Donya Currie is the editor of The Free Lance-Star's Healthy Life section and Healthy Life Virginia newsletter.

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Got grains?

grainstampAs a nutritionist, Samantha Ronk knows the power of whole grains.

They’re better for our health because, unlike white, processed flour or other processed grains, whole grains have fiber, protein and minerals that have not been stripped away. Studies show whole grains reduce your risk for health problems like heart disease and diabetes.

But Ronk’s Italian husband was not a fan of whole grain pasta.

“At first he wouldn’t touch the whole grain,” said Ronk, an intern at Mary Washington Healthcare. She eased him off of white pasta by cooking dishes like macaroni and cheese made with pasta that was half whole grain, half white. She gradually upped the proportion of whole grain pasta.

“Now he’s fine with the whole grain version,” said Ronk, who’s completing her clinical practice to become a registered dietitian.

Other whole-grain favorites in Ronk’s house include oatmeal with egg whites and half a banana or apple, sandwiches made on whole-grain bread, and my favorite whole-grain snack, popcorn. She puts a new twist on air-popped popcorn by misting it with olive oil and then sprinkling some oregano and red pepper flakes for pizza popcorn. Or try a bit of parmesan cheese, which sticks to the popcorn without added oil.

As with much nutrition advice these days, serving size is key. A serving of whole grains is half a cup of cooked grains like rice or pasta, one cup of cold cereal or one slice of bread. If you’re not sure what a half cup of pasta looks like on your plate, Ronk recommends measuring your servings for a week so you’ll be able to easily eyeball a healthy serving size. The number of servings you should be eating daily depends on your age and gender, but federal health officials have a handy chart at Aim to make whole grains amount to at least half of your daily grain choices.

How do you know if you’re getting a whole-grain product? Ronk suggests looking for the whole-grain symbol on food labels. It looks like a stamp and pictures a yellow-and-black whole grain leaf.

And it’s a good idea to branch out now and then and try a new grain–maybe quinoa, buckwheat or freekeh, which is roasted young green wheat.

“If you eat the same things every day, you’re going to get tired of it,” Ronk said. “If you try incorporating different grains you might not have used before, you’re going to be more likely to get the grains you need if you have a lot of options.”

Want to learn more about whole grains? Come to ‘Ask a Dietitian’ at the Mary Washington Hospital Café on Wednesday, April 9, from 11:30 a.m.-1:30 and at the Stafford Hospital Cafe on Thursday, April 17, noon-1 p.m.  Organizers are still “brewing some ideas” for what grains will be available but do plan on offering samples of whole-grain pizza.