What Are Whole Grains and Why Should You Eat Them?

Updated:Dec 19,2014

pile of whole grainsWhole grain contains all three parts of the natural grain: the bran, the germ and the endosperm. Examples of whole grains include whole-grain flours, oatmeal, whole cornmeal, popcorn, brown rice and bulgur. Because nothing is removed during processing, whole-grain foods contain more natural fiber, vitamins and minerals than their refined counterparts.
Refined grains have been stripped of their bran and germ, and along with them most of the B-vitamins, iron and dietary fiber left intact in whole grains. Examples of refined-grain foods are white rice and anything made with white flour.

Health Benefits

Whole grains are rich in B-vitamins and minerals, including iron to carry oxygen through the blood, magnesium to help build bones and muscle and selenium for a healthy immune system. Thanks to its intact fiber, whole-grain foods tend to be more sustaining than refined ones, keeping hunger at bay longer. They also aid your health in other ways, helping to regulate your blood sugar and cholesterol levels, and to lower blood pressure.

Serving Sizes

The number of servings of grains that you need each day depends upon your age, gender and calorie needs. A person who needs 2,000 calories each day to maintain a healthy body weight could eat 6 to 8 servings of grains. For a healthy diet, at least half of the servings should be whole-grain foods, but the more the better.

The following count as 1 ounce-equivalent (or 1 serving) of whole grains:


  • 1 slice whole-grain bread (such as 100% whole-wheat bread) 
  • 1 ounce ready-to-eat, whole-grain cereal (about 1 cup wheat flakes)
  • 1⁄2 cup cooked whole-grain cereal or brown rice
  • 1/2 cup whole-wheat pasta
  • 5 whole-grain crackers
  • 3 cups popped popcorn

Choosing Whole Grain

Whole grains cannot be identified by color. Bread, for example, can be brown because of molasses or other ingredients, not necessarily because it contains whole grains. That’s why it’s important to read the ingredient list on the food label. For many whole-grain products, you will see the words “whole” or “whole grain” before the grain’s name in the ingredient list. The whole grain should be the first ingredient listed.

Choose foods that contain one of the following ingredients first on the label’s ingredient list: 

  • whole wheat,
  • graham flour,
  • oatmeal,
  • whole oats,
  • brown rice,
  • wild rice,
  • whole-grain corn,
  • popcorn,
  • whole-grain barley,
  • whole-?wheat bulgur and
  • whole rye.
These are all whole grains.

Article copyright © 2015 American Heart Association. This recipe is brought to you by the American Heart Association's Simple Cooking with Heart © Program. For more articles and simple, quick and affordable recipes, visit heart.org/simplecooking.