In this factsheet:

What are wholegrains?

A huge variety of cereal crops are grown for food throughout the world including wheat, rye, barley, oats and rice. Grains are the seeds of these cereal plants. The entire grain or ‘wholegrain’ is made up of three elements:

  • a fibre-rich outer layer – the bran
  • a nutrient-packed inner part – the germ; and
  • a central starchy part – the endosperm.

What nutrients do wholegrains contain?

Most of the goodness in grains is in the outer bran layer and germ of the seed so wholegrains can contain up to 75% more nutrients than refined cereals. Wholegrains provide: •  fibre

  • B vitamins and folic acid
  • essential fatty acids (omega 3 fats)
  • protein
  • antioxidants including vitamin E, selenium
  • micronutrients like copper and magnesium
  • other parts of the plant (phytochemicals) which may have health benefits.

Why should we choose wholegrains?

Evidence is growing that eating wholegrains regularly as part of a healthy diet and lifestyle helps to keep us healthy and may also help to reduce the risk of many common diseases. It is not only the fibre in wholegrains that has health promoting properties - it seems to be the ‘complete package’ of nutrients in wholegrains that work together to offer protection. 

Research suggests that: 

  • The risk of heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes may be up to 30% lower in people who regularly eat wholegrains as part of a low-fat diet and healthy lifestyle. 
  • The risk of developing some forms of cancer of the digestive system like bowel cancer may be reduced with higher intakes of wholegrains. Some of the fibre in wholegrains moves food along more quickly and easily, reducing the time that damaging substances are in contact with the gut wall.
  • Some of the fibre provides a food source for ‘friendly’ gut bacteria helping them to increase and produce substances which are thought to protect the gut wall, such as short-chain fatty acids. 
  • Wholegrains may help in maintaining a healthy body weight over time as part of a healthy diet and lifestyle.
  • Wholegrains may help in maintaining a healthy body weight over time as part of a healthy diet and lifestyle.
  • Wholegrains are usually low in fat but rich in fibre and starchy carbohydrate and often have a low glycaemic index (GI). This means they provide a slow release of carbohydrate into the blood which, together with fibre content, may help keep you feeling fuller for longer - aiding to control snacking and appetite. 
  • Most cereal foods eaten in the UK are refined and our intake of wholegrains is very low. Surveys show that 95% of adults don’t eat enough wholegrains and nearly one in three of us get none at all.

How case I increase my intake of wholegrains?

When choosing foods from the starchy food group, replace refined cereal foods such as white bread and rice with wholegrain varieties such as wholemeal bread and brown rice.

Wheat, oats, barley, rye and rice are the most commonly available cereals which can be eaten in the wholegrain form. To find them, look for the word ‘whole’ before the name of the cereal e.g. whole-wheat pasta, whole oats and make sure they are high up/ first in the ingredients list.

Multigrain is not the same as wholegrain – it means that the product contains more than one different type of grain. There is currently no advice on what amount of wholegrains to eat in the UK but many experts in  other countries say to aim for three servings a day (see table below for portion size).

Wholegrains table


List of Wholegrains


  • wheats, including spelt and durums 
  • rice
  • barley including hull-less or naked barley but not pearled
  • maize (corn)
  • rye
  • millets
  • oats, including hull-less or naked oats
  • wild rice.

Other grains:

  • buckwheat
  • quinoa
  • 'ancient grains' e.g. kamut, freekah, amaranth.


Most of us eat too few wholegrains to get the health benefits from the whole range of nutrients they contain as we tend to eat more refined cereals. However, given the wide variety of wholegrain foods now available, it is easier than ever to make them the tasty staples of a healthy diet.

Further Information

Food Fact Sheets on topics including Weight Loss and Allergies can be downloaded at www.bda.uk.com/foodfacts 

Download this information as a PDF.



This Food Factsheet is a public service of The British Dietetic Association (BDA) intended for information only.

It is not a substitute for proper medical diagnosis or dietary advice given by a dietitian. If you need to see a dietitian, visit your GP for a referral or a private dietitian.

To check your dietitian is registered check www.hcpc-uk.org
Written by Sian Porter, Dietitian.

The information sources used to develop this fact sheet are available at www.bda.uk.com/foodfacts

© BDA April 2019. Review date: April 2021.