How Many Servings of Grain Should You Eat?

Grains

Verywell / Alexandra Shytsman

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

When considering your total servings of grains per day, you should take into account your age, gender, and level of physical activity. Everyone has varying needs.

What Are Grains?

A grain in its whole form includes three parts: the bran, germ, and endosperm.

The bran is the outer shell of the kernel. It 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.

The germ is the tiny inner seed or embryo that provides vitamin E, B vitamins, minerals, and healthy fats. This seed can sprout into a new plant.

The endosperm provides a food supply to the germ and makes up the largest part of the kernel. It contains mostly starchy carbohydrates, along with some proteins and small amounts of vitamins and minerals.

Common grains include oatmeal, white rice, brown rice, popcorn, barley, buckwheat, and, of course, wheat. 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

There are two primary types of grain foods: whole grain foods and refined grains. The foods that you buy will fall into one of these two categories.

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. Therefore, whole grain foods include an intact bran, germ, and endosperm.

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.

Whole grains provide several nutritional benefits including dietary fiber, iron, many B vitamins, and magnesium.

Research has shown that consumption of whole grains is associated with several health benefits including 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. They provide fiber, protein and some B vitamins.

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.

Some refined grains are then enriched. Enriched grains are those that have had some, but not all, nutrients added back in after processing. 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.

Examples of refined and enriched grains include white flour and foods made from white flour such as white bread, cookies, cakes, and muffins, de-germed cornmeal, and white rice. 

Refined grain products that have had nutrients added back in will have the word "enriched" on the label. You may see "enriched flour" included in the ingredients.

Refined and enriched grain products provide the body with quick energy as they are broken down more quickly than whole grains in the body. However, this means you may feel hungry more quickly than when eating a fiber-rich grain.

Refined grains have had the bran and germ removed during processing. Enriched grains are those that have had some (but not all) nutrients added back in after processing. Refined grains provide the body with quick energy.

Servings of Grains

The number of grains and grain foods that you should consume depends on several factors including your age, gender, and activity level. 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 ChooseMyPlate.gov)

An 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 four ounce equivalents. A whole English muffin is considered to be two ounce equivalents.

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

  • One large pancake or two small pancakes
  • One cup 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 Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025 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.

Consuming more whole grains will help you meet the recommended dietary intake of fiber. Current 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.

Dietary guidelines suggest that half of all grains consumed should be whole grains. Eating more whole grains helps us reach the daily recommended intake of fiber.

Special Populations

While certain diets, like Paleo, Atkins, and ketogenic limit or even eliminate grains from their meal plans, 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). Grains that don't 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 registered dietician. 

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 on 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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Article Sources
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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 Agriculture. Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025. Published 2020.

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