Great grains: eating whole-grain foods can help turbocharge your energy level

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Joe C., a 16-year-old from Belleville, Ill., knows his body needs a lot of energy. The sophomore at Belleville Township High School East is one of the school’s cross-country and track standouts. He regularly runs 5 to 9 miles during practices and competes in meets after school and on weekends. Some days, Joe says, when he gets home he’s so wiped out he “pretty much just fall[s] asleep” on the living room sofa.

Joe makes a point to eat enough pizza and pasta to fuel his runs. But like many teens, he admits a fondness for desserts such as “ice cream, cookies, brownies, and cake.” Sometimes Joe eats a sugar-heavy breakfast of cinnamon rolls and processed cereal.

If Joe wants to stay awake longer instead of crashing, he should consider making some changes in his diet. In fact, nutrition experts say that all teens, whether they’re active in sports and other physical activities or not, can keep their energy levels higher all day long. How? By eating whole-grain foods.


What Is a Whole Grain, Anyway?

Carbohydrates, or carbs, are the nutrients that give your body energy. There are a couple of different kinds.

Simple carbohydrates are absorbed quickly by the body and are good for quick bursts of energy–which Joe’s cross-country running requires. They can be found in foods such as fruit, milk, regular pasta, white bread, and other things made with white flour.

Complex carbohydrates, found in legumes and starchy vegetables as well as whole grains such as oatmeal, are broken down by the digestive system more slowly, providing a longer-term energy source, according to Suzanne Farrell, a registered dietitian in Denver and a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. (See “Get Your Grains Here,” above, for a list of some common and not-so-common whole grains.)

The whole in whole grain means nothing has been removed from the grain kernel. (See “The Whole Works.”) In other words, it still includes the bran (the outer layer that’s rich in fiber); the endosperm, or middle part; and the germ (the nutrient-rich, innermost part of the grain). In contrast, refined grains contain only the endosperm. Because nothing has been removed from whole grains, they are more nutritious than processed grains. Whole grains are high in B vitamins and phytochemicals–nutrients linked to cancer prevention.

Farrell recommends getting at least half of your total daily grain intake as whole grains. “Look at the first ingredient on the label,” she says. “We want it to be a whole grain.”

Bet You Didn’t Know

Now you see how whole-grain foods can provide you with that “premium” type of energy. But there are a few more things you should know.

Whole grains’ high fiber content helps keep you full. That’s most likely why research shows that people who eat more whole grains are more likely to maintain a healthy weight.

Some people think whole grains have a “twigs and bark” taste, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Something you probably enjoy eating all the time is a whole grain: popcorn! Air-popped is best, but even movie theater popcorn can be enjoyed as a whole-grain snack, says Kara Berrini, program manager with the Whole Grains Council in Boston. Brown and wild rice are whole grains too.

Corn is a whole grain as well. That includes corn on the cob. Opt for baked tortilla chips instead of the fried kind. Serve them with hummus or bean dip for muscle-building protein. Polenta with marinara sauce is another good choice.

Beware of tricky labels. Many grocery store breads boast names such as “7-grain” or “11-grain,” but those words alone may not indicate whole grains. “Look for the word whole,” says Berrini, especially among the first few ingredients, to ensure what you’re eating counts as a full serving of whole grains. The black-and-gold Whole Grains Council stamp on packaging indicates that a regular serving of that food contains at least 8 grams of whole grain, she adds.

Certain people should be careful when choosing whole grail, s. For example, in people with celiac disease, the digestive system has trouble processing gluten, a protein that’s in spelt, barley, rye, and wheat. So people with that condition should avoid foods made with those grains.



Try a grain you’ve never had before, and you may discover a new and healthy favorite food. “Even the chefs on reality shows on TV are using delicious whole grains,” says Berrini. “You don’t have to choose between their [being] good tasting and good for you–whole grains can and do deliver both!”

!Think About It …

What can you do to add more whole grains Into your daily diet?


Foods with whole grains contain all the parts of the grain kernel.


Outer shell protects seed

Fiber, B vitamins, trace minerals


Provides energy

Carbohydrates, protein


Nourishes the seed

Antioxidants, vitamin E, B vitamins



According to the Whole Grains Council, the following are examples of whole grains.

Amaranth       Quinoa
Barley         Rice
Buckwheat      Rye
Bulgur         Sorghum/Milo
Corn           Spelt
Emmer/Farro    Teff
Grano          Wheat
Oats           Wild Rice

Grains On The Go?

Whole grains aren’t just a dinner thing. Look for opportunities to blend them into your meals and snacks all day long.

FOR BREAKFAST OR A SNACK, granola made from rolled oats, sprinkled over yogurt, is a sweet way to get your grains. You can also try keeping a container of granola in your backpack for after-school hunger pangs.

THE CEREAL AISLE is fuji of healthy choices. But if you feel that whole-grain cereal is bland, try a handful of it sprinkled over a sweetened variety. Dietitian Suzanne Farrell calls this a 50-50 bowl. Also, plain old-fashioned oats are a better choice than the sugary, individually packaged kinds of oatmeal; dress them up with berries, raisins, or a drizzle of maple syrup.

ON THE ROAD? Many sandwich shops offer whole-grain options. Nicole G., a 16-year-old from Larchmont, N.Y., likes to get whole-grain breads for her lunchtime sandwiches. Whole-wheat bagels, waffles, pretzels, and pizza crust all count toward your daily grain total. But watch out for cookies, quick breads, and muffins, which may be loaded with oil or butter and therefore are high in fat.

Key Points

1. Whole-grain foods contain all parts of a grain kernel.

2. The complex carbohydrates that whole grains provide are a good source of long-lasting energy.

3. Whole grains are more nutritious than refined grains.

4. Nutritionists recommend that half of a teen’s daily grain consumption be from whole grains.

5. Good sources of whole grains include commonly consumed foods such as popcorn and rice.

Critical Thinking

What can you do to add more whole grains into your daily diet?

Extension Activity

Bring in one item of whole-grain food, such as bread or cereal, and a non-whole-grain version of the same food. Have students compare the nutrients and ingredients in each. (This can also be done using information posted online, without bringing in examples.)


* Whole Grains Council

* MyPyramid.Gov: Inside the Pyramid–Tips to Help You Eat Whole Grains

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