Breaking Down the Dietary Guidelines – Eating Whole Grains


Fiber, fullness and disease prevention are three reasons that whole grains are listed as essential elements of a healthy diet. There is even more to know about whole grains and scientists from NC State, UNC Charlotte and NC A&T, who all work on the North Carolina Research Campus, have the details to share.


The new dietary guidelines released in 2016 recommend eating grains as a party of a healthy eating pattern, with at least half being whole grains. This includes wheat, oat, and rye products. According to the Whole Grains Council, “100 percent of the original kernel must be present to qualify as a whole grain.” What makes whole grains so much healthier than other grains? According to experts in this area, including those from the NCRC, whole grains contain nutritious amounts of protein, vitamins, minerals, fiber, and even antioxidants.

Behind-the-scenes nutrients

Whole grains are especially dense with B vitamins like thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and folate. These nutrients help with metabolism by releasing energy from protein, fat, and carbohydrates that people get from food. Whole grains also have minerals like iron, magnesium, and selenium. Iron carries oxygen in the blood, an incredibly vital function.

Fiber keeps you full

Fiber is found in plants, so the human body does not digest it. Fiber helps with adding bulk to the diet, stimulating the feeling of being “full” without adding too many calories, and maintaining a healthy weight. Fiber also improves digestion. General Mills, a NCRC partner, focuses on the health benefits of whole grains by mapping the genome of oats and other grains, looking for beneficial constituents. In addition to fiber’s other redeeming qualities, researchers at General Mills have shown that beta-glucan in oats is a cholesterol-reducing soluble fiber.

General Mills is also a founding member of a program for college students to learn from academic and industry scientists about how plants can benefit human health by producing certain compounds, like fiber and antioxidants. The program, called the Plant Pathways Elucidation Project (P2EP) is dedicated to “cultivating the scientists of tomorrow.”

Preventing Disease

Shengmin Sang, PhD

In addition to its nutritional benefits, regularly eating foods with fiber is associated with a lower risk of multiple cancers like breast, colon, and prostate cancer. In a recent study done at the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical Center for Excellence in Post-Harvest Technologies, scientist Shengmin Sang, PhD, looked for specific bioactive compounds in whole grains to prevent chronic diseases.

Sang identified 5-n-alkylresorcinols (ARs) as the major active components in wheat bran to prevent colon cancer. He is also studying the unique compounds in whole grain oats, such as oat saponins and avenanthramides. In addition to colon and other cancers, these compounds have the potential to help in prevention of obesity, type II diabetes, metabolic syndrome and digestive disorders.

Whole grain biology

Tzung-Fu Hsiegh, PhD

Another NCRC partner, the North Carolina State University (NCSU) Plants for Human Health Institute (PHHI), includes studies on the “biological complexities” of the most nutritious part of a grain: the endosperm. The Whole Grains Council stresses the importance of 100 percent of the kernel being present for consideration as a whole grain, because this is where all of the nutrients come from. Scientist Tzung-Fu Hsieh, PhD, from the PHHI studies DNA methylation in the endosperm to see how it affects the grain development. The PHHI is also a member of the P2EP program.

“The main function of the endosperm is to provide nutrients and energy for the developing seedling,” Hsieh said. “As a result, grains store all kinds of nutrients in the endosperm.”

Hsieh also said that the nutrients found in the endosperm of whole grains account for over half of the world’s dietary energy consumption.

Lastly, University of North Carolina at Charlotte scientist Ann Loraine, PhD, studies the role of cytokinins in determining grain number and size in plants. Cytokinins are hormones specific to plants that play a large role in cell division. Loraine has a background in cytokinin signal transduction, alternative splicing, and the creation of genome visualization software in the model system model plant system Arabidopsis thaliana.

Going forward

There are multiple grain options at the grocery store, so it is hard to tell which option is the healthiest. The Whole Grains Council has made consumer shopping easier with their whole grain stamp, indicating which products are made with 100 percent whole grains.

Multiple foods can be a great source of whole grains. Just pick your favorites: barley, buckwheat, bulgur, corn, oats, quinoa, rice, rye, sorghum, wheat, wild rice, and more. The PHHI has a tasty Quinoa Porridge recipe you can check out here.

Incorporating whole grains into the diet could be as easy as swapping the regular bread used for sandwiches with whole grain bread, eating whole grain cereal at breakfast, or swapping white rice for brown rice. Scientists here at the NCRC and elsewhere have proven the nutritious qualities of whole grains, so all that is left is to incorporate them into a daily healthy eating lifestyle.

Enjoy the published by the NC Research Campus.

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