Move over, squishy bread and white rice: Mounting evidence points to whole grains as essential for good health. In its 2005 Dietary Guidelines, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends three or more whole-grain servings per day, with half of all grains eaten—that includes cereal, bread, pasta, rice—coming from unrefined sources. “Epidemiologic studies show that consumption of whole grains lowers disease risk,” says Joanne Slavin, PhD, professor of food science and nutrition at the University of Minnesota. Slavin’s research indicates that these plant foods help protect against cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity (Nutrition Research Reviews, 2004, vol. 17, no. 1).
Choosing whole-wheat bread and brown rice is a great first step, but don’t stop there. The bulk bins at natural foods stores are brimming with whole grains—some familiar, others less so—and all are worth a try. Because some are rich in dietary fiber, others in iron, and still others in amino acids, the best strategy is to choose a variety, says Slavin. Here are five great grains to add to your diet.
>> Amaranth. An ancient crop originally cultivated by the Mayan and Incan civilizations, nutrient-dense and slightly peppery amaranth contains lysine, an amino acid the body uses to make protein. “Lysine is minimal in most grains,” says Greg Hottinger, MPH, RD, author of The Best Natural Foods on the Market Today (Huckleberry Mountain Press, 2004), “but because [amaranth’s] lysine levels are adequate, it’s considered a complete protein.” Amaranth is also high in fiber, calcium, iron, and disease-preventing phytosterols. Enjoy flaked amaranth as a cold cereal; cook the whole grain for pilafs and stews, or pop it like corn in a dry skillet. Try substituting amaranth flour for about one-fourth of your regular flour in bread dough and fresh pasta.
>> Barley. The great-granddaddy of whole grains, barley has been cultivated in the Middle East for 8,000 years. Chewier and more flavorful than white rice, barley comes in pearled, hulled, and flaked forms. When added to a healthy diet, it may lower total and LDL cholesterol (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2004, vol. 80, no. 5). Barley boasts high levels of soluble fiber rich in beta-glucans, compounds that not only lower cholesterol but also stabilize blood glucose levels. It’s also loaded with calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, and antioxidant-rich vitamin E. Seek out hulled barley, which has even more iron, trace minerals, and thiamin than pearl barley. Toss cooked barley in soups or salads, and stir barley flakes into hot cereals.
>> Oats. In 1997, the Food and Drug Administration announced that soluble fiber from whole oats may reduce heart disease risk. One cup of cooked oatmeal has 4 grams of fiber, half of it soluble. Oats’ combination of fatty acids and antioxidants, including vitamin E, can slow cell damage and may reduce cancer risk (Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry, 1999, vol. 47, no. 12; Nutrition and Cancer, 1999, vol. 33, no. 1). Oats are available in several equally nutritious forms: oat bran, rolled oats (regular and quick-cooking), steel-cut oats, and oat groats. (Avoid “instant” oats, which often contain added sweeteners and flavorings.) Sprinkle oat bran on cereal, and experiment with groats instead of rice for stir-fries and pilafs.
>> Quinoa. Native to the Andes of Bolivia, Chile, and Peru, quinoa (KEEN-wah) means “mother grain” in the Incan language. These round, pale yellow seeds fluff up when cooked. Calcium-rich and low in sodium, quinoa, like amaranth, also contains lysine, making it a complete protein. Plus, according to Hottinger, a 3/4 cup serving provides 25 percent of the daily value for iron and magnesium, and 10 percent of your daily vitamin E, potassium, and fiber. Rinse before cooking and use to perk up salads, soups, and casseroles.
>> Teff. Ethiopians have enjoyed teff for thousands of years as the basis for injera, a spongy fermented flatbread. White, brown, or reddish, depending on the variety, teff is remarkable not only for its nutritional punch but for its minute size; 150 grains weigh as much as a single grain of wheat. It contains more than twice the iron of other grains and 20 times the calcium; just 1 cup of cooked teff provides more calcium than a cup of milk. Try it for your morning porridge, or use it to thicken soups, stews, and gravies. Teff flour lends a sweet, molasseslike flavor to baked goods.