The Right Way To Shop For Whole Grains

"Whole grain" is a deceptive term. Here's what you should look for in a grain.
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Tammy Walker
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"Whole grain" is a deceptive term. Here's what you should look for in a grain.

I’ve always been more of a rule-follower than rebel. I colored within the lines, never gave my mom flack about my bedtime, and spent the one night I snuck out in high school being completely paranoid about getting caught. (What a waste!) So when I was in my early twenties and started caring about eating healthy, I dutifully looked at the food pyramid.

Right there at the bottom, the biggest category, is whole grains. High in fiber, these supposedly lower your risk of diabetes and heart disease. Sign me up! I made the switch to Multigrain Cheerios and 100% whole wheat bread and started eating quick-cooking oats and brown rice cakes (aka, the saddest food on the planet). I was totally nailing the base layer of the pyramid.

Needless to say, I was bummed to later discover that a lot of foods that are marketed as whole grain--stuff that the pyramid (now the “plate”) tells you to eat gobs of--are not nearly as healthful as we think they are. 

natural whole grains

Tip: Go for intact grains--the real whole grains that still actually look like a kernel or seed.

Some are actually doing more harm than good. Marco Canora, chef and owner of Hearth and Brodo in New York City, had the same revelation after his doctor told him he had high cholesterol, crazy-high blood sugar levels, and the beginnings of insulin resistance.

In “A Good Food Day: Reboot Your Health with Food That Tastes Great,” a new cookbook I co-wrote with Marco, we tackle the truth about whole grains and a handful of other head-scratcher nutrition topics like fats, the glycemic index and glycemic load, and alkaline foods. (Not to mention the 125 super tasty recipes for eating well.) As we both learned, the problem with whole grains lies in the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s definition.

A legit whole grain is exactly what it sounds like--the entire kernel. All parts of those little guys would be intact, including the bran, the starchy endosperm, and the germ.

According to the USDA’s loosey-goosey definition, though, a food can be considered whole grain even when these three parts of a kernel are no longer intact. They can be separated and pulverized--i.e., processed--and then incorporated into “whole grain” foods like sugary cereals.

While not as nutrient-deprived as refined white flour (which is stripped of all the fiber, minerals, and protein in the bran and germ), whole grain flour is still processed and only slightly better. Here’s why.

Processed Whole Grains Have Fewer Nutrients

There’s a nutritional price to be paid when the parts of a whole intact grain are separated. Processing techniques like grinding and puffing grains help increase shelf life, but they reduce the fiber content and degrade the antioxidants found in unprocessed grains. The key to getting the complete benefits of whole grains is having all the elements intact and working together.

They’re A Ticket To Ride The Blood Sugar Roller Coaster

Your body absorbs the sugars in processed whole grains a lot faster than those in intact grains. This puts them higher on the glycemic scale, which means they raise your blood sugar quickly. You might experience the highs and lows of blood sugar fluctuations, and the chaos that comes with that roller coaster--cravings, increased hunger, mood swings, and brain fogginess. Ain’t nobody got time for that!

Many Foods Labelled “Whole Grain” Are Just Expensive Junk

processed whole grain cereal

Whole grain flours are often found in packaged foods that come with mountains of sugar, artificial coloring, and questionable additives. Not so deep down, I think we all know that Froot Loops, Lucky Charms, and cinnamon bun-flavored instant oats aren’t exactly nourishing foods, despite their "whole grain" label. They can be pricey, too, because when we perceive something to be healthy, we’re more likely to pay up for it--and food manufacturers take advantage of this.

You don’t need to ditch processed whole grains completely. They’re a better choice than anything made with refined flour. Just be sure to read the ingredient list and nutrition information, and choose breads that have no more than 2 to 3 grams of sugar and at least 3 to 4 grams of fiber per slice. Also, consider trying sprouted whole grain breads like my favorite, Food for Life. Sprouted grain products are higher in protein and fiber than regular flour-based breads.

grains grocery aisle

Above any processed grains, go for intact grains--the real whole grains that still actually look like a kernel or seed. (Quinoa and millet are actually seeds.) When you eat intact grains, your body has to break down the outer bran layer, which puts the brakes on the rise in blood sugar you get with processed grains. Get friendly with the bulk bin section of your grocery store where intact grains are most affordable.

Without a doubt, intact grains are a better choice than processed whole grains like whole-wheat flour. But this doesn’t mean you HAVE to be eating grains. For some of my health-coaching clients, intact grains like quinoa and farro don’t always sit well, causing digestive issues and noticeable blood sugar spikes. There’s no biological need for grains, so if you feel better not eating them, or prefer having them every now and then, no problem. Just dig in on vegetables often to make sure you’re getting sufficient fiber.

  • What foods do you eat for their whole grain benefits?
  • What’s your favorite way of preparing intact whole grains and seeds like brown rice, farro, quinoa, or oats?