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Grains are an essential part of a healthy diet—they're a plant food that provides us with essential vitamins, minerals, and carbohydrates that fuel our muscles and brain with energy and more.

But not all grains are created equal. There are whole grains (those that still contain the bran, germ, and endosperm) and refined grains (in which the bran and germ have been removed, leaving just the high-carb endosperm behind). Before we jump into which types of grains are the best for your body, let's quickly define what they are.

Healthiest-grains-to-eat: various types of whole grains
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Simply stated, grains are hard, edible dry seeds that grow on grass-like plants called cereals. Cereal grains are the single biggest source of food energy in the world. While refined grains—white rice, fluffy white bread, sugary breakfast cereals, and so on—provide almost no health benefits to your body, whole grains tend to be high in many nutrients, like fiber, magnesium, iron, B vitamins, phytonutrients, and more. However, there is quite a bit of discrepancy in the health benefits of various whole grains. Some (like corn or rice) are still lacking in nutrient density—even in whole form—compared to others, such as oats and barley.

Here are the 11 healthiest grains to eat, according to nutrition expert Malena Perdomo, MS, RDN, CDE.

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1 Barley

Barley is traditionally served in soups, salads, grain bowls, and more. It contains a higher amount of dietary fiber than any of the other grain, plus it has an array of phytochemicals and the soluble fiber beta-glucan. These antioxidants may help to reduce bad cholesterol and build immunity. A quarter cup of uncooked hulled barley is 160 calories, 34 grams of carbohydrates, 8 grams dietary fiber, and 6 grams protein. It's also high in manganese, selenium, and thiamine (a B vitamin).

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2 Quinoa

This South American grain typically cooks in just 15 minutes, which makes it a much-loved ingredient for those who meal prep. Quinoa is super nutritious, too: It's a source of complete vegetable protein because it contains all essential amino acids. It also contains fewer carbohydrates and more protein in comparison to other grains. Quinoa is also high in magnesium, phosphorus, manganese, and folic acid. A quarter cup of uncooked quinoa is 170 calories, 29 grams of carbohydrates, 3 grams fiber, and 6 grams protein.

what-is-amaranth
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3 Amaranth

Amaranth is a small-sized, gluten-free whole grain. The protein content of amaranth ranges from 14 percent to 15 percent, higher than both buckwheat and rye. It has phytochemicals and is high in magnesium, manganese, and phosphorous. A quarter cup of uncooked amaranth is 200 calories, 37 grams of carbohydrates, 6 grams dietary fiber, and 7 grams protein.

Buckwheat, Almond, and Coconut Granola
Credit: Greg DuPree

4 Buckwheat

This gluten-free whole grain is typically eaten as cereal (kasha), used in Japanese noodles (soba noodles) and in granola, pancakes, or crepes. It contains antioxidants that are associated with the prevention of cancer and heart disease. Buckwheat is also high in soluble fiber: Not all of the grain is digestible, which may help improve blood cholesterol and manage blood glucose. A quarter cup uncooked is 160 calories, 34 grams of carbohydrates, 5 grams of dietary fiber, and 5 grams of protein. Buckwheat is also high in magnesium, copper, and manganese.

teff

5 Teff

Here's an easy way to remember teff: It's the tiniest grain of all, and the main ingredient in Ethiopian Injera bread. It's one of the highest protein grains, alongside amaranth. A quarter cup of uncooked teff is 180 calories, 37 grams of carbs, 4 grams dietary fiber, and 7 grams protein. It's gluten-free, and an excellent source of iron and magnesium. Teff is also a solid source of fiber, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, zinc, thiamin, and vitamin B6, and can provide over 100 percent of daily value of manganese.

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6 Oats

Oats contain polyphenols, which act as antioxidants and are a powerful anti-inflammatory agent. They are also high in beta-glucan, a type of soluble fiber that helps lower LDL (bad) cholesterol and may reduce the risk of some type of cancers. Oats also may help lower blood pressure. They're a good source of fiber, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, zinc, copper, thiamin, manganese, and selenium. Oats are naturally gluten-free, but may be processed with other grains that contain gluten, so be sure to check the label for the gluten-free certification.

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7 Farro

Farro is a well-known grain in Italy and the Mediterranean. There are two main types: Traditional farro (that isn't processed) and pearled farro (that's processed to make it quicker to cook). The flavor is nutty, chewy, and hearty. The fiber-rich grain can be prepared in salads, soups, or in place of rice. A quarter cup of uncooked dry farro is 200 calories, 37 grams of carbohydrates, 7 grams dietary fiber, and 7 grams of protein.

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8 Bulgur Wheat

Most people know bulgur as the main ingredient in tabbouleh salad. A quarter cup uncooked is 160 calories, 34 grams of carbs, 5 grams dietary fiber, and 5 grams protein. It's high in fiber and manganese, and is a good source of magnesium, phosphorus, and niacin.

freekeh
Credit: Getty Images

9 Freekeh

Freekeh has a chewy texture and is great for salads or as a side dish. A quarter cup uncooked is 160 calories, 6 grams fiber, and 7 grams of protein. It's a very good source of iron, too.

Roasted Vegetable and Wild Rice Salad with Almond-Parsley Sauce
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10 Wild Rice

This style of rice has more protein and fiber than brown rice. A quarter cup uncooked is 160 calories, 35 grams of carbohydrates, 3 grams dietary fiber, and 4 grams of protein.

milk-bottle

11 Millet

This gluten-free Asian grain is used in porridge, to make congee, and stir-fried dishes. A quarter cup uncooked millet is 210 calories, 42 grams of carb, 3 grams dietary fiber, and 5 grams protein. Millet is high in antioxidants, high in manganese, and is a good source of magnesium, phosphorus, copper, thiamin, and niacin.

RELATED: The Ultimate Guide to Buying, Cooking and Eating Whole Grains