- Researchers say Americans are eating more whole grain foods but still not enough to meet daily dietary guidelines.
- Experts say whole grain foods can improve overall health as well as help with weight loss.
- They say you can increase the whole grain foods in your diet by grocery shopping more carefully and adding foods such as whole grain breads and pastas to family meals.
However, researchers say it’s still not enough to meet minimum daily requirements.
The study reports the increase over the past two decades in whole-grain intake could be anywhere from 39% to 61%, depending on the exact definition of whole grain being used.
The wide-range estimate is due to the definition of whole grain being more strict across some studies than others. For example, some definitions include burritos, nachos, and tacos. Others do not.
The researchers applied varying definitions of whole grains to the dietary patterns of nearly 40,000 adults participating in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (
The research was supported by the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities.
The study looked at definitions of whole grains from across major organizations, including:
- Dietary Guidelines for Americans
- Food and Drug Administration
- American Heart Association
- American Association of Cereal Chemists International
- Whole Grains Council
The researchers reported that consumption of whole grain foods remained far below the recommended consumption of at least three ounces each day and varied considerably by each definition.
“We can’t say which is the best definition yet as we need to assess the nutrient profiles of each and how these different definitions are associated with health outcomes,” said Fang Fang Zhang, PhD, the senior study author and interim chair of the Division of Nutrition Epidemiology and Data Science at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in Boston.
Amy Bragagnini, MS, RD, CSO, an oncology nutrition specialist at Trinity Health Lacks Cancer Center in Michigan and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, told Healthline that many clients ask her what exactly a “whole grain” is and why they are important for them to eat.
Simply put, whole grains contain all the important parts of the entire grain seed, says Bragagnini.
Amy Gorin, MS, RDN, an inclusive plant-based dietitian in Stamford, Connecticut, and owner of “Plant Based with Amy,” added that whole grains contain all essential and naturally occurring parts — the bran, germ, and endosperm— in their original proportions.
“This definition may include processed grains, but the processed product must deliver the same balance of nutrients present in the original grain seed,” she told Healthline.
“Once any of these components is stripped, it is no longer a ‘whole’ grain,” said Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RDN, the lead dietitian and manager of Wellness Nutrition Services at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness & Preventive Medicine in Ohio.
This depends, says Gorin.
As a general rule, she explained, “If a burrito has a flour tortilla made with whole grains as the first ingredient, then that would count.”
“If the nacho chips are made with whole cornmeal, then that would count as a whole grain,” she added.
There is one exception, though.
“While corn is considered a whole grain, it may be milled to the impact of taking out components of it which could render it more stripped based on how it is used,” Kirkpatrick told Healthline.
This is typically what you’d find in eateries, she said.
Julie Cunningham, RDN, LDN, is an expert diabetes dietitian and author of 30 Days to Tame Type 2 Diabetes.
“A burrito made from a whole grain tortilla definitely counts as a whole grain in my view,” she told Healthline. “But even though some tortilla chips may be technically made with whole grains, that doesn’t necessarily make them a healthy choice.”
For example, she says, a food can be made from whole grains, but if it’s deep fried and loaded with calories (as chips are), then it’s not going to be healthy to consume that on a regular basis.
“The benefits of whole grains don’t outweigh the negatives of super high calorie, salty, addictive chips,” she added.
“Eating 2 to 3 servings of whole grains each day may lower the risk of diabetes, heart disease, and cancer,” says Cunningham, who points to research on the health benefits of whole grains.
Bragagnini agrees, adding that consistent intake of whole grain foods can help us:
- Feel fuller longer
- Feel more satisfied at each meal, which may help you to avoid overeating (which may lead to unwanted weight gain)
- Lower risk of heart disease and high blood pressure
- Lower blood sugar
- Decrease the risk of developing type 2 diabetes
- Decrease the risk of colorectal cancer
At the grocery store
First, look for the “100% Whole Grain” stamp from the Whole Grains Council, which certifies that all the grain is whole and that a product contains at least 16 grams of whole grains per serving, says Bragagnini.
And if you don’t see this stamp, take a look at the ingredients.
“When you’re shopping for a whole grain product, such as bread, pasta, or crackers, look for the first ingredient to be a whole grain ingredient such as whole-grain flour or whole-wheat flour,” suggests Gorin.
“Many whole-grain products are made with whole grains but don’t contain them as a primary ingredient—and this makes things confusing,” she adds. “Also, aim for a variety of whole grains and experiment by trying different grains.”
Bragagnini says to look for whole grain keywords such as:
- whole wheat
- whole rye
- wheat berries
- brown rice
- wild rice
Next, slowly start to substitute whole grain products for the products you would typically serve at home, says Bragagnini.
“For example, if your family loves burritos, choose a tortilla wrap that is considered whole grain,” she suggests. “Then fill it with lean meat, beans, onions, tomatoes, garlic, peppers, etc., and you have a delicious whole grain/high fiber meal.”
Amy Reed, MS, RD, CSP, LD, is a pediatric dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. She says to start with simple swaps such as changing white bread with whole wheat bread.
For example, “families are taught to slowly increase their intake of whole grains to work toward the goal of having at least 1/2 of their grains be from whole grains,” Reed told Healthline.
Bragagnini also suggests the following:
- Skip the white rice and use brown rice for stir fry meals.
- Use whole grain spaghetti noodles along with your favorite pasta sauce.
- Top your favorite salad greens with quinoa to add a great texture to the side dish.
- Combine quinoa with your favorite cut veggies, feta cheese, lemon, herbs and olive oil for a delicious main meal.