The Complete Guide to Whole Grains That Are Healthier Than Simple Carbs
You probably know that simple carbs allow blood sugar to spike and insulin to signal that any extra energy should be carted off to storage as fat. But what you may not realize is that a healthy diet of mostly plant-based foods should include minimally processed whole grains to help you feel full and provide fiber, nutrients, and even protein.
Aside from whole grains' satiety benefits –– helping you feel fuller for longer –– grains like quinoa and oats provide a host of health benefits. Studies have found that diets rich in whole grains have been linked to lower risks of cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.
What Are the Healthiest Carbs?
Whole grains are healthy carbs to reach for, the keyword being "whole," meaning minimally processed. How do you know which foods are high in whole grains? When you’re reading food labels, make sure the first ingredient says whole wheat or whole grain, advises Bonnie Taub-Dix, RD author of Read It Before You Eat It.
“If you see ‘wheat’ as the first ingredient, that doesn’t mean the same thing," she says. "Since the wheat could be white, it is processed, which strips it of nutrients. Unless it says the word 'whole' it doesn't mean whole wheat or whole grain.”
The Health Benefits of Whole Grains
Whole grains are also high in fiber which helps us meet our daily fiber needs. Look for labels that show 4 or more grams of fiber per serving. Whole grains are also a good source of B vitamins, antioxidants, and minerals, says Taub-Dix.
“A lot of people try to skip grains to lose weight, but that’s not a wise idea. They help you feel full, and satisfied, and are an important part of your diet if you choose the right portions and healthy whole grains,” she says The U.S. Federal Drug Administration (FDA) recommends getting 25 grams of fiber daily on a 2,000-calorie diet.
Here are the best sources of whole grains to incorporate into your plant-based diet and how to eat them:
The Healthiest Whole Grain Foods to Eat
Whole Grain Pasta
Swap your regular white pasta for a whole-grain variety to get more fiber and nutrients per serving. The whole-grain pasta may have more texture and a bit of a “bite” to it that could take some getting used to but it’s a solid source of whole grains. Ease your family into it by swapping whole-grain noodles in vegetable lasagna, macaroni, and cheese dishes, and in pesto pasta. Chances are they may never notice the difference!
Whole Grain Rice
Look for brown rice or wild rice as both have more fiber than white rice, says Taub-Dix. Enjoy this as a side or add it to an egg or bean burrito for a Mexican-style dish. We love it as a base for a veggie stir-fry, too!
If you were following a somewhat healthy diet before going plant-based, you probably ate some of these whole grains before, and oatmeal was likely at the top of that list. This warm breakfast item can be enjoyed so many ways with a variety of toppings and add-ins to make it taste fresh and different every day. “I like to make a giant pot of oatmeal early in the week,” says Taub-Dix.
“Then throughout the week I take some out of the refrigerator container, put it in a bowl, add my almond butter, fruit, or whatever else, and heat it up in the microwave. This way, I don't have to cook breakfast every day.” In fact, that same method of cooking a big batch and using it all week can be applied to all of these grains, saving you time and energy during the slog of Monday through Friday.
Whole Wheat Bread
This swap might be one of the easiest to make in your diet if you aren’t noshing the whole grain version already. Top whole-grain bread with nut butter and fruit slices for a wholesome breakfast, lunch, or snack.
Start the day with a whole-grain English muffin, or add your favorite vegetables and plant-based proteins to a wrap for lunch or dinner. You’ll be on your way to hitting your daily fiber quota in one meal flat. Just remember to look at the label before you buy to make sure you’re buying a true whole-grain product and not a wheat imposter, which won’t have the same benefits.
“Ancient grains sounds like a cool term and seems like something new, but they really are the grains our ancestors ate, and they’re really healthy for us,” says Taub-Dix. Grains like farro, amaranth, sorghum, and freekeh all fall into this category. The Whole Grains Council website can provide a guide on how to cook and serve each of these, as well as more information about ancient grains' many health benefits.
A lot of people mistakenly call quinoa a grain, says Taub-Dix. “But it’s a seed derived from the mustard family and is sort of like a seed in grain’s clothing,” she says. Even though it’s not a whole grain, it’s still a gluten-free, healthy food that’s a good source of plant protein and fiber. Add it to your plant-based diet and enjoy it for any meal as a base for a quinoa bowl, a side dish, on top of a salad, or even in a soup.
Bottom Line: Whole Grains Are a Healthy Source of Complex Carbs
You know that not all carbs are considered equal, and white bread acts to spike blood sugar, while whole grains and other complex carbs can help you get more fiber and feel full longer, without sending blood sugar soaring. Eat whole grains daily on a heart-healthy diet.
For more expert advice, visit The Beet's Health & Nutrition articles.