Pasta, rice, corn, bread and potatoes often get the boot when weight loss is the goal. “The first thing many people do when they try to lose weight is cut carbs; the food group that often gets removed is whole grains,” says Kim Kulp, RDN, owner of Gut Health Connection in the San Francisco Bay Area. Despite the die-hard keto fans out there, our bodies need carbs for energy, and there’s no argument about that. So before you pass up the air-popped popcorn, know not all carbs are created equal. “Yes, whole grains contain carbs, but they’re jam-packed with nutrients such as B vitamins, folate, iron, zinc and magnesium. They’re an excellent source of fiber and antioxidants,” says Kulp.
Pictured Recipe: Apple Crumble Overnight Oats
Brown rice, oats, barley and spelt are a few whole grains with nutrient profiles that differ from their refined-grain counterparts. “It’s most important to understand for grain to be whole, it must contain all parts of the grain, the germ, bran and endosperm. That is where the magic happens in terms of health benefits,” says Kara Burnstine, M.S., RD, LDN, CDCES, at Pritikin Longevity Center. On the contrary, refined grains are processed to remove at least one of these critical parts of the grain kernel, reducing its nutrients. So read on for our top choice for whole grains for weight loss, according to nutrition experts.
Why Should You Eat Whole Grains for Weight Loss?
People often celebrate whole grains for their heart-healthy benefits, from lowering cholesterol to helping improve blood pressure. Still, their fiber, antioxidants, and vitamins and minerals profile may also benefit weight loss. However, some may falsely believe that eating high-fiber foods causes weight gain when, in fact, it may do the reverse.
“Studies do suggest whole grains can assist with weight loss. The fiber in whole grains is like a speed bump in a road and slows digestion, which in turn aids in the fullness factor,” says Burnstine. One example is a 2019 review published in Nutrients, which notes that including whole grains in your eating routine may aid in weight management by helping you lose weight and preventing weight gain.
If you eat whole grains from time to time, you may notice they’re chewier in texture than refined grains and tend to take longer to cook and more bites to eat, which may lead to more satiety, per a 2020 review in the World Journal of Diabetes. “This high fiber content can help you to feel full and satisfied, naturally leading to fewer calories consumed,” says Kulp. Additionally, “Whole grains provide a steady source of energy due to their complex carbohydrates. This can help stabilize blood sugar levels and prevent energy crashes that might lead to unhealthy snacking,” says Caroline Farrell, a registered nutritionist.
“Along with their fiber, whole grains also contain polyphenols, a plant nutrient that can feed good gut microbes,” notes Kulp. This also “enhances the diversity and function of gut microbiota, which can influence energy balance (how your body uses and stores energy) and fat storage,” adds Steph Magill, M.S., RD, CD, FAND.
The Best Whole Grain for Weight Loss
Now that you know why whole grains can be helpful to your weight-loss journey, we’re ready to reveal the No. 1 whole grain for weight loss, and it’s none other than oats!
Avena sativa, aka oats, comes from a plant in the Poaceae family and ranks in the top three most important grains in the U.S., right after wheat and corn, per a 2023 review in Current Nutrition Reports. “Short- and long-term oats consumption lowers cholesterol levels, regulates blood sugars and improves liver functions. These factors can promote sustainable weight loss and lower your risk of weight gain,” says Melissa Mitri, RD, a nutrition writer and owner of Melissa Mitri Nutrition. While no single food is a silver bullet for losing weight, oats may help you reach your weight-loss goals in several ways.
Keep You Fuller for Longer
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans encourage most adults to eat between 25 and 34 grams of fiber daily. Steel-cut oats, one of the highest-fiber versions of oats you can find, offer 8 grams of fiber in every half-cup, per the USDA—that’s 24% to 32% of the Daily Value for fiber! “Oats can help with weight loss by affecting appetite hormones and feeding your gut microbes. They have a unique antioxidant called beta-glucan, which works as a prebiotic, fueling the good gut microbes that can impact appetite hormones, GLP-1 and PYY. These hormones slow down stomach emptying to keep you feeling full longer, and the hormone leptin tells your body it’s had enough and it’s time to stop eating. This combination can lead to eating less at a meal and not feeling hungry for longer,” says Kulp.
Provide Plant-Based Protein
Next to other types of whole grains, like wheat, rice and millet, oats outshine the competition when it comes to protein. Oat protein is plentiful in essential amino acids, including valine, lysine and isoleucine, per a 2022 review published in Frontiers in Nutrition. According to the USDA, a half-cup of steel-cut oats provides more protein than a cup of cow’s milk, a whopping 10 grams! Like fiber, protein in oats may help satisfy your appetite, curbing your calorie intake. Further, a growing body of research has shown that high protein intake may help lower body weight and decrease fat mass while preserving lean muscle, per a 2020 review in the Journey of Obesity and Metabolic Syndrome.
Might Help Balance Your Blood Sugars
“Research also suggests that whole grains have a lower glycemic index, a scale that rates foods based on how quickly they spike your blood sugar levels,” says Mitri. “The soluble fiber in oats [helps] slow down the absorption of carbohydrates and help regulate blood sugar levels by preventing blood sugar spikes and subsequent cravings for sugary foods,” adds Burnstine.
Furthermore, beta-glucan, a type of fiber abundantly found in oats, may help maintain normal levels of insulin—the hormone responsible for managing blood sugar levels, per a 2022 review published in Current Opinion in Food Science.
Are “Oat-So Easy” to Add to Your Diet
Oats are heaping with nutrients, especially minerals like magnesium, manganese, iron, chromium and zinc. What’s more, they’re budget-friendly, convenient and easily incorporated into meals and snacks you can enjoy anytime.
If you are looking for other ways to enjoy oats beyond a typical oatmeal, there are many ways to get creative in the kitchen with oats. In the evenings, you could mix oats, milk, apples and cinnamon to enjoy Apple-Cinnamon Overnight Oats for a quick grab-and-go breakfast the next morning. For a cozy and warm option, try our Baked Oatmeal with Pears. Oats make a nutrient-dense add-in to waffle batter, fruit smoothies, yogurt parfaits or homemade granola, so you can boost the nutrition of foods you already eat regularly.
Oats can also be used in savory dishes like in our Vegan Burgers. “You can use oats for breadcrumbs in meatloaf, meatballs and breading chicken,” says Meggie Connelly, M.S., RD, LDN. You can also feature them on the side. “Use in place of brown rice, quinoa for sides, rice bowls and salads, or even to make risotto,” says Magill.
What Types of Oats Are Best for Weight Loss?
You might be wondering whether steel-cut, rolled or instant oats are the healthiest for losing weight. “The best oats are the ones people will enjoy eating. People usually experience their first taste of oats as instant oats, and they may love the taste and ease of instant,” says Amy Beney, M.S., RD, CDCES. However, flavored instant oats may have added sugar. But if you choose unflavored instant oats, their nutritional profile is pretty similar to steel-cut and rolled oats. And Beney notes that steel-cut oats are the least processed type.
The Bottom Line
“Many people think they have to eat a low-carb diet to lose weight, or are unsure which carbs are best to eat. I would recommend they focus on what to add to their diet versus what to restrict for weight loss,” says Mitri. Add oats at any time of day, whether it’s for dinner or an energizing snack; their potent nutrition from fiber, protein, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants may make them worthy of complementing your weight-loss efforts and health overall.