You’ve probably had oatmeal for breakfast, and if you haven’t yet tried quinoa I bet you’ve heard of it, or have seen it on a menu or social media recipe (it’s all over Pinterest!). But there are many other whole grains you may not be familiar with, and incorporating them into your food repertoire is well worth the learning curve.
Whole grains are white hot among chefs and nutritionists. They’re versatile, satisfying, and in addition to providing slow-burning starch (think sustained energy!), vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, whole grains are health protective. Their consumption is tied to a lower risk of heart disease, stroke, cancer, type 2 diabetes, and obesity (yes, a lower risk of obesity).
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Here are eight to try, plus easy, delicious ways to incorporate them into meals and snacks. (And for those with Celiac disease or a gluten intolerance, the first 6 are gluten free.)
Black rice is popping up on menus all over the place, in items from sushi to meatloaf. The natural pigment that gives black rice its hue is due to a unique antioxidant tied to protection against heart disease, cancer, and obesity. This is why compared to brown rice, black rice packs more potent anti-inflammatory properties, as well as higher levels of protein, iron, and fiber. While I’ve made black rice at home, my local Thai restaurant offers it as a side, and I’ll use the leftovers in a variety of ways, including as the base for a hot cereal (made with unsweetened coconut milk, fruit, nuts, and ginger), chilled and sprinkled onto in a garden salad, or folded into veggie chili.
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This quinoa cousin is similar nutritionally speaking—high in protein, minerals, and antioxidants—but it’s about half the size, so it cooks quickly (about 15 minutes). Like quinoa it’s incredibly versatile. You can whip cooked, chilled kaniwa into a smoothie, fold it into yogurt with fruit, nuts, and cinnamon, add it to a garden salad, or use it in place of bulgur in tabbouleh. Hot kaniwa can be stuffed into peppers, added to a stew, or used any way you’d enjoy quinoa—in burgers, lettuce wraps, frittatas, you name it!
Sorghum, also called milo, originated in Egypt thousands of years ago, and is a staple in Africa. In addition to being nutrient rich, this gluten-free grain is digested and absorbed slowly, so it has a “stick to your ribs” quality that keeps you fuller longer, delays the return of hunger, and helps regulate blood sugar and insulin levels. Sorghum can be used in countless recipes, from smoothies to savory hot or cold veggie salads, but my favorite way to prepare it is to pop it, just like popcorn!
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This African whole grain is probably best known as the key ingredient in spongy Ethiopian flatbread. Known for its sweet, molasses-like flavor and versatility, teff can be cooked as an oatmeal alternative, added to baked goods, or made into polenta in place of corn. Teff packs about three times the calcium as other whole grains—over 120mg per cup cooked—and it provides resistant starch, a unique kind of carbohydrate that’s been shown to naturally up your body’s fat-burning furnace. Teff can be incorporated into homemade energy bars, pie crust, cookies, or used in savory meals, such as a teff lentil loaf, or as a coating for lean proteins like fish.
While wheat is in the name, buckwheat isn’t related to wheat at all. In fact, it’s thought of as a whole grain due to its nutritional properties, but it’s technically a cousin of rhubarb, and is naturally gluten free. You may have tried buckwheat pancakes, but one of my favorite forms of buckwheat is soba noodles. I coat them with a quick sauce I make from almond butter thinned with warm water and brown rice vinegar, fresh grated ginger, minced garlic, and crushed red pepper, tossed with lots of veggies, topped with a lean protein. You can also enjoy buckwheat as a breakfast porridge, or use buckwheat flour for making anything from crepes to cookies.
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A staple in India, this tiny oval whole grain contains antioxidants in addition to key minerals including copper, magnesium, manganese, and phosphorus. Like many of the grains listed here, millet can be served chilled or hot, or used in baking. I also love puffed millet as a cold cereal base, and I fold it into nut butter, along with chopped dark chocolate, minced dried fruit, and spices, to make crunchy millet balls as an alternative to crispy rice treats.
Rye (not gluten free)
Aside from rye bread, which is often a mixture of refined wheat and rye, there are many ways to enjoy 100% whole rye grain. Rye flour can be used for baking, rye flakes can be swapped for rolled oats, and rye berries can be used in place of rice. Recent research has shown that rye is more satiating compared to wheat, and in one animal study mice fed whole-grain rye versus wheat shed more weight, and experienced slightly better improvements in cholesterol levels and insulin regulation. When shopping for packaged rye products, be sure to read the ingredients. In most mainstream supermarkets you can find 100% whole rye crackers, made simply from whole-grain rye flour, water, and salt. They’re an easy way to fit in a whole grain serving, and delicious spread with a little ripe avocado, hummus, olive tapenade, or pesto.
Barley (not gluten free)
You may have had barley in soup, but there are many other ways to enjoy this hearty whole grain. One of the oldest cultivated grains, barley has been found in Egyptian pyramids, and was consumed by ancient Greeks for medicinal purposes. Natural substances in barley have been shown to help reduce cholesterol even more than oats, and feed the “good” bacteria in your gut, which improve digestive health, immunity, and weight control. Barley is also the highest fiber whole grain, another boon for weight control, since fiber helps boost satiety and curbs calorie absorption. Try it as a hot breakfast cereal, in a chilled vegetable and bean dish, or as a rice alternative in pilaf.
Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, is Health’s contributing nutrition editor, and privately counsels clients in New York, Los Angeles, and long distance. Cynthia is currently the sports nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers NHL team and the Tampa Bay Rays MLB team, and is board certified as a specialist in sports dietetics.