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6 Great (Whole) Grains

Packed with nutrients, these ancient foods are improving modern health

whole grains (Ted Morrsion)

Ted Morrison

The grains (clockwise from left): Barley, millet, red quinoa, polenta, pearl couscous, kamut.

After years of obscurity, healthful heirloom grains such as spelt, farro, quinoa and millet are finding their way into the limelight.

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Chefs across the country are adding these grains to their menus. Supermarkets are stocking new, convenient mixes. And researchers are discovering that these ancient whole grains may help reduce belly fat, lower cholesterol and protect against cancer and other diseases.

What makes whole grains so nutritious? The fact that their nutrient-rich outer layers — the bran and the underlying germ — don't get stripped away during processing, says Maria Speck, author of the award-winning cookbook Ancient Grains for Modern Meals.

For older adults in particular, "grains can provide a big hit of fiber," says Seattle dietitian Kim Larson, a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Fiber not only helps keep you regular; new studies suggest that a high-fiber diet may reduce the risk of breast cancer, too. Many whole grains are also quick to prepare, says Speck. Bulgur, millet, whole wheat couscous and quinoa can be on the table in 15 minutes, she says.

If you're not sure you can tell quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wah) from kamut, here's a quick rundown on their health benefits:

Barley: Hulled barley has more fiber than pearled, plus extra selenium, an immune system booster.

Kamut: A brand of Khorasan wheat, this ancient grain has protein and iron, and is high in B vitamins.

Couscous: The whole wheat version of these fast-cooking pasta balls is higher in important nutrients and fiber.

Millet: Easily digestible, this ancient seed is rich in magnesium, which helps build stronger bones and muscles.

Quinoa: Red or white, quinoa is a nutritional powerhouse, with the highest protein content of any grain.

Polenta: Like grits, stone-ground cornmeal is higher in vitamin A than most grains. It's also gluten-free.

Candy Sagon is an editor and health writer at AARP Media.

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