The Grain Guide: How and Why to Use 8 Healthy Whole Grains

STACK tells you what you need to know to take advantage of the healthy benefits of whole grains.

Healthy grains are the new big trend. Nowadays, white rice and white bread are being overlooked in favor of healthier options. And don't expect the trend to die soon. Healthier grains have been proven to have many more advantages over grains that've been heavily refined and processed.

Ryan Andrews, a coach at Precision Nutrition and the author of the book Drop the Fat Act and Live Lean, is a big believer in the benefits of whole grains. He says, "Whole grains are regularly on the plates of some of the longest-lived, healthiest populations on the planet. These same populations have extremely low rates of obesity, heart disease, cancer and dementia. Whole grains are consistently linked to lower rates of chronic diseases, and they're some of the densest sources of nutrients you can get."

According to Andrews, whole grains also require less fossil fuel than many other foods, which means they're sustainable as well as nutritious.

Although many people are embracing whole grains in America, we've still got a long way to go. In 2010, only 12 percent of the grains Americans ate were considered whole. That's not nearly enough, but the number's on the rise.

Healthy grains include more than just quinoa and brown rice. To help you learn more about healthy grains, we've compiled this guide. See what you can gain by going whole grain with the eight nutritious and popular grains profiled below.

*Note: All of the grains listed below are generally accepted as whole grains by the Whole Grains Council. All nutrition facts are for a 1/2 cup of grains cooked in water.

1. Amaranth

Amaranth

Nutrition: 126 calories, 2 grams of fat,  2.5 grams of fiber, 4.5 grams of protein

Cooking Instructions: Use 6 cups of water for every cup of amaranth. Simmer for 15-20 minutes while occasionally stirring.

What To Look For: If you see amaranth on an ingredient list, it's almost surely whole amaranth.

Amaranth is one of the hottest "ancient grains" out there. At one time, it was a staple crop of the Aztec culture. Though it's often referred to as an ancient grain, amaranth is what's known as a "pseudo-grain"—technically it isn't a grain, but a seed. Amaranth kernels are tiny and dark brown, and have a peppery taste.

Amaranth can be used as a muscle builder, since roughly 14 percent of its calories come from protein. The protein in amaranth is a "complete" protein—meaning it contains lysine, an amino acid that isn't found in most grains. Lysine is especially beneficial to athletes, because it aids in tissue growth and repair. The protein in amaranth is similar to animal protein. "Amaranth protein is among the highest in nutritive quality of vegetable origin and close to those of animal origin products," one study concluded. This is a good thing, because animal protein is more like our own body's protein than plant-based protein, meaning it's used more rapidly and effectively.

Amaranth is also high in calcium—containing three times the average amount. It's also high in iron, magnesium and potassium. It's currently the only grain known to contain vitamin C.

Amaranth's effects on cholesterol levels have been studied extensively. A 2003 study found amaranth contains high levels of phytosterols, a compound found in plant cell membranes that lowers cholesterol levels. A 2007 study found that amaranth oil is beneficial for preventing coronary heart disease, hypertension and high cholesterol. Amaranth is gluten-free, meaning it's a viable option for those with celiac disease, as well as athletes (such as Stephen Jackson and Mark Texeira), who believe that cutting out gluten can improve their energy and reduce inflammation.

Amaranth is often used in pilafs and porridges, but popped amaranth is another way to enjoy it. Here's a recipe for Popped Amaranth Crunch.

2. Barley

Barley

Nutrition: 97 calories, .5 gram of fat, 3 grams of fiber, 5 grams of protein

Cooking Instructions: Use 2-1/2 cups water for each cup of barley. Simmer for 40 to 50 minutes.

What To Look For: Look for whole barley, hulled barley or hull-less barley.

Barley is one of the oldest cultivated grains available, and it's still popular today. "It was one of the first cereals cultivated in the middle east," Andrews says. Barley's versatility and resilience are big reasons for its popularity—it can be grown in places like the Andes mountains, the Arctic Circle and Ethiopia. Barley pilaf, barley soup, barley bread, barley porridge—these are all ways to consume this whole grain.

Barley's nutrition is downright impressive. A cup has only one gram of fat, but it packs on the protein and fiber with 10 grams and 6 grams, respectively. Barley's fiber content means it takes a long time to digest, which can help you feel fuller longer. Barley also contains manganese, selenium and an especially healthy cholesterol-lowering type of fiber. Manganese supports bone and skin health and protects against free radical damage. Selenium is crucial for antioxidant function. Add the fact that it's got a solid 10 grams of protein, and it's easy to see why barley has been around for so long.

One of barley's biggest benefits is its ability to lower glucose levels and control blood sugar. Barley is a low-glycemic food, which means it won't spike your blood sugar and lead to crashes. That makes it an especially useful food for people with diabetes and those at risk for it.

Boiled barley has a chewy texture and a nutty flavor, which is suitable for many different recipes. Here's a list of barley recipes.

3. Brown Rice

Brown Rice

Nutrition: 109 calories, 1g of fat, 2g of fiber, 2.5g of protein

Cooking Instructions: Use 2 cups of water for each cup of brown rice. Simmer for 45-50 minutes.

What to Look For: If you see the term brown rice, or other colored rices such as black or red, it's whole grain.

Brown rice has exploded in popularity over the last decade. Heck, you can even get it at Chipotle! Rice is one of the most popular foods in the world. According to the Whole Grains Council, roughly half the world's population get 50 percent of their daily calories from some type of rice.

Whole grain rice retains the bran and the germ, two parts high in nutrients. White rice has neither. Whole grain rice is usually brown, but it can also be purple, black or red. Brown rice has a high amount of manganese. A single serving provides 88 percent of your daily recommended value. Manganese helps digest fats and more efficiently use the protein and carbs in the foods we eat. Brown rice also has a good amount of selenium.

Whole grain rice has been found to have a large number of health benefits. Brown rice has been the most heavily researched. Several studies have compared brown rice to white rice. Eating brown rice instead of white rice has been found to reduce risk of diabetes, aid in weight control and reduce your risk of breast cancer and colon cancer. The limited research on black rice is also compelling. One study found black rice had a similar amount of antioxidants as blueberries; another found black rice bran protected against inflammation, but brown rice did not.

All rice is naturally gluten-free, but white rice is a high glycemic food, whereas whole grain rices are low glycemic foods.

RELATED: Brown Rice vs. White Rice: Does It Really Matter?

4. Millets

Millets

Nutrition: 104 calories, 1g of fat, 1g of fiber, 3g of protein

Cooking Instructions: Use 2 1/2 cups of water for each cup of millet. Simmer for 15-18 minutes. Turn off heat and let sit for 10 additional minutes.

What to Look For: If you see millet on an ingredient list, it's almost always whole millet.

Millets are a group of small, closely related grains that have a long history in diets around the world. "Millets have been around a long time, and for good reason," Andrews says. Millets are the most consumed grains in India. They can be used in a wide variety of dishes, including pilafs, desserts, porridges, alcoholic beverages and flatbreads.

The use of millets in America has traditionally been limited to providing an ingredient in bird seed! Luckily, more Americans are learning about the benefits of millet and integrating it into their diets. Millets contain a fairly high amount of protein, and they're also packed with magnesium—a useful mineral that helps with muscle and nerve function.

All millet varieties are high in antioxidants, and millet has been proven to be useful for controlling blood sugar and cholesterol in diabetics, as well as potentially preventing cardiovascular disease. Millets have a subtle, mild flavor that adds to their versatility.

5. Oats

Oats

Nutrition: 83 calories, 2g of fat, 2g of fiber, 3g of protein

Cooking Instruction: Use 3 cups of water for each cup of oats. Simmer for 10-15 minutes.

What to Look For: If you see oats, oatmeal or oat groats on an ingredient list, they're almost always whole oats.

A few centuries ago, oats were considered a food fit only for horses. Now, oats are a common item at the breakfast table due to their sweet flavor. You've probably eaten oats in your cereal or in oatmeal. According to the Whole Grains Council, oats are unique among whole grains because they almost never have their bran and germ removed in processing. That means if you come across oats or oats flour on an ingredients list, it's almost invariably whole grain oats. Recently, steel-cut oats have risen in popularity. This is a departure from traditional rolled oats. The truth is there isn't much difference between the two, other than the fact that steel-cut oats are lower on the glycemic index.

Oats offer a good mix of what you want from your whole grains. They're fairly low in calories, but they've got a good amount of protein and fiber. They're also high in manganese and iron. Some of the many benefits gained from eating oats include reducing asthma risk in children, reducing waist circumference in adults and lowering cholesterol and risk of diabetes. Oats are also a great food for keeping you full. One study found oats to be the most filling food in a wide variety of common breakfast foods.

Oats are most popular in breakfast foods, but they can also be included to great effect in other dishes. Here's a recipe for a three pepper oat pilaf.

6. Quinoa

Quinoa

Nutrition: 111 calories, 2g of fat, 2.5g of fiber, 4g of protein

Cooking Instructions: Use 2 cups of water for every cup of quinoa. Simmer for 20 minutes.

What to Look For: When you see quinoa on an ingredient list, it's almost surely whole quinoa.

Historically, quinoa was grown in the Andes as the main source of sustenance for the Incas. Like amaranth, quinoa is technically a pseudo-cereal and not a grain; bur it's used in many of the same ways as whole grains, and it's included on the Whole Grain Council's website.

"Quinoa's technically a member of the spinach and chard family," Andrews says. Despite the fact it isn't actually a whole grain and that no one in America had heard of it 10 years ago, quinoa is everywhere (even in your Cheerios).

Quinoa's meteoric rise in the American diet is well-deserved. It's one of the only natural foods that contain all nine essential amino acids. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein, and nine of them cannot be produced by our bodies; we must get them through our diet. The nine are known as "essential amino acids." Quinoa is a food rarity in that it contains all nine. Quinoa is also packed with fiber and protein, and it also contains iron, magnesium and lysine. Lysine is an amino acid that's crucial for tissue growth and repair.

Research on quinoa is sparse to date, but it has been found to be useful in reducing risk for diabetes. The fact that quinoa is gluten-free means it's a great nutrient-dense food choice for those who want to avoid gluten.

Though you've probably tried quinoa as a side dish or in a salad, its uses are virtually endless. Here's a recipe for quinoa oatmeal cookies.

Check out more quinoa recipes.

7. Spelt

Spelt

Nutrition: 123 calories, 1g of fat, 4g of fiber, 5.5g of protein

Cooking Instructions: Use 3 cups of water for each cup of spelt. Simmer for 1 1/2 hours.

What to Look For: Look for the words "whole spelt."

Another ancient grain, spelt is a type of wheat that was widely grown until mechanical harvesting came along. It turned out spelt wasn't compatible with mechanical harvesting, so it was abandoned in favor of other types of wheat. But as more people seek out healthier options, spelt's making a comeback.

"Spelt's a cousin of wheat with a great nutritional profile," Andrews says.

One of spelt's biggest advantages over modern wheat is that it's significantly higher in protein. It's also packed with manganese, with one cup offering over 100 percent of your recommended daily value. Niacin, magnesium and phosphorus are also present in high quantities. Spelt is also lower on the glycemic index than modern wheat.

Spelt's flavor has been described as sweet and nutty, and its texture is chewy without being slimy. It's often used for breads, rolls and baked goods, but spelt can be a great addition to a salad. Here's a recipe for spelt salad with white beans and artichokes.

8. Teff

Teff

Nutritional Facts: 128 calories, 1g of fat, 0g of fiber, 5g of protein

Cooking instructions: 3 cups of water for each cup of teff. Simmer for 20 minutes.

What to Look For: All varieties of teff are whole grain, because the kernel is too small to process.

Teff is a tiny grain that has long been a staple of cuisine in Ethiopia,where it's used in one of their national dishes, a bread known as "injera." Although it is strongly associated with Ethiopian culture, teff is growing in popularity globally. It can grow almost anywhere, and its slightly nutty flavor makes it appropriate for a wide number of dishes.

Teff is a great source of protein. It contains 10 grams per cooked cup and eight essential amino acids to help your body make the most of that protein. Teff also has the highest amount of calcium of all grains, offering 123mg per cooked cup.

Teff is high in resistant starch, a type of fiber that benefits blood sugar management, colon health and weight control. Teff's status as a gluten-free whole grain adds to its impressive résumé. Here's a recipe for gluten-free waffles made with teff.


Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock

Topics: PROTEIN | NUTRITION | FIBER | WATER | CALORIES | HEALTH | QUINOA | WHOLE GRAINS | BROWN RICE