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Adapting a Meal Plan for Little or No Grains

Many website visitors have asked us for practical suggestions when trying to avoid certain types of foods or food groups in their meal plans. Sometimes foods or food groups may need to be avoided for medical reasons. At other times, people choose to avoid certain foods for personal ethical reasons and/or dietary practices involving religious beliefs. In addition, people sometimes describe themselves as simply "doing better" without certain foods.

One group of foods we frequently get asked about is grains. Because grains (especially whole grains) hold such a prominent position in many public health recommendations for balanced eating, people often wonder whether it is even possible to avoid grains in a routine meal plan and stay healthy. And at the same time, many people have heard about approaches to health like the Paleo diet approach that recommend avoidance of grains. Below is a practical nutritional summary for helping you understand this food group, and our recommendations for anyone considering a meal plan that includes little or no grains.

GRAINS - What Foods Belong to This Group?

In Grains Group at WHFoods, we profile 8 foods: barley, brown rice, buckwheat, millet, oats, quinoa, rye, and wheat. Two of these foods—buckwheat and quinoa—aren't actually grains. In terms of their scientific classification, researchers place grains in the Poaceae (also called Gramineae) family of plants. Buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum) is nowhere close in terms of its plant family, but is found way off in the distance in a plant family called Polygonaceae (where rhubarb can also be found). Similarly, quinoa is not a grain, but off in another family (Amaranthaceae, also called Chenopodiaceae) with spinach. On our website, we group buckwheat and quinoa together with grains because they can often be used in the same way in the kitchen. Other grains that could rightfully be included in our Grains Group at WHFoods include spelt, kamut, and sorghum. Corn is also correctly classified as a grain, but we moved it over to our Vegetables group since our recipes and meal plans approach it more in that way.

GRAINS - How Can This Group Be Summarized Based on Nutrition Content?

From a nutritional standpoint, our Grains Group at WHFoods is not a highly concentrated source of most nutrients. For example, in terms of vitamins, none of our foods in this group achieve our top ranking (excellent) for any of our 13 vitamins. And among our 12 minerals, only two foods in this group (brown rice and oats) achieve an excellent rating for any mineral. Even when a rating of excellent is achieved, it is only achieved for one or two select minerals. (Brown rice achieves an excellent rating for manganese, and oats achieve an excellent rating for manganese and molybdenum.)

Another way to look at nutrient richness in our Grains Group is to consider the number of Top 10 and Top 25 ratings associated with the eight foods in this group. In other words, we can look at the number of times that any food within this group appears in our Top 10 or our Top 25 List for all 100 WHFoods for particular nutrients. Here are some highlight examples from our Grains Group.

Top 10 and Top 25 Rankings Within Our Grains Group

NutrientTotal Number of Top 10 Rankings for All Foods in Our Grain GroupTotal Number of Top 25 Rankings for All Foods in Our Grains Group
Manganese23
Magnesium16
Fiber02
Vitamin B102
Phosphorus01
Protein00
Copper00
Vitamin B200
Vitamin B300
Vitamin B600
Folate00

We do need to add an important note here about flour enrichment. Beginning in the 1940's, the U.S. government set standards of identity for enriched flour, including guidelines for addition of iron, and vitamins B1, B2, and B3. In 1998, enrichment of flour with folate was added to these standards. Because our approach to nutrition and health focuses on minimally processed whole foods, our charts above only evaluate the nutrients inherently found in the whole grains. Persons routinely consuming cereals, pastas, and breads made from processed, enriched grains should not eliminate these foods from their meal plan without taking into account replacement sources for the added B1, B2, B3, iron, and folate that is present in processed grain products.

Based on the ratings information above, you can see why we think about our Grains Group as a steady source for certain nutrients rather than a concentrated source. The concentration of nutrients in this group is seldom high enough to push them into our Top 10 or Top 25. But at the same time, grains can be a steady and reliable source of particular nutrients. Here is a summary of the nutrient highlights for our Grains Group.

Nutrient Highlights for the Grains Group at WHFoods

NutrientYou Can Rely on Our Grains Group For
Protein5-8 grams per serving (10-15% of daily recommended amount
Fiber2-10 grams per serving (8-40% of daily recommended amount
Calories150-225 calories per serving (8-30% of calories in an 1,800 calorie plan
ManganeseGood, Very Good or Excellent amounts in all 8 foods
CopperGood amounts in all 8 foods
MagnesiumGood amounts in all 8 foods
PhosphorusGood or Very Good amounts in 7 of 8 foods
B Vitamins2-17% of select B vitamins in most foods, with choline standing out as a Top 10 food but with no ranked foods for vitamin B2, vitamin B6, or folate.

This chart reflects key aspects of grain nourishment that we recommend paying attention to if you are adapting a meal plan to include little or no grains. In the following section, we provide you with practical recommendations when considering this dietary step.

GRAINS - What Special Considerations Do You Recommend When Adapting a Meal Plan to Include Fewer Grains?

MACRONUTRIENT CONSIDERATIONS

Let's talk about calories, protein, and fiber first. While grains do not rank as concentrated sources of these macronutrients in our rating system at WHFoods, they do rank as steady sources. You'll need to consider calories, protein, and fiber when adapting a meal plan to include fewer grains. In terms of calories, each of our grain servings provides about 150-225 calories. (Serving sizes for grains in most public health recommendations are about half the size of our WHFoods serving sizes, and only provide 75-125 calories per serving.) If you currently eat 3 WHFoods grain servings per day, you are getting over 400 daily calories from your grains, and most likely more. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's MyPlate food plan recommends that about 20% of total calories come from grains. On an 1,800-calorie meal plan, that would mean 360 calories, and on a 2,000-calorie plan, it would mean 400 calories.

It's important to take calories into account when adapting a meal plan to include fewer grains. For example, it's harder to get 400 calories from vegetables than from grains. At 8 calories per cup, it takes 50 cups of romaine lettuce to get 400 calories. At 55 calories per cup, it takes more than 7 cups of broccoli. If you are wanting to keep your calorie intake the same while reducing your grain intake, you may want to consider increased intake from non-vegetable food groups to make things easier. For example, you would get 269 calories from one cup of garbanzo beans from the Beans & Legumes Group, or 206 calories from 1/4 cup of sesame seeds in the Nuts & Seeds Group.

The steady amounts of fiber and protein provided by grains give you two more reasons to consider additional Beans & Legumes or Nuts & Seeds when lowering your grain intake. You'll be losing 5-8 grams of protein per serving when you lower grains in your meal plan, as well as 2-10 grams of fiber. But you can easily pick up over 10 grams of fiber in a single serving of any bean or legume, as well as 9 or more grams of protein. While you cannot do quite as well with a single serving of a nut or seed, you can still count on 2 or more grams of fiber in a single nut or seed serving, and at least 2 grams of protein as well.

As emphasized throughout this Q & A, we view our Grains Group as a steady source of calories, protein, and fiber, but not an especially concentrated source. For this reason, we believe that it is not particularly difficult for you to cover your nutrient needs in this macronutrient area when lowering grain intake, provided that you consider substitution of other whole foods as described above.

MICRONUTRIENT CONSIDERATIONS

Vitamins

Vegetables would clearly be your go-to food group for covering your micronutrient needs in a meal plan with few or no grains. For vitamins B1, B2, B6, folate, and choline, vegetables tower over most of our other food groups as ranked sources for these B vitamins. Vegetables also predominate our Top 10 lists for the B vitamins listed above. If you want to keep the same number of calories in a grain-reduced meal plan, you can substitute 2-3 vegetable servings for each grain serving and come out roughly equivalent in terms of calories. That ratio should give you a leg up on replacement of the B vitamins listed above. For vitamin B3, you'll want to rely more on seafood, meats, and poultry (if you enjoy those foods and usually include them in your meal plan). Crimini mushrooms and peanuts can be helpful plant foods for covering your B3 needs. However, it is important to remember that since none of the 8 foods in our Grains Group ranks as an excellent or very good source of B3 to begin with, your B3 needs are typically being met from other food groups, even when foods from our Grains Group are being included in your meal plan.

Important note: as mentioned earlier in this Q & A, processed grain flours and grain flour products are exceptions here, since they are typically enriched with vitamins B1, B2, B3 and folate. If you routinely consume processed grain flour products in your meal plan and are wanting to adapt your meal plan to include fewer grains, we recommend taking a close look at these nutrients, as well as the mineral iron since iron is added as an enrichment nutrient in processed grain flours.

Minerals

As mentioned earlier, there is a core group of minerals that have a steady presence in our Grains Group. This group of minerals includes manganese, magnesium, copper, and phosphorus. If you want to lower or eliminate grains from you meal plan, it's especially important to take intake of these four minerals into account. Below are our Top 5 WHFoods sources for each of these four minerals. You can use this chart to help you replace lost amounts of these minerals if you decide to lower your grain intake.

Non-Grain, Nutrient-Rich Mineral Alternatives

MineralWHFoods Non-Grain Top 5
Manganesegarbanzo beans, spinach, collard greens, pineapple, and raspberries*
Magnesiumspinach, Swiss chard, beet greens, pumpkin seeds, and summer squash
Coppersesame seeds, cashews, soybeans, shiitake mushrooms, and beet greens
Phosphorusscallops, cod, crimini mushrooms, sardines, and soybeans

* Cloves and cinnamon can also be very helpful sources of manganese

Once again, it is important to note that processed grain flour products have typically been enriched with the mineral iron. If you are lowering your grain intake but typically consume processed grain flour products, you'll want to pay special attention to iron and make sure that you are not falling below an optimal intake level while adapting your meal plan to include fewer grains. Our top 5 plant food sources of iron are spinach, Swiss chard, beet greens, collard greens, and boy choy. (Parsley, turmeric, and cumin can also be very helpful herb/spice sources of this mineral.) Our top 5 animal food sources of iron are sardines, lamb, beef, chicken and tuna.

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