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If there was ever a group of individuals who should shun a low-carb diet, it is trail runners. A daily diet rich in high-quality carbohydrates, such as those found in whole grains, ensures enough stored muscle glycogen to fuel between 1.5 and 3 hours of running. “Runners should eat about two grams of carbohydrates per pound of body weight per day,” says Molly Kimball, a sports dietitian at Ochsner’s Elmwood Fitness Center in New Orleans. “The easiest way to hit this carb quota is by eating plenty of whole grains.”
Unlike their refined counterparts (think white rice and bleached-flour bread), whole grains, says Kimball, provide more vitamins and minerals for better recovery and performance. But you don’t have to be limited to brown rice, chewy whole-wheat pasta or plain oatmeal. Stores are increasingly chockablock with exciting, oft-overlooked whole-grain options.
The ancient South American grain, quinoa (pronounced keen-wah), is finally enjoying surging popularity after the conquering Spanish left it to wither. Nutty-tasting quinoa offers a smorgasbord of vitamins and minerals including magnesium, which plays a role in bone health and blood-sugar control. Plus, it’s considered a “complete” protein source, meaning it serves up all the essential amino acids to repair and build muscle. You can find round quinoa, either beige or red, in health food stores and some larger grocers.
Make it: Harried cooks will like that quinoa takes half the time as brown rice to cook. Place 1 cup quinoa in a saucepan along with 2 cups water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer covered until the water has absorbed, about 12 minutes. Quinoa is as versatile as it is nutritious, starring in pilafs, salads, soups and even as a breakfast cereal.
Popcorn has an undeserved bad rap because of oily, movie multiplex calorie bombs, but this whole grain—yes, whole grain—is one of the best snack foods around when not doused in yellow goop. Popcorn boasts levels of antioxidants on par with fruits and vegetables, say researchers at the University of Scranton. What’s more, popcorn eaters take in about 250 percent more whole grains and 22 percent additional hunger-quelling fiber in their daily diets than non-popcorn eaters, according to a Journal of the American Dietetic Association study. Three cups of popped popcorn, a mere 93 calories, counts as one whole-grain serving.
Make it: Popping inexpensive corn kernels on the stovetop is a cinch. In a pot, heat 1 tablespoon vegetable oil over medium heat and then add 1/3 cup kernels. Leave the lid slightly ajar so steam can escape, and cook until popping slows, shaking the pot regularly. To liven up popcorn without all the fat, season with sea salt, smoked paprika, curry powder, grated Parmesan cheese or dark chocolate.
While runners on this side of the Pacific have been slurping up wheat pasta, over in Japan, chopsticks twirl soba noodles. Made from the nutrient-dense, whole-grain buckwheat, salubrious soba has just as much energizing carbohydrates as traditional pasta but has a nuttier flavor and requires less cooking time. Buckwheat is a rare food source of the phytochemical rutin, which preliminary data suggests may improve cholesterol numbers. Soba noodles often contain some wheat flour, but 100-percent buckwheat versions are available and are richer tasting and gluten-free.
Make them: You can cook soba noodles like you would normal pasta, but it’s best to follow package directions. Once cooked, give the noodles a cold-water rinse and combine with any number of items such as meat sauce, diced chicken and vegetables or soy sauce, edamame (soybeans) and seared tofu.
Most barely is used for livestock feed and to produce the sweetener malt syrup and beer. That’s too bad because, as a whole grain, it’s exceptionally nutritious. Like oats, barely contains a soluble fibre called beta-glucan, which reduces blood-sugar spikes and unhealthy cholesterol levels. It also trumps most grains for selenium, an antioxidant that mops up cell-damaging free radicals. Hulled barley, which only has the outer husk (hull) removed leaving the bran and germ intact, contains more nutrients, including energizing iron, than more-refined pearled or pot (scotch) barley.
Make it: Barley is an excellent addition to soups, salads, casseroles and stews. A caveat though: It is among the more slothful of whole grains to cook, especially the hulled version. Add 1 cup barely to 2 1/2 cups boiling water, reduce heat and simmer covered for 50 minutes, or until tender.
You would be hard pressed to start your day in a more nutritious way than this riff on traditional porridge. Store extras in the refrigerator and reheat in the microwave or on the stovetop for a quick breakfast fix.
Makes 4 Servings
1 cup quinoa
1/2 tsp cinnamon
¼ tsp nutmeg
¼ tsp salt
1 cup unflavored milk of choice
1 apple, cored and diced
½ cup walnuts
½ cup raisins or dried cranberries
2 Tbsp maple syrup or agave syrup
1 cup blueberries or other berry of choice
• In a medium-sized saucepan, combine quinoa and 2 cups water.
• Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer covered for 12 minutes.
• Pour in milk and simmer for an additional 10 minutes.
• Stir in apple, walnuts, raisins and syrup.
• Cover and let rest 10 minutes.
• Serve topped with blueberries.
Nutrition facts per one-cup serving: 402 calories, 13 g fat (2g saturated), 65 g carbohydrate, 7 g fiber, 11 g protein, 178 mg sodium