Wholegrains have been linked with a lower risk of heart disease when eaten regularly as part of a healthy diet and lifestyle. Find out what they are, why they’re important and how to eat more of them.
What are wholegrains?
‘Wholegrains’ are the seeds of cereal plants such as wheat, barley and rye. They have had very little removed in processing and contain all three parts of the grain, so they contain a wide range of nutrients:
- The bran – the tough outer shell which contains fibre, B vitamins including folic acid, and minerals such as magnesium, iron and zinc.
- The endosperm – the starchy, middle part which is made of carbohydrate and some protein.
- The germ – the nutrient-rich inner part which, if germinated, would grow into the new plant. It contains some unsaturated fats, B vitamins, vitamin E, selenium, and other plant compounds called phytonutrients.
What are refined grains?
All grains start off as wholegrains. Refined grains have had the bran and germ removed during processing so they contain less nutrients.
Foods made of refined grains include white bread, white pasta, white rice and most packaged cakes, biscuits and pastry products.
Examples of wholegrains
|Some readily-available options are:||
Some more unusual options are:
What are wholegrain products?
Wholegrain products are foods made with grains which have been through some processing, but still have most of their nutrients. For example:
- wholemeal bread, wraps, pittas and chapatti
- wholegrain breakfast cereals such as wheat biscuits and wheat flakes
- wholewheat pasta
- wholewheat couscous
- wholemeal flour
- bulgur wheat
- rye bread and rye crackers
- oat cakes – choose reduced or low salt
- muesli – choose unsweetened unsweetened)
- popped corn – choose plain options, or options without salt and sugar.
How do I know if a food is wholegrain?
The definition of 'wholegrain food' varies from country to country, but most agree that a food is wholegrain if more than half of the ingredients in it are 'wholegrain'.
There is no universal labelling in the UK and wholegrain products have different names. Try these tips to help you choose wholegrain options.
- Look for the word ‘whole’ in front of the product name. For example, wholewheat pasta and wholemeal bread.
- Check the ingredients list and make sure the grains are high up or first. If the grain is lower down the list, it may only contain a small amount.
- All oats, wild rice and brown rice are wholegrains.
- Hulled or hull-less barley are wholegrains. Pearl barley has had some or all of its outer bran removed, but it is healthier than other refined grains.
- Dark rye flour is a whole grain. Light rye flour has had some of the bran removed but is still a healthy option as it contains more fibre than most refined grains.
What is multigrain?
Multigrain is not the same as wholegrain. It means that the product contains more than one type of grain, but it’s not necessarily wholegrain. It’s a good idea to check the labels to make sure the product is wholegrain.
Watch out for sugar, salt and fat
Some wholegrain products, like crackers and breakfast cereals, can have sugar, salt, fat and saturated fat added to them. Try to choose the product that’s closest to the natural grain and check the labels for salt, sugar and fat.
Why eat wholegrains?
Eating wholegrains regularly, as part of a healthy diet and lifestyle, helps to keep us healthy:
- Diets rich in wholegrains have been associated with a lower risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and obesity.
- Eating more wholegrains is a great way to get more fibre into your diet. This is important because many of us don’t eat the recommended 30g of fibre a day.
- Oats and barley are especially high in a type of fibre called beta-glucan which has been shown to reduce blood cholesterol if you eat enough of them.
It is not only the fibre in wholegrains that’s good for us, it seems to be the complete package of nutrients working together that’s beneficial.
How much should I eat?
There is no official recommendation for how much to eat, but most scientists agree that we should eat at least three servings of wholegrain foods every day, and choose wholegrain options whenever we have starchy foods..
How can I eat more wholegrains?
- Swap refined foods for wholegrain varieties. For example, swap white bread for wholemeal bread, white rice for brown rice, and white pasta for wholemeal pasta. Find ideas in the table below.
- Start with a mixture of refined and wholegrain. To start with, try a mixture such as white and wholewheat pasta together, and gradually switch to entirely wholegrain.
- Choose a wholegrain breakfast. Start the day with a wholewheat cereal or oat-based muesli. Try mixing different cereals together, or go for unusual ones like buckwheat or spelt wheat flakes.
- Go for wholegrain snacks, such as rye crackers with hummus, or plain popcorn.
- Upgrade your soup with two tablespoons of pre-cooked brown rice or barley.
- Add some crunch to your cooking. Use oats to add a crunchy coating to baked fish or chicken, or add some to the crumble of an apple crumble.
- Make a salad based on wholegrains. Try a Tabbouleh made with bulgur wheat, or a quinoa salad.
- When you’re eating out, ask. Restaurants will often have wholemeal versions of pasta and bread so don’t be afraid to ask even if it’s not on the menu.
- Bake with wholemeal flour instead of white flour. Or use a mixture while you get used to the flavour.
- Try a variety of wholegrains to make the most of the different nutrients they contain.
Wholegrain options are often the same price or cheaper than refined versions so they are budget-friendly. Some unusual grains imported in smaller amounts such as amaranth and sorghum tend to be more expensive.
Choose foods from the list to help you eat more wholegrains
Type of food
What are some wholegrain options?
What counts as a portion?
|Breakfast cereals – go for unsweetened options||
Unsweetened wholewheat cereals such as: Weetabix or Shredded Wheat, Branflakes, Oat flakes, Puffed wholegrain cereals, Muesli with no added sugar
1 heaped tablespoon (16g) uncooked oats
3 - 4 tablespoons (40g) of breakfast cereal
Granary or wholemeal bread
Wholemeal tortilla or pitta bread
Wholemeal chapatti, made without ghee
1 slice or 1 small roll
1 small tortilla or pitta, or half a standard one
1 small chapatti
Half a bagel
|Crackers and snacks||
Oat cakes (choose reduced or low salt options)
Wholegrain rice cakes
Plain popped corn
2 oat cakes, rice cakes or crispbreads
About 16g of popped corn (a few handfuls)
|Pasta and rice||
2 – 3 heaped tablespoons of cooked pasta or rice
2 – 3 heaped tablespoons of cooked grains
|Flour||100% wholewheat flour||1 heaped tablespoon (16g)|
What about other healthy carbs?
Potatoes with the skin on, yam and plantains are also sources of fibre and energy. Keeping the skin on potatoes and small yams means they keep more of their fibre, vitamins and minerals.
There is a lot of confusion about carbs, but carbohydrates can be a great source of energy and nutrients for a heart healthy diet.