During March, National Nutrition Month, it's worth taking another look at the Agriculture Department's My Plate, the daily food plan tool unveiled in June. It shows that a quarter of a typical healthy plate should be filled with grains -- at least half of them whole grains.
Eating more whole grains, the USDA says, can help reduce the risk of certain diseases. Folks at the Harvard School of Public Health take it a step further, saying that whole grains should fill up the entire quarter of our plates.
Whole grains include barley, corn, oats, rice, rye and wheat (bulgur, farro and spelt are wheat grains). They contain the entire kernel with its nutritional parts: the bran (outer layer), endosperm (inner) and germ.
Fortunately, finding whole grains is easier than ever as more and more products contain 100 percent whole grains. And some very old grains are being reintroduced to new generations.
Grains such as amaranth, farro and quinoa are called ancient grains because the strains have been around for thousands of years.
Not only are they showing up in more recipes, they're becoming more widely available on grocery store shelves.
"The focus on eating more whole grains has meant that there are even more options to the consumer," said Bethany Thayer, wellness director at Henry Ford Health System in Detroit and spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "We are not limited to whole wheat. You have whole-grain options like farro and spelt."
It takes a conscious effort to make sure half of the grains you consume are whole.
Don't be swayed by what's on the front of the package. "You need to look at the ingredients list," Thayer said. The first ingredient should be a whole grain, such as whole wheat, whole rye or quinoa.
"Increasing whole grains can be as easy as swapping out enriched flour with whole-wheat flour in your recipes," Thayer said. "Depending on the recipe, you may want to mix half enriched flour with half whole-wheat flour.
When you have a choice, opt for whole grains.
"For breakfast, choose whole-grain cereals such as Wheaties, oatmeal or whole-grain toast. For lunch, make your sandwich with whole-grain bread, and at dinner choose a brown rice pilaf or whole-grain pasta," said Kathleen Poore, registered dietitian and a program specialist with the Ann Arbor VA Health System. "And choose popcorn for a tasty whole-grain snack."
These three so-called ancient grains are gaining new lives.
What it is: These tiny yellowish seeds were a staple of the Aztecs. Not a true grain, it has the nutritional profile of a cereal grain.
Best nutritional aspect: Gluten-free, rich in vitamin B and a source of vitamin E, high in protein and a source of good fat.
To cook: For 1 cup amaranth, use 2 1/2 cups water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer for 20 minutes until fluffy.
Best uses: Pilafs, hot cereals, cold salads. Use amaranth flour in breads, cookies and pancakes.
What it is: A whole-wheat grain originally cultivated in the Middle East, it is known as the grain consumed by the Roman Empire. It has a nutty flavor and chewy texture.
Best nutritional aspect: High in protein, vitamins and antioxidants. Twice the fiber of wheat.
To cook: Farro is generally sold pearled, meaning some of the hull is removed so it cooks quicker. Soak unpearled farro overnight to soften the hull. For 1 cup farro, use 3 cups water. Bring to boil, cover and simmer for 30-40 minutes.
Best uses: In cold salads or in side dishes mixed with roasted vegetables. Use like Arborio rice to make risotto or soups.
What it is: A South America native, quinoa (KEEN-wah) consists of tiny, disc-shaped grains. It has the highest protein of any grain and a nutty flavor. Not a true grain, it has the nutritional profile of a cereal grain. You can buy quinoa in regular, red, black or mixed styles.
Best nutrition aspect: Known as a complete grain because of its high protein, high calcium and high amino acids. A 1/2 cup serving has 5 grams of fiber.
To cook: Rinse quinoa well in a fine strainer with cold water. Bring 1 cup quinoa to a boil in 2 cups of water. Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer until tender and liquid is absorbed, 15 to 20 minutes. A half-cup serving has 5 grams of fiber and 4 grams of protein.
Best uses: Cold vegetable salads, including potato salads, and soups. In side dishes, add other vegetables, including roasted asparagus and squash.
Sources: www.wholegrainscouncil.org; "The New Whole Grains Cookbook" by Robin Asbell (Chronicle Books, 2007).
READ THE LABEL
The Whole Grains Council introduced a 100 percent Whole Grain stamp years ago that's on thousands of products. But it's still important to read the ingredient list.
Products that have the 100 percent stamp offer 47 grams or more of whole grains per serving.
The organization's stamp without the 100 percent signals a product with 8 grams or more of whole grains per serving.
The recommendation is to eat 48 grams or more of whole grains.
A product may not have a stamp but might carry other phrases about the amount of whole grains, such as:
Good source: At least 8 grams of whole grains per serving.
Excellent source: At least 16 grams per serving.
Whole grains include wheat, corn, rice, oats, farro, barley, quinoa, spelt and rye.
Source: www.wholegrainscouncil.org and Free Press research