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Whole grains are great sources of fiber and vitamins, especially E and many B vitamins. They are also filling, satisfying, and slow, steady sources of energy -- but unless you are very active indeed, the six to eleven servings promoted by the USDA Food Pyramid are too much of a good thing.

Athletes or others exercising two hours or more every single day do need grains to maximize glycogen storage (the muscles and liver can store a limited amount of glucose as glycogen). But the rest of us need extra carbohydrates only when we exercise intensely: when we run a race or go for a long bike ride. So we recommend smaller amounts of grains for most people than the USDA Food Pyramid does, and we recommend only whole, unrefined grains.

Choose the best: differences among grains

Only whole grains are good sources of fiber, vitamins, and slow, steady energy. The best way to be sure you are buying whole grains, not refined ones, is to read bread and cereal labels. If stone ground whole wheat is the first ingredient and the bread has 3 or more grams of fiber per slice, it's made from a whole grain. Cereals with 4 or more grams of fiber per serving are usually made from whole grains.

Although all fiber is good for you, soluble fiber is better than insoluble fiber. Soluble fiber helps lower cholesterol; insoluble fiber does not. Foods containing soluble fiber have a lower glycemic index than foods containing insoluble fiber. Oats, barley, and beans contain soluble fiber; wheat and brown rice contain insoluble fiber.

White rice also raises your blood sugar very rapidly (see the glycemic index), because its nutrients and fiber are removed during processing. So we recommend brown rice, basmati rice, and wild rice - which many people prefer anyway because of their nuttier flavors and chewier textures. If you must eat white rice, buy Uncle Ben's® Converted Rice: it is lower on the glycemic index than other white rices.

Fiber and vitamins have been removed from most popular grain products; none of these products are listed here. We list them with sweets and other foods to be approached with extreme caution.


In addition to containing soluble fiber, beans are very low on the glycemic index: most beans are in the 20s, while other grains - even whole grains - are in the 40s and 50s. For this reason, beans are one of the best sources of slow, steady energy there is. They also contain more protein than grains, and an essential amino acid, L-lysine, that grains lack. However, they are relatively high in carbohydrate calories. If you're following a meal plan, count beans as a grain exchange AND a protein exchange. Don't add another grain when beans are part of the meal, and do try to include a lean protein.

Grain exchanges

The grains on this list are all first choices and contain about:

  • 15 grams of carbohydrate
  • 80 calories

Servings are small because grains are densely packed with calories. Unless you are an athlete or someone who exercises for at least two hours every single day, grains should occupy no more than 1/3 of your lunch or dinner plate.


1/2 cup bran cereals (no raisins) such as All Bran®, Fiber One®

3/4 cup whole grain unsweetened cereals, such as Kashi Go Lean®, Good Friends®, Heart to Heart®

1/4 cup dry oatmeal, steel cut or rolled oats (counts as two exchanges)


1/3 cup cooked barley

1/2 cup cooked bulgur

1/2 cup cooked kasha

1/2 cup cooked pasta (al dente: very important)

1 cup green peas

1/3 cup quinoa (cooked)

1/3 cup cooked rice, basmati, brown, or converted Uncle Ben's® (cooked)

1/2 cup cooked Soba or Udon noodles

1/2 cup cooked wheat berries (cooked)

3 tablespoons raw wheat germ

1/2 cup wild rice (cooked)

1/2 cup rice vermicelli (cooked)


2 rye crackers, such as WASA® or Ryvita®

7 low-fat Triscuits®#

#These count as one grain and one fat.


1 slice whole grain bread made from stone ground whole wheat with three grams or more of fiber

1 slice rye or sourdough rye bread

1 slice pumpernickel bread

2 slices light bread (40 calories per slice)

1/2 cup cooked beans or lentils (cooked)*

1 cup bean soup*

1/3 cup Hummus*

*These count as one protein and one grain.

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