Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
Despite being harassed and downtrodden by many of today’s popular diet plans, most runners still pledge allegiance to their carbs to help crush any fitness goal. After all, it’s hard to nail PR goals on protein or fat alone. And most nutrition experts will extol the virtues of getting a good chunk of our carbs from whole grains. That’s because on top of delivering the requisite energizing carbs whole grains also contain a nutritional stew that helps boost health and performance. The food group has been linked to a lower risk for everything from heart disease to cancer to diabetes to being overweight.
But maybe you’re a little burnt out on brown rice and whole wheat bread. If so, it may be time to take a culinary voyage around the world to broaden your whole grains selection, wake up your taste buds, and take in a greater assortment of vital nutrients. With so many exciting options now available there is no reason to settle for the usual suspects.
Here is a trio of whole grains that should have a very special place in your carb-hungry heart.
When it comes to your choice of rice it might be time to take the advice of the rock band AC/DC and go back in black. This non-waxy medium-grain heirloom variety of rice from China has a deep purple color (nearly black in appearance), a sweeter taste than brown rice and a delightfully chewy texture. Black rice contains roughly the same number of calories and carbs as other varieties of rice, but its dark bran layer contains higher levels of potent anthocyanin antioxidants, the same type of compounds you’d get from blueberries, blackberries and eggplant. Athletes require more antioxidants than the general population because increased cardiovascular activity creates oxidative damage on a cellular level, so foods with high antioxidant capacity like black rice help to reduce the damage caused by this process. This may translate into improved recovery and performance. By helping mop up cell-damaging free radicals in the body and decreasing inflammation, it’s believed that a higher intake of anthoycanins can also improve brain functioning, especially as we age. Black rice appears to also contain a touch more fiber, iron, and protein than regular brown rice.
In the Kitchen: To prepare black rice, simmer 1 cup rice in 2 cups water until tender and then drain any excess liquid. Use cooked black rice as a simple side dish or incorporate it into stir-fry’s, tacos, soups, salads and grain bowls. Its inherent sweetness allows the rice to also be served like pudding with coconut milk and sliced mango that might just be your new favorite recovery treat.
Best Buy: Lotus Foods Organic Forbidden Rice
*Lotus has trademarked the name Forbidden Rice, because legend has it that the rice was once forbidden for anyone other than the upper-class of ancient China to eat it.
It might be time to give your diet a little bit of teff love. Native to Eastern Africa, what tiny teff lacks in size it makes up for in its nutritional might. Unlike most grains, teff is naturally high in iron – a quarter cup of dry teff delivers about 20% of the daily requirement for this energy-boosting mineral, which is at least double the amount found in options like wheat, oats and quinoa. So it’s not a stretch to suggest that this poppy seed-sized grain might be the secret sauce that helps Ethiopia routinely turn out some of the fastest runners on Earth.
Teff’s iron-richness is a key nutrition perk considering that endurance athletes, and female runners in particular, are prone to having poor iron status, including deficiency. One study in the Journal of the International Study of Sports Nutrition found that female runners who typically consumed insufficient amounts of iron, and thus had low iron levels, experienced noticeable improvements in their iron levels after consuming bread made from teff every day for six weeks. This one food substitution elevated the subjects’ average daily iron intake from 10.7 mg per day to 18.5 mg, which is the amount women should strive for each day. A boost that may bring about improved athletic performance.
Teff is also rich in many other essential micronutrients that can benefit bodies in motion including manganese, thiamine, magnesium and bone-strengthening calcium. A quarter cup of uncooked grains also contain about 6 grams of plant-based protein. What’s more, recent research suggests teff grain could improve the composition and functioning of our gut microbiome which may translate into improved digestive and immune health. One reason why is that between 20 and 40% of the carbohydrates in teff are in the form of resistant starch. This is a unique type of carb that resists digestion and instead ferments in the large intestine where it acts as a prebiotic and feeds the good bacteria in your gut. If you don’t feed your beneficial bacteria, they won’t proliferate, and so it’s vital to be nourishing them properly.
In the Kitchen: The starch in teff causes the grains to cling together when cooked, which means it’s not the best fit for serving purposes like salads and not exactly the most versatile grain on the market. Still, you can leverage this quality by using it like polenta or as a breakfast porridge in similar consistency to cream of wheat. When blended with ingredients like cocoa powder and banana, cooked teff makes a delicious and nutritious dessert pudding. Teff flour can up the nutritional ante of cookies, pancakes, waffles and tart crusts. When baking with teff flour, remember that it’s gluten-free, so you can’t just substitute it fully for wheat flour in a recipe and expect good results. Try substituting about a quarter of the flour called for a recipe with teff flour and see how you like the results.
Best Buy: Bob’s Red Mill Whole Grain Teff
Popular among many generations of Italian cooks, farro is considered an ancient grain and a relative to modern-day wheat. Hulled emmer wheat is sometimes sold as “farro” in America. When cooked it has a pleasant chewy texture and a hint of nutty flavor. Nutritionally, farro can be hailed as a good source of dietary fiber – about 5 grams in a quarter cup serving of dry grains. And that could make it food for longevity. A recent study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests that higher intakes of fiber can lower the risk for premature death from conditions like cancer and heart disease. And remember, it’s fiber that the beneficial critters in our guts prefer to feast on so they can proliferate. Alarmingly, most Americans consume only half the necessary amount of fiber each day, making foods like farro a valuable source.
As a whole grain, farro is also a reliable source of magnesium, a frequently under-consumed nutrient needed for hundreds of biochemical reactions in the body, including those involved in muscle functioning, immunity and bone development. Bonus points for delivering a decent amount of niacin that helps break down and convert food into energy.
Though it contains gluten, some say they find farro easier to digest than the more common types of wheat in American used in bread and pasta. But this remains largely anecdotal. Those with Celiac disease or non-celiac gluten intolerance will need to stay clear of farro.
In the kitchen: You can prepare farro like you would other whole grains, keeping in mind that it cooks fairly quickly: about 20 minutes in simmering water. (Pearled varieties with the bran layer removed will cook the fastest, but can contain lower levels of fiber.) Be careful not to overcook or it will become more mushy than chewy. It can be eaten alone or as an ingredient in dishes like salads and soups. You can also use cooked farro in veggie burgers instead of rice. Some people will serve it as a breakfast cereal floating in milk and topped with chopped nuts and fruit.