Healthy Eating 101: Whole Grain Upgrades

Up your whole grain game and try some different whole grains in your meals.


By Aimée Suen, NTP


Whole grains have increased in popularity over the last few years, and for good reason. Whole grains are less refined than their quicker cooking, brighter white cousins. Grains become refined in the milling process, where the bran, which surrounds the grain is polished off. With the bran goes a lot of extra fiber and nutrients. By choosing to upgrade to whole grains, you can get the added fiber and nutrients back, keeping you fuller longer and getting the most out of your grains.

The easiest grain swap to make is switching from white rice to brown, but after a while, it’s time to mix it up and add new grains into the mix. There are a lot of whole grains to try and upgrade your healthy meals with.


It’s difficult to not see still-trendy quinoa when looking for other whole grains to try. Though considered an ancient grain, quinoa is actually a seed and is classified as a pseudograin. Ancient grains, according to the Whole Wheat Council, have been largely unchanged for hundreds of years and haven’t been cross-bred or refined.

High in fiber, protein, magnesium, folate and more, quinoa’s packed with many of your daily vitamins and minerals. Quinoa is also a complete protein, meaning it has all nine essential amino acids our bodies can’t produce and need to build and maintain muscle. There aren’t as many plant-based complete protein sources compared to animal-based ones.


Barley is a grain known for it’s high fiber content. Barley’s also considered a good grain to add to your diet if you’re looking to regulate your blood sugar and cholesterol levels. It’s commonly sold in pearlized form, meaning some of the hull is removed to speed up cooking time. The whiter the pearl barley is, the more it’s refined. But, even as a more “refined” grain, it’s still got some of its bran compared to other refined grains. You can also find barley cracked and in flake, flour, and the whole, full hull version.


Pronounced free-kah, freekeh is wheat that’s harvested young and roasted to give it a nutty flavor and chewy texture similar to barley. Freekeh is high in fiber, protein, and a good source of iron. It’s sold whole or cracked. The cracked version will cook faster than the whole version, but the whole version only takes about 35-45 minutes to cook.


Another pseudograin, amaranth is a edible seed from a flower (that you can buy and put in flower arrangements). Amaranth is on the smaller side of all these grains, but packs a big nutritional punch. Amaranth is high in fiber, protein, magnesium, and over your daily value of manganese. Due to it’s small size (smaller than quinoa), it cooks very quickly and in about 15-20 minutes, making it a good grain for when you want a meal in a hurry.


Similar to barley in its texture and nutty flavor, farro is a great whole grain upgrade. This ancient grain is high in fiber, protein, iron, magnesium and zinc. It’s popular in Italian cuisines, which could add some extra variety to your cooking. Farro comes in the whole and cracked variety, like with all of the whole grains in this article, the cracked variety will cook faster.

The true whole farro is hard to find in the United States and requires soaking before cooking. Most farro sold in the US is pearled or semi-pearled, but still has more nutrients than other, whiter refined grains.


Bulgur are wheat kernels that have been boiled, dried and cracked. Even though it’s already been cooked and slightly processed, bulgur is still loaded with fiber, protein, iron and manganese. Because it’s pre-cooked, bulgur is a good quick cooking grain for a last minute meal.


Millet is another smaller, gluten-free pseudograin like amaranth and quinoa. Millet is a good source of protein, fiber, B vitamins and magnesium. Studies show that millet’s also high in antioxidants, which can help fight disease and keep cells healthy. You can enjoy it soft or in a firmer texture. Millet can also be toasted and popped like popcorn.

Wild Rice

Not technically a rice or a grain, wild rice is a seed from an aquatic grass. But, like other whole grains, wild rice has impressive nutrition facts and is a good source of fiber, protein, B vitamins, magnesium and zinc. Wild rice can be sold by itself, but it’s also commonly sold mixed with brown rice.

If You’re Gluten-Intolerant

If you and gluten aren’t friends, you can still enjoy some of these whole grain upgrades. Quinoa, rice, millet, wild rice, and amaranth are all gluten-free, including teff, corn and oats which aren’t covered in this article. If you’re buying oats, make sure it’s called out as gluten-free, it’s common for oats to be processed in the same facilities as wheat products.

How to Enjoy These Grains

You can easily swap out your current grains for any of these whole grain upgrades in most dishes that call for grains. They will do well in a salad with greens and roasted vegetables, in meatless meatballs and burger patties, and in soups. These grains are be great additions to any stuffed vegetable filling and most grains give the dish an extra texture so it’s not all just soft. Farro, barley, wild rice, black and brown rice make good risottos instead of the usual arborio rice.

These grains aren’t just for savory meals either. Any of these grains are great as breakfast porridges and puddings. They are also be great additions to homemade snack bars. Most of these grains are also sold as flours and you can bake sweet or savory foods with them.

Try adding one new grain to your meals and see how you like it for a few weeks. Then move on to another whole grain and see which ones you want to make a new staple in your pantry. Have fun trying these new grains. With new ingredients can come a lot of new dishes and cuisines that could be your new favorite.

Healthy Eating 101 returns with more helpful tips to cook your way healthy soon.

Aimée Suen is a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner who shares nourishing, gluten-free recipes and nutrition wisdom at Small Eats. She is driven to help others enjoy whole foods and empower them to find their own healthy in all aspects of life, one small step at a time. When she’s not in the kitchen, she’s practicing yoga, in the gym, or learning something new. You can find Aimée on InstagramTwitter and Pinterest.

Second Photo Credit: stockcreations/ Third Photo Credit: Charlotte Lake/; Fourth Photo Credit: Brent Hofacker/; Fifth Photo Credit: Ekaterina Kondratova/; Sixth Photo Credit: Yulia Davidovich/