Food and Nutrition

Whole Grains Are Linked to Better Heart Health—Here’s How To Add More to Your Plate, According to an RD

Emily Laurence

Photo: Stocksy/Ina Peters
PSA: Living your best, healthiest life should never be about eating less. There are so many nutrient-rich foods you can crowd your plate with. Foods like fiber-rich fruits and veggies, protein-packed legumes, and anti-inflammatory herbs are just a few delicious options. Another type of food that both doctors and dietitians are encouraging people to eat more of is whole grains.

Recently, Harvard Health highlighted a scientific study that shows just how important eating whole grains on a regular basis is for heart health. The study took into account more than 3,100 people who were followed for 18 years. "[Researchers] found that people who ate at least three servings of whole grains daily had smaller increases in blood sugar levels, blood pressure, and waist size compared with those who ate less than half a serving per day. Increases in those three factors are associated with greater odds of developing cardiovascular disease," Julie Corliss, the executive editor of Harvard Health Letter, says of the study. Besides being good for the heart, whole grains are also a good source of fiber, which is beneficial for the entire body—especially the gut.

If you're confused about what whole grains actually are, a whole grain means the grain contains the endosperm, germ, and bran. (This is compared to a refined grain that will only have the endosperm.) Some examples of whole grains are corn, oats, quinoa, sorghum, brown rice, bulgur, teff, whole wheat bread or pasta, millet, and buckwheat. "The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends adults eat between five and nine ounces of grains per day, most of which should be whole grains," registered dietitian Melissa Rifkin, RD, says.

Need some help getting there? Rounded up here are tips straight from Rifkin on how to up your whole grains at every meal. Plus, meal ideas with whole grains to try so you can put the tips into action and know it will taste delicious. Hey, it's doctor's orders.

How to up your whole grains at breakfast

"One easy way to integrate whole grains into your breakfast is swapping white bread, bagels, or English muffins for a whole grain option," Rifkin says. "Or, you can make yourself a bowl of oatmeal or whole-grain cereal." Rifkin says she's also a fan of mixing whole-grain granola with Greek yogurt and fruit for a breakfast that's balanced in fiber and protein. "You can even bake bran muffins or add a whole grain to your smoothie," she says.

banana bran muffins
Photo: Nourished By Caroline

1. Banana bran muffins

This recipe is full of heart-healthy bran and doesn't include any added sugar whatsoever. Instead, bananas, applesauce, and vanilla are used for sweetness. Between the grains and the banana, these muffins are chock full of fiber.

Get the recipe: banana bran muffins

oatmeal smoothie
Photo: A Couple Cooks

2. Creamy oatmeal smoothie

If you've never added whole grains to your smoothie before, this recipe is a great one to try. It combines rolled oats with peanut butter, Greek yogurt, banana, pineapple, vanilla, and cinnamon. The end result is uber creamy and just sweet enough.

Get the recipe: creamy oatmeal smoothie

espresso overnight oats
Photo: Jessica In The Kitchen

3. Espresso cinnamon overnight oats

This breakfast only takes five minutes of prep time and five minutes of cook time—a lazy (or time-pressed) healthy eater's dream. The oats are soaked with brewed coffee, almond milk, cinnamon, and a splash of creamer overnight in a jar. Then, you just need to heat it up the next morning.

Get the recipe: espresso cinnamon overnight oats

Incorporating whole grains into your lunch

If your go-to lunch tends to be a sandwich, Rifkin says using whole grain bread is a super easy way to get a serving of the heart-healthy food in. "You can also have whole grain crackers or popcorn as a side instead of chips," she says. More of a salad person? Whole grains can easily be integrated into your bowl too; rice and quinoa are especially popular lunch bowl go-tos.

burrito bowl
Photo: Muy Bueno Cookbook

1. Grilled veggie burrito bowl with hatch green chili rice

Literally every single ingredient in this burrito bowl is full of nutrient goodness. Not only is it straight-up full of fiber from all the veggies and long-grain rice, but the pinto beans have great protein. Roasted green chili and olive oil are used to flavor the rice, which really takes the flavor to the next level.

Get the recipe: grilled veggie burrito bowl with hatch green chili rice 

meal ideas with whole grains lunch
Photo: Love and Lemons

2. Sweet potato quinoa bowl

One delicious way to use your sweet potato haul this fall is by pairing them with quinoa and greens for a scrumptious seasonal salad. Also in this recipe are chickpeas, toasted almonds, scallions, red cabbage, and feta cheese.

Get the recipe: sweet potato quinoa bowl

whole grain salad
Photo: Domestic Dreamboat

3. Whole grain salad with roasted corn and edamame

This recipe is proof that greens aren't the only way to craft a fiber-rich salad; the whole grains, corn, red onion, and edamame all cover that nutrient base. Spice it up with paprika and fresh mint, add olive oil, and lunch is served.

Get the recipe: whole grain salad with roasted corn and edamame 

Meal ideas for whole grains at dinner

Just like at lunch, bowl-based meal ideas using whole grains come into play at dinner. "You can cook whole grains in bulk to use for lunch and dinner throughout the week," Rifkin says. Some other dinner ideas using whole grains include stir-fry, whole grain pasta dishes, and quinoa veggie burgers.

coconut curried brown rice
Photo: Ambitious Kitchen

1. One-pot vegan coconut curried brown rice with tofu

The beauty of one-pot, rice-based meals like this are that you can integrate any veggies you have on hand and it will taste delicious. The key here is really the spices, which include yellow curry powder, cayenne powder, turmeric, and garlic powder. Cooking the rice in coconut milk instead of water makes it extra creamy and adds an underlying bite of sweetness.

Get the recipe: one-pot vegan coconut curried brown rice with tofu

meal ideas with whole grains dinner
Photo: Well Plated By Erin

2. Mediterranean-inspired quinoa burgers

Next time you're craving a burger, try this recipe for quinoa burgers topped with sun-dried tomatoes and feta. Sounds amazing, right? The quinoa actually isn't the only whole grain the patties are made with; rolled oats are incorporated too. Egg and chickpeas are used to help bind them together. Don't forget to use whole-grain buns when serving them to up your whole grains even more!

Get the recipe: Mediterranean-inspired quinoa burgers 

whole grain pasta
Photo: Foodie Crush

3. Cheesy chicken and broccoli whole grain pasta

Fiber? Check. Protein? Yup. Gooey cheese? Oh yes. This pasta dish is what comfort food dreams are made of. It's also super easy to whip up, making it perfect for busy nights.

Get the recipe: cheesy chicken and broccoli whole grain pasta

Upping your whole grain consumption isn't just good for your heart (or your body as a whole, for that matter), it will make your meals more delicious, too. This is one piece of health advice that has no downsides—it's an all-around win.

Get more healthy meal ideas in Well+Good's Cook With Us Facebook group.

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