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Whole-grain foods

14 healthy whole-grain foods (including gluten-free options)

Replacing refined grains in favor of whole grains has been linked to various health benefits. Here are 14 healthy whole-grain foods to add to your diet, including some gluten-free options.

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This article is based on scientific evidence, written by experts, and fact-checked by experts.
We look at both sides of the argument and strive to be objective, unbiased, and honest.
Last updated on January 6, 2023, and last reviewed by an expert on December 6, 2022.

Grains are a staple food in households around the world.

They have three parts: the bran (the nutritious outer layer), the germ (the seed’s nutrient-rich embryo), and the endosperm (the germ’s food supply, which is high in starchy carbs).

Whole grains are simply grains that have all three parts intact. They’re typically high in iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, selenium, B vitamins, and dietary fiber.

Interestingly, choosing whole grains over refined grains has been linked to lower risks of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and more.

Here are 14 healthy whole-grain foods.

1. Whole oats

Oats are among the healthiest whole grains you can eat.

They are naturally gluten-free and are packed with vitamins, minerals, and fiber.

What’s more, oats are rich in antioxidants, especially avenanthramide. This antioxidant has been linked to a reduced risk of colon cancer and lower blood pressure.

Oats are also a great source of beta-glucans, a soluble fiber that aids digestion and nutrient absorption. An analysis of 28 studies discovered that diets rich in beta-glucans could lower “bad” LDL cholesterol and total cholesterol.

Make sure to choose whole oats, such as steel-cut oats, oat groats, and rolled oats. Other types of oat, like instant oatmeal, are more processed and may contain unhealthy added sugar.

Summary: Oats are healthy whole grains packed with nutrients. They’re also a great source of beta-glucans, soluble fiber linked to various health benefits.

2. Whole wheat

Whole wheat is a popular and incredibly versatile cereal grain.

It’s a key ingredient in baked goods, pasta, noodles, couscous, bulgur, and semolina.

Though wheat is very popular, it’s also highly controversial due to its gluten content. Gluten is a protein that can trigger a harmful immune response in certain people.

However, suppose you belong to most people who can tolerate gluten. In that case, whole wheat is an excellent addition to your diet, as it’s a rich source of antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and dietary fiber.

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Suggested read: 9 health benefits of eating whole grains

Be careful to only select foods labeled “whole wheat” rather than just “wheat.”

Whole wheat contains the entire grain, including the fibrous husk, bran, and endosperm. Conversely, regular wheat is stripped of the husk and bran, loaded with nutrients.

Summary: Whole wheat is a nutritious alternative to regular wheat and a rich source of antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and dietary fiber.

3. Whole-grain rye

Rye is a member of the wheat family and has been consumed for centuries.

It’s typically more nutritious than wheat and contains more minerals with fewer carbs. That’s one reason why rye bread doesn’t raise blood sugar as much as wheat.

Another reason is that rye flour is incredibly high in fiber — a 3.5-ounce (100-gram) serving of rye flour provides 22.6 grams of fiber, which is 90% of an adult’s daily value.

Research shows that dietary fiber can slow down the absorption of carbs in your gut, causing a slow but steady rise in blood sugars instead of spikes.

Rye flour comes in several forms: light, medium, dark, rye meal, and pumpernickel. Both light and medium varieties are typically more refined and not considered whole grain, while dark rye flour, rye meal, and pumpernickel flour are more likely to be whole grain.

That said, it’s best to look for the word “whole” on rye flour when shopping, as some manufacturers may add refined rye grain flour to the mixture.

Suggested read: Buckwheat: Nutrition facts and health benefits

Summary: Whole rye is a healthy whole-grain alternative to wheat. It comes in many forms, but only dark rye flour, rye meal, and pumpernickel flour are considered whole grain.

4. Buckwheat

Though its name may try to fool you, buckwheat is not related to wheat.

It’s a pseudocereal, a seed that’s used similarly to cereals.

Buckwheat seeds contain nutrients such as manganese, magnesium, copper, phosphorus, iron, B vitamins, and fiber. They’re also naturally gluten-free.

Moreover, buckwheat’s husk is an excellent source of resistant starch, a dietary fiber that passes to your colon, feeding your healthy gut bacteria.

Research has shown that resistant starch can improve blood sugar control and digestive health, aiding weight loss and heart health.

To cook buckwheat, add one cup of the groats (kernels) to two cups of water and boil. Reduce the heat and let the groats simmer for 10–15 minutes or until tender.

Summary: Buckwheat is a gluten-free whole grain packed with nutrients. It’s also a good source of resistant starch, which feeds your healthy gut bacteria.

5. Bulgur wheat (cracked wheat)

Bulgur wheat, commonly known as cracked wheat, is popular in Middle Eastern cuisine.

This whole grain is often added to soups, stuffed vegetables, and salads such as tabbouleh. It’s prepared similarly to rice, but its texture resembles couscous.

Bulgur is low in fat and packed with minerals such as magnesium, manganese, and iron. It’s also a great source of fiber, providing 8.2g or 33% of the daily value per cooked cup (182g).

Research has linked higher intakes of bulgur and other whole grains to less inflammation and a lower risk of heart disease and cancers like colorectal cancer.

However, bulgur wheat contains gluten, which makes it unsuitable for a gluten-free diet.

Suggested read: The 7 healthiest types of bread to add to your diet

Summary: Bulgur or cracked wheat is a popular, nutrient-rich whole grain used in Middle Eastern cuisine. It’s commonly added to soups, stuffed vegetables, and salads like tabbouleh.

6. Millet

Millet is an ancient grain perhaps best known as an ingredient in birdseed.

However, it has been a part of human cuisine for thousands of years. It is considered a staple ingredient in India, China, Africa, Ethiopia, Nigeria, and other parts of the world.

Millet is incredibly nutritious and a great source of magnesium, manganese, zinc, potassium, iron, B vitamins, and fiber. It’s also naturally gluten-free.

Research has linked millet intake to health benefits such as reduced inflammation, lower blood triglycerides, and improved blood sugar control.

Although it’s thought of as a cereal, millet is a grain that’s classified as a pseudocereal. Some believe it to be a whole-grain cereal because it’s consumed similarly.

Summary: Millet is an ancient seed classified as a pseudocereal, as it’s consumed similarly to cereals. It’s incredibly nutritious and gluten-free.

7. Whole barley

Barley is a versatile cereal grain consumed for thousands of years.

While it’s not as popular as other whole grains, it’s incredibly healthy.

Barley is available in two primary forms: whole (or hulled) barley and pearled barley. However, only hulled barley is considered a whole grain, as it’s minimally processed.

Hulled barley is high in minerals such as selenium, manganese, magnesium, zinc, copper, iron, phosphorus, and potassium, as well as B vitamins and fiber.

One cup (148 grams) of whole barley flour provides 14.9 grams of fiber or 60% of an adult’s daily value.

It’s worth noting that barley contains gluten, so it’s unsuitable for a gluten-free diet.

Summary: Whole barley is a healthy whole grain used for thousands of years. Only whole (hulled) barley is considered whole grain, while pearled barley is refined.

8. Spelt

Spelt is an ancient whole wheat grown for thousands of years.

Nutritionally, spelt is similar to modern whole wheat and a rich source of manganese, magnesium, phosphorus, zinc, iron, B vitamins, and fiber. However, it has slightly more zinc and protein compared to whole wheat.

Like all other grains, spelt contains antinutrients, such as phytic acid, which can reduce zinc and iron absorption from your gut. This is not a big concern for adults on a balanced diet, as other foods provide more zinc and iron, but it can be a problem for vegetarians and vegans.

11 proven health benefits of quinoa
Suggested read: 11 proven health benefits of quinoa

Fortunately, you can reduce antinutrients by sprouting, fermenting, or soaking the grains.

It’s also important to note that spelt contains gluten and is thus unsuitable for a gluten-free diet.

Summary: Spelt is a nutritious, ancient whole grain that’s becoming more popular. Though it contains antinutrients, such as phytic acid, they can be reduced by sprouting, fermenting, or soaking the grains.

9. Quinoa

Quinoa is a South American grain that has been hailed as a superfood.

This ancient grain is packed with more vitamins, minerals, protein, healthy fats, and fiber than popular grains such as whole wheat, oats, and many others.

Quinoa is also a great source of antioxidants, such as quercetin and kaempferol, which can neutralize potentially harmful molecules called free radicals. These molecules have been linked to chronic inflammation, heart disease, and cancers.

Additionally, quinoa is among the few plants that provide complete proteins, which means it contains all nine essential amino acids. This makes it an excellent option for vegetarians and vegans.

Though people use quinoa like cereal, it’s a pseudocereal — a seed that is nutritionally similar and consumed similarly to cereal grains.

Summary: Quinoa is often called a superfood because it contains vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants. Though it’s thought of as a cereal, it’s a pseudocereal — a seed consumed similarly to cereal grains.

10. Brown rice

Brown rice is widely recognized as a healthier alternative to white rice.

That’s because it’s a whole grain, meaning it contains the entire grain, including the bran, germ, and endosperm. Meanwhile, white rice has both the bran and germ removed.

As the bran and germ are nutrient-rich, brown rice contains more fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants — 3.5 ounces (100 grams) of cooked brown rice pack 1.8 grams of fiber, while 3.5 ounces of white rice only provide 0.6 grams of fiber.

Brown rice is also naturally gluten-free, making it a great carb option for a gluten-free diet.

Suggested read: 10 science-based health benefits of mung beans

Research has linked several compounds in this grain to some impressive health benefits.

For instance, brown rice contains lignans, antioxidants that reduce heart disease risk by reducing blood pressure, inflammation, and “bad” LDL cholesterol.

Summary: Brown rice is a healthier alternative to white rice, as it contains the entire grain. Conversely, white rice is stripped of its bran and germ, making it less nutritious. Brown rice may reduce heart disease risk by various means.

11. Corn

Corn or maize (Zea mays) is an incredibly popular whole grain.

It’s a staple food worldwide and is grown in higher quantities than wheat and rice.

Whole, unprocessed corn is high in manganese, magnesium, zinc, copper, phosphorus, potassium, B vitamins, and antioxidants. It’s also naturally gluten-free.

Corn contains lutein and zeaxanthin, which are antioxidants abundant in yellow corn. Several studies have found a link between these antioxidants and a lower risk of macular degeneration and cataracts, two leading causes of blindness.

What’s more, corn contains a good amount of fiber. One cup (164 grams) of boiled yellow corn provides 4.6 grams of fiber, 18% of the daily value.

Summary: Whole, unprocessed corn is very nutritious and packed with vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants. Two antioxidants of interest are lutein and zeaxanthin, which have been linked to a lower risk of certain eye diseases that can cause blindness.

12. Popcorn

Popcorn is one of the healthiest snack foods you can eat.

It’s a particular type of corn that pops under high heat. Corn kernels contain a tiny amount of water, which turns to steam when heated and causes the kernels to burst.

Most people don’t realize that popcorn is a whole-grain food. It’s high in essential nutrients like manganese, magnesium, zinc, copper, phosphorus, and many B vitamins.

Additionally, popcorn is incredibly high in fiber — 3.5 ounces (100 grams) provide 14.5 grams of fiber, or 58% of the daily value.

Suggested read: 12 high carb foods that are incredibly healthy

It’s best prepared on your stove or in an air-popper. Avoid purchasing prepackaged microwave bags of popcorn as they may contain potentially harmful chemicals.

In addition, some commercially prepared varieties may be smothered in high amounts of unhealthy fats, salt, artificial flavorings, or sugar, turning this healthy snack into something unhealthy.

Summary: Popcorn is a healthy snack that’s considered a whole grain. It’s best homemade on your stove or in an air-popper, as commercial popcorn often has extra unhealthy ingredients.

13. Whole-grain bread

Whole-grain bread products can easily add whole grains to your diet.

They’re widely available and come in wide varieties, such as rye bread, whole-wheat bread rolls, whole-grain bagels, whole-grain tortillas, and others.

One particularly healthy whole-grain bread is Ezekiel bread, which is made from a variety of whole grains, such as wheat, millet, barley, and spelt, as well as several legumes.

What’s more, the grains and legumes in this bread are sprouted, meaning they have been soaked in water, allowing them to germinate. This increases their nutrient content and reduces antinutrients commonly found in whole grains.

One thing to note is that many whole-wheat loaves of bread are made from wheat grains that have been pulverized, which diminishes the beneficial effects of whole grains. So if you purchase whole-grain bread, it’s best to choose those with visible grains or seeds.

Summary: Whole-grain bread products are an easy way to add whole grains to your diet. Be sure to select bread with visible grains or seeds, as they’re more nutritious.

14. Whole-grain and whole-wheat pasta

Whole-grain pasta is made from the entire wheat grain.

They have more vitamins, minerals, and fiber than regular pasta. For instance, whole-grain spaghetti has 2.5 times more fiber than regular spaghetti.

Thanks to their higher fiber content, whole-grain pasta tend to be more filling.

However, they’re made from whole-wheat flour that is pulverized.

This diminishes many beneficial effects of whole grains, which means whole-grain pasta is not as healthy as intact whole-grain foods like quinoa and brown rice.

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Suggested read: 9 low carb grains (and some high carb ones to avoid)

Nonetheless, if you eat pasta, it’s better to choose whole-grain over regular, as the former contains fewer calories, more nutrients, and has more filling fiber.

Summary: Whole-grain pasta are another simple way to add whole grains to your diet. They have more fiber than regular pasta, which can help you stay full longer.

Summary

Whole grains are minimally processed and thus more nutritious than refined grains.

Replacing refined grains in favor of whole grains has been linked to various health benefits, such as a lower risk of chronic diseases like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancers, and more.

Fortunately, there are plenty of healthy whole-grain options to choose from.

If refined grains are a part of your diet, try swapping them for some of the whole-grain alternatives listed above to reap their health benefits.

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