been stripped away in the refining process), and (3) whole grains take longer for our bodies to digest and thus slow down the uptake of glucose into our system (think: lower blood sugar spikes) and can keep us feeling full for longer (think: satiety / satiation).

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Another consideration is “compared to what”? Including whole grains in your diet can be a great thing in general, but it can be even more important when considering what you are replacing those whole grains with. For example, are you eating more whole grains and thus less refined? Terrific! This is an example of a benefit via replacement within the same broad macronutrient: carbohydrates.

But the benefits can also span to a different macronutrient.

Take fat, for example, particularly saturated fat. In several studies, the effect of replacing a certain percentage of saturated fat in the diet with whole grains resulted in lowering the risk of cardiovascular disease (while replacing saturated fats with refined carbohydrates either increased risk or kept risk levels constant).[2] Remarkably, a study containing more than 200,000 subjects found that replacing just 5% of calories from dairy fat with the same amount of calories from whole grains resulted in a reduction in cardiovascular disease risk by 28%.[3] Got millet?

Practical Tips to Eat More Whole Grains

“Where to begin?” you may be asking. “How can I eat more whole grains?” Below are some simple tips to get started on your journey toward eating more whole grains. Aim to start with what is easiest for you—what requires the least friction. Then, over time, aim to get a bit more adventurous. There is so much to enjoy in the world of whole grains.

1. Swap refined grains for whole

Where do you already consume grain-based products? Consider ways to find whole-grain alternatives to your current go-to items. Such as:

  • Replace boxed breakfast cereals for rolled oats, millet, or buckwheat (e.g., try oatmeal, muesli, millet with fresh fruit and nuts, or buckwheat with peanut butter and jam)

  • Buy or bake whole-wheat bread rather than white bread

  • Bake with whole-wheat flour instead of white, all-purpose flour

  • Opt for brown, red, or black rice instead of white

  • Sub whole-wheat pasta (or other whole grains, like wheat berries) for regular pasta

  • Swap whole-wheat or whole-grain crackers for refined ones

2. Add whole grains to your usual foods

Sometimes simply adding a grain into a meal as it is can be a good strategy. You might even consider less of something else, like meat or dairy, or using grains to bulk up the meal and provide additional servings.

  • Add cooked wheat, rye, or spelt berries to salads

  • Add cooked barley, farro, or quinoa[4] into soups

  • Add rolled oats or millet to muffins, breads, or pancakes

3. Try some new recipes featuring or including whole grains

When you’re up to it, get adventurous with new recipes that make whole grains the star or a terrific supporting role. Ideas include:

  • Breakfast porridge with amaranth and pumpkin

  • Homemade granola

  • Farro cakes

  • Rye berry salad with kale, white beans, sun-dried tomatoes, olives, and capers

4. Swap whole grains for something animal based

As discussed above, swapping some calories from saturated fat (which is found predominantly and in high amounts in meat and dairy products as well as tropical oils) with whole grains can have significant health benefits. Here are some ideas for whole grains swaps for animal-based products:

  • Make homemade oat milk (1 cup oats, 4 cups water) for breakfast bowls and smoothies

  • Make a taco meat swap with Mexican spiced quinoa

  • Use less meat in a dish and swap for whole grains (e.g., in soups and stews)

Want some recipes?

Check out the Eden + Me "Whole Grains" board on Pinterest.

Finally, here is a list of whole grains and “pseudo-grains” (not exhaustive) to inspire. Remember that there are lots of variety within these main buckets as well.

  • amaranth

  • barley

  • buckwheat

  • corn

  • farro

  • freekeh

  • millet

  • kamut

  • oats

  • quinoa

  • rice

  • rye

  • sorghum

  • spelt

  • teff

  • wheat

  • wild rice

Now, go get your (whole) grain on.


[1] Simon Hill, The Proof is in the Plants, 181.

[2] Hill, The Proof is in the Plants, 116. Hill cites multiple studies here and claims there is a “large amount of evidence” to support this finding.

[3] Chen, M. et al. (2016). “Dairy fat and risk of cardiovascular disease in 3 cohorts of US adults.” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 104, no. 5, 1209–17. Cited in Hill, The Proof is in the Plants, 114.

[4] Quinoa, though not technically a grain, “eats” like a grain and is a terrific whole food to include in our diets.

Photo courtesy of Alexandru Acea on Unsplash.

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