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Great Grains: High-Quality Carb Options For Runners

It's time to venture beyond whole wheat, oats, and brown rice for your whole grains.

It’s time to venture beyond whole wheat, oats, and brown rice for your whole grains.

Whole grains, crammed with nutrients, can help fend off a laundry list of ailments: diabetes, cancer, and heart disease, to name a few. A 2009 study in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported that among 4,200 subjects, those who noshed on the most whole grains were the least likely to pack on unwanted body weight. Plus, there are all those complex carbohydrates needed to replace spent energy stores after a big run.

Few health-savvy runners venture much past brown rice, oats, and whole-wheat spaghetti to get their whole-grain fix. With so many whole-grain choices becoming readily available on store shelves and in bulk bins, why not try one or more of these great grains, each with the goods to fight disease, boost performance, and re-stimulate a bored palate?

Wehani Rice

Developed from Indian basmati rice by the Lundberg Family Farms in northern California, long-grain wehani is a russet-colored, slightly chewy whole-grain rice with a pleasant nutty taste. As it cooks, the kitchen becomes redolent of buttery popcorn. Besides the taste, another reason to choose it over white rice is this: Harvard researchers followed more than 197,000 U.S. adults for up to 22 years and found those who had a penchant for eating refined white rice were at a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes than those who consumed more whole-grain rice.


Indigenous to Ethiopia and now grown in Idaho, teff is the world’s tiniest grain. What this tanned grain lacks in size it makes up for with a nutritional windfall. A serving contains plenty of B vitamins, fiber, protein, magnesium, bone-building calcium, and more iron than other grains. Essential for delivering oxygen to working muscles, adequate iron intake is a must for runners in training.

Teff has a slightly malty taste with hazelnut undertones. The grain is somewhat gelatinous when cooked, making it a wonderful alternative to oat porridge in the morning when mixed with berries, spices and nuts. Also add some salubrious teff flour (available along with many other whole grains at into your next batch of pancakes, waffles, muffins or chocolate cake.

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A sacred source of strength and vitality for the ancient Incas, South American quinoa (pronounced keen-wah) has lately enjoyed increasing popularity in the U.S. Grain lovers appreciate that this shining star cooks up in half the time as brown rice (about 10 to 12 minutes) and contains a full complement of essential amino acids, making it a complete protein source for repairing and building lean muscle tissue.

Gluten-free, nutty-tasting quinoa also contains a wealth of magnesium. Often under-consumed, magnesium plays a crucial part in hundreds of biochemical reactions including those involved in normal muscle and nerve function, heart rhythm regulation, bone strengthening and immune defense. Quinoa is most often sold in its beige form, but red and black quinoa are also sporadically available.


The ancient cereal grain amaranth was a dietary staple of the Aztecs, who believed it possessed supernatural powers, even incorporating it into religious ceremonies. The seeds are diminutive and oval-shaped with a creamy complexion and earthy flavor. Amaranth has among the highest protein and fiber levels of any of the whole-grains—about 9 and 5 grams per cooked cup, respectively. To fight off diabetes, weight gain and digestive disorders, health experts recommend we consume 25 to 38 grams of fiber daily; on average we’re consuming half that amount.


Slightly sweet and pleasantly chewy, spelt berries are an ancient cereal grain in the same family as wheat, but offer a broader spectrum of nutrients—including protein, fiber, magnesium, selenium, and niacin—than today’s common hybrid wheat. Almond-shaped spelt does contain gluten, so it’s off limits to those with celiac disease, but some with wheat sensitivities can properly digest it. Whole-grain spelt flour can be used just like whole-wheat or all-purpose flour when baking, with a caveat: It’s more water-soluble, so add about 25 percent less liquid than the recipe requesting wheat flour asks for.

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Forbidden Rice (a.k.a. Chinese Black Rice)

Rice is available in a wide array of eye-catching hues. Case in point: Black-purple forbidden rice can add a serious “wow” factor to any meal. Chinese lore says the whole-grain rice got its name because only emperors in ancient China were allowed to indulge in it due to its rarity and nutritional might. More than other rice variety, medium-grain heirloom forbidden rice is particularly rich in anthoycanin antioxidants, which help mop up disease-provoking free radicals. Rousing the taste buds, each mouthful provides a wonderful roasted nutty taste. Look for it at health food stores.


Buckwheat is the seed of a plant related to rhubarb that is native to northern Europe and Asia. Commonly available are buckwheat groats, also called kasha, which is whole-grain buckwheat that has been roasted and broken into bits. Buckwheat is a rare food source of the phytochemical rutin. Rutin may have a number of beneficial effects, including that of halting the expansion of body fat cells and keeping cholesterol levels in check. A Canadian study found that buckwheat extract was effective at lowering blood glucose in diabetic animals. In Japan, buckwheat is ground into flour to make quick-cooking and delicious soba noodles, which can be used like normal pasta. Like amaranth and quinoa, buckwheat is free of gluten. If you find the strong taste of buckwheat too overpowering on its own, try mixing it with other grains like rice or quinoa when serving as a side dish.

Whole-Grain Cooking

In general, cook whole grains like the aforementioned in a saucepan with two parts liquid and one part grain. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer covered until the water is absorbed. Remove from heat and let stand covered for five minutes. Using apple cider, fruit juices and vegetable broth for the cooking liquid adds interesting flavor twists. Some whole grains such as quinoa and amaranth become even more flavorful when toasted in a dry skillet for a couple minutes before boiling.

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Whole Grain Anatomy

Whole grains are made up of three parts: bran, germ, and endosperm. The endosperm, which consists mostly of carbohydrates, makes up about 80 percent of the mass of a grain. The germ and bran provide the remaining 20 percent. When whole grains are refined—for example, when whole-wheat flour is turned into all-purpose flour—much of the germ and bran is removed, leaving behind the endosperm. Manufacturers do this because it cuts down on rancidity to extend shelf life. Unfortunately, most of the naturally occurring fiber, magnesium, vitamin E, unsaturated fats, potassium, zinc, and other vital nutrients are found in the germ and bran, and are removed when whole grains are refined. Some refined grains are enriched with B vitamins and iron, but the enrichment process is inadequate to make up for all the nutrients that have been stripped away.


About The Author:

Matthew Kadey is a Canadian-based dietitian and food writer. Find him at