Written by: Kate Bajc
There is no uniform approach to nutrition and health.  March is National Nutrition Month®, hosted by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and this year’s theme is “Personalize Your Plate.” At Common Threads, we equip families with information to make affordable, nutritious and appealing food choices wherever they live, work, learn, and play. Join us as we explore new and exciting ways to incorporate nutritious foods from each food group, as well as resources to embrace healthy cooking, healthy eating and celebration of culture.

Let’s explore sources of whole grains, nutrition and health considerations, and ways to personalize your plate with whole grains. 

Whole Grains 101

What makes a grain a “whole grain”? All grains are considered whole until they are processed in some way. The three main parts of a whole grain are the bran, the germ, and the endosperm. A whole grain has these three parts intact whereas a refined grain is missing one or more of these components. For example, white rice is a refined version of brown rice, a whole grain.

An easy way to remember the three components of a whole grain is by comparing the grain to an apple. The similar parts of an apple do not share the same names, but they have similar functions. The bran of a whole grain is similar to the skin of an apple, both the outer layer. The germ of a whole grain is similar to the seeds of an apple, they are both embryos that can grow into a new plant. The endosperm of the whole grain is like the pulp of an apple, both contain carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals, but the whole grain also contains protein. 

Health Benefits of Whole Grains

Taking refined grains a step further, you may have heard of “enriched grains.” Enriched grains are refined grains that have vitamins and minerals added back into them. While it is true that enriched grains are rich in vitamins and minerals, whole grains are just as nutritious without all of the extra processing.   

Whole grains also add protein to your diet. A few whole grains are actually considered complete proteins. A complete protein is one that is made up of all nine essential amino acids. Whole grains that are complete proteins are quinoa, buckwheat, and amaranth. 

Fiber is another important nutrient that is abundant among whole grains. Fiber plays many roles in our bodies. It helps to regulate digestion by normalizing bowel movements, acts as a probiotic to keep your healthy gut bacteria fed and happy, and can help to reduce the risk of chronic diseases like heart disease and diabetes. 

Whole Grains Around the World

The most popular sources in the United States are whole wheat, brown rice, whole oats, and corn. However, there are many other sources of whole grains that can be overlooked. These include amaranth, barley, buckwheat, bulgur, einkorn, farro/emmer, freekeh, millet, quinoa, rye, sorghum, teff, and wild rice. 

Many whole grains are deeply rooted in different cultures. For example, corn, which originated in the Americas, was domesticated in Mexico by native peoples. Today, corn is a staple in many Mexican dishes. Elotes are a popular Mexican street food, traditionally made with butter and mayonnaise. Try our Mexican Street Corn recipe, a twist on the classic. 

Arepas are another traditional corn based food that comes from Latin America, but in this case, Colombia, Venezuela, and Panama. These tasty cornmeal cakes are a staple in Latin American cuisine that originated hundreds of years ago. Try our recipe for Arepas in Common Bytes.

Barley has been around for over 10,000 years, making it among the world’s oldest crops. It was domesticated in Southwest Asia and is a staple across Asia, Europe, and Africa. It is believed that barley was a grain that fed the masses in ancient life. Roman gladiators ate barley and people believed that is what gave them strength. 

Quinoa is another grain that has been around for thousands of years. This grain originated in Peru and Bolivia and was cultivated and used by pre-Colombian civilizations. Today, quinoa is grown in more than fifty countries and commonly referred to as a “superfood” because it is packed with nutrients like protein, iron, potassium, and fiber. New to quinoa? Our Herbed Quinoa Salad is a great place to start. 

Teff is a whole grain that has long been cultivated in the horn of Africa, an eastern peninsula made up of the countries of Ethiopia and Eritrea. This nutrient dense whole grain is a staple in the Ethiopian diet, accounting for about two thirds of a person’s daily protein intake. Teff is also rich in calcium and has strong antioxidant properties. 

Sorghum originated in Africa by nomadic tribes and was domesticated and cultivated in the Indus Valley of southern Asia. Later, sorghum became wildly popular in both China and India. Today, sorghum has taken a backseat in Indian cuisine, but there has been a recent movement to increase the growth and consumption of it. 

Celiac Disease and Gluten-free Friendly Whole Grains

There is a wide variety of whole grains safe for people who have celiac disease or are otherwise gluten intolerant. These safe whole grains include amaranth, buckwheat, corn, millet, oats*, quinoa, rice, sorghum, and teff. (Note: oats are naturally gluten-free, but they can become contaminated with gluten during growing or processing. Check the packaging if you have celiac disease or are gluten intolerant). A trick to remember which grains to avoid is to think “BROW.” Barley, Rye, Oats, and Wheat.

Whole grains are an important part of our daily diet, rich in a variety of vitamins and minerals as well as fiber and protein. Whole grains are also important parts of traditional cuisines around the world. As you Personalize Your Plate this National Nutrition Month, make sure you are getting enough whole grains in your diet by filling one fourth of your plate with a whole grain at each meal.

About the Author
Kate is a senior at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) where she is majoring in human nutrition. She is currently completing her community rotation at Common Threads. Kate aspires to pursue a career as a registered dietitian where she can use her growing expertise and experience to promote a healthy lifestyle and overall well-being.


Common Threads is a national nonprofit that provides children and families cooking and nutrition education to encourage healthy habits that contribute to wellness. We equip under-resourced communities with information to make affordable, nutritious and appealing food choices wherever they live, work, learn, and play. We know that food is rooted in culture and tradition so we promote diversity in our lessons and recipes, encouraging our participants to celebrate the world around them.