An Introduction to Whole Grains

by Danielle Smith, Professional Chef

Whole grains have been part of the human diet for thousands of years. They are rich in fiber, which supports healthy digestion. Furthermore, the fiber in some grains contains prebiotics that feed the good bacteria in the gut. Whole grains have also been known to lower inflammation in the body. To receive their full nutritional benefits, it is important to consume whole grains in their most natural forms.

Grains consist of three parts. The inner part is made up of a nutrient-rich embryo called the germ, and the germ’s high-starch food supply, the endosperm. These two parts are wrapped in a nutritious outer layer called the bran. The germ is concentrated with B vitamins, vitamin E, zinc, magnesium, and healthy fats. The endosperm is mostly carbs and protein with traces of vitamins and minerals. The bran layer is rich in fiber, B vitamins, and iron. A grain is considered a whole grain when all three parts are present or when it has been ground and retains all three components of the seed.

Refined grains have their bran and endosperm removed during processing, which gives them a finer texture and longer shelf life. However, during this process many of the nutrients and the bulk of the fiber content is lost. Refined grains include white flour, white rice, and corn grits, which are often used in commercial breads, cereals, crackers and pastries.

Cooking your own whole grains can be simple. If you cook a batch at the beginning of the week, they will last 3-4 days in the refrigerator and you will have them ready to go at mealtimes. Here are a few whole grain pantry staples we recommend including in weekly meal plans.


One of the most comforting meals is a bowl of warm cinnamon and maple oats. Oats are naturally gluten-free; however, they may be contaminated with gluten during processing. Celiacs should be especially cautious about reading labels to make sure they choose gluten-free oat products. Oats are a great source of soluble fiber, which aids digestion and nutrient absorption. They are also high in vitamins and minerals and have a higher protein content than most grains.

Because they are in a more complete form, steel cut oats have a lower glycemic index and are higher in fiber than instant oats. Rolled oats have been minimally processed, but are still a better option than instant oatmeal.

To Prepare Oats

The ratio for cooking oats is 1:2. A single serving is typically ½ cup oats to 1 cup water. Or you could use ½ cup water and ½ cup milk of choice per serving to make up the liquid. This gives the oats a lovely, creamy consistency. Try dairy milk or coconut milk.

In a small saucepan, bring the liquid and a pinch of salt to a boil. Add the oats and reduce the heat to low. Allow the oats to cook for about 15 minutes, stirring frequently. The oats will become thick and soft as they absorb all the liquid. If the oats are still a bit chewy, you may need to add a little more liquid toward the end and cook them for a few extra minutes.

Allow the oats to cool for a few minutes before serving. Stir in your flavor of choice; ground cinnamon and vanilla with a little honey or maple sugar is a traditional favorite.

If you regularly enjoy cooked oats, get creative with your toppings. Try:

  • Sliced banana with toasted coconut
  • Fresh strawberries and a tablespoon of nut butter
  • Ground flaxseed (linseed), toasted almonds, and dried cranberries
  • Cardamom, cinnamon, and grated apple

Soaking oats overnight is another easy preparation. Try our overnight protein oats.

Nutrient profile for 1 cup of cooked, steel cut oats

Calories: 64 Fiber: 2 grams Protein: 4 grams


Barley is available in a variety of forms, including hulled (barley groats), flakes, and flour, all of which use most of the whole grain. Pearl barley is polished to remove the outer bran layer and most of the hull. For this reason, it is not considered a whole grain.

Both hulled barley and pearl barley are highly nutritious and contain soluble and insoluble fiber that helps with digestion. However, to receive the full nutritional benefits, it is best to use the groats or flour because pearl barley doesn’t contain as much protein and fiber due to its processing.

To Prepare Barley

The ratio of barley to water is 1:3. Soaking barley for a few hours before cooking significantly reduces the cooking time. In fact, soaking any grain before cooking helps to break down the complex sugars and gluten, which makes them easier to digest and assists with nutrient absorption in the intestinal tract.

Barley can be soaked in water the night before cooking using the same 1:3 ratio. Another option is to soak it in the morning before cooking it that evening. Strain off the soaking water and use fresh water for cooking. Do not add salt before cooking, as this can prevent the grain from softening and absorbing the liquid.

Bring the barley and water to a boil in an uncovered pot. Then, reduce the heat to a simmer, cover the pot, and cook. Pre-soaked barley will cook in about 45 minutes. Unsoaked barley will take 60–75 minutes. Cooked barley will retain its form and some chewiness.

Strain off any excess liquid and pass the cooked barley through a colander. Allow it to cool before adding it to cold salads or serve it with warm roasted vegetables. Store leftover cooked barley in a sealed container in the fridge and add it to vegetable soups or casseroles.

Nutrient profile for 1 cup of cooked barley groats

Calories: 226 Fiber: 8 grams Protein: 4 grams

Try our barley tabbouleh recipe.


Rice is used across cuisines all around the world, and in fact, there are 40,000 varieties of rice. Home cooks often fear overcooking rice. Although it may be challenging to achieve the right texture when cooking Japanese sushi rice and Indian basmati rice, brown rice and wild rice are kinder to the home cook. These are two great options that are widely available and easy to cook. They are also the least processed and most nutritious rice varieties because only the outer hull is removed during processing and the bran and germ are retained.

Brown rice is a great source of selenium, which plays an important part in immune function and thyroid hormone production. Wild rice has powerful antioxidant properties, which help to reduce the body’s risk of disease.

To Prepare Rice

Cook rice with plenty of water. The ratio doesn’t need to be precise because you will strain off any excess water once it has finished cooking. I like to soak my rice for 10–20 minutes before cooking because it reduces cooking time, but this step is not necessary. I do recommend rinsing the rice under running water through a sieve before cooking to remove some of the excess starch. This will prevent the rice from becoming stodgy once it is cooked.

Place ½ cup of rinsed brown rice into a pot with 3 cups of fresh water. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to a light simmer and cook the rice, uncovered, for 20–30 minutes. Wild rice may take 10 minutes longer than brown rice and require ½ cup more water. Once the rice is cooked through, tip it into a colander to strain off the excess water. Return the rice to the empty pot (off the burner) and cover. Allow it to steam for 10 minutes before serving.

Nutrient profile for 1 cup of cooked brown rice

Calories: 216 Fiber: 3.5 grams Protein: 5 grams

Nutrient profile for 1 cup of cooked wild rice

Calories: 166 Fiber: 3 grams Protein: 6.5 grams

Here is a simple brown rice recipe.

Bulgur Wheat

Bulgur wheat is also referred to as cracked wheat. It is a minimally processed whole grain, but it does come from a wheat plant. Bulgur contains gluten and should be avoided by those who have a gluten sensitivity or intolerance.

This quick-cooking grain is popular in Middle Eastern cuisine. It is a satisfying addition to soups and salads, and it can also be used to stuff vegetables. One serving of bulgur provides close to one-third of the daily recommended fiber intake. Bulgur is a particularly good plant-based source of iron, which is a common nutrient deficiency, especially for those following plant-based diets.

To Prepare Bulgur Wheat

For a slightly nutty flavor, toast the bulgur for a few minutes in a dry pan before boiling. The grain to water ratio is 1:2. To amp up the flavor and nutrient profile, use vegetable stock or bone broth instead of water. Bring the bulgur and liquid to a boil and then reduce the heat to a simmer. Cover the pot and allow the grains to cook for 12–15 minutes. When done, the grains should be tender. Turn off the heat, keep the lid on, and let the bulgur sit for 10 minutes. Remove the lid and fluff it up with a fork.

Nutrient profile for one cup of bulgur wheat

Calories: 151 Fiber: 8 grams Protein: 6 grams

Try our bulgur wheat filled bell peppers.


Spelt is an ancient whole grain that contains gluten. If you are celiac or gluten sensitive, it’s best to avoid this grain and choose another option.

Spelt contains impressive fiber and protein quantities, which increases satiety and therefore supports weight management, slows digestion, and prevents blood sugar spikes, all of which may lower an individual’s risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

To Prepare Spelt

It is best to soak spelt before cooking because soaking allows nutrients to be better absorbed in the digestive tract. Soak the spelt grain in 1:2 spelt to water ratio for at least 2 hours before cooking. Strain off the water and place the soaked grains into a pot with 3 times the amount of water. Bring it to a boil and then reduce the heat and simmer for 35–45 minutes. When fully cooked, the grains will be tender but still chewy. Strain off any excess water and add it to salads, soups, or stews.

Nutrient profile for one cup of cooked spelt

Calories: 246 Fiber: 7 grams Protein: 10 grams

Here is a warm spelt, fennel, and tomato side dish to try.


Quinoa is technically a seed, but it is also recognized as a whole grain. It is also prepared and eaten like grains. This impressive complete plant-based protein contains all nine essential amino acids.

Quinoa comes in three varieties: white, red, and black; it is naturally gluten-free and contains a small amount of omega-3 fatty acids.

To Prepare Quinoa

Cook quinoa using 1 part quinoa to 2 parts water (a 1:2 ratio). Rinse the quinoa under running water and add it to a small saucepan with the water and a pinch of salt. Bring it to a boil over high heat, and then lower the heat to a gentle simmer. Cook uncovered for 15–20 minutes. The quinoa will be done when the grains have turned slightly translucent and all of the water is absorbed. Turn off the heat and place a lid over the pot to allow the quinoa to steam for 5 minutes. The result should be light, fluffy quinoa that’s ready to add to a salad, soup, or poke bowl.

Nutrient profile for 1 cup of cooked quinoa

Calories: 222 Fiber: 6 grams Protein: 8 grams

Quinoa can be enjoyed as a whole dish on its own with our Morrocan style quinoa dish.


Like quinoa, amaranth is an ancient grain, but it is technically a seed. It is considered a “pseudocereal,” a non-grass seed that can be used like a true cereal (e.g., wheat, oats, rye, etc.). Amaranth contains comparable nutrients and is used in a similar way to whole grains, which gives it a place in this category. Amaranth is naturally gluten-free and is prepared in its whole seed form. This complete plant-based protein is high in calcium and vitamin C.

To Prepare Amaranth

Amaranth can be prepared two ways: Boiled or puffed.

To boil, put amaranth and water in a saucepan at a 1:2 ratio. Bring it to a boil, reduce the heat to a simmer, and cook for 20 minutes or until the liquid has been absorbed. Unlike fluffy quinoa, amaranth becomes gelatinous and mushy, so it is best to eat it straightaway as a porridge with a little fruit, nuts, and cinnamon. Or, add salt and turn it into a savory side dish.

Amaranth can also be puffed or popped like popcorn. To puff, you will need a tall pot, which prevents the grains from popping out. Place a dry pot over a moderate-high heat and pop the amaranth one tablespoon at a time. Once the pot is heated, the popping will begin quickly. Give the pot a shake to make sure all of the seeds are popped, tip the popped seeds into a bowl, and repeat the process. The seeds double in size once popped. You can enjoy puffed amaranth as a sweet or savory snack by adding maple flakes or salt. Popped amaranth works well in homemade granolas and salads.

Nutritional profile of one cup of cooked amaranth

Calories: 251 Fiber: 5 grams Protein: 9 grams


Buckwheat is traditionally used in Eastern European cuisine and is appreciated all over the world for its versatility. It can be boiled and used like rice or added to salads and side dishes. It can be milled into flour for baking or making soba noodles or blinis. The groats can be toasted and mixed through whole-grain granola. Here is a gluten-free buckwheat bread using milled buckwheat flour.

Buckwheat is a complex carbohydrate with a well-balanced amino acid profile that includes lysine and arginine (which are not made in the body), making it a high-quality protein source. Despite its name, buckwheat is gluten-free and rich in antioxidants that help to lower inflammation and blood cholesterol.

To Prepare Buckwheat

Before cooking, it’s best to soak buckwheat for at least 6 hours in a 1:3 ratio of buckwheat to water. This makes the grain easier to digest and significantly reduces the cooking time. After soaking, the liquid will be rather gloppy. Pour the soaked buckwheat through a colander and rinse it thoroughly under running water for a minute or two.

After soaking 1 cup of buckwheat groats, add ½ cup of water or vegetable stock to a pan and bring it to a boil. Add the soaked and rinsed buckwheat to the pan and cook for 3–5 minutes until the grains are soft. Turn off the heat, cover the pan, and let it steam for 5 minutes.

If you choose not to soak your buckwheat, give it a rinse and use a ratio of 1:2 buckwheat to water and simmer for 15 minutes. Turn off the heat, cover the pan, and let it stand for 5 minutes. Fluff with a fork before serving.

Nutrient profile for 1 cup of cooked buckwheat

Calories: 154 Fiber: 4.5 grams Protein: 6 grams

In today's fast-paced world, we are able to purchase convenient, ready-made foods. Unfortunately, even if the nutrition label says these items contain whole grains, processing often strips away a lot of their value. Lowering cholesterol, improving digestion, reducing inflammation, and feeding the good bacteria in your gut are only a few reasons to take a shot at cooking whole grains from scratch in your home kitchen. We hope this piece serves as a guide to help you do so.

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About the Author

Photo: Dani Smith

Danielle Smith is a professional chef and certified yoga teacher. Her experience in the food industry spans 10 years, during which she has served in multiple roles including recipe and menu developer, restaurant chef, and private chef. She firmly believes that food is a source of medicine and healing. Danielle strives to help people enjoy delicious and nourishing food, but also to support their mental and physical well-being with healthy lifestyle habits.

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