If you’ve ever enjoyed barley soup you know how hearty and filing this delicious grain is, and it has an impressive history. Barley is one of the most ancient grains—Egyptians buried mummies with necklaces made of barley. Nutritionally speaking, barley is the highest fiber whole grain, and its natural substances have been shown to help reduce cholesterol (even more than oats) and boost immunity by feeding the “good” bacteria in your digestive tract.
You can swap barley for brown rice or enjoy it as an oatmeal alternative at breakfast. Just trade rolled oats for rolled barley flakes. They cook in the microwave in just 5 minutes or you can eat them raw. Check out one of my super simple barley breakfast combos here.
Often called forbidden rice, recent research has found that, compared to brown rice, black rice packs more potent anti-inflammatory properties. That’s key because inflammation is a known trigger of aging and disease.
More sushi restaurants are starting to use black rice in place of white or brown in rolls. It’s also great with stir-fries or cooked, chilled, and tossed with veggies, edamame, and a ginger citrus dressing.
Sometimes called “Middle Eastern pasta” bulgur is typically made from durum wheat. It’s high in fiber and cooks quickly, making it a convenient whole grain option for 30-minute (or less) meals.
You’ve probably had bulgur in tabbouleh but it’s also great in pilafs, folded into a homemade veggie burger mix, or baked into desserts like cakes and cookies. One of my favorite ways to enjoy it is sprinkled onto a garden salad (organic greens, tomatoes, cucumbers, and red onion) along with hummus, a squeeze of fresh lemon, and a few mint leaves.
Another ancient grain popular with Egyptians, kamut is a member of the wheat family but is higher in protein and vitamin E than common wheat.
You’ll find kamut in two convenient forms in the supermarket—Arrowhead Mills makes puffed kamut, which can be enjoyed as a simple cold cereal or folded into yogurt parfait-style along with fruit, nuts, and spices. And Eden makes kamut flakes, which can be used as a hot cereal or added to soups, stews, or baked goods. One of my favorite combos is hot kamut cereal made with organic soy milk, seasoned with a dash of ground cardamom and topped with warmed frozen pitted cherries, sliced almonds, and shredded unsweetened coconut.
You can use Kañiwa in stuffed peppers, folded into pancake batter, or chill and add to garden salads. One of my favorite breakfast or snack combos is chilled Kañiwa folded into yogurt (nonfat, organic Greek or a non-dairy alternative) with fresh grated ginger, a shredded pear, and chopped nuts.
Some research has shown that, compared to wheat, rye is more satiating, and another recent animal study found that, compared to wheat, mice fed whole grain rye had a greater reduction in body weight, slightly improved insulin control, and lower total cholesterol levels.
The easiest way to eat whole grain rye may be in bread form, like Mestemacher’s Natural Whole Rye or in crackers. I love that the only ingredients in Wasa’s Light Rye crackers are whole grain rye flour, water, and salt. Spread one with pesto (basil, roasted red pepper, sundried tomato, artichoke…) or olive tapenade as part of a delicious savory snack.
Check out the Popghum a fun snack I highlighted as one of my favorite new food finds last fall. Or if you love to bake, check out Bob’s Red Mill sorghum flour.
This isn’t even a complete list (there’s also amaranth, buckwheat, corn, farro, millet, spelt, triticale, and teff, which I talked about in this Early Show segment with Chris Wragge).
Cynthia Sass is a registered dietitian with master's degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV, she's a SHAPE contributing editor and nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays. Her latest New York Times best seller is S.A.S.S. Yourself Slim: Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches.