Whole grains are a pretty misunderstood food group, especially considering how carb-phobic we all are right now! So, to help clear the confusion, I wanted to share the actually healthy whole grain foods you should eat on a daily basis. Plus, I’ve got some fun recipe ideas that will help you elevate whole grains beyond a basic boiled side dish.
We’ve heard the term ‘whole grain’ so often that it can feel like nothing more than a marketing term…and it’s absolutely true that not all whole grain foods are that healthy. But that doesn’t mean we should banish these fibre, protein and mineral rich foods from our plates!
What are whole grains?
A whole grain food is one that has all three original parts of the grain, the endosperm (inner part), the germ and the bran. So, flours can be 100% whole grain, as long as nothing has been removed. I will often talk about ‘intact’ whole grains, which means that they have not be milled, rolled, steamed or otherwise transformed from the original grain as it grows. So an intact form of grain would be wheat berries (also called wheat kernels) or steel cut oats while quick oats or whole wheat flour can be considered 100% whole grain.
Whole Wheat vs Whole Grain
While all whole grain wheat flour will be 100% whole wheat, not all whole wheat flour is 100% whole grain. In Canada, up to 5% of the kernel can be removed from milled whole wheat flour and still be called whole wheat, so whole wheat is not always 100% whole grain. It’s pretty close though!
Is whole grain flour healthy?
While I absolutely think that whole grain flours have a place in a healthy diet, I think that we tend to consume WAY more flours than intact whole grains in our food culture so I tend to focus on encouraging people to eat more intact whole grains.
What’s more, we tend to be overly focused on eating wheat. Many of us eat wheat 3-6 times a day and few of us eat alternative grains such barley, rye or millet. As long as you tolerate wheat, eating it can be very healthy; however, eating only wheat means we are missing out on the nutrition that is found in eating a variety of grains.
How you cook or process that grain flour also matters. Many whole grain breads are so fluffy and soft that they have a very high glycemic impact on your blood sugars, which isn’t a great idea on an anti-inflammatory diet. Instead, I tend to recommend my clients look for heavy, 100% whole grain sourdoughs or sprouted grain breads for more fibre, more protein and a lower glycemic index.
While we’re on the topic, I should also mention that whole grain pastas, cooked al dente, are also a great choice on an anti-inflammatory diet as they also have a moderate glycemic index when compared to most other flour-based foods.
Whole Grains List
Gluten-containing whole grain foods you should eat more of
Wheat berries look similar to brown rice, and have a dense, chewy texture and slightly nutty flavour that is super satisfying. Wheat berries also contain more protein and fibre, cup for cup, than quinoa…making it an excellent locally grown grain choice on a plant-based diet.
Farro, Spelt and Kamut Berries
Farro, Spelt and Kamut are ancient cousins of modern wheat; each has a slightly different flavour profile and texture but they are similar to wheat berries. They may be a bit easier to digest for those that are wheat or FODMAP intolerant – but they contain gluten so they are not suitable for those with celiac disease.
Bulgur (Cracked) Wheat
Whole grain bulgur is wheat berries that have been cut, or ‘cracked’ into smaller pieces and steamed. A great whole grain substitute for couscous (which is essentially a pasta and not a whole grain) in salads like tabbouleh.
Whole Oats (Groats)
Whole oat groats also look similar to wheat berries, and you can use them in a similar way. When they are cut, they become steel cut oats. When they rolled, they become rolled or old fashioned oats, and if rolled finely and steamed, quick or instant oats. Oats are fantastic because of their soluble fibre content, which is very soothing to the gut and helps promote the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut. Conventional oats do not contain gluten per se, they are however cross-contaminated with gluten. You can now also find 100% gluten free oats. Just check on the label.
Barley comes in two forms, pot or pearl. Pot is whole grain and has most of its bran intact, while pearl has been polished (pearled) for longer and lacks the bran. However, barley is also very high in soluble fibre, so even pearl barley is a great fibre pick for gut health. Barley has a lighter, milder taste than wheat.
Rye groats are harder to find, but 100% rye flour is one of my favourite flours. It has a dark, earthy flavour and a light gluten structure – meaning it’s not a straight 1:1 swap for wheat flour in all recipes. It works well in cookies and muffins and quick breads blended with another stronger flour, such as spelt.
Gluten free whole grain foods you should eat more of
NERDY FYI: Most gluten free grains such as buckwheat, quinoa and millet are not true grains, they are actually seeds that we cook like grains.
Quinoa is probably the most popular gluten free grain after rice, well known for its ‘complete’ amino acid profile. However, people often mistake quinoa for being high in protein. In fact, one cup of cooked quinoa only has 8.5g of protein – excellent as a grain, but not enough to carry an entire meal…you still need to add another concentrated plant protein source to get enough protein. Quinoa flour is quite bitter, not an easy one to bake with.
Black, Brown, and Red Rice
Rice is a staple the world over; however, you might be surprised to learn that brown rice isn’t really that high in fibre. One cup of cooked brown rice has just 3 grams of fibre. For more stable blood sugars, look for long grain basmati or jasmine rice. I also really like black and red rice for their chewy textures and flavour.
Millet is probably my favourite gluten free grain these days. It has a milder, wheat-ier flavour than quinoa and a fluffier texture that works well in a variety of dishes. It’s slightly lower in protein than quinoa, at 6.5g per cooked cup but boasts a variety of minerals such as iron, zinc and potassium.
The confusingly named buckwheat has nothing to do with actual wheat; it is the seed of a plant related to rhubarb! Buckwheat flour is dark in colour and richly flavoured and is a common ingredient in pancake and crepe recipes. You can also toast buckwheat groats for a crunchy addition to salads, or cook it as a grain.
A true gluten free cereal grain, sorghum can be found in groats but is most commonly used as a flour. It has a lovely texture that approximates wheat flour in baking, and is great when blended with millet or rice flour. Sorghum is similar in protein content to quinoa and boasts more minerals than millet.
12 Yummy Whole Grain Recipes to Make Now
Whole grains have such an incredible variety of textures and flavours, they are worth making them the star of your meal!
Wheat berries make for a hearty and filling salad, this recipe from Ellie Krieger adds celery and walnuts for crunch, and dried cherries for a hint of sweet.
Once you try barley risotto, you may never go back to rice! This recipe from The Full Helping contains nutritional yeast for that cheesy flavour.
This Mediterranean-inspired recipe uses one of my favourite bitter veggies, radicchio, for a filling and flavourful salad that is great as a side or as the star of the show, with some extra protein added!
Okay, so SOMETIMES it’s just easy to boil up some millet as a side dish. This curry is a family fave and the millet soaks up all that yummy broth so well.
This flavourful stew from Rabbit and Wolves is just the thing to fight off the cold. And all that garlic will make your immune system happy too!
So many of my favourite tastes and textures in one dish! If you double the chickpeas, this is a complete meal.
This salad is one of my absolute favourite things, and it gives you a fun way of using buckwheat that you may not have tried before: roasting it in the oven until crispy!
Popping sorghum for the first time feels like the most delightful food surprise! It’s like tiny popcorn, and this chili-lime version is a tasty treat.
This grainful take on a nostalgic recipe will have you feeling like a (very full and satisfied) kid again!
Never too many variations on chili, this one pairs classic black beans with quinoa and smoky adobo sauce.
I would add some extra greens like bok choy or collards to this yummy tofu + veggie recipe from Minimalist Baker to make it even healthier!
Farro helps make a delicious soup even higher in fibre and more filling!