If your go-to grub includes oatmeal for breakfast and sushi rolls for dinner, you’re certainly not alone. Carbs are a beloved (and important!) part of our daily meals, but if we don’t eat the right carbs, we can load up on calories without getting the filling fiber and nutrients our bodies need to thrive.
That’s why it’s so important that our carbs come from whole grains, which contain fiber, vitamins, minerals, and beneficial phytochemicals that are stripped from refined grains during processing. Oats and brown rice aren’t your only whole-grain options, though.
There are so many types of grains out there that it can be hard to pick which to put on your plate—so we asked nutritionists to expand your whole-grain horizons by sharing their favorites. Add these six healthy grains to your shopping list and not only will you have a more nourishing love affair with carbs, but you’ll also discover a few new flavors and textures to get your taste buds buzzing!
One of the larger grains you’ll find, barley has a chewy texture and nutty flavor. A serving of barley (a third of a cup) is 60 calories and contains 13 grams of carbs, two grams of fiber, and a gram of protein, says Tanya Zuckerbrot M.S., R.D., bestselling author, and founder of The F-Factor Diet. This grain is also a great source of manganese (important for the metabolism, bone health, and antioxidant activity), selenium (important for antioxidant activity and thyroid function), and thiamine (important for energy metabolism).
At the supermarket, look for hulled barley, which contains the whole grain, Zuckerbrot says. Pearl barley is refined and stripped of the fiber and nutrients in the outer layer of the grain.
This grain makes for a great brown rice substitute. Zuckerbrot likes using barley to make a higher-fiber mushroom risotto.
2. Black Rice
Move over brown rice, there’s a new variety in town. “Known as forbidden rice or emperor’s rice in ancient China, black rice is sort of sweet and nutty in flavor with a beautiful dark purple color,” says Lauren Harris-Pincus, M.S., R.D.N., author of The Protein-Packed Breakfast Club. Sounds alluring, right?
A quarter cup of cooked black rice contains 50 calories, 11 grams of carbs, 1.5 grams of protein, and a little less than a gram of fiber. “It’s packed with antioxidants and vitamin E,” she says. In fact, one serving contains about as much antioxidants as a serving of blueberries. Anthocyanins, the antioxidants that give black rice and berries their dark, purple-y color, can’t be found in other varieties of this grain!
Harris-Pincus likes using black rice in Thai and Asian-style dishes and veggie bowls. Because of its slightly sweet flavor, black rice also works well in desserts, like this cranberry coconut black rice pudding.
Sorghum is a gluten-free grain grown in the U.S. that looks similar to Israeli couscous. It’s got a mild flavor and a gentle texture reminiscent of wheat berry.
A quarter cup of cooked sorghum clocks in at 57 calories, with 14 grams of carbs and two grams of protein (not much fiber here, though). It’s also a source of phosphorus, vitamin B6, magnesium, niacin (vitamin B3), iron, potassium, and selenium, all of which can keep energy up and the body balanced, says Harris-Pincus.
Because sorghum is so mild, it pairs with almost anything and easily swaps in for rice in soup, stew, chili, paella, salad, and Buddha bowls, she says. You can also pop it, just like you would with popcorn! Harris-Pincus likes to add popped sorghum into a parfait with Greek yogurt and fruit. (And since sorghum doesn’t have a hull like popcorn does, it won’t get stuck in your teeth).
Small, round amaranth is technically more like a seed—but has a similar nutritional profile to many whole grains. It’s very nutty and earthy in flavor.
A quarter cup of cooked amaranth (which is gluten-free) is 62.5 calories, and contains 11.5 grams of carbs, 2.5 grams of protein, and 2.5 grams of fiber. It’s high in calcium, magnesium, and iron, which can prevent muscle soreness and fight fatigue, says Elizabeth Ann Shaw, M.S., R.D.N., C.L.T.
Amaranth also contains B vitamins, which help our body turn food into energy, adds Zuckerbrot.
Cooked amaranth can be used like cooked quinoa (we’ll get to that soon!) and makes a great base for nourishing Buddha bowls. Like sorghum, amaranth can also be popped or puffed, and adds texture to parfaits, oatmeal, salads, and soups.
You probably already know that quinoa is a rock star—but did you know that it’s technically a seed?! This small, delicate, and fluffy ancient staple is gluten-free and has an earthy, nutty, almost sweet flavor.
A quarter cup of cooked quinoa is 56 calories, with 10 grams of carbs, 3 grams of fiber, and 2 grams of protein, says Zuckerbrot. Unlike many plant foods, quinoa contains all nine of the essential amino acids our bodies need, so it’s also considered a complete protein. It’s also high in phosphorus and iron. “Phosphorus is needed to maintain strong bones, and iron is important to sustain energy and oxygen transport,” she says.
Try adding quinoa to chilis and stews, or sprinkling it into salads.
Bulgur is a quick-cooking form of whole wheat that has a somewhat nutty taste and chewy texture.
A quarter cup of cooked bulgar comes in at 38 calories, 8.45 grams of carbs, two grams of fiber, and 1.4 grams of protein. It’s also a good source of the minerals manganese, magnesium, and iron, says Zuckerbrot.
Bulgar is a great way to add bulk to just about anything—especially salads and beans. Zuckerbrot also likes using it to make high-fiber stuffing.
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