Whole grains such as brown rice, quinoa and amaranth, to name a few, are a staple in kitchens around the world.
The USDA 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends getting three servings of whole grains each day, but 98 percent of Americans fall below that recommendation. Each serving is 1 slice of bread or 1/2 cup per cooked grain, such as:
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- Brown rice
- Wild rice
But, our interest in eating more whole grains is spiking. More than half of us are trying to get more whole grains in our diets, according to the Whole Grains Council. Ancient grains like spelt, millet, teff, sorghum and buckwheat are especially trending.
We spoke with five registered dietitians on the benefits of whole grains, and they might just convince you to eat more of this important food group.
The Health Benefits of Whole Grains
Whole grains are often associated with feeling full and satiated, but their benefits go far beyond that.
1. They're Associated With a Reduced Risk of Type 2 Diabetes
Diabetes is one of the leading causes of death in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC estimates that around 1 in 10 Americans have diabetes.
Part of preventing and managing diabetes involves a balanced diet, including an ample amount of whole grains. Eating more whole grains is associated with a significantly lower risk of type 2 diabetes, according to July 2020 research in the British Medical Journal.
The benefits of whole grains for diabetes risk can be attributed to the high fiber content.
"Eating three servings of whole grains per day can reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes," says Marie Spano, RD, CSSD. "Whole grains have insoluble fiber which helps keep blood sugar levels steady and enhances the insulin response."
2. They're High in Fiber
The benefits of dietary fiber can't be overstated, yet many Americans are lacking in this vital nutrient. An estimated 95 percent of Americans fail to meet the recommended dietary allowance for fiber, according to July 2016 research in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine.
"Whole grains boast fiber, a wonderful nutrient that not only helps to keep you fuller for longer but also helps your gut health," says Amy Gorin, RDN, an inclusive plant-based registered dietitian in Stamford, Connecticut. "For instance, oats provide both soluble and insoluble fiber. These fibers help bulk up the weight and size of your stool, which makes it easier to pass."
People assigned female at birth (AFAB) should aim for 21 to 25 grams of fiber per day and people assigned male at birth (AMAB) should try to eat 30 to 38 grams of fiber per day, according to the Mayo Clinic. Grains make up their longest list of high-fiber foods, including the following:
- Barley: 6 grams per 1 cup
- Quinoa: 5 grams per 1 cup
- Brown rice: 3.5 grams per 1 cup
- Whole-wheat bread: 2 grams per slice
- Popcorn: 3.5 grams per 3 cups
- Oat bran muffin: 5 grams per medium muffin
3. They're a Good Source of Complex Carbs
There are two main types of carbs: complex carbohydrates and simple carbohydrates. If your goal is to eat more whole grains, go for the complex carbs. They are a source of energy, nutrients, fiber and more.
"One major benefit of focusing on whole grains versus refined grains is the health benefits," says Kiran Campbell, RD. "The main reason for such benefits is likely due to the more complex carb makeup and fiber in whole grains, which are less processed than their refined counterparts. Less processed means the food is closer to its natural state, which diet trends and research have been increasingly leaning towards over the past decade."
The complex carbs in whole grains are turned to glucose (aka blood sugar) and are then used as energy, which can be used by the brain, body and muscles, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM).
Choose complex carbs over simple ones to cut back on sugar, calories and fat. You'll also naturally boost your intake of essential micronutrients.
4. They're Linked to a Reduced Risk of Heart Disease
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, according to the CDC. There are many factors that contribute to an increased risk of heart disease, and certain dietary habits are among them.
A diet high in saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol and sodium is linked to heart disease, per the CDC. On the other hand, nutrient-rich foods like whole grains are associated with the opposite.
"Research has shown that a diet high in whole grains lowers your risk of developing chronic diseases such as heart disease," Campbell says.
Eating two to three servings of whole grains per day may be beneficial in the prevention of heart disease, according to a November 2016 review in the Journal of Chiropractic Medicine. There you have it — whole grains are considered to be a heart-healthy food group.
5. They Give You Protein
Protein isn't a nutrient Americans usually struggle with. In fact, most Americans get about twice as much protein as they need, according to the Mayo Clinic.
But, those who follow a vegan, vegetarian or primarily plant-based diet may not get as much protein at each meal as their meat-eating counterparts.
"Whole grains are a surprising source of protein, a nutrient that helps to keep you satiated. A cup of cooked amaranth, for example, provides an incredible 9 grams of protein, while a cup of brown rice offers 5 grams. These whole grains and others are good sources of protein," Gorin says.
Protein is often associated with building muscle and increasing strength, but it's an invaluable nutrient. It's involved in cell repair, growth, development and much more because protein is the building block of the body, per the NLM.
6. They Improve Digestion and Satiety
Certain food choices can help you achieve a healthier weight by improving your digestion and helping you feel fuller for longer. Whole grains can help in both of these areas because they are full of filling fiber.
"Whole grains like brown rice, whole-wheat bread, oats and quinoa are packed with fiber," says Mackenzie Burgess, RDN. "Dietary fiber can help to slow digestion and increase feelings of satiety. In this way, fiber can help lower energy intake, which may lead to lower body fat and a healthier weight."
There is an association between eating whole grains and changes in body weight over time, according to a June 2019 review in Nutrients, but additional research is needed.
7. They're Associated With Better Gut Health
Part of caring for your gut is eating a variety of nutritious foods, which diversifies the gut microbiome.
"Americans should eat more whole grains to diversify the bacteria in their microbiome and improve gut health," says Sarah Schlichter, MPH, RDN. "While we are just scratching the tip of the iceberg on research about the microbiome and all that it can affect, we do know that eating fiber-rich foods, such as whole grains, can help diversify the microbiome, and a more diverse microbiome has been linked to a reduced risk of chronic disease, improved mood, cognition, immunity and more."
Whole grains like oats have been shown to contribute to a healthy gut microbiome, according to October 2014 research in the British Journal of Nutrition. This is mainly due to their non-resistant starch.
For your gut's sake, don't skimp on the whole grains.
8. They're a Source of Plant-Based Iron
Protein sources tend to be rich in iron, but getting enough iron isn't easy for everyone. Approximately 10 million people in the United States are deficient in iron, according to July 2013 research in Cold Springs Harbor Perspectives in Medicine.
Common food sources of iron include fortified cereal, meat, legumes, seafood and dried fruit. Whole grains like quinoa and oatmeal are also notable sources of iron, and they're great for those following a meatless diet plan.
"Certain whole grains, such as millet, offer iron — a nutrient that is not always so easy to come by for plant-based eaters and is of particular concern for vegan and vegetarian eaters," Gorin says. "To maximize your body's absorption of the plant-based iron, pair the whole grain with a source of vitamin C, such as citrus or tomatoes."
9. They're Linked to a Reduced Risk of Certain Cancers
Many people live with a cancer diagnosis, and it's a leading cause of death. Roughly 39.5 percent of people will receive a cancer diagnosis at some point in their life, according to the National Cancer Institute. While preventing cancer may seem like a shot in the dark, there are some ways to reduce the risk.
"Eating whole grains is beneficial because they're associated with a lower risk of some types of cancer," Campbell says.
Whole grains are the most important food source of bioactive phytochemicals, which are associated with better management of conditions like breast cancer, according to August 2019 research in Nutrients. The study suggests that whole grains are linked to a lower breast cancer risk, but future research is warranted.
Whole grains are also associated with a lower risk of colorectal cancer, according to the American Institute for Cancer Research. In fact, eating three servings of whole grains per day is associated with a 17 percent lower risk of getting the disease.
On top of that, eating whole grains daily is linked to a lower risk of liver cancer, according to James: Cancer Treatment and Research Center.
There are many whole grain benefits you don't want to miss out on, and just because they're carbs, it doesn't mean you should cut them from your diet completely. Eating more whole grains is associated with a lower risk of diseases, and they give you many of the essential nutrients your body needs.
- U.S. Department of Agriculture: "2020 - 2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans"
- The Whole Grains Council: "Whole Grain Statistic"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Leading Causes of Death"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Type 2 Diabetes"
- British Medical Journal: "Intake of whole grain foods and risk of type 2 diabetes: results from three prospective cohort studies"
- American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine: "Closing America’s Fiber Intake Gap"
- Mayo Clinic: “Chart of high-fiber foods”
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: “Complex Carbohydrates”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Heart Disease in the United States”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Know Your Risk for Heart Disease”
- Journal of Chiropractic Medicine: “Health Benefits of Dietary Whole Grains: An Umbrella Review of Meta-analyses”
- Mayo Clinic Health System: “Are you getting too much protein?”
- Nutrients: “The Relationship between Whole Grain Intake and Body Weight: Results of Meta-Analyses of Observational Studies and Randomized Controlled Trials”
- British Journal of Nutrition: “Impact of whole grains on the gut microbiota: the next frontier for oats?”
- Cold Springs Harbor Perspectives in Medicine: “Iron Deficiency Anemia: A Common and Curable Disease”
- National Cancer Institute: “Cancer Statistics”
- Nutrients: “Whole Grain Consumption for the Prevention and Treatment of Breast Cancer”
- American Institute for Cancer Research: “Whole Grains: Protect Against Colorectal Cancer”
- James: Cancer Treatment and Research Center: “Cancer and Food: Whole Grains”
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: Dietary Proteins