Fruits and vegetables may hog the spotlight when it comes to healthy eating, but grains and seeds are prime sources of complex carbohydrates, protein, healthy fats and a broad range of essential micronutrients. According to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, you should aim for 2 ounces of nuts and seeds and at least 3 servings of whole grains each day (for a 2,000-calorie diet). Read on to see 13 of the most nutritious grains and seeds.
Oats fill you up without filling you out. In a 2013 study published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 48 healthy adults consumed oatmeal or a ready-to-eat cold cereal with milk of the same caloric value for breakfast on separate days. Researchers found that oatmeal provided more satiation and appetite control than the cold cereal did. Whether you prefer old-fashioned, instant or steel-cut oats, they’re all fairly comparable on the nutritional front offering about 4 grams of fiber, 5 grams of protein and even iron, per serving. For added protein, fiber and antioxidants, top oatmeal with milk and fresh berries or a banana with walnuts.
Flaxseeds provide essential fats -- specifically the plant source of omega-3 fatty acids called alpha linolenic acid -- which may help stave off heart disease, arthritis, and diabetes. And while findings are mixed, research suggests that flaxseeds may ease menopause symptoms. To get the most benefit from flaxseeds, purchase them ground or process whole seeds in a coffee grinder and store them in your refrigerator for prolonged freshness. Flaxseeds are also rich in fiber, providing about 2 grams per tablespoon, and are a notable source of calcium, magnesium and potassium.
You may not have been aware of this: Farro makes a more nutritious replacement for rice with more protein and fiber. “It behooves you to gain familiarity with this lesser-known grain,” says Tamara Duker Freuman, a registered dietitian in New York City. "This ancient ancestor of wheat looks like brown rice, but is a far superior source of fiber and protein.” One cooked cup of nutty-tasting farro contains 7 grams of fiber, 6 grams of protein and valuable amounts of iron and magnesium. Like other grains, you prepare it by boiling the raw grain in water until it absorbs the liquid, which takes 30-40 minutes. Whole farro adds nutrients, flavor and texture to soups, and milled farro can replace other flours in whole-grain baked-goods recipes.
Related: Egg and Farro Bibimbap Recipe
If you rely on plant sources to meet your omega-3 fatty acid needs, chia seeds are a must-have in your diet. According to the USDA, 1 ounce (about 2 tablespoons of the tiny seeds) provides nearly 5 grams of protein and 10 grams of fiber. "Unlike flaxseeds, which need to be ground in order to liberate their nutritious insides," says registered dietitian Tamara Duker Freuman, "the nutrients in chia seeds are more bioavailable and the whole seeds can therefore be added directly to foods like oatmeal, yogurt, liquids, smoothies and baked goods." They also provide valuable amounts of iron and and calcium.
5. Pumpkin Seeds
If you love munching on salty snacks, you may want to trade in potato chips for pumpkin seeds. A quarter-cup provides hearty amounts of bone-strengthening magnesium, protein, potassium and healthy fats. "Roasted pumpkin seeds also happen to taste fantastic," says registered dietitian Freuman, "and even kids love them." To roast your own seeds, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends rinsing them to remove strings and pulp, spreading them on a baking sheet coated with nonstick cooking spray or olive oil and desired spices, then baking them for about 30 minutes, stirring the seeds occasionally.
6. Sesame Seeds
In a study published in Nutrition Research in 2005, adults were asked to eat about 1.5 ounces of ground toasted sesame seeds per day for four weeks. By the month's end, participants' LDL cholesterol levels had dropped by 6.5 percent on average. When they returned to their normal diets afterward, sans daily sesame seeds, their cholesterol levels returned to their starting point. Sesamin and sesamol, are two unique plant compounds found in sesame seeds that have been shown to help lower cholesterol levels. On top of that, sesame seeds provide nearly 5 grams of fiber and protein per ounce and valuable amounts of healthy fats, iron and calcium.
Related: Sesame Seeds and Cholesterol Study
Like any high-fiber food, barley aids your digestive system. Dr. Nicholas Perricone, a dermatologist and Fellow of the American College of Nutrition, considers barley an overlooked and highly versatile superfood. It makes for a tasty breakfast cereal and ingredient in soups and stews, he wrote on Oprah.com. You can also substitute barley for rice in risotto dishes. One cup of cooked barley provides about 3.5 grams of protein and 6 grams of fiber, along with notable amounts of iron, potassium and copper. Purchase barley in whole dried form where rice and dried beans are sold or as flakes, which can be boiled in water to eat like oatmeal.
A seed that eats like a nutritious whole grain, 1 cup of cooked quinoa provides 5 grams of fiber and 8 grams of protein -- the amount also found in 8 ounces of milk! "It's one of the best plant-based sources of protein and it tastes nutty and delicious," says Dr. John La Puma, author of "Refuel: A 24-Day Eating Plan to Shed Fat, Boost Testosterone, and Pump Up Strength and Stamina." Enjoy quinoa on its own, seasoned as desired, or mixed with other foods, such as black beans or colorful veggies.
Related: 8 New Ways to Enjoy Quinoa
Hemp seeds are making a comeback, and they might be worth the hype. These little seeds are a good source of iron, magnesium, zinc and omega-3s, and they provide 9 grams of protein per ounce. Also, a recent 2013 animal study published in the European Journal of Nutrition found that hemp seeds may help to reduce hypertension. Add hemp seeds to cereal, smoothies and baked goods, or sprinkle them atop salads and casseroles for added nutrients and nutty flavor.
A gluten-free grain-like seed, amaranth is derived from the amaranthus plant, which grows tall and produces colorful flowers in Central America. Like quinoa, amaranth is considered a pseudo-grain, a seed with the nutritional profile similar to whole grains. "I grew amaranth this year to experiment with it," La Puma says. "Amaranth is a high-protein, high-fiber, high-healthy-fat seed that I like to pop like popcorn." La Puma also likes the fact that it's naturally gluten-free, making it a prime option for people with celiac disease. One cup of cooked amaranth provides about 5 grams of fiber, 9 grams of protein, 4 grams of healthy fat and valuable amounts of calcium and magnesium.
If your taste buds crave crunchy or salty snacks, popcorn could be your healthy-snack best friend. When eaten au natural (minus the butter) it's low in calories yet rich in nutrients, including polyphenols, which are substances with antioxidant properties prevalent in fruits and vegetables. In fact, it’s the hulls (that part that gets stuck in our teeth) that have the greatest concentration of these antioxidants. Your most nutritious option is "naked" air-popped popcorn, writes Joy Bauer, a New York City-based registered dietitian with the “Today” show, made in an air popper or in the microwave in a sealed paper bag. A 3-cup serving provides nearly 3 grams of protein and about 3.5 grams of fiber.
A traditional Middle Eastern whole grain, bulgur, sometimes referred to as cracked wheat, may lower your risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes. Bulgur is produced by steaming dried, crushed wheat berries or kernels. One of its perks, according to EatRight Ontario, is that because Bulgur is partially cooked, it only needs rehydrating before eating. Unlike whole-grain rice, which can take an hour-plus to prepare, bulgur can be ready in 30 minutes. One cup supplies 8 grams of fiber and almost 6 grams of protein as well as manganese and B vitamins. Bulgur can be served chilled and mixed with chopped veggies as a salad or served hot in place of rice or pasta within a balanced meal.
13. Pomegranate Seeds
An antioxidant-rich, sweet and crunchy garnish, pomegranate seeds, also called arils, have nutritional perks that are as sweet as their fruity flavor. "Someone who is missing crunch in their diet will like pomegranate seeds," says La Puma, "especially as a garnish to salads, on top of hot or cold cereal, or stirred into Greek or high-protein yogurt. Crunch and texture are often lacking when someone is attempting to lose weight and keep it off.” A half-cup of pomegranate seeds and their pulpy exterior give you 3.5 grams of fiber and valuable amounts of potassium, vitamin C and other antioxidants.
What do YOU Think?
What grains and seeds are your favorites? How do you work them into your diet? Do you have any recipes or ideas to share? Let us know by leaving a comment below.
- 2010 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; Dietary Guidelines for Americans
- National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference: Oats
- University of Maryland Medical Center: Flaxseed
- National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference: Flaxseeds
- Whole Grains and Health; Len Marquart et al.
- National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference: Chia Seeds
- Nutrient Database for Standard Reference: Brown Rice
- National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference: Pumpkin Seeds
- National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference: Sesame Seeds
- National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference: Cooked Barley