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Including wholegrains in your diet is a smart move for most of us, says Dr Linia Patel (PhD, RD).

A recent report in the British Journal of Nutrition showed that over 80% of the UK population is not eating enough wholegrains1. A higher wholegrain intake has been linked to a lower bodyweight, a reduced risk of chronic inflammation and, consequently, several chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and some cancers2.

What counts as wholegrain?3

Grains are seeds of grass like plants called cereals. The most common varieties include rice, corn and wheat. Some seeds of non-grass plants or pseudocereals are also considered wholegrain and include amaranth, buckwheat, farro, millet and quinoa.

Wholegrain kernels have the complete package of health benefits. They contain three parts which include:

  • Bran: This is the hard, outer shell. It contains fibre, minerals and health-promoting antioxidants.
  • Endosperm: This middle layer of the grain is mostly made of carbohydrates.
  • Germ: This inner layer has vitamins, minerals and some protein.

Grains can be rolled, crushed or cracked. As long as the three parts are present in their original proportion, they are considered wholegrain. Refined grains are stripped of the germ and bran, leaving only the carbohydrate-rich endosperm. Even though some refined grain products have vitamins and minerals added back into them, they are still not as healthy as their wholegrain versions.

Within the wholegrain category there has been an explosion in popularity of so-called ‘ancient grains’. ‘Ancient grains’ is a marketing term used to describe a category of grains that have been staples in many countries around the globe for thousands of years and that are still present in their original form. These grains have been minimally processed (i.e., selective breeding) as opposed to widespread cereals like corn, rice and modern varieties of wheat.

There is no comprehensive list of ‘ancient grains’; however, the category is generally agreed to include the following:

Amaranth Freekeh
Barley Kamut
Brown/black/red/wild rice Millet
Buckwheat Sorghum
Bulgar Spelt
Einkorn Teff
Farro Quinoa

Like wholegrains, ancient grains are absorbed into your body more slowly, as they have a higher fibre content. This helps to regulate spikes in your blood sugar, which is particularly important for weight management and for those with conditions like diabetes. The fibres in the grains also aid digestion and feed your ‘good bacteria’ in your gut, which in turn comes with multiple health benefits.

How to incorporate ancient grains into your diet

Ancient grain Tip
Amaranth A wheat- and gluten-free option. Nice crunchy texture even when cooked, making it a nice addition to salads or soups.


Barley An inexpensive option that can take a while to cook, yet is a great high-fibre addition to a variety of meals such as soups or casseroles or used as a replacement for rice for a stir-fry.


Brown/black/red/ wild rice These rice varieties take longer to cook than white rice; however, they are better for your blood sugar control as they come with a higher amount of fibre and antioxidants. These rice varieties have a nutty taste and a cruncher texture, making them incredibly versatile wholegrains that can be tossed into soups or salads or eaten as part of a meal.


Buckwheat A gluten-free option that is higher in protein than most other grains. You can add buckwheat groats to soups or salads or turn them into porridge. You can use the flour to make pancakes or other gluten-free treats.


Bulgur A quick-cooking option that is high in manganese and fibre. Bulgur can be tossed into virtually everything, from soups to salads to burgers or casseroles.


Einkorn Thought to be the most ancient of grains, this high-protein grain is also rich in beta-carotene and lutein (hello great skin!). A mild flavour with versatile use.


Farro A staple in Italy which is rich in fibre and magnesium. It is delicious in a risotto or in a salad.


Freekeh Often sold toasted and cracked, it has a smoky taste and is full of fibre and minerals like selenium and magnesium. It is an easy-to-digest grain that can be added to stir-fries, risottos and soups.


Kamut A nutty flavour that packs in fibre and protein. Kamut flour can be used as a replacement for wheat flour or the whole-cooked grain can be added to salads for a nutty flavour.


Millet A gluten-free wholegrain staple in many African and Asian countries that makes a delicious and nutritious porridge. Millet has a slightly sweet flavour, which means it works well in salads or mixed into a wholegrain medley with sauteed veggies.


Sorghum An ancient staple in Egypt that is naturally gluten free. It has a neutral, slightly sweet flavour which means it is an easy substitute for wheat flour when it comes to baking.


Spelt Part of the wheat family, it is high in protein and fibre. Spelt has a distinctive nutty chewiness that makes it appealing not only as a substitute for rice but also for pasta in some dishes.


Teff Known for being tiny in size, it is still a nutrition powerhouse that is particularly high in calcium. Teff works well in porridges, rice pilaf and gluten-free baking.


Quinoa Perhaps the most well-known ancient grain, it is gluten free and is considered a complete protein, as it has all nine essential amino acids. Cooks quickly and very versatile. A hearty grain that you can add to your porridge in the morning for an extra protein hit, or to your chilli for a lower-in-meat alternative.

Portion distortion

Although healthy and a good addition to your diet, wholegrains including ancient grains are rich in carbohydrates so, if you overdo it when it comes to portions, then the benefits can be lost. Speak to a dietitian or registered nutritionist for personalised nutrition.

Have you checked out Linia’s best-selling online educations?

About the author

Dr Linia Patel has a BSc degree in biochemistry and physiology and has recently achieved a PhD in public health. Linia is a leading dietitian and sports nutritionist. Her passion is translating nutritional science into easy-to-digest and practical advice.


1.Mann P et al (2015), Low whole grain intake in the UK: Results from the National Diet and Nutrition Survey rolling programme 2008-2011, British Journal of Nutrition, 8:113(10): 1,643-51.

2.Nirmala P et al (2020), Dietary fibre from whole grains and their benefits on metabolic health, Nutrients, 12(10): 3,045.

3.Martinez-Villaluenga et al (2020), Pseudocereal grains: Nutritional value, health benefits and current applications for the development of gluten free foods, Food Chem Toxicol., 137: 11,178.

About the Author

Dr Linia Patel

Dietitian and sports nutritionist

As a self-confessed “total foodie”, being an award-winning dietitian and sports nutritionist comes naturally to our resident dietitian and long-time Fitpro magazine contributor, Dr Linia Patel. She likes to take a block of science and slice it up into easy-to-digest and practical advice. With a PhD in Public Health and over 100 published articles on diet and health, she is a British Dietetic Association Spokesperson and is regularly seen appearing on national TV and being quoted in the press. She’s the science expert for Tess Daly’s best-selling book 4 Steps to a Happier & Healthier You, is a qualified fitness instructor and has worked extensively in high performance sport. She is particularly passionate about women’s health, helping women to be the best version of themselves.

Key expertise:

  • Translating science into easy-to-digest, practical advice
  • Dietitian and sports nutritionist
  • Media spokesperson
  • Women’s health (athletes, non-athletes and everything in between)
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