How Many Servings of Grain Should You Eat?


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 may include cereals, bread products, crackers, cakes, bagels, tortillas, and grits. Grain-based foods include anything from wheat, rice, oats, cornmeal, barley or another cereal grain.

Grain and grain-based foods are generally considered carbs, although most of them provide some carbohydrates, some fat, and some 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

  • Whole wheat pasta

  • Popcorn

  • Breads and other products made from whole grains

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, and many B vitamins.

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 USDA provides specific guidelines:

Grain Intake Recommendations
Children (including girls and boys up to age 18) 3-8 ounce equivalents
Women 5-6 ounce equivalents
Men 6-8 ounce equivalents
(Source: USDA

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

Dietary guidelines provided by the USDA suggest that at least half of our total grains should come from whole grains. 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 to meet the recommended dietary intake of fiber. Current guidelines suggest that adults under the age of 50 consume between 25 and 38 grams of fiber per day, while adults over the age of 50 aim for 21 to 30 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

Some people think that the amount of grains we should eat is zero and they make some persuasive arguments for this perspective. Some who only eat trace amounts of grain foods find that their health improves after making the change. In general, though, most people can (and should) consume grains.

There are some groups of people, however, who should avoid grains or select only certain types of grains.

People with celiac disease or gluten-sensitivity need to be careful about avoiding grains with gluten (a protein in wheat). Grains that don't contain gluten include corn, buckwheat, amaranth millet, quinoa, rice, and many others.

Additionally, people who follow low-carb diets are careful about grain consumption, since grains provide carbohydrates. However, these populations still need to consume adequate fiber.

People vary in how much total carbohydrate they can tolerate. Those who are following a low-carb way of eating for their weight or health should minimize the starchy foods they eat. Whole-grain foods provide more fiber and less starch.

In fact, the American Diabetes Association recommends that if you are going to eat grain foods, pick the ones that are the most nutritious, specifically whole grains.

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

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