How Many Servings of Grains Should You Eat?

Grains

Verywell / Alexandra Shytsman

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Do you know how many grain-based foods you should eat? If you ask different people, you will get probably different advice. Plus, there are different types of grain-based foods to choose from and not all of them provide the same nutritional value.

When considering your total servings of grains per day, everyone has different needs depending on a variety of factors. Find out how many servings of grains you should be eating and learn about the best choices to stay healthy.

What Are Grains?

There are two types of grains: whole grains and refined grains. Common grains include oatmeal, white rice, brown rice, popcorn, barley, buckwheat, and, of course, wheat. A grain in its whole form includes three parts: the bran, germ, and endosperm.

  • Bran: The outer shell of the kernel protects the kernel from sunlight, pests, water, and disease. This part is edible and contains important antioxidants, B vitamins, iron, copper, zinc, magnesium, phytonutrients, and fiber.
  • Germ: The tiny inner seed or embryo provides vitamin E, B vitamins, minerals, and healthy fats. This seed can sprout into a new plant.
  • Endosperm: The largest part of the kernel provides food supply to the germ. It contains mostly starchy carbohydrates, along with some proteins and small amounts of vitamins and minerals.

Grain-based foods include anything made from wheat, rice, oats, cornmeal, barley, or another cereal grain—such as bread products, crackers, cakes, bagels, tortillas, and grits. Grain and grain-based foods are generally considered carbs, although they may also provide some fat and protein.

Whole Grains vs. Refined Grains

Whole Grain Foods
  • Whole wheat flour

  • Brown rice

  • Oats

  • Popcorn

  • Quinoa

Refined Grain Foods
  • White bread

  • White rice

  • Corn flakes and other cereals

  • Cookies, cakes, muffins made with white flour

  • Enriched pasta

Whole Grain Foods

All grains start out as whole grains. When the grain stays intact during the food manufacturing process, the resulting food is considered to be a whole grain food.

Common whole grain foods include whole-wheat bread products (made with 100% whole-wheat flour instead of a mix of whole-grain flours and refined flours), bulgur (cracked wheat), oatmeal, whole cornmeal, and brown rice.

Consumption of whole grains is associated with several health benefits including a lower risk of disease and mortality. Studies have also shown that increased whole grain consumption is linked to a reduction in both body weight and systemic low-grade inflammation.

Whole grains include the bran, germ, and endosperm. Whole grains provide several nutritional benefits including dietary fiber, iron, many B vitamins, and magnesium.

Refined Grain Foods

Refined grains are those that have been processed or milled to remove the bulky bran and germ. The result is a food that has a finer texture that may be more visually appealing to many consumers.

These foods generally last longer, as well. The milling process removes the part of the kernel that provides dietary fiber, iron, and B vitamins, along with some nutrients and phytonutrients.

Enriched Refined Grain Products

Refined grain products that have had some, but not all, nutrients added back in after processing will have the word "enriched" on the label. You may see "enriched flour" included in the ingredients. Generally, B vitamins, including thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, folic acid, and iron are put back into the food.

However, fiber is not added back to enriched grains so that they maintain a fine texture. Refined and enriched grain products provide the body with quick energy as they are broken down faster than whole grains in the body. However, this means you may feel hungry more quickly than when eating a fiber-rich grain.

How Many Servings Should You Eat?

The number of grains and grain foods that you should consume depends on several factors including your age, sex, and level of physical activity. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) provides specific guidelines:

Grain Intake Recommendations
Children, ages 2-8 3-5 ounce equivalents
Girls, ages 9-18 5-6 ounce equivalents
Boys, ages 9-18 6-8 ounce equivalents
Women, ages 19+ 5-6 ounce equivalents
Men, ages 19+ 6-8 ounce equivalents
(Source: USDA)

A one-ounce equivalent of grains is considered to be about one serving of a grain food, such as one slice of bread or one cup of cereal. However, this can get tricky because many grain foods are oversized, so what looks like a single serving is actually considered to be more than an ounce equivalent.

For example, a whole bagel may be up to a four-ounce equivalent. A whole English muffin is considered to be a two-ounce equivalent.

According to the USDA, a single ounce equivalent of grains includes:

  • One large pancake or two small pancakes
  • One cup of ready-to-eat cereal
  • One-half cup cooked pasta
  • One small flour or corn tortilla
  • One mini bagel
  • Seven square or round crackers
  • Three cups popcorn
  • One-half cup cooked oatmeal

Whole Grain Recommendations

The USDA’s 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggest that at least half of our total grains should come from whole grains and that refined grains should be enriched. So if you consume six ounce-equivalents of grains each day, three of them should be from whole-grain foods.

Current dietary guidelines suggest that adults under the age of 50 consume between 25 and 34 grams of fiber per day, while adults over the age of 50 should aim for 22 to 28 grams each day. Eating more whole grains helps most individuals reach their daily recommended intake of fiber.

Considerations for Special Populations

Certain diets, like Paleo, Atkins, and ketogenic, limit or even eliminate grains from their meal plans. But in general, most people can (and should) consume grains. If you adhere to a low-carb diet, you will need to be sure to get adequate fiber from other sources. Some people, however, should avoid grains or select only certain types of grains.

People with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity need to be careful to avoid grains with gluten (a protein in wheat, barley, and rye). Grains that do not contain gluten include corn, buckwheat, amaranth, millet, quinoa, rice, and some others.

The USDA recommends that 45% to 65% of calories come from carbohydrates. If you are considering a low- or no-carb diet, you may want to consult with your doctor or a registered dietitian.

A Word From Verywell

There are several small changes that you can make in your daily diet that can provide a substantial benefit to your overall health. Replacing some refined grains with whole-grain foods is one of them. Not only do whole grains provide better nutrition, but refined grain foods are often high in added sugars, sodium, and fat.

Of course, this doesn't mean that every whole-grain food is healthy or that every refined-grain food is bad for you. Read nutrition labels and consider the overall impact of the food in your diet to make the best decision for you. If you have questions about your individual dietary needs or how to meet them, consider working with a registered dietitian.

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  1. Ross AB, van der Kamp J-W, King R, et al. Perspective: a definition for whole-grain food products-recommendations from the Healthgrain Forum. Adv Nutr. 2017;8(4):525-531. doi:10.3945/an.116.014001

  2. Roager HM, Vogt JK, Kristensen M, et al. Whole grain-rich diet reduces body weight and systemic low-grade inflammation without inducing major changes of the gut microbiome: A randomised cross-over trial. Gut. 2019;68(1):83-93. doi:10.1136/gutjnl-2017-314786

  3. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2020–2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Ninth Edition. December 2020.

  4. U.S. Department of Agriculture. Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025. Published 2020.

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