Why are whole grains healthier?

Dear Alice,

Can you explain the difference in healthiness of breads and grains? Are all darker grains better for you than lighter counterparts? Why? If all bread is low in fat, how can it be bad for dieters, etc.?

Dear Reader,

While it may be easy to say that a slice of whole wheat, seven-grain bread is healthier than a cookie, it can be hard to know how to compare grain to grain. Grains are both heralded by some as a great source of nutrients and fiber and shunned by others as nutrient-poor (and a cause of weight gain and obesity). According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, it’s recommended to make at least half the grains in your diet whole ones. Doing this means you won’t miss out on health-boosting nutrients and fiber. However, don’t judge a grain by its color — appearance and advertising for whole grains can be deceiving. Identifying healthy whole grains may require a bit of additional reading. And now, to mill — er, mull — over the details…

The mighty grain is a seed and part of the grass family. It has inherent fibers, minerals, essential fatty acids, antioxidants, phytochemicals and proteins — all healthful contributors to the human diet. When you buy foods such as oatmeal, quinoa, barley, rye, bulgur, millet, buckwheat, popcorn, and brown or wild rice, you’re selecting a whole grain (which is considered whole because it hasn’t had the bran and germ removed and still contains fiber and nutrients like selenium, potassium, and magnesium). As to whether the color of the grain is an indicator of a healthy choice, some whole grains may be darker, but not all. There are white whole wheat flours which are whole grains that are lighter in color. Additionally, a darker-colored grain or loaf of bread may not be made of whole grains and could have additives or coloring in it. Food labels themselves might be misleading, even with descriptors like “stone-ground,” “multi-grain,” “bran,” or “100 percent wheat.” To know for certain that the bread or grain you’re looking at is a whole one, make sure to read ingredient list. The key is to look for the word “whole” and see if it’s listed as one of the first few ingredients.

Other words you’re likely to see on grain labels are “enriched” or “fortified.” Enriched grains are milled (like refined grains, which are stripped of the bran and germ) and then have some nutrients added after the refinement process. These grains do have good-for-you nutrients like B vitamins but lack the same amount of fiber, copper, and zinc as whole grains. Fortified grains have added nutrients that don’t naturally occur in the grain, so those products can be a good source of minerals like iron. If you wanted to make a choice based on nutrient density, then a whole grain that is fortified might be a good way to go, especially for someone with low iron levels.

What about grains for those who are mindful of their weight? Most studies show that whole grains (especially when they replace refined grains in a diet) have a positive effect on health: reducing levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL, or “bad”) cholesterol in the blood and stabilizing blood glucose levels (which is helpful for diabetics or pre-diabetics). Many people who choose whole grains over refined grains report that they feel fuller longer, often on fewer calories. This is likely because the fiber helps slow down the digestive tract. If you want more information about adding whole grains to your own diet, consider making an appointment with a registered dietician or check out ChooseMyPlate.gov.

Last updated Jul 28, 2015
Originally published Mar 22, 1996