Whole grains: Hearty options for a healthy diet

Find out why whole grains are better than refined grains and how to add more to your diet.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

All types of grains are good sources of complex carbohydrates and some key vitamins and minerals, but whole grains — the healthiest kinds of grains — in particular are an important part of a healthy diet.

Grains are naturally high in fiber, helping you feel full and satisfied — which makes it easier to maintain a healthy body weight. Whole grains are also linked to a lower risk of heart disease, diabetes, certain cancers and other health problems.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that at least half of all the grains you eat are whole grains. If you're like most people, you're not getting enough whole grains — so see how to make whole grains a part of your healthy diet.

Types of grains

Also called cereals, grains and whole grains are the seeds of grasses cultivated for food. Grains and whole grains come in many shapes and sizes, from large kernels of popcorn to small quinoa seeds.

  • Whole grains. These grains are either present in their whole form or ground into a flour while retaining all parts of the seed (bran, germ and endosperm). Compared with other types of grains, whole grains are better sources of fiber and other important nutrients, such as B vitamins, iron, folate, selenium, potassium and magnesium. Whole grains are either single foods, such as brown rice and popcorn, or ingredients in products, such as buckwheat in pancakes or whole-wheat flour in bread.
  • Refined grains. Refined grains are milled to have had the germ and bran removed, which gives them a finer texture and extends their shelf life. The refining process also removes many nutrients, including fiber. Refined grains include white flour, white rice and white bread. Many breads, cereals, crackers, desserts and pastries are made with refined grains.
  • Enriched grains. Enriched means that some of the nutrients lost during processing are replaced. Some enriched grains have replaced the B vitamins lost during milling. Fortifying means adding in nutrients that don't occur naturally in the food. Most refined grains are enriched, and many enriched grains also are fortified with other vitamins and minerals, such as folic acid and iron. Whole grains may or may not be fortified.
July 18, 2017 See more In-depth