Whole grains provide complex carbohydrates, key vitamins and minerals, and fiber, which may help reduce the risk of heart disease and diabetes, reduce inflammation, and aid in weight management when consumed with a sensible diet and an active lifestyle that includes regular exercise. This is opposed to simple or refined carbohydrates, which lack beneficial fiber and nutrients.

Most Americans tend to get the majority of their servings of grains from breakfast cereals, pasta, and bread; however whole grains extend beyond these traditional sources. When looking at the different alternatives, you may find these varieties confusing or intimidating. The biggest question may be, “What do I actually do with them?” Next time you’re at the store wondering what to eat or looking for a new dish, branch out a bit and try one of the many varieties of whole grains. Be mindful of how whole grains can complement your healthy diet and lifestyle. A few examples include:

Amaranth – Amaranth is slowly becoming more mainstream and used to be referred to as “king seed.” It is gluten-free, has a higher level of protein compared to most grains (16%), contains 8 of 9 amino acids and is particularly high in Lysine. Amaranth can either be light and nutty or lively and peppery. Around the world, Amaranth is used for breakfast porridge, baked in sweet treats, or popped like corn.

Barley –Barley is one of the oldest grains and is high in fiber. Barley should be purchased in its complete or “hulled” form. Pearled barley should be avoided, as it’s not considered a whole grain because parts of the bran have been removed. Allow yourself some time when preparing barley, as it can take up to an hour to cook; it can be refrigerated or stored in the freezer as needed. Try it as an addition to baked chicken, stir-fries, or antipasto salads.

Bulgur - Bulgur is made when wheat kernels are boiled, drained, cracked, and sorted by size and may be referred to as “Middle Eastern pasta” because it is so versatile. Bulgur takes about 10 minutes to cook and is very nutritious. You can find bulgur in pilafs, salads, and in traditional Tabbouleh.

Oats – Oats are almost always found in their complete form, with their outer and inner layers, the bran and germ, in-tact. Both steel cut oats (also called Scottish oats) and rolled oats are nutrition superstars, however, steel cut oats have a chewier, nuttier texture then regular oats and take longer to cook. While oats do not contain gluten, they may be contaminated with gluten, so make sure you read your labels carefully.

Quinoa – Quinoa (pronounced “keen-wah”) is a versatile grain that can be eaten alone, as a pasta, or added to soups, salads, or baked goods (see our peanut butter quinoa cookie recipe!) The Incas recognized quinoa as a food that would give its warriors stamina and has been a staple in South American’s diet for centuries. Quinoa is a complete protein (containing all 9 amino acids) with a nutty flavor. Try the black, red or gold varieties for a different taste and texture.

Rice – Rice is inexpensive, readily available, and as versatile as your imagination. Brown rice is high in fiber, a good source of B vitamins, and rich in minerals, such as magnesium and selenium. When you choose white rice, however, you are no longer receiving these nutrients because they existed in the bran and germ, which has been removed. Look beyond traditional brown rice and try black, purple, or red rice varieties, which all offer unique flavors. Note that different types of rice may take longer to cook. Although many people choose to use a rice cooker, a simple saucepan is all you need. Generally, the longer the grain, the less sticky and starch texture -- for example, long-grain rice is ideal in pilaf-type dishes, but short-grain rice is great stuffed in grape leaves.

This is just a small sample of whole grains, so don’t be afraid to get creative in the kitchen and expand your palate. Other suggestions you may try: Add barley in vegetable soup or stews; use bulgur in casseroles or combine with black beans to make veggie patties; or use rolled oats as a coating for baked chicken or fish. The possibilities are endless! The easiest way to buy whole grains is in bulk and then store them in a tightly-sealed container in a cool, dark, dry space. When stored properly, most grains can last up to a year. Be sure to RINSE your grains before cooking. Rinsing grains helps release the phytic acid. To learn more about phytic acid and how it affects your body, be sure to read our next blog, “Are Grains for Me?”

By Amy Kurtz BA, BS, CI-CPT, Certified Health Coach 
Wellness Education Specialist

This article is for nutrition information purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. Always seek the advice of a qualified health provider with any health or nutrition concerns you may have. The information in this article is not intended to promote any specific product, or for the prevention or treatment of any disease.