What are whole grains?

Grains are the seeds (aka kernels) of certain plants and is made up of the bran, endosperm, and germ. All 3 parts of a grain contain nutrients that play important roles in your diet. Grains can be either whole or refined. Whole grains contain all 3 parts of the kernel.

What are refined grains?

Refined grains are ones that have had the germ and the bran removed. Refined grains include white rice, white flour, and cream of wheat. Refining grains lead to a reduction in the fibre, vitamin, and mineral content of the grain. In Canada, some refined grains are enriched with some vitamins and minerals, however these grains still lack some of the nutrients found in their whole grain counterparts, such as fibre and magnesium.1

Common Types of Grains

  • wheat
  • rice
  • oats
  • barley
  • corn
  • wild rice
  • rye
  • quinoa
  • buckwheat1

Foods that Contain Whole Grains

  • oatmeal
  • brown rice
  • popcorn
  • wheat germ
  • quinoa

Foods that Contain Refined Grains

  • processed breakfast cereals
  • white rice
  • foods made with white flour – eg. English muffins, bagels, bread, pasta

Is whole wheat the same as whole grain?

In Canada, when wheat is milled to make flour, parts of the kernel are removed and recombined to make whole wheat flour. The Food and Drug Regulations state that up to 5% of the kernel can be removed to make whole wheat flour. Why is the kernel removed? – because doing so reduces rancidity and increases the shelf life of whole wheat products. Unfortunately, the part of the kernel that is removed also contains most of the germ and some of the bran of the grain. For a product to be whole grain, all parts of the kernel must be present in the same relative proportions as they exist in the original kernel. This means that 100% whole wheat products such as bread are not always whole grain. However, whole wheat products are still a more nutritious choice than refined wheat (eg. white bread), as it provides dietary fibre. So in short, whole wheat is not the same as whole grain.1

Don’t be fooled by food labels

When choosing whole grain foods at the grocery store, look for the words “whole grain” on the label and in the ingredient list. For example, whole grain wheat or whole grain flour. Be wary of products labelled with the words “multigrain” and “organic”, because these are not always whole grain products.1

What are the benefits of eating whole grains?

Eating a diet high in whole grains in comparison to refined grains can improve your blood pressure. Since they undergo very little processing, whole grain products require less sodium and other preservatives to maintain their freshness compared to refined grain products. Results from a study showed that individuals consuming a diet where all of their grains were whole grains had a 3-fold improvement in their diastolic blood pressure in comparison to individuals who ate the same diet, except with refined grains. Improving your blood pressure also lowers your risk of death from heart disease and stroke.2,3

Whole grains also contain more fibre. Fibre can help lower cholesterol and maintain a healthy weight, which can help prevent heart disease.3

Whole grains can also play a role in reducing belly fat (subcutaneous adipose tissue and visceral adipose tissue). Excess fat in the abdominal region is a health risk and a factor in metabolic syndrome, which is a precursor to heart disease and diabetes. In a study of 3,000 men and women, those who reported eating 3 or more daily servings of whole grains and limited their intake of refined grains to less than 1 daily serving saw an average 10% lower belly fat volume.4

Does this mean I should never eat refined grains again?

With the knowledge that consuming more whole grains can improve your heart health and longevity, it isn’t an all or nothing situation. Researchers found that each daily whole grain serving is associated with a 9% lower risk of cardiovascular mortality. This is because whole grains contain more nutrients such as magnesium and fibre, which benefit the heart, and less nutrients like sodium, that harm the heart.3

Tracy’s Nutrition Tip:

Life is all about balance! Now that you are aware of the benefits whole grains can contribute to your health, make a conscious effort to incorporate more into your daily diet, and swap out some of your refined grains for whole grains. For example, instead of regular pasta, opt for brown rice pasta. They make almost every shape and size of regular pasta in a brown rice version, and it tastes just as good, if not better.

My other tip would be to choose grain products made with whole grains. For example, I love everything bagels, just because they are a grain product doesn’t mean I have to stop eating them altogether. By simply reading the ingredient list of the bagels offered at the grocery store, I found that Country Harvest everything bagels are made with a combination of whole grain whole wheat flour and enriched wheat flour. Although some refined grains are still used, having some whole grains is still better than none at all. Another one of my favourite products are the Casa Mendosa whole wheat flour tortillas. These tortillas are made with whole grain whole wheat flour, and are just as tasty as your regular white flour tortillas, but with the added health benefits of whole grains. They also come in a large and medium size, so they are perfect for burritos and tacos.

So now I challenge you. Reflect on which products you eat on a daily basis that contain whole grains and make a goal to swap out 1 of those products for a whole grain alternative. Let me know what you’ve swapped out in the comment section below, or shoot me a DM or email!


  1. Government of Canada. (2019, September 5). Whole Grains – Get the Facts. Retrieved from https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/canada-food-guide/resources/healthy-eating-recommendations/eat-a-variety/whole-grain/get-facts.html
  2. Study supports heart benefits of diet rich in whole grains: Cleveland Clinic researchers find that even among overweight and obese individuals, whole grains can help cut cardiovascular disease risks. (2017, January). Heart Advisor, 20(1), 9. Retrieved from https://link-gale-com.subzero.lib.uoguelph.ca/apps/doc/A476563370/AONE?u=guel77241&sid=AONE&xid=0b8905d9
  3. Eating more whole grains linked to lower heart disease risk: research shows significant health benefits of replacing refined grains with whole grains, even for just one serving of grains per day. (2015, March). Heart Advisor, 18(3), 4. Retrieved from https://link-gale-com.subzero.lib.uoguelph.ca/apps/doc/A403587604/AONE?u=guel77241&sid=AONE&xid=c5a244a8
  4. I’ve been hearing a lot about whole grains and how good they are for you. (2011, March). Duke Medicine Health News, 17(3), 8. Retrieved from https://link-gale-com.subzero.lib.uoguelph.ca/apps/doc/A252193959/AONE?u=guel77241&sid=AONE&xid=eefa8e91

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