© Katrin Ray Shumakov/Getty ImagesOpt for 100% whole wheat over generic whole wheat products to ensure you're getting the most nutrients possible. Katrin Ray Shumakov/Getty Images
- Whole grains can include products from a host of different plants, but whole wheat products only come from wheat.
- In general, whole grains are often considered more nutritious than just whole wheat products because they offer a wider variety of nutrition from different grains.
- Focus on labels that say whole grain or 100% whole wheat, as both are good choices that provide the health benefits of eating whole grains.
- This article was medically reviewed by Samantha Cassetty, MS, RD, nutrition and wellness expert with a private practice based in New York City.
- Visit Insider's Health Reference library for more advice.
Whole grains and whole wheat sound similar and, in truth, they are when it comes to your health.
Whole grains can include products from a host of different plants including corn, barley, oats, rice, and wheat, whereas whole wheat products can only come from wheat. So whole wheat is a type of whole grain.
The similarity between whole grain and whole wheat is in the name "whole."
"Whole" means that all three parts of the grain seed - the bran, germ, and endosperm - are intact, so you're getting the maximum nutrition and subsequent health benefits from that product.
Both whole grain and whole wheat products are an important part of a nutritious diet. However, it's easy to be fooled into buying products that masquerade as a healthy option but are anything but. So it's important to know what to look for when shopping.
Here's how to choose the healthiest options and the health benefits you may gain from eating whole-grain foods.
Whole grains versus refined grains
Foods including cereal, bread, pasta, and rice are all examples of grains. But not all versions of these products are considered a whole grain. Some less nutritious options are made from refined grains.
Refined grains have 25% less protein than whole grains, and fewer vitamins and minerals. What makes this difference is in the manufacturing process.
Grains are plants, and we consume their seeds. When making whole grain products, all three edible parts of the seed - the bran, germ, and endosperm - are left intact, whereas refined grains only contain the endosperm, which lacks key vitamins and minerals:
- Bran - This is the outer part of the seed, which contains fiber, antioxidants, and B vitamins.
- Germ - This is the embryo part of the seed, which has the potential to sprout into a new plant. This contains B vitamins, protein, minerals, and healthy fats.
- Endosperm - This contains the food supply for the germ. It has carbohydrates and protein, but few vitamins or minerals.
"Compared with other types of grains, whole grains are better sources of fiber and other important nutrients, such as B vitamins, iron, folate, selenium, potassium, and magnesium," says Cynthia Delabahan, a registered dietary nutritionist with Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in Fruitdale, California.
You can spot refined grain products in the store under names like multigrain and seven-grain. Multigrain means the product contains multiple types of grains, but it does not promise that those grains contain all three parts of the seed. For that, you should look for "whole grain" on the packaging.
100% whole wheat is a type of whole grain
When it comes to whole wheat, you have many different options, and some aren't as nutritious as others. To make sure you're getting the maximum health benefits possible, look for products that say they are 100% whole wheat.
These 100% whole wheat products are made solely from wheat and contain the bran, germ, and endosperm of the wheat seed. If it doesn't specify 100% whole wheat, then it's probably a blend of whole and refined wheat grains.
For example, wheat flour is 75% white flour and only 25% whole wheat, says Delabahan. That's an example of refined grain, not a whole grain.
Whole wheat vs. whole grain
As long as you're eating whole grains or 100% whole wheat foods, you're reaping some major health benefits.
But, in general, whole grains are often considered more nutritious than just whole wheat products because they offer a wider variety of nutrition from different grains.
"Foods with whole grains tend to provide your diet with more of a variety, which is always helpful," says Cesar Sauza, a registered dietician with AltaMed Health Services in Los Angeles.
For example, bulgur contains notably more fiber than most other grains. One cup of cooked bulgur contains about 150 calories and 8 grams of fiber, or about 32% of your daily fiber value. The caloric equivalent of 100% whole wheat bread (about 2 slices) only provides about 4 grams of fiber (16% DV).
Health benefits of whole grains
The health benefits of whole-grain stay true whether you're eating a single-source food, like brown rice or popcorn, or processed food like whole-grain pasta or pancakes that include buckwheat or are made with 100% whole wheat flour, Delabahan says.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020 recommends that adult women get 3-6 servings of whole grains per day, and adult men get 3.5-8 servings. A serving, for example, is one slice of bread, one ounce of dry pasta, or half a cup of cooked rice or oatmeal.
Here's an overview of the health benefits you can gain from eating whole grains, including 100% whole wheat.
Whole grains are linked to a lower risk of dying
Eating 28 grams of whole grains-per-day has been associated with a 9% lower risk of dying from any cause, a 14% lower risk of dying from cardiovascular disease, and a 3% lower risk of dying from cancer, according to a 2018 medical review.
Whole grains are great for gut health
Whole-grain products are packed with fiber. "The fiber found in whole grains are also considered prebiotics; in other words, they are food for the healthy bacteria in our gut microbiome, which are also known to positively improve our health."
Whole grains are linked to less risk of type 2 diabetes
A 2020 study looked at data from more than 4 million people. It categorized their grain intake into five equal groups. Compared to people who ate the fewest whole grains, people who ate the most whole grains had a 29% reduced risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
Differentiating between whole grain and whole wheat products can be confusing.
Delabahan recommends focusing on labels that say whole grain or 100% whole wheat - both of those are good choices that will give you the health benefits of eating whole grains. If a label says "whole wheat" without mentioning 100%, be wary.
Another way to tell if you're getting a healthy product is to look for "whole grain" or "whole wheat" as the first ingredient, especially in bread and baked goods, Sauza says. When comparing the products, choose the one with the higher fiber content, he says.
Overall, focusing on eating whole grains is part of a healthy nutritional approach.
"We should always choose whole grains when given an option," Sauza says. "Nowadays, there are whole-grain versions of just about everything. Aim to choose wholegrains for pasta, rice, and cereal."
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