Six tips to eat more whole grains

With the popularity of low-carb diets on the rise, you may be more confused than ever. Can whole grains still be eaten as part of a heart-healthy diet?

Whole grain porridge in a bowl with banana and blueberries

The short answer is, ‘yes’, so we’ve made it easy for you to choose the best grains with our six top tips. 

Why are whole grains good for you?

We love whole grains because eating them lowers your risk of heart disease by up to 30%. Refined grains (like white bread, pasta and crackers) contain fewer nutrients and less fibre. Unrefined whole grains, as they are found in nature, are best for our bodies. You’ll find plenty of examples below.

How to eat more whole grains

Eating whole grains in place of refined grains doesn’t have to be hard work. Lots of whole grains are tasty and affordable. We think the best changes are ones that you barely notice! Follow these simple tips to help you eat more whole grains.

1. Choose intact whole grains where possible

Intact whole grains are unrefined and close to how they’re found in nature. They have more nutrients and are less likely to contain added sugar, saturated fat and sodium.

Examples of intact whole grains include:

  • Whole oats
  • Brown rice
  • Barley
  • Bulgur (cracked wheat)
  • Quinoa
  • Millet
  • Buckwheat

In New Zealand, we get most of our whole grains from bread and breakfast cereals and so when choosing these foods, we would really benefit from intact whole grains where possible.

whole grains in bowls

2. Make simple swaps

Look at ways to make simple, affordable swaps from refined grains to intact whole grains and whole grain products.

  • Rice bubbles to oats
  • White bread to whole grain bread
  • White rice to brown rice, barley or quinoa
  • Water crackers to whole grain crackers
  • White flour to whole grain flours such as wholemeal flour
  • White bread roll to a multigrain bread roll
  • White pasta to wholemeal pasta

Remember, we’d all benefit from eating more vegetables so you could also consider swapping refined grains like white bread and pasta to vegetables too.  A good example is using lettuce cups instead of white bread wraps next time you’re making burritos.

3. Base at least one meal a day around a whole grain

Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Breakfast: porridge, Bircher muesli or toasted whole grain bread
  • Lunch: wholemeal salad wrap or soup with a whole grain bread roll
  • Snacks: whole grain crackers with hummus
  • Dinner: stir-fry with buckwheat noodles, add barley to soups, casseroles or risotto, make salads with different grains like brown rice, wholemeal pasta or quinoa.

Whole grain crackers and hummus

4. Bake up some whole grain goodness

Fancy a bit of weekend baking? Look for recipes that use whole grains like oats, buckwheat, millet, bran or wholemeal flour.

Here are some tasty ideas:

5. Cook extra whole grains to save time later

Have a go at cooking with whole grains that you may not be used to.

Most intact whole grains like brown rice, barley, bulgur wheat, quinoa and millet are cooked by placing in water, bringing to the boil and simmering until the liquid is absorbed. Cooking times will vary, so follow the instructions on the back of the packet.

If you’re cooking whole grains like quinoa, barley, brown rice or bulgur wheat, cook extra and then freeze half.  You can then serve them later as a quick side dish or base for your next meal.

6. Know what to look for when shopping for whole grains

Food labels can be overwhelming! Some whole grain products (like crackers and breakfast cereals) can have lots of sugar, salt and saturated fat – the closer the product is to the original grain (like oats), the better.

Use these tips to help you choose the best whole grain products for your heart health and body.

  • Read the ingredients list and choose products that name a whole grain ingredient first or near the beginning of the list. Look for these words:
    • whole wheat
    • whole grain [name of grain]
    • stoneground whole [grain]
    • wholemeal
    • oats
    • oatmeal
    • bran
    • kibbled wheat
    • barley
    • rye
    • buckwheat
    • quinoa.
       
  • Read the nutrition information panel and look for products that contain the MOST amount of fibre per 100 grams.
     
  • Look for products with whole grains that you can actually see e.g. visible chunks of the grain rather than the grain being ground or crushed. 
     
  • Remember that foods labelled as ‘multi-grain’, ‘stone-ground’, ‘100% wheat’, ‘cracked wheat’, or ‘organic flour’ may not contain any whole grain.

The bottom line?

Whole grains are a nutritious food, but there is no single food that improves our heart health – it is our overall diet. Whole grains are best eaten in place of refined grains with plenty of vegetables and fruit alongside legumes (such as chickpeas and lentils), nuts, seeds, oily fish and reduced-fat dairy.

Learn more about heart healthy diets
Lily Henderson, NZRD

Lily Henderson, NZRD

National Nutrition Advisor

I am passionate about improving the health of all Kiwis from young through to old. I have enjoyed working in nutrition in the UK, Australia and New Zealand.