Grains have been at the core of traditional diets for millennia, but in recent decades, these nutrient powerhouses have given way to modern refining practices and highly processed junk foods. Whole grains contain all edible parts of their original kernel (the bran, germ and the endosperm), providing more protein and fiber than their refined counterparts, as well as many more vitamins and minerals.

Losing nutrients

When you buy apples at the store, you don’t look for ones that have had two-thirds of their nutrition removed. So why do the same thing with grains? Without the bran and germ, about 25 percent of a grain’s protein is lost, and at least 17 key nutrients are greatly reduced. If a grain product isn’t a whole grain, with all of its original nutrients intact, then you’re not getting the best nutritional bang for your buck.

"Multiple studies have found whole grains to be protective in reducing the risk of a number of diseases, including stroke, type 2 diabetes and heart disease."

Experts agree that whole grains are a vital component of healthy diets. The 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, a group of nationally recognized nutrition scientists tasked with reviewing the latest nutrition research, recommends carrying forward the current recommendation to "make at least half your grains whole," in the upcoming 2015 Dietary Guidelines. This is consistent with guidelines from the American Heart Association, and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, which devotes a quarter of the plate to whole grains, in their Healthy Eating Plate.

Keeping you full

Because whole grains offer more fiber, protein and healthy fats than their refined counterparts, whole grains can keep you fuller for longer, which is important for weight control. Additionally, multiple studies have found whole grains to be protective in reducing the risk of a number of diseases, including stroke, type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Recent studies also link whole grains with improved longevity, even after adjusting for overall healthiness of the diet. This means that no matter where you are on your journey to health, you’ll still reap the benefits of eating more whole grains.

To be sure that you’re getting a whole grain, look for the word “whole” on the ingredient list, such as “whole wheat flour,” or look for the Whole Grain Stamp, which guarantees at least a half serving (8g) of whole grains. Avoid words like “refined,” “pearled,” or “degermed,” which indicate that part of the grain has been removed, and it is no longer a whole grain.

A growing interest in food has opened consumers up to a new world of delicious whole grains like millet, teff, amaranth and quinoa. But healthy whole grains need not be exotic. Easy-to-find foods like brown rice, whole grain pasta, oatmeal, popcorn and whole wheat bread offer the same whole grain goodness and rich, hearty flavor. With a few simple swaps like whole wheat flour for white flour or quinoa and brown rice instead of white rice, you’ll be on your way to a healthier, more satisfying meal in no time.