Fitness Nutrition

Whole Grains and Nutrition: There's More Than Meets The Eye!

Stacey Penney
Stacey Penney
| Stay Updated with NASM!

What’s all the interest in grains? Dietary guidelines recommend that at least half of the grains we eat are whole grains. Whole grains, gluten-free, enriched, refined, and pseudo-grains, what does it all mean to your diet and health? Here we’ll take a look at some whole grain alternatives and their nutritional values.

If this topic interests you, consider teaching others the joys of nutrition and changing lives today with a Nutrition Certification.

Whole Grains Versus Refined Grains

Whole grains contain the endosperm, the germ, and the bran of the grain kernel (1,2). With minimal processing, whole grains deliver the naturally occurring nutrients in the same proportions found in the kernel.

Refined grains, on the other hand, have been processed to a point that much of the bran and even part of the germ have been stripped away, along with much of the fiber, iron, and B vitamins (1,2). Manufactures now “enrich” this processed refined grain with various vitamins and minerals, but usually do not add back in the dietary fiber or original nutrients lost in the processing (1).

For another food high in fiber, check out the nutritional benefits of almonds

Benefits of Whole Grains

Whole grains are high in fiber. Many of us don’t get the recommended amount of fiber in our daily diet, that being 38 g per day for men and 25 g per day for women (1,3). Consuming high fiber foods, such as whole grains, has been associated with many health benefits including lower total cholesterol, blood pressure, decreased cardiovascular disease risk, a lower incidence of certain cancers, lower body mass index, blood glucose control, and feelings of satiety (1-3).

Speaking of blood glucose control, Bananas are great for this too! 

An Intolerance for Gluten

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, rye, and sometimes oats (via cross-contamination) (1). Celiac disease is the inability to digest gluten. When intestinal villi are exposed to gluten they become inflamed and can cause flattening of the villi in the intestine, leading to a mal-absorption of nutrients, including iron, vitamin D and calcium (1,4). For people with celiac disease, following a gluten-free diet is the only effective treatment (1,5). The good news is that there are many other whole grains and pseudo-grains (seeds such as amaranth, buckwheat, and quinoa) that are gluten-free, some of which are highlighted in the list below.

Read about the Whole30 Diet if you are interested in a diet that cuts out grains. 

Nutritional Value and Health Research on WHole Grains

Below is a list of grains beyond whole wheat to add variety to your menu. The nutritional information is based on 1 cup for ease of comparison. Nutrient data was gathered from the USDA Agricultural Research Service National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference Release 26.

CaptureThe staple we grew up on. It’s better than white flour, but lets explore and compare some of the other whole grains we have available.

CaptureHigh in calcium (307 mg) and magnesium (479 mg), amaranth has been studied for its anti-inflammation, cancer and CVD prevention possibilities (6,7). Amaranth is gluten-free.

CaptureBuckwheat, a pseudo-grain, is gluten-free and great for making pancakes and soba noodles. Added benefits of buckwheat include that it is high in magnesium and niacin, is a prebiotic, helps control diabetes by lowering blood glucose levels, lowers cholesterol and is high in satiety (8,9).

CaptureHealth research on millet shows it could be helpful in preventing cardiovascular disease and controlling blood glucose levels in diabetics (10,11). Millet is also high in antioxidants and is gluten-free. When baking, you can substitute about 30% millet flour in recipes (2).

CaptureNot only is quinoa easy to cook with and makes a great dish, but it is also high in magnesium (335 mg) and rich in the antioxidant quercetin. Health benefit claims include diabetes and hypertension management (12).

CaptureSorghum is high in magnesium and phosphorous, and also gluten-free. Health benefits include cholesterol management, protection against diabetes and insulin resistance, and it has even been tried in the treatment of melanoma (13-15).

CaptureTeff is one of the smallest grains in the world, about the same size as poppy seeds. Because of its tiny size, teff is eaten in its whole form or ground into flour. It is very high in calcium (347mg), is gluten-free, and also high in resistant starch that is beneficial for blood-sugar management.

Next up alternative?

Expect to see coffee flour on your shelves sometime soon. It’s made from the outside pulp that covers the coffee bean, also called the cherry, which is often discarded after the beans have been extracted for roasting.

According to the website,, this gluten-free flour alternative is touted as having more iron than spinach, more protein than kale, more potassium than a banana, and five times more fiber than whole grain flour. It doesn’t even taste like coffee nor pack that high of a caffeinated punch.

A variety of recipes are being tested ranging from pastas, sauces, breads, cookies, muffins, and beverages. Part of the mission of the company, coffee flour, is sustainability: social, environmental, and economic.

Did this topic interest you? If so, consider getting a nutrition certification and make nutrition your career!


1)      Insel P, Ross D, McMahon K, et al. Nutrition. 4th ed. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett; 2011.

2)      "The Whole Grains Council." The Whole Grains Council. N.p., Web. 21 Apr. 2014.

3)      Clark MA, Sutton BG, Lucett SC. NASM Essentials of Personal Fitness Training 4th ed. Baltimore, MD: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2012.

4)      Mancini, L., Trojian, T., Manicni, A. Celiac disease and the athlete. Current Sports Medicine Reports, 2011;10(2)105-9.

5)       Keihanian, S. Burke, K., Levey, J. Sports dietary supplements: overview and effect on the gluten-sensitive athlete. American Medical Athletic Association Journal. 2010; 23(3)10-12.

6)       Silva-Sanchez C, de la Rosa AP, Leon-Galvan MF, de Lumen BO, de Leon-Rodriguez A, de Mejia EG. Bioactive peptides in amaranth (Amaranthus hypochondriacus) seed. J Agric Food Chem. 2008 Feb 27;56(4):1233-40. doi: 10.1021/jf072911z. Epub 2008 Jan 23.

7)      Martirosyan DM, Miroshnichenklo LA, Kulakova SN, Pogojeva AV, Zoloedov VI. Amaranth oil application for coronary heart disease and hypertension. Lipids in Health and Disease 2007, 6:1.  doi:10.1186/1476-511X-6-1

8)      Patel S, Goyal A. The current trends and future perspectives of prebiotics research: a review. 3 Biotech, Jun 2012, 2(2): 115-125. doi: 10.1007/s13205-012-0044-x

9)      Kawa JM, Taylor CG, Przybylski R. Buckwheat concentrate reduces serum glucose in streptozotocin-diabetic rats. J Agric Food Chem. 2003 Dec 3;51(25):7287-91.

10)   Lee, SH, Chung, IM, Cha, YS, Park, Y. Millet consumption decreased serum concentration of triglyceride and C-reactive protein but not oxidative status in hyperlipidemic rats. Nutr Res. 2010 Apr;30(4):290-6. doi: 10.1016/j.nutres.2010.04.007.

11)   Sireesha Y, Kasetti RB, Nabi SA, Swapna S, Apparap C. Antihyperglycemic and hypolipidemic activities of Setaria italica seeds in STZ diabetic rats. Pathophysiology. 2011 Apr;18(2):159-64. doi: 10.1016/j.pathophys.2010.08.003. Epub 2010 Sep 24.

12)   Ranilla LG, Apostolidis E, Genovese MI, Lajolo FM, Shetty K. Evaluation of indigenous grains from the Peruvian Andean region for antidiabetes and antihypertension potential using in vitro methods. J Med Food. 2009 Aug;12(4):704-13. doi: 10.1089/jmf.2008.0122

13)   Carr TP, Weller CL, Schlegel VL, Cuppett SL, Guderian DM Jr, Johnson KR. Grain sorghum lipid extract reduces cholesterol absorption and plasma non-HDL cholesterol concentration in hamsters. J Nutr. 2005 Sep;135(9):2236-40.

14)   Gomez-Cordoves C, Bartolome B, Vieira W, Virador VM. Effects of wine phenolics and sorghum tannins on tyrosinase activity and growth of melanoma cells. J Agric Food Chem. 2001 Mar;49(3):1620-4.

15)   Farrar JL, Hartle DK, Hargrove JL, Greenspan P. A novel nutraceutical property of select sorghum (Sorghum bicolor) brans: inhibition of protein glycation. Phytother Res. 2008 Aug;22(8):1052-6. doi: 10.1002/ptr.2431.

The Author

Stacey Penney

Stacey Penney

Stacey Penney, MS, NASM-CPT, CES, PES, CNC, is the Content Strategist with NASM and AFAA. A 20+ year veteran of the fitness industry, she's worked with the top certification and continuing education groups. At NASM and AFAA she drives the content for American Fitness Magazine, blog and the social media platforms. Stacey received her degree in Athletic Training/PE from San Diego State University and an MS in Exercise Science from CalU, plus credentials in Health Promotion Management & Consulting (UCSD), Instructional Technology (SDSU), group fitness and yoga. Previous San Diego Fall Prevention Task Force Chair, she’s developed continuing education curriculum for fitness organizations in addition to personal training, writing, and co-coaching youth rec soccer.


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