Alternative grains

Grains offer a wealth of health benefits, plus they're filling and a good source of fibre. Nutritional Therapist Kerry Torrens recommends the best grains for you.

Alternative grains

If you're vegetarian...

 Herby quinoa, feta & pomegranate saladGetting enough protein is important if you avoid meat and fish. Quinoa, a grain-like seed, has a higher protein content than most other grains, and contains all the essential amino acids you need making it equivalent to milk or soya. That's not all, quinoa is a good source of iron and calcium - so it's ideal for young adults and children who choose to follow a vegetarian diet. Other grains to include are wild rice which is richer in protein than brown rice and contains more of the immune-friendly mineral zinc. Farro and spelt are both ancient forms of wheat and make good vegetarian choices because they supply more protein as well as fibre than the modern wheat varieties.


If you've got raised cholesterol...

Cinnamon buckwheat pancakes with cherriesIf your GP has advised you to manage your cholesterol levels, opt for barley or oats. They contain powerful compounds called beta-glucans which help lower cholesterol in the blood, especially the so-called 'bad' cholesterol known as low density lipoprotein (LDL). Buckwheat is another heart-healthy option, because it contains rutin, a compound that protects against the effects of high cholesterol. It's rich in magnesium, which relaxes blood vessels and helps keep blood flowing.


If you avoid gluten...

Creamy tarragon chicken bakePeople with coeliac disease react against gluten, a protein found in certain grains, including wheat, rye and barley. The good news is there are a number of options that are naturally gluten-free. One popular choice is rice flour, which can be used to make puddings and biscuits, as well as for thickening sauces. It's also worth checking out teff. This is a grass seed, and although relatively new to our shelves, it's been used for centuries in its native North Africa. As a flour, teff can be used as a substitute in bread and other baked goods. Also try millet, amaranth and quinoa - millet is rich in protein and low in starches making it easy to digest. It's also a great source of silicon which helps promote healthy hair and nails. Amaranth supplies the amino acid lysine, which is absent from most cereal grains - and being a good source of calcium it helps support strong healthy bones.


If you need an energy boost...

Harissa-spiced chicken with bulghar wheatAvoid foods made with white refined flour, and select whole-grain versions that are rich in the B vitamins your body needs to convert food to energy. Bulghar is a form of whole wheat which has been parboiled and dried, making it a quick and easy option for a filling lunchtime salad. As well as supplying energising B vitamins, it's high in fibre, which helps to sustain vitality levels right through the afternoon. Looking for a different grain for that kick-start? Then opt for kamut - the kernels are twice the size of common wheat and the grain supplies more protein which means it keeps you fuller for longer.


If you have blood sugar problems...

Cinnamon porridge with banana & berriesIt's important to supply the body with the key nutrients needed for managing blood sugar levels. Whole-grains are a good source of magnesium, a mineral needed for the release of insulin, the hormone which manages levels of glucose - the sugar we use for energy. Oats, rye and barley are all good options, as well as brown rice and buckwheat. Alternatively, opt for sorghum, not only does it supply magnesium but it contributes protective compounds which help prevent the damage that leads to some of the health problems associated with poor blood sugar control. Sorghum flour can be substituted for wheat flour in bread and bakes and is used in many gluten-free products.


If you're watching your weight...

Open sandwiches - Smoked salmon & avocado on ryeThe popularity of high protein diets has meant many slimmers shy away from grains because of their carb content. However, some grains, such as rye, don't cause the insulin rise associated with wheat, making it easier to avoid the appetite swings and dips that lead to snacking and craving. Studies also suggest that rye keeps you fuller for longer, so swap to rye bread at breakfast or lunch to help fend off those snack attacks between meals.

Other useful grains for controlling your appetite and minimising blood sugar swings include oats and brown rice. Try replacing your mid-morning biscuits with oat cakes and accompany lunch with a portion of brown rice instead of bread or pasta.


If you suffer hormone havoc...

Barley, chicken & mushroom risottoAs well as being nutrient-dense, whole-grains contain compounds called lignans which have a weak hormone-like effect - so including whole-grains like rye, oats, wheat or barley may help you achieve a better hormonal balance. These grains are also valuable sources of vitamin B6 which is thought to play a useful role in managing hormones and alleviating pre-menstrual symptoms like bloating, mood swings and period pains. Try adding a tablespoon of wheat-germ to your breakfast cereal or smoothie - as well as being rich in B vitamins, including B6, it's an excellent source of vitamin E, another key vitamin for regulating hormones.


Recipe suggestions

Herby quinoa, feta & pomegranate salad
Quinoa rice pilau with dill & roasted tomatoes

Wild rice
Winter pilaf
Wild rice, chestnut & squash stuffing

Spelt & wild mushroom risotto
Pearled spelt salad with peas & gooseberries

Barley & oats
Cinnamon porridge with banana & berries
Barley, chicken & mushroom risotto

Teriyaki prawns & broccoli noodles
Cinnamon buckwheat pancakes

Rice flour
Creamy tarragon chicken bake

Glazed salmon with green bean & bulghar salad
Harissa-spiced chicken with bulghar wheat

Smoked salmon & avocado on rye
Mixed seed bread

All grains can be purchased from either supermarkets, health food shops or online.

This page was last updated on 30 January 2018.

A qualified nutritionist (MBANT), Kerry Torrens is a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food magazine. Kerry is a member of the The Royal Society of Medicine, Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC), British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT).

All health content on is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other healthcare professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact your local healthcare provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.

Comments, questions and tips

Sign in or create your My Good Food account to join the discussion.
3rd Jan, 2016
Staying fit and lean in my 40's all year round means eating metabolism boosting foods using the right recipes. Easier said than done! Especially when you have your hands full (work, gym and family). Of course, I am always on a mission to find the best cookbooks out there. So listen, this is not your average fat loss cookbook - it contains TRUE fat burning recipes. For me, these recipes remove all the guess work with the "at a glance" metabolic nutri-profile so I can easily mix and match my meals. And yes, they are super fast to prepare using everyday foods (with lots of variety) and of course - delicious!
Be the first to ask a question about this recipe...Unsure about the cooking time or want to swap an ingredient? Ask us your questions and we’ll try and help you as soon as possible. Or if you want to offer a solution to another user’s question, feel free to get involved...
Be the first to suggest a tip for this recipe...Got your own twist on this recipe? Or do you have suggestions for possible swaps and additions? We’d love to hear your ideas.