You know you should be eating more whole grains for the fiber and other nutrients they provide. For many people that means eating whole wheat bread and pasta in place of the regular versions. While switching from products made with refined white flour to those made with whole-grain flours is a good start, focusing on eating actual whole grains is better for your health.

“They’ve been tied to so many health benefits, including reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes, and cancer,” says Frank Hu, M.D., Ph.D., a professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Brown rice, buckwheat, farro, millet, oats, wheat berries, and other grains are considered “whole” because they contain the entire kernel—the endosperm, bran, and germ—so they provide a variety of phytonutrients and fiber, which may reduce your risk for certain conditions. (Amaranth and quinoa count as whole grains, too, even though they’re actually seeds.) 

All three components of the kernel are found in some processed whole-grain foods, too. But the data suggest that we should be eating most of our servings of whole grains in their whole form, Hu says. In some cases, whole-grain processed foods contain food additives, sodium, and sweeteners. Ingredients like those may cancel out the benefit you get from the whole grain.

And grains have a lower glycemic index (GI) in their whole form than they do in their processed form. That means they’re digested more slowly, so they don’t cause your blood sugar levels to spike, Hu says. Steel-cut oats, for example, have a lower GI than rolled oats, which have a lower GI than instant oatmeal. Bulgur, or cracked wheat, has a lower GI than whole-wheat bread.

How to Work Whole Grains Into Your Diet

Cooking whole grains takes a while, but they can be made in big batches and refrigerated so you can use them in meals all week. Cooked whole grains freeze very well, too—freeze single servings and they'll be at the ready for meals—and they're versatile. You can use them in a variety of ways. Toss them with beans and vegetables, add them to soups or salads, incorporate them into muffin and cookie batter, or serve them as a side dish. If you like oatmeal for breakfast, try a porridge made with amaranth, barley, or millet for a change of pace. Many grains are high in protein, so they can replace meat if you’re trying to cut back. Combine quinoa with mashed chickpeas for a tasty “faux” burger