Your Guide to Whole Wheat vs Whole Grain
One of the most impactful changes you can make to your diet is to include more whole grains. While carbohydrates and starchy foods may have a bad reputation, whole grains are carbs with all kinds of nutrients and health benefits. Whole grains:
- Are natural sources of fiber, potassium, magnesium, B vitamins, and antioxidants.
- May lower risk for diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
- May help prevent diverticular disease.
When trying to add more whole grains, you need to know which ones to choose. Whole-wheat and whole-grain products are everywhere, but which are best? Should you choose whole-wheat, multigrain, ancient grains, or something else? Here is some help deciding how to add the healthiest whole grains.
Whole Grains Defined
- Choose whole-wheat or whole-grain bread, pita, English muffins, rolls, buns, and bagels.
- Order or make brown rice.
- Serve a side of amaranth, teff, or whole-grain couscous instead of potatoes or white rice.
- Look for oatmeal and whole-grain cereals.
- Use whole-wheat or whole-grain pasta.
- Swap half the white flour for whole wheat flour in baking recipes.
- Add barley, brown rice, bulgur, or other whole grains to soup.
Grains include wheat, oats, amaranth, rice, barley, corn, their flours, and products made with them, such as bread, pasta, rice noodles, and tortillas. The edible part of the grain is called the kernel. It includes three parts: the bran, the germ, and the endosperm.
- Bran: with fiber
- Germ: with vitamin E and antioxidants
- Endosperm: a starch (carbohydrate)
Whole grains and whole grain products contain all three parts. Refined grains lose the nutritious bran and germ during processing. Refined grains retain only the endosperm. That is why refined grains, such as white bread and white rice, are high in starch and low in natural nutrients.
“Wheat” vs. “Grain”
So which is better, whole wheat or whole grain? Wheat is a type of grain, and whole wheat is a type of whole grain. Like other whole grains, whole wheat has fiber and antioxidants. It is a good choice, and one of the most common choices – think whole-wheat bread, shredded wheat cereal, whole-wheat pasta, and whole-wheat crackers, for example.
Whole wheat and whole-wheat products can offer the health benefits you are seeking, but you might consider the following for extra credit.
- You will get a wider nutrient profile if you choose a wider range of whole grains. As with vegetables and fruit, a variety of grains is better than whole wheat all the time.
- Oats and some other whole grains, such as barley, are higher than wheat in soluble fiber, which helps with blood sugar and cholesterol.
- Quinoa is a whole grain that is a source of complete protein, unlike other grains. (It is technically an herb, but nutritionally like a grain).
- Quinoa, bulgur, and buckwheat are lower-glycemic than wheat, which means they have less of an effect on your blood sugar.
Whole Wheat and Gluten-Free Grains
Wheat has a protein in it called gluten. This is significant because 1 out 100 people have celiac disease and are unable to safely consume gluten. This small percentage of the population, and possibly additional people who may be sensitive to gluten, need to avoid wheat products and other gluten-containing products.
The following grains contain gluten whether they are whole or refined.
- Semolina, durum, spelt (all wheat products)
People on a gluten-free diet can include gluten free whole grains. Always check your packaging and see if the product was manufactured in a gluten-free facility.
- Brown rice
- Oats (if they are labeled “gluten-free”)
For this population, the answer is clear: whole-grain is better than whole-wheat!
Beware the Imposters
Whole-wheat and other whole-grain products can be healthy, but you would be smart to read the nutrition label and list of ingredients before you buy. You should know:
- Is multigrain whole grain? “Multigrain” does not mean “whole grain.” It means “more than one type of grains.” Those grains may be whole, or they may be refined. Read the list of ingredients to check whether the grains are whole or not.
- “Wheat” does not mean “whole wheat.” Many breads are labeled “wheat,” but are made with refined wheat (“white”) flour.
Many whole wheat and other whole grain products are sweetened with sugar. Cereals, including healthy-sounding ready-to-eat breakfast cereals, flavored oatmeal, and granola, are often high in added sugars. Even whole-wheat bread often has honey, brown sugar, molasses, corn syrup, or sugar.
- Whole-wheat crackers can have hydrogenated oils containing artery-clogging fats.
Also be sure not to be fooled by a claim that a product is, “Made with whole grains.” It may have a lot of whole grains, but it may have only a tiny amount, with the rest being refined.
The Healthiest Grains
Whichever whole grains you choose, you can take steps to make them healthier. First, keep portions in check, since grains are high in calories and carbohydrates and too much can be bad for weight and for blood sugar. A serving might be an English muffin, 1 or 2 slices of bread, or a ½-cup to a cup of cooked pasta, oatmeal, or cereal.
Also, consider the rest of the meal. Since grains are so high in carbohydrates, it is best to serve them with lean protein, healthy fats, and/or another source of fiber. For example:
- Cereal with milk or yogurt and some fruit.
- A sandwich with fruit and almond or peanut butter.
- Spaghetti with turkey meatballs and tomato sauce.
- Quinoa salad with tomatoes, feta cheese, and olive oil.
- Chicken and vegetable soup with brown rice or barley.
- Pita with hummus and vegetables.
- Salmon served with teff and steamed broccoli.
- Crackers with tuna and lettuce.
Whether you chose whole wheat, other whole grains, or a blend of both, you can be sure of getting some of the healthiest possible foods with a wealth of research backing their health claims. Enjoy! Lark can be your personal health coach with support and tips for getting in those grains and making other good choices for weight loss and health.
Friends, family, a personal trainer, and fitness instructors can help you along the way. A personal health coach can also help. Lark is a fully-automated program that is available to users 24/7. You can chat with your coach anytime, set and work towards exercise and diet goals, and get customized feedback and coaching. With motivation, reminders, and tracking features, Lark DPP and other Lark programs can help you hit exercise recommendations and is Fully CDC Recognized.