Why Do People Care So Much About Whole Grains vs. Regular Carbs?

For years we've been told "carbs are bad," but that's really painting with a broad brush, don't you think? Sure, pasta for every meal might not do wonders for your waistline, but if you're eating the right kind of carbs, they could actually aid in weight loss and weight maintenance.

If you haven't guessed it, we're talking about whole grains. And beyond just the weight benefits, whole grains can have benefits for your heart, blood, athletic performance, and more. Vicki Shanta Retelny, RDN and author of Total Body Diet For Dummies (great title, honestly), shared some insight into how whole grains can contribute to a healthier diet and which ones to try today.

Why are whole grains healthy?

Well for one, they're super nutritious. Way more so than their refined siblings. "Whole grains offer a special synergy of nutrients, as they contain 100 percent of the original kernel — all of the bran, germ, and endosperm — even if the grain has been processed, such as cracked, crushed, rolled, extruded, or cooked," Vicki explained.

This is different from "refined grains, such as white flour, de-germed cornmeal, white bread, and white rice" because those kinds of grains "have been stripped of their vital nutrients." She noted that at least half of your daily grain intake should contain whole grains; "aim to get 48 grams of whole grains per day, as well as 25 to 38 grams of fiber per day."

On the note of fiber, that's another huge benefit of eating whole grains. "Whole grains are jam-packed with dietary fiber, which may help reduce blood cholesterol levels and the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and obesity, as well as fend off constipation." Don't have to tell us twice. "Keep in mind," she said, "fiber-rich foods like whole grains can fill you up on fewer calories and therefore may help with weight management."

So fiber can help you reduce cholesterol, fend of heart disease and diabetes, defeat constipation, and possibly lose weight? And whole grains are packed in fiber? Bury us in 'em.

What are the best whole grains?

Vicki's picks are some of our favorites. Check out these benefits from grains that are likely in your pantry.

  • Quinoa fills you up on good quality protein and it's a great gluten-free alternative.
  • Barley offers a special type of fiber called beta glucan, which can help keep your heart healthy and cholesterol levels in a healthy range.
  • Amaranth is a good source of calcium to help keep your bones and teeth strong.
  • Wheat offers a good dose of the antioxidant vitamin E, which can help fend off damage to cells and keep you healthy.
  • Sorghum keeps your blood healthy with a good dose of plant-based iron as well as protein.

How much should you eat?

As with anything, there can be too much of a good thing, and you've gotta balance and control your carbohydrate portions. "The amount of whole grains you need depends on your age, sex, and level of physical activity," said Vicki. "In other words, the more active you are, the more grains you may be able to eat and stay within your calorie allotment for the day." More exercise equals more carbs. We like the sound of that.

To figure out your optimal caloric intake — and thus your optimal carbohydrate intake — use our macro counting guide to get started.

What is a serving of whole grains?

Here are some examples Vicki gave us to make sense of servings in food form:

  • 1 slice of Arnold whole-grain bread
  • 1 cup ready-to-eat whole-grain cereal
  • 1/2 cup cooked brown rice, whole-wheat pasta, or oatmeal
  • 1 mini whole-grain bagel
  • 1/2 cup cooked bulgur wheat
  • 1/2 whole-wheat English muffin
  • 3 cups popped popcorn
  • 1 small (6-inch) whole-grain tortilla
  • 2 small (3-inch) whole-wheat pancakes