Grain gains

Cereals, legumes, seeds and nuts - how much you should eat and why

blankWe often plan our food blissfully unaware of what we eat and why. This happens in particular in regards to food groups that are an inherent part of our diet, such as dal and rice. But understanding the difference between them will help us plan our food better so that we can get the most out of them.


Cereals include rice, wheat, oats, barley, millets, sorghum or jowar, nachni or ragi, maize and breakfast cereals.

  • They provide our body with energy and are rich in dietary fibre, B-complex vitamins, essential fatty acids and minerals such as iron and calcium. Cereals are best eaten whole as the process of refining removes the fibrous bran, leaving behind only simple carbohydrates. White breads, noodles, buns, cakes, cookies and most baked confectionaries are made from maida, which is a form of refined cereal and provides only empty calories.
  • Have whole grain cereals such as whole wheat, jowar, bajra, brown rice and oats. They are rich in complex carbohydrates that break down into glucose to provide energy. They also add bulk to our diet.
  • A protein called gluten, present in wheat, oats and barley may not be tolerated by gluten-sensitive or wheat intolerant people. In such cases, replace regular cereals with gluten-free alternatives such as rice, jowar, rice vermicelli, sabudana or sago, millets and maize.
  • Sprouting cereals improves their nutritional content. In particular, it enhances vitamins A and C.

Tip: Ensure that 50 – 55 per cent of your total calorie intake is derived from cereal-based complex carbohydrates.


Legume is a broad group that includes beans, peas, lentils, pulses and even peanuts [Yes, peanuts or groundnuts are not nuts but belong to the legume family]. They are the best source of plant protein and are often referred to as vegetarian’s meat. The amount of protein in half a cup of kidney beans [rajmah] is equal to that present in about 25g of meat, minus the saturated fats and cholesterol of course. Beans and pulses are low in sodium and perfect for people with hypertension.


  • They are broad beans, kidney beans [rajmah], lobia, kabuli chana, green or black chanas, soybean and green moong. Although they all look different, they are similar in their nutritional value.

Pulses and lentils

  • They include dals like masoor, urad, chana, arhar and tuar. Lentils do not need to be soaked overnight and are also digested easily.
  • Being rich in fibre, they have a low glycemic index and provide sustained energy while slowly being released into the blood stream. A half cup serving of most pulses contains 15 – 20g of carbohydrate and up to 8g of fibre.

Although the protein content in pulses is higher than those in cereals [almost 2 – 3 times more than in rice and wheat], they lack an amino acid called methionine. Cereals have methionine in abundance and lack lysine, which is present in pulses. Thus, in Indian cuisine, we consume cereals with pulses, for instance rice with dals or idli with sambar.


Almonds, walnuts, pistachios and cashew nuts are some of the popular nuts.

  • Nuts are probably the richest sources of fats from plant foods. And the fat is mostly monounsaturated fat—the type of fat that our body needs to protect HDL [the ‘good’ cholesterol].
  • Nuts also have properties than can reduce LDL cholesterol [the bad cholesterol].
  • They are rich in iron, magnesium and zinc that act as warriors against fatigue and stress.

Tip: Eat nuts in moderation; they are difficult to digest.


Some nutritious seeds are sesame, flaxseeds, sunflower seeds, and pumpkin seeds.

  • This is the most overlooked group but has a lot of nutrients.
  • Seeds are valuable sources of vitamin A and E, minerals [copper, zinc, manganese, calcium, and magnesium], polyphenols and fatty acids.
  • The recommended intake is 1 – 2 tbsp per day.

The perfect balance

For planning a wholesome meal, include all the above-mentioned food groups in the right proportion. It will not only give you all the required nutrients, but also make your meals delicious.

Try this

To avoid flatulence associated with having beans, soak the beans overnight and cook them with a pinch of asafoetida, fennel and cumin powder.

This was first published in the November 2010 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

Panchali Moitra
Panchali Moitra holds a Masters in Food and Nutrition from Delhi University. She is a qualified nutritionist with a decade old experience of active clinical practice in Mumbai and specialises in providing dietary advice for lifestyle disorders like diabetes, hypertension and obesity.


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