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Health Benefits of 7 Ancient Grains

Delicious alternatives to brown rice that will make your cardiologist happy

spinner image bowls of grains such as barley farro quinoa bulgur and spelt
Paul Sirisalee

You probably already know that whole grains are better for you than refined grains. Swap white rice for brown rice and you’ll be rewarded with more fiber, more protein, and more vitamins and minerals, says registered dietitian Emma Newell. That means lower cholesterol, more stable blood sugar, better gut health and higher energy levels, among many other benefits.

It seems we may be getting the good news about healthy grains. In a study published in November in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers at Tufts University reported that Americans have increased their whole grain intake over the past two decades, although consumption remains far below the recommended 3 ounces a day. 

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Switching from white to brown rice is a good start, but the feel-good can wear off and the taste-bud blahs can set in. Plus, some research indicates that even healthy diets can benefit from greater diversity rather than the same-old, same-old. We asked chef Franklin Becker of the Press Club Grill in New York City for some suggestions on high-fiber options that will delight our taste buds while keeping all our bodily systems humming along.

Stick to a half-cup serving — about the size of a computer mouse — at each meal. Here are seven options to try, along with some health benefits and serving suggestions. The nutritional information for each is for one serving.

1. Spelt

This ancient grain is one of this list’s leaders for fiber and protein, and it provides essential micronutrients such as iron, magnesium and zinc, says Newell. Spelt is also packed with antioxidants, which are beneficial by removing free radicals that can lead to chronic diseases like heart disease and cancer. It has a nutty and slightly sweet flavor similar to whole wheat. Be wary if you have celiac disease or follow a gluten-free diet, however — spelt, a type of wheat, gets most of its protein from gluten.

Carbs: 26g

Fiber: 4g

Protein: 5g

Best in: Pilaf with mushrooms and onions, or bread

Flavor Boosters

  • Add aromatics like ginger, garlic or scallions while cooking
  • Before serving, toss with thyme or other fresh herbs
  • Cook in vegetable, beef or chicken broth, or toss a Parmesan rind into the cooking water
  • Mix different grains together
  • Throw a bay leaf into the cooking pot

2. Bulgur

Nutty and a little chewy, this is used often in Middle Eastern cooking — especially Turkish cuisine. It’s a great option when you’re short on time, since bulgur is parboiled (partially cooked) and dried before being ground, and cooks much faster than other grains. Thanks to its high fiber content, this grain can be a good addition to your plate when you’re working to lower your cholesterol or blood pressure or manage symptoms of gastrointestinal disorders such as constipation or hemorrhoids.

Carbs: 17g

Fiber: 4g

Protein: 3g

Best in: Pilaf with fresh herbs or onions and garlic, or subbed for rice in soups

3. Barley

As with all whole grains, barley contains properties than can interfere with your body’s ability to digest and absorb nutrients, says Newell. That said, soaking or sprouting barley may help you reap the benefits of this grain, including increasing your body’s ability to access essential vitamins and amino acids. Sweet, chewy and slightly nutty, this versatile, cost-effective staple holds up well in fresh or cooked dishes.

Carbs: 22g

Fiber: 3g

Protein: 2g

Best in: Salads, Korean dishes, porridge, or paired with cooked mushrooms and bitter greens like escarole


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4. Farro

Keep Those Leftovers

Grains including farro, quinoa and barley are good cold tossed in salads. Make a big batch to last three to four days in the fridge.

With a nice chew, this ancient grain is texturally pleasing and has a strong cashew flavor. You’ll need to combine it with other plant-based foods (such as beans or tofu) to make it a complete protein source — ensuring all amino acids are present in your meal — but it’s a great option for vegetarians looking to up their protein intake. Studies show higher protein intake may have a beneficial effect on blood pressure.

Carbs: 27g

Fiber: 3g

Protein: 5g

Best in: Pilafs, salads, cooked risotto-style with Parmesan, or steamed with kale, squash and pears

5. Quinoa

Gluten free and a complete protein because it contains all essential amino acids and has high levels of some, like lysine, that may help your body absorb calcium better, quinoa is a staple for carnivores and plant-based eaters alike. It is high in magnesium, a mineral that has been shown to help regulate blood sugar levels and have a preventive effect for type 2 diabetes. This nutty pseudocereal grain stands up to robust flavors, but rinse it before cooking to remove the bitter germ.

Carbs: 20g

Fiber: 3g

Protein: 4g

Best in: Salads, stir-fries, pilaf with fresh herbs, shallots and garlic

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6. Buckwheat

Drink Up

If you’re increasing your fiber intake by eating more grains, be sure to also increase the amount of water you’re drinking to avoid any gastrointestinal discomfort, says Newell.

Contrary to what its name indicates, buckwheat is not wheat but a grain-like seed. This plant is part of a class of pseudocereals that are consumed as grains but do not grow on grasses, similar to quinoa. Buckwheat is naturally gluten free, and its husk contains resistant starch that acts as a prebiotic for the good bacteria in your gut and may help prevent constipation and reduce cholesterol levels. Its slightly bitter, nutty flavor pairs well with mushrooms.

Carbs: 17g

Fiber: 2g

Protein: 3g

Best for: Knishes, blinis, hearty stews, toasted crisp for salads

7. Millet

Another gluten-free grain, millet is a good option for those with celiac disease or who follow a gluten-free diet. Most notably, finger millet provides the most calcium of the cereal grains (about 344 mg per 100 grams), says Newell. Calcium has been shown to be beneficial to bone health, nerve function, and blood vessel and muscular contractions. Millet has a mild taste with a touch of sweetness and a slightly creamy texture.

Carbs: 21g

Fiber: 1g

Protein: 3g

Best for: Tabouli salads, a binder in veggie burgers, a swap for couscous    

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