Most Americans Aren't Eating Enough Whole Grains—Here's How to Add More to Your Diet

  • Various institutions define what a whole-grain food is differently; by any definition, Americans still aren't eating enough.
  • The true definition of a whole grain is when all three parts—the bran, germ, and endosperm—are still present in what's ingested.
  • To add more whole grains into your diet, pick ones that you enjoy and try to use them in a wider variety of ways and for various meals.
man cutting whole grain bread on cutting board

Stocksy/Serena Burroughs

Whole grains have long held a substantial place in the American diet, anchoring the original 1992 Food Guide Pyramid and now covering over one-quarter of the USDA’s MyPlate dietary guidance. With their high fiber content, B vitamins, and numerous antioxidants, these plant foods earn their reputation as an excellent choice for digestive health, heart health, and weight maintenance.

After decades of messaging around eating whole grains, you might think Americans have gotten the hang of including enough of them in their diets—or at least know what constitutes a whole grain. But a new study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition revealed that neither of these may be true.

Americans Still Aren't Getting Enough Whole Grains

For the study, researchers from the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, sought to compare Americans whole-grain food intake, based on various definitions of what a whole grain is.

Researchers looked at how five institutions—the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA), the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the American Heart Association, the American Association of Cereal Chemists International, and the Whole Grains Council—define whole-grain food. They found that each one differs slightly.

“For example, the 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans defines whole-grain foods as foods containing ≥50% (by weight) of the grain- or flour-containing component as whole-grain ingredients. This definition focuses on the grain component only,” study co-author Mengxi Du, MPH, RD, a PhD candidate at Tufts University, told Health. “The American Heart Association (AHA) defines whole-grain foods as grain-rich foods having ≥1.1 grams of fiber per 10 grams of carbohydrates. This definition focuses on the nutrient contents (i.e., carbohydrates and fiber) of a food.”

Confounding things even further, the basic Whole Grain stamp you may see on packaged foods—from the Whole Grains Council—only requires a food to contain 8 or more grams of whole grain ingredients per labeled serving.

Researchers then applied all of those various definitions of whole grains to the dietary intakes of nearly 40,000 adults who participated in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) from 2003–2018.

By any of the definitions provided, Americans still aren’t meeting whole grain targets. Researchers determined that, depending on the definition of whole-grain food used, intake could be anywhere from 39% to 61%.

“[American adults’] average intake remains far below the recommended amount by every definition,” said Du. “The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend consuming at least 3 daily servings of whole-grain foods. Our analysis showed that in 2017-2018, the highest population mean consumption of whole-grain foods was 1.05 [ounce-equivalents] per day (using the AHA definition).” 

Using other organizations’ parameters, Americans’ rates of consumption were even lower. “If using the Whole Grain Council definition, the mean intake of whole grain foods in 2017-2018 among US adults was 0.95 [ounce-equivalents] per day.”

That doesn’t mean we haven’t made progress. Du said that the last few decades have seen an uptick in whole grains in the American diet—but we still have far to go to reach three solid servings per day.

What Exactly Is a Whole Grain?

Part of the problem may be confusion among consumers around what “counts” as a whole grain.

“The terminology that researchers and the everyday person uses can be different,” said gut health nutritionist Amanda Sauceda, RDN. “For example, when you go to a restaurant and they ask if you want a wheat or white bun for your burger, the assumption is that the wheat bun is whole wheat—but you don’t know that for sure.” Foods like corn and so-called pseudograins like quinoa add more uncertainty to the mix.

Despite the subtle differences between public health organizations’ definitions of whole grains, from a scientific standpoint, there is an ironclad definition of what makes a grain “whole” (versus refined or polished).

“A grain is considered a whole grain when all three parts of the kernel including the bran, germ, and endosperm are still present in the same proportions as when the grain grows in the field,” said Du. “Examples of whole grains include whole wheat, brown rice, barley, oats, etc.”

So what should you look for when seeking whole grain foods at the grocery store or while dining out?

“The average person should not be concerned with different public health organizations’ definitions of what a whole grain consists of. The majority of these organizations make something that should be simple way too complicated for the average person,” said dietitian Carrie Gabriel, MS, RDN, of Steps 2 Nutrition. “I typically tell clients that a whole grain contains all three parts of the kernel: the bran, the germ, and the endosperm. If a packaged food states that it is a ‘whole grain,’ that part of the food inside the package is required to have the same proportions of all three parts of the kernel before it is processed.”

Sauceda advised looking for a whole grain (such as whole wheat, oats, barley, or brown rice) as the first ingredient in a packaged food.

“The first step is to flip the back of your package to see if the ingredients list out whole grain wheat, etc,” she said. “The multi-grain bread you’ve been buying might not be whole-grain. I know I’ve been surprised!”

She also suggested comparing the fiber content of various grain options and choosing the one with more.

How to Include More Whole Grains in Your Diet

For heart health, digestive well-being, weight control, and other benefits, we’d all do well to focus on whole grains. The USDA’s simple rule of thumb is to try making half your grains whole. Getting to that ratio just may take some mindful intention and creativity—but according to Sauceda, it doesn’t have to be a slog. “Pick one that sounds good, not one that you think you ‘should’ choose,” she said. “For example, tortillas are a staple of my diet, but I’m not about the whole grain tortilla life.” 

Once you’ve identified a grain that appeals to you, give it some concentrated attention to get familiar with its uses. “Pick one whole grain to focus on for the week and use it for different dishes,” she suggested. “Maybe you start with quinoa, which is a quick-cooking grain. You can have it as a simple side one night for dinner, simmer with milk the next morning for a porridge, and then add it to your stuffed bell peppers on the third day.”

You’re also not limited to eating certain grains at pre-determined times of day. “Oats are a whole grain staple in the pantry, but they aren’t reserved solely for breakfast,” Sauceda pointed out. “Oats can be made into a savory side. Try adding grated parmesan cheese and mushrooms.” Similarly, spiced quinoa makes a tasty morning alternative to oatmeal, and brown rice can serve as the foundation of a pudding for dessert.

Try these other tips for amping up the grains in your day:

  • Build snacks around whole grains. “There are tons of whole grain cracker and cereal options, or try popcorn, which is actually a whole grain, instead of chips,” said Gabriel.
  • Substitute half the white flour in baking recipes with whole wheat or oat flour.
  • Try a grain salad with a brown rice, quinoa, or bulgur base.
  • Choose whole grains when cooking at home and reserve refined grains for dining out.
  • Shake oats into smoothies, veggie burgers, or meatballs for added bulk. 

With every brown rice bowl or piece of whole wheat toast, you’ll move ever closer to the recommended daily dose of whole grains.

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  1. Du M, Mozaffarian D, Wong JB, Pomeranz JL, Wilde P, Zhang FF. Whole-grain food intake among U.S. adults, based on different definitions of whole-grain foods, NHANES 2003-2018Am J Clin Nutr. 2022;116(6):1704-1714. doi:10.1093/ajcn/nqac267

  2. U.S. Department of Agriculture. What is MyPlate?.

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