What are grains?

A grain is the edible ‘fruit’ of a cereal grass. In their natural, minimally processed form, grains are rich in vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, fats, oils and protein. Often confused for cereal grains, buckwheat and quinoa are the seeds of plants but because their culinary uses are similar we’ve included them in this selection.


While grains are a healthy addition to most diets, every grain has a different nutritional profile, meaning that certain grains might benefit you more than others depending on your specific dietary needs.

Discover more nutrition content in our health hub, and read up on the top healthiest cereals, healthiest breads and healthiest cooking oils.

Which grain is best for my dietary needs?

Quinoa salad with shredded greens and raisins

1. If you're vegetarian...choose quinoa

Getting enough quality protein is important if you avoid meat and fish. Quinoa, a grain-like seed, contains all the essential amino acids you need, making it equivalent to milk or soya. And that's not all, quinoa is a good source of iron and calcium, so it's ideal for young adults and children following 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 compared with modern wheat varieties.

Try our quinoa salad with shredded greens & raisins.

Baked banana porridge

2. If you've got raised cholesterol...choose oats

If your GP has advised you to manage your cholesterol levels, opt for oats and barley. 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 therefore helps keep blood flowing.

Try our wholesome baked banana porridge.

Sesame parsnip & wild rice tabbouleh on a pink plate

3. If you avoid gluten...choose rice

People 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 grains that are naturally gluten-free. One popular choice is rice, the flour of 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.

Other options include 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 may help support strong, healthy bones.

Try our sesame parsnip & wild rice tabbouleh or millet porridge with berry compote.

Kisir (Turkish salad) in a brown bowl

4. If you need an energy boost...choose wheat

Avoid 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. Bulgur 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. Not used bulgur wheat before? Find out how to cook it and be inspired by our recipes.

Looking for more energising grains? Then opt for kamut – the kernels are twice the size of regular wheat and the grain supplies more protein which means it keeps you fuller for longer.

Try our Turkish-style kisir salad.

Chia and almond overnight oats with raspberries and blueberries

5. If you have blood sugar concerns...eat whole grains

It'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 that 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.

Find out more about eating to balance blood sugar.

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.

Try our chia & almond overnight oats.

6. If you're watching your weight...opt for rye

The popularity of high-protein diets has meant many weight watchers have shied away from grains because of their carb content. However, some grains, like 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 oatcakes and accompany lunch with a portion of brown rice instead of bread or pasta.

More like this

Try these open rye sandwiches with salmon & avocado.

Warm pearl barley & roasted carrot salad with dill vinaigrette with serving spoons

7. If you suffer hormone havoc...look to barley

As 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, 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.

Try our warm pearl barley & roasted carrot salad with dill vinaigrette

Get cooking with our nutritious grain recipes:

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

Teriyaki prawns & broccoli noodles
Cinnamon buckwheat pancakes

Rice flour
Creamy tarragon chicken bake

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

Smoked salmon & avocado on rye
Mixed seed bread

Find these grains in your local supermarket, health food shop or online.

Which is your favourite to cook with? Share your thoughts in the comments below….

Kerry Torrens BSc. (Hons) PgCert MBANT is a Registered Nutritionist with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food. Find her on Instagram at @kerry_torrens_nutrition


All health content on bbcgoodfood.com 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.

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