Stuck in a whole-grain rut? Oatmeal at breakfast, 100-per-cent whole-wheat bread at lunch (that same old sandwich), brown rice at dinner over and over again?
Don't get me wrong. These foods are healthy options. Expanding your whole-grain menu, though, will offer a wider range of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, nutrients you might be missing on a limited whole-grain diet. Adding variety will also make your meals more interesting.
Repeated studies have found that a diet based on whole grains (i.e. foods made from the bran, the germ and the starchy endosperm) guards against stroke, heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Whole grains are good for your gut, too. Their fibre and resistant starch provide fuel for probiotic bacteria in your large intestine.
Eating more whole grains – and fewer refined grains, such as white bread and white rice – may even help control belly fat, the type of fat that's tied to high blood pressure, high cholesterol and insulin resistance.
A 2008 study from Pennsylvania State University, for example, found that dieters who followed a meal plan with whole grains (no refined grains) lost more weight and significantly more abdominal fat than did the group whose diet included refined grains (no whole grains).
If brown rice (or quinoa) is getting old, liven up your menu with whole grains you may not have heard of. Here's a guide to get to know them – their defining nutritional qualities and how to cook them. Plus, easy (and tasty) ways to include them in your diet (see sidebar).
A distant relative of modern wheat, farro was a dietary mainstay of Roman soldiers thousands of years ago. And no wonder. This hearty whole grain is packed with satiating fibre and protein (14 grams of each per one cup, cooked) and plenty of iron, a mineral that helps pump oxygen to working muscles.
Farro may be better tolerated by people with a wheat sensitivity, but it contains gluten so it's not suitable for people with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity.
To cook this nutty-tasting, slightly chewy grain, add one cup of farro to three cups of water (or low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth). Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium-low and then simmer for about 30 minutes. Drain off any excess water.
A staple in Middle Eastern diets for centuries, this whole-grain whole wheat is harvested when the wheat is young and green, and then roasted to burn off the husks. The end result: a firm, slightly chewy grain with a nutty and mildly smoky flavour.
Freekeh delivers low glycemic carbohydrates, protein and fibre – twice as much fibre as you get in the same size serving of quinoa (10 versus 5 grams) – along with B vitamins, calcium, magnesium and iron.
Freekeh is sold as whole or cracked grain. To cook, add one cup of cracked freekeh to 2.5 cups of boiling water, reduce heat to medium-low, cover and simmer until liquid is absorbed, about 20 minutes. Remove from heat and let sit for five minutes.
This exotic whole grain rice is grown in France, Bhutan, Thailand and the Himalayas. It gets its burgundy colour from anthocyanins, the same powerful antioxidants found in berries, red grapes and purple cabbage. Eating more anthocyanin-rich foods is thought to help protect from heart disease and stroke.
Red rice is also an exceptional source of manganese (one cup supplies 80 per cent of a day's worth), a mineral needed for normal nerve and brain function. The trace mineral is also used to make to superoxide dismutase, an enzyme that combats harmful free radical damage in the body.
To cook red rice, combine one cup of rice with 1.5 cups of water or broth. Boil, cover and reduce heat, and then simmer until cooked (20 to 40 minutes depending on the variety).
A cousin of farro, this ancient wheat made its way to North America in the 1980s. Since then, it's been gaining popularity due to its slightly nutty flavour and nutritional payload.
One cup of cooked spelt berries, the whole-grain kernel form, serve up 10 g of protein, 15 g of fibre and one-quarter of a day's worth magnesium, a mineral that helps regulate blood sugar and blood pressure. Spelt berries are also a decent source of niacin, iron and zinc.
Soak spelt berries for eight hours or overnight before cooking. Drain, then bring one part spelt to three parts liquid to a boil; reduce heat and simmer for about one hour.
Like spelt berries, wheat berries have been stripped only of their outer inedible hull. They're high in protein and fibre, offering 12 grams of each per one cup cooked.
Wheat berries also serve up B vitamins, magnesium, copper, manganese and selenium.
Cook wheat berries as you would spelt berries. Soaking the grain kernels before cooking is optional; you'll save about 10 minutes of cooking time if you do. Consider toasting wheat berries (and spelt berries) before cooking to intensify their nutty flavour.
WHOLE GRAINS FIVE WAYS
Whole grains aren't just for eating on their own. Here are some of my favourite ways to serve them.
Tossed as a salad
Toss cooked whole grains with your favourite vinaigrette (or simply lemon juice and olive oil) and combination of ingredients. Try watermelon, feta and fresh mint or tuna, chopped Kalamata olives, cherry tomatoes, red onion and parsley. Other delicious combos include chopped roasted beets, goat's cheese, pumpkin seeds and baby spinach or, for a Mediterranean twist, artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes, chick peas, feta cheese and fresh basil.
Stirred into chili
Stir cooked wheat berries or spelt berries into vegetarian or turkey chili to amp up its flavour, fibre and protein. These hearty grains also work well in stews and soups.
Stuffed in burritos
Replace brown rice with red rice or farro in burrito recipes. Ditto for stuffed bell peppers and cabbage rolls.
Mixed with roasted vegetables
Toss roasted carrots, cauliflower and butternut squash (roast them with spices) with cooked whole grains and lentils for a hearty vegetarian main.
Cooked as hot cereal
Cook freekeh (or any other whole grain) with a dash of vanilla and a pinch of cinnamon. Serve hot, topped with chopped dried apricots and toasted walnuts.
Leslie Beck, a registered dietitian, is based at the Medisys clinic in Toronto.