What are the Healthiest Whole Grains?

Nutritional Analysis

Food Health Score Protein Dietary Fiber Unsaturated Fat ALA Omega-3 DHA Omega-3 EPA Omega-3 Vitamin A Vitamin C Vitamin D Vitamin K Riboflavin Niacin Folate Vitamin B-6 Vitamin B-12 Calcium Iron Magnesium Potassium Saturated Fat Omega-6 Fat Trans Fat
Wheat Bread 100 12% 10% 3% 1% 0% 0% 0% 0% 0% 4% 6% 10% 4% 4% 0% 4% 6% 9% 3% 0% 8% 0%
Bulgar Wheat 94 7% 20% 0% 0% 0% 0% 0% 0% 0% 1% 2% 6% 5% 6% 0% 1% 6% 10% 2% 0% 4% 0%
Quinoa 76 8% 6% 4% 8% 0% 0% 0% 0% 0% 0% 5% 2% 7% 13% 0% 1% 7% 14% 5% 0% 27% 0%
Brown Rice 51 5% 6% 2% 1% 0% 0% 0% 0% 0% 0% 1% 7% 6% 1% 0% 1% 2% 10% 1% 0% 9% 0%
Steel Cut Oats 47 8% 9% 4% 3% 0% 0% 0% 0% 0% 1% 3% 2% 1% 2% 0% 1% 7% 9% 3% 0% 19% 0%
Oatmeal 47 8% 9% 4% 3% 0% 0% 0% 0% 0% 1% 3% 2% 1% 2% 0% 1% 7% 9% 3% 0% 19% 0%


  • The numbers in the table above represent the percentage of the Recommended Daily Intake that each food provides in a 100 calorie serving
  • To determine the Health Score:
    • We add up the Recommended Daily Intake (RDI) percentages provided by each food across all nutrients
      • For nutrients that we consider unhealthy (saturated fat, omega-6 fat, and trans fat), we subtract the RDI percentages from the Health Score (instead of adding them) in order to penalize foods for containing unhealthy nutrients
    • When determining the Health Score, we cap the RDI percentages for a single nutrient at 100%
      • We do this in order to give more weight to foods that provide a diverse range of nutrients. For instance, if Food A provides 300% of one nutrient, but Food B provides 100% of three nutrients, we would prefer to eat Food B due to its wider range of nutrients. Without any capping, Food A and Food B would receive the same Health Score. With capping, Food B receives a Health Score that is 3x higher than Food A.
      • This capping is only applied to nutrients that are considered vitamins or minerals. Other nutrient categories (such as protein, fiber, and fat) are not capped at 100%.
  • If you’re looking to target foods that are both healthy and cheap, check out our other article What Cheap and Healthy Foods Should I be Eating? which incorporates our Health Score and food prices to determine recommendations for a cost-effective, healthy diet.

Nutrient Categorization

The Healthy Stuff:

  • Protein
  • Dietary Fiber
  • Unsaturated Fat (Monounsaturated and Polyunsaturated Fat)
  • ALA Omega-3 Fatty Acids
  • DHA Omega-3 Fatty Acids
  • EPA Omega-3 Fatty Acids
  • Vitamin A
  • Vitamin C
  • Vitamin D
  • Vitamin K
  • Riboflavin
  • Niacin
  • Folate
  • Vitamin B-6
  • Vitamin B-12
  • Calcium
  • Iron
  • Magnesium
  • Potassium

The Unhealthy Stuff:

  • Saturated Fat
  • Omega-6 Fat
  • Trans Fat (from manufactured foods)
  • Added Sugar

The Neutral Stuff:

  • Carbohydrates
  • Other Vitamins and Minerals
  • Sodium
  • Cholesterol
  • Sugar (that naturally occurs in food)
  • Trans Fat (that naturally occurs in food)

Nutrient Discussion

Why did we categorize some nutrients as neutral or unhealthy?

  • Unhealthy: Saturated Fat
    • Saturated fat is an essential fat, so you must consume some saturated fat in your diet because your body cannot generate saturated fat on its own.
    • However, how much saturated fat should you consume? Is saturated fat healthy?
    • There is conflicting evidence surrounding saturated fat. A study by the WHO study indicates that a higher intake of saturated fat:
      • may reduce risk of type 2 diabetes
      • does not increase risk of cardiovascular heart disease or ischemic stroke
      • may increase risk of coronary heart disease
    • Ultimately we decided to penalize foods for having saturated fat since there is some evidence that saturated fat may be linked to some diseases. However, it does not appear that saturated fat is universally bad or as bad as we thought. In addition, since saturated fat is an essential fat, you will need to consume a certain amount.
    • The American Heart Association recommends limiting saturated fat to 7% of your daily calories. For a 2000-calorie diet, this would mean consuming less than 16 grams of saturated fat each day.
  • Unhealthy: Trans Fat (from manufactured foods)
    • Trans fat is not an essential fat, so you do not need to consume any trans fat in your diet.
    • Studies show that trans fat from manufactured foods (such as partially hydrogenated oil) are bad for you, but trans fat from natural sources (such as meat) do not appear to be bad for you (and may be good for you).
      • Specifically, a study by the WHO found:
        • Industrial (or manufactured) trans fat is associated with:
          • higher risk of coronary heart disease
        • Animal trans fat is associated with:
          • no increase risk of coronary heart disease
          • decreased risk of type 2 diabetes
    • We penalized foods for containing trans fat from unnatural sources.
      • Some examples of foods containing unnatural trans fat:
        • Anything fried in partially hydrogenated vegetable oil
          • Fast food restaurants used to use partially hydrogenated vegetable oil in their fryers, but most have stopped
        • These foods may also contain bad trans fat:
          • Pie and pie crust
          • Margarine
          • Shortening
          • Cake mixes or cake frosting
          • Pancake and waffle mix
          • Crackers
          • Biscuits
          • Sweet Rolls
            • For all of the above foods, check the label to see if they have “partially hydrogenated oil” as an ingredient. If they do, then the product contains trans fat and is not healthy to eat. (Note: “Fully hydrogenated oil” as an ingredient is okay.)
      • Some examples of foods containing natural trans fat (okay to eat):
        • Meat
        • Dairy
        • Ice Cream
  • Unhealthy: Omega-6 Fatty Acid
    • Similar to saturated fat, omega-6 fat is essential for your body to function and your body cannot produce its own omega-6 fat, so you must consume some omega-6 fat.
    • However, too much omega-6 fat can cause adverse health effects.
    • The amount of omega-6 fat that you can consume depends on the amount of omega-3 fat that you consume. Several sources indicated that the ratio of omega-6 fat to omega-3 fat should be 1:1, although it is generally closer to 16:1 in the western diet.
      • Keeping the ratio down to 4:1 or 2.5:1 is associated with many health benefits in one study.
    • Bottom line: eat more omega-3 fatty acids and less omega-6 fatty acids. Aim for a 1:1 ratio of omega-6 fats to omega-3 fats if you can.
  • Neutral: Carbohydrates
    • Carbohydrates are not essential for your body to function (since your body can generate carbohydrates from other energy sources).
    • There is some evidence that low-carb diets may be better for your health.
    • Because of the lack of strong evidence that carbohydrates were either very good for you, or very bad for you, we decided to treat carbohydrates as a neutral category.
    • The amount of carbohydrates you consume each day should be based on your nutritional goals. For instance, an athlete might require more carbohydrates because of all of the energy they expend. Or someone looking to lose weight and needing to continue to consume enough protein and fat (which both have certain daily requirements) might have to cut back on carbohydrates.
      • For reference, below is a listing of the minimum daily requirements for protein, fat, and carbohydrates for a healthy person:
        • Protein: 0.4 grams to 1.0 grams per pound of body weight
        • Fat: 0.4 to 0.5 grams per pound of body weight
        • Carbohydrates: no requirement
  • Neutral: Other Vitamins and Minerals
    • We did not include every vitamin and mineral in our analysis. This is because some vitamins and minerals are abundant in the foods we eat and you are at a low risk of missing out on them. Therefore, we only included the vitamins and minerals for which you have the highest risk of being deficient.
    • The seven most common vitamin and mineral deficiencies are:
      • Vitamin B-12
      • Vitamin D
      • Folate
      • Calcium
      • Iron
      • Magnesium
      • Potassium
  • Neutral: Sugar (that naturally occurs in food)
    • You can consume close to an unlimited amount of natural sugar without any adverse effects. Studies have been carried out with participants eating 20 servings of fruit of day without any adverse effects (other than frequent bathroom breaks).
    • Added sugar is bad. However, we only included foods that are naturally occurring (i.e. not prepared), therefore we did not consider sugar content in our nutritional evaluations.
    • If we were evaluating prepared food, added sugar would be something we would consider to be unhealthy.
  • Neutral: Sodium
    • Studies have shown that there is no health benefit to limiting sodium intake for a healthy individual.
    • Another paper concluded that while reduced sodium intake does result in a modest change in blood pressure for some individuals, “the decision to adopt a low sodium diet should be made with awareness that there is no evidence that this approach to blood pressure reduction is either safe, in terms of ultimate health impact, or that it is as effective in producing cardioprotection as has been proven for some drug therapies.”
    • Therefore, we did not penalize foods for containing sodium.
  • Neutral: Cholesterol
    • Recent scientific evidence has indicated that there is no link between cholesterol and heart disease.
    • Therefore we did not penalize foods for containing cholesterol.
    • The USDA recommends people with particular health problems, such as diabetes, should continue to avoid cholesterol-rich diets though.

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