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Dear Dietitian - Is there a difference between whole grains and fiber

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PICT Leanne McCrate Dear Dietitian
Leanne McCrate, RDN, LD

Dear Dietitian,

I am confused about whole grains. Some information tells me to eat lots of whole grains, but others say fiber is important in a healthy diet. Which is it?


Dear Ray,

You ask a good question. I recently bought a loaf of bread that advertised “20 grams of whole grains per serving” and “a good source of fiber.”  What does this mean?  According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), a whole grain must contain all the components of a grain kernel: the bran, germ, and endosperm.

Whole grains include, but are not limited to, whole wheat, barley, rye, oatmeal, popcorn, brown rice, and wild rice.  These foods are rich in nutrients, including B vitamins and fiber. Refined grains, such as white bread and white rice, do not include all grain kernels. In the refinement of these grains, nutrients, and fiber are removed. Nutrients are added back in the enrichment process, but fiber is not.

Enrichment of refined grains is required in the United States to prevent nutrient deficiencies. Centuries ago, people in the Far East who relied on white rice for 80 percent of their energy intake developed a neurological disorder known as beriberi, which literally means “I can’t; I can’t.” This disorder left many paralyzed, weak, and with mental confusion. Extensive research uncovered the root of beriberi: a lack of thiamine (vitamin B1) due to the refinement process.

There is very little government regulation for whole grain food labeling. However, the Whole Grains Council, a nonprofit group, has developed guidelines to aid in truth in advertising. For example, a product with the “100% Whole Grain” stamp must have at least 16 grams of whole grains per serving.

In contrast, there are regulations for fiber claims. A “high in fiber” claim must contain 5 grams or more fiber per serving. A claim that a food is “a good source of fiber” must have at least 2.5 grams of fiber per serving.

Remember, the main focus is on fiber. Scientific studies have shown a positive link between high-fiber diets and the prevention of chronic diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure. These studies do not isolate one particular type of fiber or whole grain, but all fiber sources are included. These food sources include grains, fruits, vegetables, and even manufactured sources known as functional fiber. The bottom line is food that contains whole grains is not necessarily high in fiber.

While whole grains are your best choice in the grain food group, many plant products are rich in fiber and nutrition, including nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables. Set your goal of fiber intake to at least 20 grams per day. If you’re not used to eating a high-fiber diet, begin with 10 grams daily and work up to a goal of 20- 35 grams daily. Remember to drink plenty of water when increasing fiber intake to ease the digestive process.

Until next time, be healthy!

Dear Dietitian

Leanne McCrate, RDN, LD, is an award-winning dietitian based in Missouri. Her mission is to educate consumers on sound, scientifically-based nutrition. Do you have a nutrition question? Email her today at Dear Dietitian does not endorse any products, health programs, or diet plans.