How Much Grain Food Should You Eat?

You May Be Eating More Than You Think

Organic Whole Grains
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How much grain-based food should a person eat? If you ask different people, you will get different advice. (By grain-based foods, we mean cereals, rice, barley, etc, and anything baked with flours or cornmeal, including breads, crackers, cakes, etc.)

There are many people who think that the amount of grains we should eat is "zero," and they make some persuasive arguments for this perspective. Some people who only eat trace amounts of grain foods find their health greatly improves after making the change.

A related issue is that people vary in how much carbohydrate they can tolerate. People who are following a truly low-carb way of eating for their weight or health should minimize the starchy foods they eat. This article is for people who wish to make smaller changes in their diets and want some guidance about ways to do this.

The first step is simply to pay attention to the amount of grain-based food you are currently eating. Most people are eating more than the generally recommended amounts of starchy foods, mainly because serving sizes are often larger than recommended. For example, what used to be considered "a slice of bread" now looks small, as the loaf pans have grown larger over the years. Similarly, people rarely eat only the half-cup of rice or oatmeal that is considered a serving.

How Much Grain to Eat?

According to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a 35-year-old woman is recommended to eat six ounce-equivalents of grains per day, at least three of which should be whole grains.

How much is an “ounce equivalent" of a grain-based food? Here are some examples:

  • 1 regular-sized piece of bread (now sometimes labeled "small")
  • 1/2 cup rice or pasta (get out a measuring cup and look at how much this really is)
  • 1/2 cup cooked oatmeal
  • 1/2 of a biscuit
  • 1/4 of a large bagel
  • 1/3 of a large muffin

This table shows more grain serving sizes, plus ounce equivalents (click on the blue plus marks).

This means that the 35-year-old woman could eat a half cup of oatmeal, a sandwich on regular-sized 100% whole grain bread, and a cup of pasta (or a slice of pizza) over the course of the day, and a have serving left over for a snack of a few crackers or some popcorn. If you are tending to eat more than this, cutting back to this point is a great start and could yield good results.

Also, remember that foods such as cakes, cookies, and other sweet foods made with flour count as grain servings in addition to the added sugars which also should be limited.

As Much as Possible, Eat Your Grains Whole

In this case, we mean grains that are truly "whole"—that is, not ground up into flour or processed into flakes. The more ground up and/or processed the grain, the more it acts like a refined grain or just plain sugar in the body.

Why Are We Eating so Much Grain-Based Food?

Part of the problem we are running into is that people have been taught that carbohydrates are good and fats are bad. With the introduction of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Pyramid about 30 years ago, consumption of wheat began to rise. Since grain foods were at the base of that pyramid, they almost have been thought of as "free foods" by many people. Also, grains are often thought of as being synonymous with "healthy." ("Hungry between meals? Have a large bagel with a low-fat spread.") Now we are seeing that this approach has had negative consequences for many people since starches break down very quickly into sugars in our bodies.

Incidentally, it turns out that those "healthy grains" are not very nutrient-dense at all, as starch is mostly empty calories unless the product is fortified with extra vitamins. The germ and bran (which are stripped away to make "white" or refined versions of the grain) is where the fiber and nutrients mostly can be found. However, grains are easily stored and transported, and people have come to rely on them as an inexpensive calorie source as well as an easy fast food.

What Should We Eat Instead?

The crucial question becomes, "what should we eat instead?" The answer is to include more non-starchy vegetables, some fruit, and foods higher in proteins and fats. In the example of the large bagel, which is four grain servings, a good substitute would be a few whole-grain crackers with peanut butter, or some nuts, or vegetables with dip as a snack.
After a one- to two-week adjustment period, evaluate how cutting back on high-carb foods has affected you. If decreasing sugars and starches has had a good effect (for example, on your blood pressure, blood sugar, or just how you feel), you may want to experiment further to find out what works best for you.

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Article Sources
  • USDA. "Choose My Plate" Web site, based on the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
  • USDA Economic Research Service. "Wheat's Role in the U.S. Diet Has Changed Over the Decades." 2009.