The 11 Healthiest Whole Grains

Consider this your guide to the best carbs at the supermarket.

April 1, 2015

Carbs get a negative rap because so many Americans are eating the bad ones—refined carbohydrates in white bread, candy, cookies, sugary cereals, and all sorts of other junk food and drinks. In fact, research has shown that 95 percent of the grains we eat are refined. Eating too many foods with these adulterated ingredients won’t just make you fat; they’ll also raise your risk of heart disease and diabetes. And raise your levels of blood fats called triglycerides, putting you on the fast track for a heart attack or stroke. The good news is that working the healthiest grains into your diet can help prevent or reverse these health problems.

Healthy, whole-grain foods are made from cereal grains that include the whole kernel, and research shows that they can protect you from ticker trouble, diabetes, colon cancer, and possibly asthma and Alzheimer’s disease. These 11 grains are worth keeping top of mind.

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The 11 Healthiest Grains: Whole Wheat Whole Wheat

This one is pretty easy, as long as you don’t let food marketers trick you. It can be readily found in bread and pasta products, but make sure the label says “100 percent whole wheat.” Terms like “multigrain” and “wheat” don’t cut it. As when you’re shopping for any whole-grain product, look at the ingredients and make sure the whole grain is at or near the top of the list. Each serving should contain at least 2 or 3 grams of fiber.

Healthy Recipe: Summer Wheat Berry Salad

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The 11 Healthiest Grains: Whole Oats Whole Oats/Oatmeal

Oats are particularly rich in avenanthramide, an antioxidant that protects the heart. When you’re shopping for this whole grain, whether you see the word “whole” or not doesn’t matter the way it does with wheat products. Oats in the ingredients list mean the product is made from whole oats. But, if you are buying something like instant oatmeal, avoid those that contain high-fructose corn syrup. Studies have found that it was a source of mercury contamination in oatmeal. We suggest sticking to the good old-fashioned unsweetened kind and mixing in a little fruit or honey.

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The 11 Healthiest Grains: Bulgur Bulgur

For all practical purposes, bulgur is considered a whole grain, even though up to 5 percent of its bran may be removed during processing. It’s so good for you, though, we’re putting it on the list. The grain, which is used to make tabbouleh salad, is a great source of iron and magnesium. The fiber and protein powerhouse (a cup contains nearly 75 percent of the dietary fiber you need for the day, and 25 percent of the protein you should get) can be used in salads or tossed in soups. And it cooks in only a few minutes.

Healthy Recipe: Tabbouleh with Fruit

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The 11 Healthiest Grains: Brown Rice Brown Rice

When you choose white rice over brown, around 75 percent of its nutrients—including nearly all the antioxidants, magnesium, phosphorus, and B vitamins contained in the healthy bran and germ—are left on the milling-room floor. Always opt for brown rice, which includes brown aromatic varieties like basmati and jasmine. Get even more exotic with red and black rice, both of which are considered whole grains and are high in antioxidants. Though technically a grass, wild rice is also considered a whole grain and is rich in B vitamins, such as niacin and folate.

What's for Dinner? Grilled Salmon with Brown Rice

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The 11 Healthiest Grains: Barley Whole-Grain Barley

Eating a half-cup of whole barley regularly during a 5-week period cut participants’ cholesterol levels by nearly 10 percent when compared to other participants who went without barley in a USDA study. Add raisins or dried apricots to quick-cooking barley and serve it as a side dish. Just make sure it’s whole-grain barley, not “pearled,” which means the bran and germ have been removed.

Learn More: Brew Your Own Beer

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The 11 Healthiest Grains: Whole Rye Whole Rye

According to nutritional research from the nonprofit Organic Center, rye has more nutrients per 100-calorie serving than any other whole grain. It has four times more fiber than standard whole wheat and provides you with nearly 50 percent of your daily recommended amount of iron. The problem is, most rye and pumpernickel bread in this country is made with refined flours. Be persistent and look for “whole rye” topping the ingredients list to get the healthy benefits.

Learn More: How to Grow Your Own Healthy Grains

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The 11 Healthiest Grains: Buckwheat Buckwheat

This common pancake whole grain is one of the whole grains many people living with celiac disease can tolerate (others include quinoa, amaranth, and sorghum). And it’s one of the best grain-based sources of magnesium, a wonder mineral that does everything from ease PMS symptoms to improve nerve functioning; and manganese, which boosts brain power. And thank goodness for that, because who doesn’t enjoy a good buckwheat pancake from time to time?

Learn More: Buckwheat as a Summer Cover Crop

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The 11 Healthiest Grains: Couscous Whole-Wheat Couscous

Most of the couscous you see is a form of pasta, usually made from refined wheat flour. So when you’re eying the items in the aisle for the healthiest couscous pick, look for the whole-wheat kind, most easily found in natural-food stores. Skipping the refined version and going with the whole-grain type will gain you 5 additional grams of fiber.

Try This: Orange Couscous Salad

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The 11 Healthiest Grains: Corn Corn

Yes, corn can be healthy for you when it’s whole! A good source of B vitamins, magnesium, and phosphorus, whole corn is also thought to increase healthy gut flora, which can ward off diabetes, heart disease, and chronic inflammation. Yellow corn is also high in antioxidants. The easiest way to eat it? Popcorn. Just skip the microwavable kinds that use harmful chemicals in the bags’ nonstick lining. Instead, buy organic popcorn kernels and pop them in a microwave using an ordinary paper bag, or do it the old-fashioned way on the stovetop. Organic is important, as about 40 percent of the corn grown in the United States is genetically modified (GM) to withstand higher doses of pesticides. Some studies are starting to link GM foods to allergies and other health problems.

Learn More: How to Grow Organic Sweet Corn

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The 11 Healthiest Grains: Quinoa Quinoa

Though it’s technically a seed and not a grain, this ancient South American power food is packed with more protein than any other grain, and each uncooked cup of the stuff (about three servings) has 522 milligrams of omega-3 fatty acids. Your family will likely enjoy its light, nutty flavor for a change of pace at the dinner table.

Creative Quinoa Recipe: Lime Biryani

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The 11 Healthiest Grains: Freekeh Freekeh

This Arabic grain is a low-carb form of ancient wheat that has up to four times more fiber than brown rice. Freekeh kernels are harvested while they’re young and then roasted. They contain more vitamins and minerals, such as immune-boosting selenium, than other grains. Once in your stomach, freekeh acts as a prebiotic, stimulating the growth of healthy bacteria that aid digestion. Look for it in Middle Eastern markets or natural-food stores.

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