Nutritionists and other health experts often promote whole grain food as a necessary part of a balanced diet. With the myriad of commercial products advertising “whole grain” as a selling point, it is wise for consumers to understand what is and what isn’t actually beneficial. For instance, bread that claims to be made of whole grain may also include refined grains in the ingredients. Although the level of actual whole grain included in commercial products varies depending on the manufacturer or the country, what makes a whole grain “whole” is fairly straightforward.

Grain is composed of three parts:

  • Germ – This inner layer is the part of the grain that provides self-nourishment. It is rich with B vitamins, vitamin E and antioxidants. The germ is also a good source of unsaturated fats.
  • Endosperm – The endosperm makes up the largest portion of the grain and is located in the middle. It is the main food supply for the germ, which then provides energy for the sprouted plant to grow.
  • Bran – The bran is the hard multi-layered outer shell of the grain and is full of B vitamins, phytochemicals, trace minerals and fiber.

Refined grains consist of only the endosperm with the nutrient rich bran and germ removed, losing about 25% of its protein as well as up to seventeen important nutrients. Although commercial companies claim to add some of these back in during processing, the amount is fairly negligible. Together, or whole, grain is a compact and healthy package of nutrients, vitamins and minerals. Consuming whole grains is the only way to get the full amount of nutritional value.

Health professionals urge people to make sure that at least half of their daily grain consumption is whole grain; however, many aren’t sure how to do that effectively. One rule that may help is to assess the color of your food. Anything white is generally made of refined grain, including white bread, white rice and pasta. Instead, reach for the whole grain or whole wheat bread, the brown rice or the whole wheat pasta option. Foods made with whole grains generally have a texture that is a bit coarser as well as a slightly nuttier taste, but isn’t so different as to compromise the overall flavor of your favorite foods. If your recipe requires ingredients with a lighter texture, you can substitute half of the refined flour for a whole wheat option. Whole grains also lend themselves well to stand alone snack or meal options. Popcorn, oatmeal and sugarless granola are all good examples of healthy whole grain options.

Consuming whole grains has been linked to numerous health benefits, such as reduced risk of heart disease. The high fiber content keeps the digestive system clean and assists with effective weight loss. Because whole grains, unlike refined grains, digest slowly, they are more filling and assist the body in stabilizing blood sugar levels, effectively defending the body against type 2 diabetes. Grain products fortified with folate are a valuable supplement for pregnant women as they help prevent neural tube defects. Additionally, whole grains lower the body’s level of triglycerides, which helps balance cholesterol.

Integrating whole grains into your everyday diet is a simple, yet effective way to improve both your health and your level of energy.