Medically reviewed on April 14, 2023 by Jillian Foglesong Stabile, MD, FAAFP. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.
Table of contents
As you examine your diet or adapt your food intake to support your health, you’ll likely come across a common debate during the research process: whole grains vs. refined grains.
What’s the difference? Simply put, whole grains contain the entire grain used to make the food product, while refined grains do not contain the entire grain, as some parts are removed during the milling process.  Both products are widespread in the US, and each one features its own array of benefits and drawbacks.
In this article, we’re exploring the whole grains vs. refined grains debate. We’ll explore each type of grain in detail and break down some considerations for incorporating them into a healthy diet.
A whole grain is exactly as it sounds: whole. Whole grains have not been stripped of any of their components from the initial wheat crop. They’re grain products that haven’t been broken down into their component parts. 
To understand this concept and why it’s important, let’s zoom out and take a look at the entire grain aisle. There are a variety of grain product options on the market today, including :
Each of these grains features three component parts :
To really put this visual to work, imagine a piece of popcorn. Though it may be hard to believe, popcorn is a form of grain, and its air-expanded nature helps us see its grain components:
One of the major benefits of consuming whole grains is that those holistic component parts offer a more dense nutrient profile. They are also considered heart-healthy foods. Whole grains can include :
All of these nutrients are a crucial part of healthy, balanced diets for heart health.
On the other hand, the chief argument for not consuming whole grains (and the popular presence of refined grains in our food system today), is twofold :
The US Department of Agriculture’s MyPlate program recommends that :
While Americans generally eat enough grain products, many people don’t receive enough whole grains in their diet. While the figures above are recommendations for grains in general, MyPlate recommends that half of your total grain intake each day should consist of whole grains. 
To reap the nutritional benefits of whole grains, you can enjoy a much more versatile diet than the standard whole wheat toast. In fact, you can find whole grains in popcorn, whole wheat bread, bulgur, brown rice, and oatmeal. 
Additionally, you can add more whole grains to your diet by incorporating oat, corn, and barley products such as:
As the US becomes more aware of the health benefits of whole grains, food manufacturers are including more whole grains in their recipes to stay competitive on the shelves—so keep an eye out the next time you’re at the grocery store for your next serving of whole grains.
While whole grains feature all three parts of the grain—the bran, endosperm, and germ—refined grains typically contain just the endosperm. 
Most manufacturers use a process called milling to break grains down into their component parts, separating the endosperm from the other two components.
The process of separating out the endosperm part of the grain to produce the final food product has two primary benefits:
While refined grains might produce a fluffier cake or a doughy cookie, they are generally less nutritious than their whole-grain counterparts because:
Because whole grains contain more nutritional content than refined grains, no true recommended amount of refined grains truly exists. Remember that at least half of your daily grain intake should be made up of whole grains, and refer to the list above to optimize your healthiest overall grain intake. 
Foods higher in refined grains, then, are the grains you may want to keep track of to balance your total grain intake between refined and whole grains. You won’t have much trouble finding refined grains in the US, as they can be found in items like:
If you’re having a hard time swapping out your favorite refined grain products for whole grain alternatives, do your best to choose the most nutritious products you can. For instance, look for refined grain products that are both enriched and feature added fiber.
At the end of the day, experts don’t currently recommend that all of your grain intake should be made up of whole grains.  While you should do your best to incorporate whole grains to meet that 50% recommendation, it’s all about achieving a balanced diet with a healthy variety.
If you’re looking to add more whole grains to your diet, you don’t need to overhaul your entire grocery list. Consider some of the following simple swaps:
If you’re struggling to incorporate healthy foods or you suspect you might have a dietary deficiency, consider speaking to a healthcare provider. They can help you create a personalized diet that meets your needs.
Whole grains, or a healthy balance of refined and whole grains, can offer a wealth of nutritional benefits. But if your diet is light on grain products, you can seek these vital nutrients in other starches, vegetables, or legumes.
As always, if you suspect that you have a nutritional deficiency of any kind, you should speak to a healthcare provider (preferably a Registered Dietitian).
The whole grains vs. refined grains consideration ultimately comes down to nutritional value: Generally speaking, whole grains are more nutritious than refined grains. If you have a hard time incorporating whole grains into your diet, you can receive the nutrients from other foods.
In your pursuit of your most optimal health and wellness, Everlywell is here to help. Whether you’re trying to build a more nutritious diet plan, treat an STI, or set new health goals, we have the resources you need to take charge of your health.
Learn more about our virtual care services, at-home test collection kits, and more to empower your health tomorrow.