Whole Grains and Fiber

Updated:Jan 7,2015

various types of Whole GrainsAny food made from wheat, rice, oats, corn, or another cereal is a grain product. Bread, pasta, oatmeal and grits are all grain products. There are two main types of grain products: whole grains and refined grains.

  • Whole grains contain the entire grain – the bran, germ and endosperm. Examples include whole-wheat flour, oatmeal, whole cornmeal, brown rice and bulgur.
  • Refined grains have been milled (ground into flour or meal) which results in the bran and germ being removed. This process removes much of the B-vitamins, iron and dietary fiber. Some examples of refined grains are wheat flour, enriched bread and white rice.

>A Whole Grain DiagramMost refined grains are enriched, which means that some of the B vitamins and iron are added back after processing. Fiber, however, is not added back to enriched grains. Some examples of enriched grains are wheat flour, enriched bread and white rice.

Eating whole grains provides important health benefits:

  • Whole grains are generally good sources of dietary fiber; most refined (processed) grains contain little fiber.
  • Dietary fiber from whole grains, as part of an overall healthy diet, helps reduce blood cholesterol levels and may lower risk of heart disease.
  • Fiber-containing foods such as whole grains help provide a feeling of fullness with fewer calories and so may help with weight management.

Grains are also important sources of many nutrients:

  • B vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin, niacin and folate) play a key role in metabolism.
  • Folate (folic acid), one of the B vitamins, helps the body form red blood cells.
  • Iron is used to carry oxygen in the blood.
  • Magnesium is a mineral used in building bones and releasing energy from muscles.
  • Selenium is important for a healthy immune system.

It’s important to include a variety of grains in your eating plan because grains differ in their nutrient content. Whole grains can be a good source of fiber, but refined grains usually are not.

nutrition label with fiber circledWhole grains are consumed in the United States either as a single food (e.g., wild rice, popcorn) or as an ingredient in a multi-ingredient food (e.g., in multi-grain breads). 

Whole grains cannot be identified by the color of the food. 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 nutrition 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.

When grocery shopping, an easy way to identify healthy food choices is to look for the Heart-Check mark on food labels.

Heart-Check mark This mark on a whole-grain food product means that it:
  • Is limited in saturated fat, trans fat, sodium and sugars.
  • Is a good source of dietary fiber.
  • Does not contain partially hydrogenated oils.

Dietary Fiber

Dietary fiber is the term for several materials that make up the parts of plants your body can't digest. Fiber is classified as soluble or insoluble.
  • Soluable fiber - When eaten regularly as part of a diet low in saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol, soluble fiber has been associated with increased diet quality and decreased risk of cardiovascular disease. Soluble or viscous fibers modestly reduce LDL (“bad”) cholesterol beyond levels achieved by a diet low in saturated and trans fats and cholesterol alone. Oats have the highest proportion of soluble fiber of any grain. Foods high in soluble fiber include oat bran, oatmeal, beans, peas, rice bran, barley, citrus fruits, strawberries and apple pulp.
  • Insoluble fiber has been associated with decreased cardiovascular risk and slower progression of cardiovascular disease in high-risk individuals. Dietary fiber can make you feel full, so you may eat fewer calories. Foods high in insoluble fiber include whole-wheat breads, wheat cereals, wheat bran, rye, rice, barley, most other grains, cabbage, beets, carrots, Brussels sprouts, turnips, cauliflower and apple skin.

Many commercial oat bran and wheat bran products (muffins, chips, waffles) contain very little bran. They also may be high in sodium, total fat and saturated fat. Read labels carefully.

Getting the Right Amount Counts

The number of servings of grains that you need each day depends upon your age, gender and calorie needs. The recommended amount of grains that a particular person should consume daily is expressed in terms of “ounce-equivalents” but is commonly referred to as “ounces” (or servings) of grains.

A person who needs 2,000 calories each day to maintain a healthy body weight could eat 6 to 8 servings of grains (at least half of the servings should be whole-grain foods) and 8 to 10 servings total of vegetables and fruits (about ½ cup counts as a serving).

We recommend obtaining fiber from foods rather than from fiber supplements. Check the Nutrition Facts label on food packages to find foods with a higher amount of fiber. Try to get about 25 grams of fiber each day.

Serving Size

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 cup ready-to-eat, whole-grain cereal
  • 1⁄2 cup cooked whole-grain cereal, brown rice, or whole-wheat pasta
  • 5 whole-grain crackers
  • 3 cups popped popcorn
  • 1 6-inch whole-wheat tortilla

Learn more:

Nutrition Center

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