As a nation, we certainly eat more refined grains than is good for us, but whole grains are a different story. A new study found that people who ate the most whole grains gained significant health benefits.
Contrary to what you may have heard elsewhere, grains are not the devil. As a nation, we certainly eat more refined grains than is good for us, but whole grains are a different story.
A study published in June in the journal Circulation from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that people who ate the most whole grains (70 grams per day, or about 4 servings), compared with those who ate little or no whole grains, had a lower risk of dying. The researchers pointed out that not only are whole grains fiber-rich, which may lower cholesterol and promote stable blood sugar, but whole grains have multiple bioactive compounds that could contribute to their health benefits.
This study is just the latest in a long research lineage demonstrating the healthfulness of whole grains. It’s also consistent with the research supporting the health benefits of plant-based diets, including the traditional Mediterranean diet, in which whole grains play a role.
In their whole form, grains have three parts — the bran, the germ and the endosperm. The bran (outer layer) contains fiber, antioxidants and B vitamins. The germ contains several B vitamins, as well as some protein, minerals and healthy fats. The endosperm (the largest part) contains starchy carbohydrates, proteins and small amounts of vitamins and minerals.
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Refined grains are missing at least one of these parts. For example, white flour and white rice have been stripped of their bran and germ, leaving only the starchy endosperm. That’s why refined grains have little fiber and need to be enriched with synthetic nutrients.
September is Whole Grains Month. The USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend making at least half of your grains whole — which means at least 3 servings, or 48 grams, per day. But why not do better than that? There’s a whole wide world of whole grains out there, and you’ve probably only scratched the surface. The most healthful whole grain choices are intact whole grains — whole grains that haven’t been ground into flour. For example:
• Gluten-containing grains. These include ancient and modern wheat — kamut, farro (emmer), einkorn, spelt, bulgur (cracked whole wheat), freekeh (ditto) and regular wheat berries — as well as rye berries and barley.
• Gluten-free grains. These include the pseudograins — quinoa, buckwheat, amaranth and wild rice — along with millet, sorghum, teff and rice in its many colors (brown, black, purple, red and green).
• Oats. These are gluten-free, but do contain gliadin, which some people are sensitive to. The most whole oats are oat groats, but more practical are steel cut oats (groats cut into a few pieces) or rolled oats. Thick and regular rolled oats digest more slowly than quick or instant rolled oats.
Next best are whole grain bread, pasta, crackers, etc. with short ingredient lists. Why “next best”? When whole grains are ground into flour, they may still be considered “whole,” but we digest and absorb them more easily, which means we extract more calories and see a faster rise in blood sugar. Because products that say “whole grain” in fact have very few whole grains (the health halo effect in action), choose products that have at least 16 grams of whole grains per serving. If you see the Whole Grain Stamp on the package, that’s a good sign.
To learn more about whole grains, visit wholegrainscouncil.org. I also recommend Maria Speck’s cookbooks “Ancient Grains for Modern Meals” and “Simply Ancient Grains,” and “Everyday Whole Grains” by Cooking Light executive editor Ann Taylor Pittman.
Farro with Kale, Walnuts and White Beans
Try to go with unpearled farro, because that is the true “whole” form of this grain. (You’ll also see “pearled” and “semi-pearled,” which means some of the fiber has been lost). Farro is one grain where testing, more than time, will tell you when it’s done. I often check it the first time after it’s been simmering for 20 minutes.
1 cup dry farro (unpearled)
3 cups water
½ teaspoon sea salt
1 cup walnut pieces
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 large shallot, finely chopped (about ¼ cup)
1 medium garlic clove, minced
¼ teaspoon sea salt
1 small bunch kale, washed and dried
1 15-ounce can white beans, rinsed and drained
½ cup dried cranberries
½ cup crumbled feta cheese
¼ cup finely chopped fresh Italian (flat-leaf) parsley leaves
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1. Rinse and drain farro. Place in a medium sauce pan with the 3 cups water and the ½ teaspoon salt. Bring to a boil; reduce heat to medium-low and simmer about 30 minutes, or until the grains are tender but still chewy. Drain off any excess water. Transfer faro to a large bowl.
2. While farro cooks, toast the walnuts in a dry skillet over medium-high heat, stirring frequently. When the walnuts are fragrant and lightly browned, about 3-5 minutes, remove from heat and allow to cool before chopping.
3. Make the dressing by combining the olive oil, lemon juice, shallot, garlic and ¼ teaspoon salt.
3. Strip the kale leaves from their stems and slice into thin ribbons. You should have about 4 cups (if you have extra, reserve for another use). Place the kale in a medium-sized bowl and pour the dressing over it. Massage with your hands until the leaves are coated and soften slightly.
4. Add the chopped walnuts, massaged kale, white beans, dried cranberries, feta cheese and chopped parsley to the bowl with the farro. Stir gently to combine. Add freshly ground pepper and additional salt to taste.
Serve immediately or chill to serve later.