Diet is one of the most powerful tools you have to support heart health. Eating the right foods can protect your heart while eating the wrong ones can increase your chance of developing high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol and triglyceride levels, and risk of cardiovascular disease. Whole grains fall squarely under the category of foods to eat for your heart.
If you’ve ever wondered what exactly qualifies as a whole grain, you’re in the right place. In this article, we’ll review what makes whole grains best for the heart, compare whole wheat vs whole grain, and share tips for eating more whole grains.
What Are Whole Grains?
Whole grains remain intact from harvest to your plate. There are three parts to whole grains:
- Bran – a grain’s outer shell and is rich in fiber, B vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants
- Germ – the core that contains healthy fats, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants
- Endosperm – the inside of a grain that is mostly carbohydrate or starch and some vitamins and minerals
Refined grains are processed to remove the bran and germ, leaving only the endosperm. Removing these parts strips grains of important nutrients. That’s why whole grains are considered healthier than refined grains.
Benefits of Whole Grains for Heart Health
Thanks to fear-mongering from the media and wellness influencers, many people associate eating carbohydrates with weight gain. However, carbohydrates are an essential part of a healthy diet. The type of carbohydrate you eat makes all the difference when it comes to both weight and heart health.
Regular consumption of whole grains is linked to a decreased risk of heart disease and stroke, as well as improved blood sugar control and weight management. The USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends making at least half of the servings of bread, cereal, pasta, and other grains you eat in a day whole grains. For most adults, this translates to 3 to 4 ounces of whole grains per day. One ounce of whole grains is equal to one slice of bread or a half-cup of cooked grains, like rice or oats.
If you don’t currently eat grains, enjoying 3 to 4 servings of whole grains per day can support both overall and heart health.
The fiber in whole grains is credited with most of their health benefits. Fiber from whole grains is associated with the following heart health benefits:
- Supports healthy weight
- Supports balanced gut microbiome
- Helps reduce total and LDL cholesterol
- Helps reduce triglycerides
- Reduces risk of developing high blood pressure
- Improves blood sugar control
Being overweight, having an imbalance in the microbiome, high cholesterol numbers, high blood pressure, and elevated blood sugar are all risk factors for developing cardiovascular disease (CVD).
There’s also some evidence that not eating enough quality carbs can increase your risk of heart disease. A 2021 study found individuals following low-carb diets are associated with higher coronary artery calcium scores, which is the amount of plaque buildup in arteries. Higher calcium scores indicate a higher likelihood of developing atherosclerosis and an increased risk of CVD.
6 Best Whole Grains for the Heart
The best way to eat more whole grains is to replace refined grains in your diet with whole grain alternatives. Start by taking inventory of how many times a day you eat carbohydrates and starches, such as cereal, bread, crackers, and rice. Then, work on switching one or two servings a day to whole grain varieties.
Here are six whole grains to try, plus tips for how to add them to your meal plan.
Amaranth is an ancient, gluten-free grain that looks similar to quinoa. One cup of cooked amaranth provides you with 9 grams of protein and 5 grams of fiber. Amaranth isn’t as well-studied as more popular whole grains, like brown rice and oats, but laboratory and animal studies have linked various compounds in amaranth, including phenolic acids, proteins, and squalene, with antioxidant activity and reductions in blood sugar, total cholesterol, and triglycerides.
Like other whole grains, amaranth can be simmered in liquid for use in soups, and salads, or eaten warm as a breakfast porridge. You can also toast or pop dry amaranth in a pot, similar to popcorn, and add to homemade granola or trail mix.
- Brown Rice
Brown rice is a popular whole grain because it’s recognizable, accessible, and considered healthier than white rice. Brown and white rice contain similar amounts of protein, but brown rice is the clear winner when it comes to fiber. One cup of cooked brown rice has 3.5 grams of fiber versus one cup of cooked white rice, which has only half a gram of fiber.
In addition to fiber, brown rice is also a good source of the mineral selenium. Selenium has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that can reduce the risk of heart problems. One cup of cooked brown rice provides you with 35% of your daily needs for selenium.
A 2022 systematic review found eating brown rice is associated with reductions in body weight and waist circumference. Soaking your brown rice prior to cooking may hold even more health benefits. The same review also found that pre-germinated, or soaked, brown rice helped lower total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, and fasting blood glucose in study participants.
Also called cracked wheat, bulgur is a wheat grain. The grains are small in size and resemble quinoa or couscous when cooked. One cup of bulgur contains 8 grams of fiber.
In addition to fiber, bulgur is also a source of the mineral magnesium. Diets higher in magnesium have been associated with improved heart health and decreased risk of CVD. You’ll get about 14% of your daily magnesium from one cup of cooked bulgur.
If you’re tired of oatmeal for breakfast, try a bulgur breakfast bowl topped with fresh fruit, nuts, and seeds. Because of its small size, you can also add bulgur to baked meatballs in place of breadcrumbs.
Farro is another type of wheat grain. It has a chewy texture and slightly nutty flavor that’s well-suited for soups and grain salads. It’s also delicious on its own as a side dish. Try cooking farro in bone broth for added flavor and protein.
Many grocery stores carry pearled farro, which has had part of the bran removed to speed up cooking. Even so, pearled farro is still a good source of fiber, with 5 grams per quarter-cup.
- Rolled Oats
Oats contain a type of fiber called beta-glucans. Researchers have found eating a diet rich in beta-glucans helps lower levels of total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol. The fiber content of oats has also been linked to improved blood sugar control and weight loss, both of which are contributing factors in the development of CVD. One cup of cooked oatmeal has about 4 grams of fiber.
When shopping, choose plain, rolled oats and avoid flavored instant varieties, which contain added sugars. You can add interest and flavor to a bowl of plain oatmeal with fresh fruit, like berries or chopped apples, a dollop of plain yogurt, nut butter, and warming spices, like cinnamon or nutmeg.
Quinoa is unique because it’s higher in protein than other whole grains and is a complete protein, meaning it contains all nine essential amino acids the body must get from food sources. It’s also a good source of fiber and the minerals magnesium and potassium, which play a role in regulating blood pressure and heart health. One cup of cooked quinoa provides 8 grams of protein and 5 grams of fiber.
Quinoa is also rich in antioxidants and a good source of trace minerals, including zinc and copper. Researchers have observed a decreased risk of both CVD risk factors and heart disease in individuals who have higher intakes of trace minerals. One cup of quinoa provides 20% of the daily recommendation for zinc and 100% for copper.
Quinoa is actually a seed, but it gets classified as a whole grain because it’s prepared and eaten similarly to other grains. Quinoa makes a great alternative to rice and can be added to soups, casseroles, and stir-fries. You can also cook a pot of quinoa to prep grain bowls or add to salads throughout the week.
A registered dietitian can help analyze your whole vs. refined grain intake and make suggestions for how to incorporate more whole grains like the ones listed above.
Whole Wheat vs Whole Grain
You may be wondering if products made from whole wheat flour, like whole wheat bread and pasta, count as whole grains. To answer this, we need to review how whole wheat flour is made.
Whole wheat flour is made by grinding all parts of wheat kernels into flour. Because whole wheat flour is made from whole grain wheat, whole wheat flour is considered a whole grain. Other whole grains, like amaranth, brown rice, and quinoa, can also be ground into flour to add whole grain nutrition to baked goods.
Whole wheat flour contains the same nutrients, like fiber, protein, fats, vitamins, and minerals, as whole wheat kernels. Therefore, products made with whole wheat flour will offer more nutrition than those made with refined or white wheat flour.
Just because a product contains whole wheat flour doesn’t mean it’s a whole grain. Many products are labeled “made with whole wheat” to make them sound healthy. Other labels that don’t guarantee a product is whole grain include:
- Multigrain, which means a product contains more than one type of grain
- Enriched or fortified, which refers to the addition of vitamins and minerals
- Made with whole grains
Only products that are labeled 100% whole wheat or 100% whole grain count as whole grains.
Whole grains are an important part of a heart healthy diet. They contain beneficial fiber, vitamins, and minerals that can benefit your heart, blood sugar, digestion, and weight.
Although diet culture has given carbohydrates and many whole grains a bad reputation, a balanced diet that includes fiber-rich whole grains, lean protein, and healthy fat is best for optimal metabolic control and heart health. A diet makeover that includes more whole grains and fewer refined grains can also help improve elevated lipid levels and blood pressure readings.
If you’re stuck in a whole grain rut or need ideas for how to add more servings of whole grains to your day, a registered dietitian can help. A cardiac dietitian is specially trained to tailor food choices to your heart health needs and goals. You can learn practical strategies to implement a science-based heart-healthy diet in my Heart Health Optimization Group Coaching Program. Take the first step to improve your heart health and enroll today.
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