Current health guidelines encourage us to eat more whole grains. But just what is a whole grain, and why is it healthy?

According to www.myplate.gov, any food made from wheat, rice, oats, cornmeal, barley or other cereal grains is a grain product. Grains are further divided into two groups: whole grains and refined grains. Whole grains contain the entire grain kernel: the bran, germ, and endosperm. Examples include whole wheat bread, pasta and crackers; bulgur (cracked wheat); oatmeal, popcorn, and brown rice.

Refined grains are milled, a process that removes the bran and germ, to give grains a finer texture and improve their shelf life. Milling also removes dietary fiber, iron, and many B vitamins. Examples include white bread, pasta and crackers; flour or corn tortillas, pretzels, white rice, and noodles.

Most refined grains are enriched, which means that B vitamins and iron are added back after processing. Fiber is not added back to enriched grains. To find whole grains, look at the ingredients list on food labels. The first ingredient should include the word "whole," such as "whole oats" in Cheerios or "whole wheat" in Triscuits.

According to a review article in the Journal of Nutrition, whole grains are an excellent source of fiber, vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and phytosterols that promote health and protect against heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer. Refined wheat products contain less than half of these healthy nutrients. Eating more whole grain foods is also associated with a lower body weight and improves overall digestive health.

For great health, make sure that at least half of your daily grain choices are whole grains. For example, choose whole grain cereal for breakfast, make a lunch sandwich from whole wheat bread and then enjoy white pasta for dinner. Or toast a whole grain English muffin for breakfast, make your lunch sandwich from one slice of whole grain bread and one slice of white bread, and serve a stir-fry for dinner with brown rice, lots of vegetables, and chicken. Boost your family's nutrition and health by experimenting with great-tasting whole grains.

Lynn Grieger, RD, CDE, cPT is a health, food and fitness coach in Manchester and online at www.LynnGrieger.com. Whole wheat couscous is a new family favorite in her house.