How can I add whole grains to my diet?

DEAR DOCTOR K:

I know I should be eating more whole grains, but for years I’ve been eating white bread, white rice and white pasta. I don’t know where to begin the switch to whole grains. Can you help?

DEAR READER:

Like you, many of my patients and I are making the switch to whole grains. Why? Diets rich in whole grains are linked with a reduced risk of many medical conditions, including diabetes, heart disease, obesity and certain cancers.

Whole-grain kernels are essentially plant seeds that have been removed from their inedible husks. All the grains we eat now started as whole grains, but we’ve stripped them down and lost some of the nutrition. Whole grains include unrefined versions of familiar foods like wheat, corn, rice, oats, barley and rye.

Whole grains may take a little getting used to, especially if you’re accustomed to fluffy white rice and instant oatmeal. But they can reward you with more complex flavor and a more interesting plate. For example, I haven’t had white rice in an Asian restaurant in a long time — the nutty flavor of brown rice is so much tastier. The following tips may help you get started:

  • Start with the familiar. Switch to a whole-grain version of something you already eat. For example, try brown or wild rice instead of white rice. Or try whole-grain pasta instead of white pasta. There are now several brands of whole-grain pasta in supermarkets that taste at least as good to me as white pasta. And my morning toast is always whole grain: It just tastes better that store-bought white bread.
  • Go gradually. Add whole grains a little at a time. For example, try mixing some brown rice into your white rice or replacing half your white pasta with whole-grain pasta. Substitute whole-grain cereals for quick-cooking varieties.
  • Take shortcuts. Whole grains take longer to cook. Speed the process by soaking them first. (Don’t try this with pasta, though!)
  • Rethink snacks. Surprise! Popcorn is a whole grain, too. It’s a great substitute for chips and pretzels. I have mid-evening popcorn once or twice a week. If I pour some olive oil over the kernels before popping them, I don’t need to add butter after they’re popped. (You do need to add some salt, though.)
  • Be adventurous. Quinoa, in three colors, is now easy to find. And the so-called “ancient grains” — including amaranth, bulgur, farro, Kamut, millet, spelt, sorghum and teff — are also becoming familiar on grocery shelves and in restaurants.
  • Don’t be fooled. When you’re buying packaged baked goods or cereals, look for “whole grain” on the label. “Multigrain” means only that the product is made from more than one grain, not that those grains are whole.

Finally, be assured that cooking whole grains does not involve long and complicated instructions. Combine the dry grain and liquid in a pot with water or broth, bring it to a boil, then simmer until the liquid is absorbed. It’s easy to eat healthy — and it tastes delicious.