Grains and other carbohydrate-rich foods are one of the six food groups for a balanced vegan diet. While this group largely consists of grains, it can also include other high-carb foods like potatoes and starchy vegetables.
Whole grains are associated with health benefits and provide many essential nutrients.
This article will review what vegans need to know about grains, including how to add more of this energizing food group into your plant-based diet!
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- What are Whole Grains?
- Health Benefits of Whole Grains
- Nutrition Content of Whole Grains vs Refined Grains
- Why Whole Grains are Important to Eat as a Vegan
- Refined Grains can be Part of a Balanced Diet
- List of Whole Grains to Include in a Vegan Diet
- How to Include more Whole Grains in your Diet
- Summary: Grains for a Balanced Vegan Diet
What are Whole Grains?
Whole grains are the seed portion of cereal and pseudo-cereal plants. They have three distinct parts, with each part containing different nutrients.
The three parts of a whole grain are the:
For a grain to be considered whole, it must have all three of these parts.
If a grain is rolled, cracked, crushed or cooked, the resulting product still contains these three parts and is therefore still a whole grain 1.
What are Refined Grains vs Processed Grains?
A refined grain has the bran and/or germ portion removed, typically both. This leaves only the endosperm.
Since each part of the grain seed has a unique nutritional profile, a refined grain doesn’t have the same nutrient content as a whole grain.
Processing a grain is not the same as refining a grain. Processing refers to any action taken to change the grain from its original form.
Many different processing methods, such as rolling or crushing, leave the full grain intact. If all three parts of the grain seed are present, it’s a whole grain.
Health Benefits of Whole Grains
The health benefits of whole grains are numerous. Whole grain consumption is associated with:
- Decreased systemic inflammation 2, 3, 4
- Lower body weight 5
- Lower risk of heart disease 6, 7, 8, 9
- Reduced risk of type 2 diabetes 10, 11, 12, 13
- Decreased risk of mortality 14, 15, 16, 17
Please keep in mind this is a brief overview of the subject. Not all studies show as strong of a result compared to the ones referenced above. However, the overall summary of research seems to clearly point to the health benefit of consuming whole grains.
Additionally, the health benefits found in some of these studies were leveled off after a certain daily intake of whole grains was reached. This suggests that consuming whole grains above this level (varies based on the study) wouldn’t pose additional benefits.
Nutrition Content of Whole Grains vs Refined Grains
Each of the three parts of a whole grain contains a different array of nutrients 18.
The bran contains:
The germ contains:
- Vitamin E
- Healthy fats
- Antioxidants and phytochemicals
The endosperm contains:
- Most of the starchy carbohydrates
- Some protein
- Some vitamins
Whole grains can also be a good source of selenium, depending on the selenium content of the soil in which the grain is grown.
When looking at grains as a food group, it’s the starchy carbohydrates that provide the bulk of the calorie content. This is why other starchy foods like potatoes can be included in this food group.
Nutrition Content of Refined Grains
Since the bran and germ are often removed from a whole grain when creating a refined grain, much of the nutrient content is lost.
In particular, fiber, minerals (iron, zinc, magnesium), B-vitamins, antioxidants and phytochemicals are lost.
In Canada, and many other countries, there is mandatory fortification of breakfast cereals, refined flour, pre-cooked rice and pasta 19. Generally these foods need to be fortified with B-vitamins and iron. Adding magnesium is typically voluntary 19.
After fortification, refined grains are still lower in fiber, magnesium, potassium, zinc and selenium. They’re slightly lower in protein and calcium as well.
Interestingly, due to fortification, refined grains often contain higher amounts of vitamin B1, B2, B3, folate and iron. Refined grains also maintain their starchy carbohydrates which provides the body with energy.
Why Whole Grains are Important to Eat as a Vegan
Getting certain nutrients found in whole grains can be a challenge for vegan diets, particularly iron, zinc, selenium and B-vitamins. The other nutrients found in grains, like magnesium, potassium, and fiber, are readily available in many vegan foods.
Since refined grains are often fortified with iron and B-vitamins, zinc becomes the primary reason why vegans should choose whole grains more often.
Zinc can be difficult to find in large amounts in vegan foods, and its absorption from plant-based sources is less efficient. Soaking, sprouting, cooking and fermenting grains can help improve zinc absorption.
The selenium content of whole grains is often higher than that of refined grains. Depending on the food, the selenium content may remain high even in refined grains.
Refined Grains can be Part of a Balanced Diet
Much of the research on the health benefits of grains focuses on whole grains. There’s a strong narrative in the nutrition community that only whole foods should be consumed, but this idea doesn’t always hold up when looking at the full picture of nutrition research.
One 2019 study did not find an association between refined grain intake and cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes or all-cause mortality 20.
Some refined grains also contain resistant starch, a type of fiber that’s found to be beneficial for gut health 21. Cooking then cooling (and optionally reheating) grains can increase resistant starches.
Bread, rice and pasta are staple foods in many dietary patterns around the world. These foods, along with treats on occasion, can fit into an overall balanced diet that includes other food groups like vegetables, fruits, protein foods, and healthy fats.
There’s no need to give up culturally important foods when aiming to create a balanced and nutritious diet.
Think about what you can add to a meal to make it more well-rounded, rather than focusing on eliminating foods, and remember that even refined grains provide nutrition.
Refined Grains Aren’t all Equal
This limits the strength of research on refined grains, as there is a nutritional difference between white rice and a cupcake, for example. Most research on refined grains groups these foods together.
Additionally, refined grains are often lumped into the same category as other foods that make up a typical Western diet 20. This includes foods like red and processed meats, sugary beverages, and high fat/ fried foods.
Again, this limits the ability to interpret whether the health impacts seen in research is due to refined grains like pasta, refined grains like desserts, or other foods like processed meat.
List of Whole Grains to Include in a Vegan Diet
Many people only consume a few grain products. From my experience, wheat, oats and rice are by far the most popular grains consumed in the average diet, particularly in North America. However, there’s a much wider range of whole grain options to choose from!
Variety is always helpful when planning a nutritious diet. Not only does each food contain a different array of nutrients, antioxidants and phytochemicals, it’s also nice to keep meals exciting with different tastes and textures.
The following is a list of whole grains: 1
- Corn, including popcorn*
- Rice, all types including wild rice*
- Wheat, including varieties like spelt, emmer, farro, kamut, durum, bulgur, cracked wheat, wheatberries
All the grains listed above with an asterisk (*) are gluten-free options!
While most people have no need to avoid gluten, it’s nice to know that there are many whole grain options for those who must avoid gluten for medical reasons.
Sometimes it’s challenging to find these grain options in the average grocery store. Bulk food shops or farmers markets may carry them; or buy them online.
How to Include more Whole Grains in your Diet
Since whole grains are a staple food for a balanced vegan diet, it’s important to know how to include more into your meals. Here are my top tips for including more whole grains into your vegan diet:
- Prep a Batch of Whole Grains Each Week: Select a whole grain and cook a batch of it once per week. It’s great to have leftover grains on hand to add to any recipe.
- Use Whole Grains as the Base of a Salad: To make a salad into a meal, try using a whole grain as the base (like quinoa salad, wild rice salad). Or just toss onto any regular salad for a boost of nutrition!
- Try a New Whole Grain Each Month: Haven’t tried many of the whole grains listed above? Challenge yourself to find and make a recipe with a new whole grain each month!
- Get Baking: You can grind any of the whole grains listed above into flours and use them in different recipes/ baking. This can be a fun way to try new grains, like in this buckwheat pancake recipe.
- Make a Grain Bowl: Grain bowls are a deliciously easy way to eat whole grains. Add a cooked whole grain to a bowl with protein, veggies and flavor/ sauce then enjoy!
- Enjoy a Sandwich or Wrap: Sandwiches and wraps sometimes get a bad reputation, but if you start off with a nice whole grain bread/ wrap, you can build yourself a convenient lunch.
There are countless ways to enjoy whole grains so get creative and enjoy the possibilities!
A few of my absolute favorite recipes to make that feature whole (and refined) grains include:
- Granola with puffed rice
- Buckwheat pancakes
- Apple pie oats
- Pizza crust
- Tabbouleh salad
- Stuffed squash
- Quinoa tacos
- Whole wheat dinner rolls
Summary: Grains for a Balanced Vegan Diet
Whole grain consumption is associated with numerous health benefits. Beyond that, whole grains contain many important nutrients for a balanced vegan diet.
Since grains are a staple food group for vegans, it’s important to include a variety of whole grains into your diet!
You can also include refined grains in a balanced diet; these provide many of the same nutrients as whole grains, assuming the food has been fortified.
Always speak with a doctor before changing your diet or taking new supplements. Please read our full website disclaimer.
About Nicole Stevens
Nicole is a vegan Registered Dietitian (RD) and founder of Lettuce Veg Out.
She helps people thrive on a vegan diet with balanced recipes and easy-to-understand nutrition science.