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A Simple Health Guide To The Most Common Grains

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June 12, 2013

Amaranth, barley, buckwheat, bulgur, corn, couscous, farro, kamut, kaniwa, millet, oats, quinoa, brown rice, white rice, forbidden rice, wild rice, rye, sorghum, spelt, teff, triticale,wheat, wheat berries ... so many choices! On top of that you have labels to decipher, like gluten-free, yeast-free, celiac approved, gluten sensitive, gluten intolerant; it’s enough to make you crazy! All grains are not created equal, so how do you know which ones are good for you?

Below is a quick and easy guide to decipher all the varieties and health benefits of the most common grains. The important thing to remember is to have a rotation of different types of foods in your diet to keep your immune system healthy and avoid developing food sensitivities or leaky gut syndrome.

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If you know you are gluten sensitive or have celiac disease, pay attention to these grains only: amaranth, buckwheat, corn, millet, oats, quinoa, rice (all varieties), sorghum and teff.


  • A nutty, ancient Aztec pseudograin.
  • Complete protein (meaning it contains lysine).
  • The best iron source of all grains.
  • The only grain that contains vitamin C.
  • Use in pilaf, porridge or popped like corn. Resembles brown caviar when cooked!


  • Contains both soluble (reduces heart disease risk) and insoluble (lower risk of colon cancer) fiber.
  • Touted to lower cholesterol even better than oats!
  • Use in soups, breakfast cereal or as a rice substitute.
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  • A pseudograin and cousin of the rhubarb plant.
  • A complete protein, rich in iron, selenium and zinc.
  • The only grain with high levels of rutin, an antioxidant that can improve circulation and touted to block LDL (“bad” cholesterol).
  • Has a mild flavor and cooks quickly.
  • Most commonly enjoyed as “soba” noodles. The flour makes a yummy gluten-free crepe.


  • Usually made from durum wheat.
  • Very quick cooking due to its being precooked then broken into smaller pieces.
  • Mild flavor.
  • Most famously used in tabouleh.
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  • Good source of magnesium and thiamine.
  • Variety of ways to enjoy: grits, polenta, tortillas, popcorn.
  • Research shows that it has highest level of antioxidants of all grains!


  • Rich and buttery tasting.
  • High in vitamin E and selenium (good for glowing skin and a healthy immune system).
  • Enjoy in moderation, as has it has 15 times more sugar than regular wheat.
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  • Staple in China and India.
  • Sweet and mild tasting.
  • High in magnesium, which has been shown to lower risk of type II diabetes.
  • Used to make roti (flatbread) or as a porridge. In US, unfortunately used most commonly as birdseed.


  • The ultimate American breakfast staple.
  • Complete protein.
  • High in fiber and thiamine.
  • Numerous health benefits including stabilizing blood sugar, lowering bad cholesterol (due to beta-glucan fiber), and reducing blood pressure.
  • Steel cut type is the best to consume!
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  • A pseudograin. Related to swiss chard.
  • Best plant source of protein.
  • Contains all essential amino acids, plus folic acid.
  • Cooks quickly and has a light sesame flavor.
  • Note: must rinse before cooking to wash away saponins, a bitter residue the plant uses to ward off insects.


  • Easily digested.
  • Highest amount of antioxidant of all rice varieties — even blueberries!
  • Rich in iron and fiber.


  • High in fiber.
  • Ideal for diabetics due to its low glycemic index.
  • Promotes feeling full quickly.
  • Great grain for people trying to lose weight.


  • Small, round grain.
  • Good source of iron, potassium and fiber.
  • Versatile — eat like popcorn, ground into flour, or use to brew beer.


  • Ancient grain that's easily digestible.
  • High in B vitamins, especially riboflavin which can help reduce frequency of migraines.
  • Higher in protein than regular wheat.
  • People who are gluten sensitive may tolerate this grain.
  • Excellent source of manganese (essential for bone health and glucose metabolism).


  • Small, poppy seed-like texture. Cooks quickly.
  • Principal source of nutrition in Ethiopia.
  • Sweet, molasses flavor.
  • High in fiber, iron, and calcium.
  • Versatile: cook into a porridge or use flour in baked goods.


  • Wheat in its most natural form the original whole grain!
  • Great source of manganese, magnesium, selenium and phosphorus.
  • Contains lignans which may help to protect against breast and prostate cancer.
  • Versatile use in soups, muffins and salads.

What is your favorite shade of grain? Share below in the comment section!

Tiffany Lester, M.D.
Tiffany Lester, M.D.
Functional Medicine Doctor

Tiffany Lester, M.D. is the National Clinical Director of Community at Parsley Health San Francisco, a groundbreaking new medical practice that focuses on nutrition, prevention, and wellness. She received her bachelor's in psychology and biology from the University of Missouri, Columbia, and her medical degree from the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. Lester combines the best of both conventional and functional medicine, navigating the complexity of the body to get to the root cause of disease. She is passionate about healing chronic disease through whole foods and teaching people how simple, small shifts can have an enormous impact on their fatigue, stress, and pain levels.