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Whole grains are one of the key foods of the Mediterranean Diet. This diet is the 2019 US News Best Diet Overall for a healthy lifestyle. But, what is it about whole grains that make them so healthy?
After following low carb diets, I had to learn about whole grains.
I needed to understand why in the world I would be adding them to my diet and still be able to lose weight. This took more than a few internet searches for me to feel comfortable adding them to my meals.
I mean what is the difference between whole grain, whole wheat, wheat flour, and multigrain?
This is, of course after many years of being instructed to eat so many servings of whole grains every day.
Even before a low carb lifestyle, I thought that whole grains were just another carbohydrate and if I ate too many I wouldn’t lose weight and worse, I might actually gain weight.
That plus the fact that whole-grain foods were dry, gritty, and often reminded me of cardboard.
So when I decided to try the Mediterranean Diet I realized that whole grains were an important part of the diet. I researched:
- what qualifies as whole grain,
- how do I add whole grains into my diet, and
- what whole grain recipes would I try on my family.
What are Whole Grains
Whole grains are plant-based foods.
- rye, and
others that when eaten in their whole, unprocessed form qualify as whole grain.
Packed full of nutrients and heart-healthy essential vitamins, whole grains are also a key source of fiber in the diet.
Whole grains are extensively studied and when eaten regularly will help reduce the risk of many chronic diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.1
Eating several servings daily has also been shown to help manage weight and lower cholesterol levels.
Whole Grain Structure
Unprocessed whole grains are made up of three original parts:
- the bran or outside eatable layer,
- the germ or plant embryo, and
- the endosperm.
The endosperm is the largest part of the grain. It provides fuel for the embryo to sprout into a new plant.
For a food to be considered whole grain, it needs to include all 3 of these original parts.
When a grain does not contain all three original parts, it is considered refined or processed.
This refinement leads to a loss of nutrients and protein. So much, in fact, it required that nutrients be added back into the processed or refined grain products.
Unfortunately, this attempt to mimic the natural amounts of nutrients, fiber, and protein is almost impossible. Refined or processed grains don’t come close to the health benefits the grain had when it included all its original 3 parts.
Why Are Whole Grains Healthier
Refined grains, such as all-purpose flour, are processed for better texture and to extend the shelf life of the product.
The problem is when grains are processed, it removes parts of the bran and germ which contained protein and essential nutrients such as b vitamins, selenium, magnesium, and potassium, leaving behind a less nutritious grain. In addition, much of the fiber is removed too.
The key with whole grains is that they include large amounts of fiber. Whole grains are digested more slowly and their fiber content helps you feel full longer.
In contrast, processed or refined grains are easily digested, producing a blood sugar spike and eventual rebound hunger as your body tries to keep blood sugar levels balanced.
Whole Grain Versus Whole Wheat
Often used interchangeably, whole wheat is one type of whole grain. Remember, whole grain is a generic term used to classify grains that have all three key original components including the bran, germ, and endosperm.
Wheat refers to the grain of the wheat plant and is the most common grain consumed in our diets.
All-purpose flour is wheat flour that has been refined or processed. This refinement removes the fiber and most of the nutrients of the whole grain.
If you want to get the whole grain of wheat then you need to purchase products that are termed 100% Whole Wheat. This is true if you are purchasing crackers, bread or even flour.
When purchasing whole wheat flour in the US, it is 100% whole grain.
Other countries may vary in their definition of whole grain. For example, to get a comparable 100% whole grain flour in Canada you would need to look for whole-grain, wheat flour.
Types of Whole Wheat Flours
There primarily 2 types of wheat, red wheat, and white wheat that are ground into different types of flours.
Red Whole Wheat flour is made from hard red wheat and comprises the majority of 100% whole wheat flour. It has a dark color, a stronger flavor, and a high protein count which makes it a good choice for baking yeast breads.
When switching from baking with all-purpose flour to 100% whole grain flour you need to experiment with recipes until you become accustomed to the heavier texture and taste of whole wheat flour.
White Whole Wheat flour is made from hard white wheat. It is a lighter grain but still contains the required 3 whole grain components. White wheat flour has the same nutrition as red wheat flour but has a milder taste, a lower protein count, and a finer texture.
Look for White Whole Wheat at the grocery store, Target, or on Amazon. I like King Arthurs White Whole Wheat flour.
With the same nutritional value of red whole wheat flour, whole white wheat is a good option to start your transition into whole grains. It can be used to bake yeast-based recipes such as bread.
Whole wheat pastry flour is 100% white whole wheat flour made from soft white wheat. It contains all three of the original parts of the wheat grain. Made from soft white wheat with a lower protein component, it contains less gluten than other whole wheat flours so it is not recommended for yeast bread.
It has a fine texture, similar to all-purpose flour and works great in non-yeast baked goods, such as pie crust, pancakes, cookies, and other baked items.
How to Identify Whole Grain Products
With the emphasis on eating more whole grains, commercial food manufacturers have joined the bandwagon and created appealing food options for busy shoppers.
But how do you know that you are purchasing whole grain products?
Often labeled wheat flour, multigrain, or other synonyms. While these products may look like whole grain, often with brown dyes added, that product you assume is providing whole grains may not be much different than eating your typical processed white bread.
The Whole Grain Council created stamps for food manufacturers to add to their labeling to alert shoppers to products that are whole grain.
You can screen whole-grain products by their stamp.
100% Whole Grains that contains 16 grams of whole grain per serving.
50%+ Whole Grains for products that include at least 50% of the grains or 8 grams as whole grain for serving, or
a Basic Stamp that includes at least an 8 gram serving of whole grains.
See the stamps here so you know what to look for.
Check out the list of stamped Whole Grain products available at many grocery stores and on Amazon.
Can I Eat Whole Grains if I am Gluten-Sensitive or Gluten Intolerant?
Gluten is a component of Wheat, Barley, Rye, and Triticale so they should be avoided. Oats are gluten-free. It is often hard to separate oats from wheat so if you are sensitive to gluten, look for pure oats.
Check with your physician to see if they approve non-wheat based whole-grain options.
Non-wheat based grains include buckwheat, corn, oats (in pure form), quinoa, rice, and wild rice, as well as others. These grains will help you get your whole grain servings.
How to Include Whole Grains in the Mediterranean Diet
Whole grains are an important component of the Mediterranean Diet, but they are added in moderation. A small piece of whole-grain bread, a ½ cup serving of brown rice, a half ear of corn, or a cucumber tomato salad made with quinoa all are ways to add whole grains to your meals.
The key is moderation because whole grains are still carbohydrates. If you add too many to your meals, your weight loss may stall.
To learn more about the Mediterranean Diet, read my post, Mediterranean Diet Basics.
Whole Wheat Recipes
Since starting the Mediterranean Diet, I have been experimenting with whole-grain recipes. Here are a few I serve to my family.
Warm Oatmeal with Nuts, Dried Fruit, and Cinnamon
This one-dish wonder is a quick breakfast when you make it in the microwave. Check out my recipe in my post Simple Mediterranean Breakfasts.
With 3 teens in my house, I can’t totally eliminate sweets, but I can try to make them a bit healthier. Check out the recipe that I adapted from Butterscotch Sandies. I used Whole Wheat Pastry Flour in place of all-purpose flour and olive oil in place of butter.
The end result is a light textured cookie that is crispy on the outside and tender on the inside. Yum!
Whole Grain Recipes
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