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Whole Grains and Fiber

various types of Whole Grains

Any 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, oats/oatmeal, rye, barley, corn, popcorn, brown rice, wild rice, buckwheat, triticale, bulgur (cracked wheat), millet, quinoa, and sorghum.
  • Refined grains have been milled (ground into flour or meal) which results in the bran and germ being removed. This gives grains a finer texture and improves their shelf life. This process removes some important nutrients, including B-vitamins, iron and dietary fiber. Some examples of refined grains are wheat flour, enriched bread and white rice.
A Whole Grain Diagram

Most 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:

  • Many whole grains are good or excellent sources of dietary fiber. Most refined grains contain little fiber.
  • Dietary fiber from whole grains, as part of an overall healthy diet, may help improve blood cholesterol levels, and lower risk of heart disease, stroke, obesity and type 2 diabetes.
  • Dietary fiber can make you feel full, so you may eat fewer calories. Including whole grains in your diet plan may help you reach or manage a healthy weight.

Grains are also important sources of many nutrients:

  • B vitamins (thiamin (Vitamin B1), riboflavin (Vitamin B2), niacin (Vitamin B3) and folate (Vitamin B9) are important in a variety of biological functions.
  • Folate (folic acid), one of the B vitamins, helps the body form new cells and can prevent certain birth defects.
  • Iron is used to carry oxygen in the blood.
  • Magnesium is a mineral that is involved in more than 300 processes in the body.
  • Selenium is important for a healthy immune system and regulating thyroid hormone action.

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 circled

Whole 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 whole grain 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 markThis mark on a whole-grain food product means that it:
  • Is limited in saturated fat, trans fat, sodium and sugars.
  • More than half of the grains are whole grains.
  • 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.

Soluble fiber
  • Soluble fibers are able to swell and hold water.
  • When eaten regularly as part of a diet low in saturated fat and trans fat soluble fiber has been associated with increased diet quality and decreased risk of cardiovascular disease.
  • Soluble fiber modestly reduces LDL (“bad”) cholesterol beyond levels achieved by a diet low in saturated and trans fats alone.
  • Oats have a greater proportion of soluble fiber than any other grain.
Insoluble fiber
  • Insoluble fiber has been associated with decreased cardiovascular risk and slower progression of cardiovascular disease in high-risk individuals.
  • Wheat, rye, rice, and most other grains are primarily composed of insoluble fiber.

Legumes, beans, and peas are also excellent sources of both soluble and insoluble fiber. Certain fruits and vegetables are better sources of both soluble and insoluble fiber than others. Many processed oat bran and wheat bran products (such as muffins, chips, waffles) may be made with refined grains, not the whole grain. They also may be high in sodium, added sugars and saturated fat. Read labels carefully.

Getting the Right Amount Counts

How many servings of grains do you need each day? It depends upon your age, gender and calorie needs. The American Heart Association recommends that at least half of your grains are whole grains.

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. The daily value for fiber is 25 grams of fiber each day for a 2,000 calorie diet.

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 unsalted, air-popped popcorn
  • 1 6-inch whole-wheat tortilla

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*All health/medical information on this website has been reviewed and approved by the American Heart Association, based on scientific research and American Heart Association guidelines. Use this link for more information on our content editorial process.