Plant-based diets are a way to support nutrition, the environment and animal health. But even if you reduce or phase out animal products from your plate in favor of vegetables, fruits and nuts, you might still be missing a key ingredient that makes plant-based diets complete: whole grains.
Here are three key reasons why whole grains are an essential component of a balanced plant-based diet.
[SEE: Plant-Based Diet Ideas.]
Whole Grains for Your Plant-Based Diet
Whole Grains Offer a Nutritional Boost
Any time food groups are eliminated, it’s important to make every ingredient count, and plant-based diets are no exception. Switching to whole grains is an easy way to give your meals a protein boost, without having to change the overall formula. Whole grains tend to have at least 25% more protein than their refined counterparts and generally have more protein than fruits and vegetables as well.
Whole Grain Swaps to Boost Protein:
— 2 slices white bread (5g protein) = 2 slices whole wheat bread (8g protein).
— 1 cup cooked white rice (4g protein) =1 cup cooked quinoa (8g protein).
— 1 cup riced cauliflower (2g protein) = 1 cup whole wheat spaghetti (7g protein).
— 1 cup puffed rice breakfast cereal (1g protein) = 1 cup cooked oatmeal (6g protein).
[See: Top Plant-Based Proteins.]
Many whole grains are also a good source of essential nutrients like iron, magnesium, copper, manganese, thiamin and vitamin B6. Whole grains, though, are greater than the sum of their parts. Nutrition researchers are starting to understand that there is a synergistic effect of these components, and that benefits can’t be reduced to a simple vitamin pill or fiber supplement.
Even in plant-based diets, which tend to be healthier than the standard American diet, whole grains can offer further nutritional advantages. Studies show that plant-based diets that include whole grains are linked with significantly lower risk of Type 2 diabetes and coronary heart disease than plant-based diets as a whole.
Whole Grains Are Better for the Environment
For many people, plant-based eating is motivated by a passion for environmental sustainability. However, without whole grains there’s a missed opportunity to support earth-friendly crops and further reduce food waste.
As we assess the risks and bene?ts of di?erent food systems, it’s easy to see why whole grains have been at the core of traditional diets for millennia.
Fruits and vegetables, while highly nutritious, aren’t as energy dense as grains and are harder to grow, transport and store for year-round enjoyment. So to make up the necessary calories in fruits and vegetables, much more food would have to be grown.
Additionally, grains require significantly less water than many other crops. For example, beef production uses 10.19 liters of water to produce 1 calorie of food, compared to only 2.09 liters per calorie of fruits, 1.34 liters per calorie of vegetables, and 0.51 liters per calorie of grains.
Ancient grains in particular are especially environmentally conscious and are well suited for unpredictable climate patterns. For example, proso millet (the main type of millet sold in the U.S.) has the lowest water requirement of any grain crop, and pearl millet (more common in Africa and Asia) is most able to tolerate extremes of heat and drought. Similarly, te?, an Ethiopian whole grain, thrives in drought.
Even if grains are already a regular part of your diet, switching to whole grains can have an even greater impact when it comes to reducing food waste. One kilogram of paddy rice yields about 750 grams of brown rice, but only 650 grams of white rice. Similarly, one bushel of wheat yields 60 loaves of whole grain bread but only 42 loaves of white bread. By discarding the bran and germ in the refining process, the healthiest components of the kernel are directed away from people
Whole Grains Have the Satisfaction Factor
In order to follow a plant-based diet (or any diet) for the long term, meals have to be completely delicious and satisfying. If you’re treating grains as simply a culinary blank slate, you’re missing out on one of the best taste enhancers in plant-based cuisine.
With the diverse flavors and textures of whole grains at your disposal — from subtlety sweet oats to the grassy bite of amaranth — the grain component of your dish can be an additional opportunity to take your meals to the next level.
Whole Grain Tips to Maximize Flavor
— Make a plant-based paella with brown rice. Because of the outer bran, brown rice is less likely to clump together during cooking.
— Just as certain wines pair best with certain dishes, certain sauces pair best with the fuller, nuttier taste of whole wheat pasta. Try pairing whole-wheat pasta with a robust puttanesca sauce or umami-rich mushrooms.
— Dress up a black bean salad with quinoa to transform it into a hearty, lunchbox-friendly entrée that tastes great warm or chilled.
Not only are whole grains more satisfying for your taste buds, they are also more satisfying for your appetite.
For example, research indicates that whole grain pasta can help reduce appetite compared with refined pasta, meaning that it is easier not to overeat.
Similarly, a study comparing the impacts of whole-grain rye crisp bread and white bread made from refined wheat found that although people ate similar amounts of each food for breakfast, they reported higher fullness, lower hunger and less desire to eat after consuming the rye crisp than after eating the white bread. When study participants were allowed to eat as much as they wanted at lunch later that day, those who ate rye crisp for breakfast ate about 8% fewer calories at lunch.
When it comes to eating closer to the earth with a plant-based diet, don’t overlook the importance of whole grains. Enjoying grains the way nature intended — with all three parts of the kernel: bran, germ and endosperm — is a win-win for people and the planet.
When buying packaged foods, look for clues like the Whole Grain Stamp or the word “whole” to be certain you are getting whole grains. With a chance to win whole grain goodies during Whole Grains Month in September, you just might find a new favorite!
Kelly Toups, MLA, RD, LDN, is a registered dietitian who has been a food and nutrition contributor to U.S. News since 2016. Toups has over ten years of experience and is currently the director of nutrition at Oldways, a nonprofit food and nutrition organization helping people live healthier, happier lives through cultural food traditions and lifestyles.
Because of Oldways’ 30-plus-year history in promoting cultural foods and food traditions, Toups is frequently interviewed on topics related to whole grains, healthy lifestyles, and the traditional foods and eating patterns represented in the Oldways Heritage Diet Pyramids (African Heritage Diet, Asian Heritage Diet, Latin American Diet, and Mediterranean Diet). She has been quoted in dozens of publications including Today’s Dietitian, FoodNavigator and the Boston Globe. Toups also speaks at conferences around the world about her work at Oldways and the Oldways Whole Grains Council.
She graduated from the University of Texas with bachelor of science degree in nutrition, completed her dietetic internship through the University of Texas Coordinated Program and is a member of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Toups also holds a master’s degree in gastronomy from Boston University, where she concentrated in food policy.