By Erin Marissa Russell
Most of us think we have a pretty clear idea about the difference between vegetables and grains, but how do the two categories stack up against one another? It isn’t as clear how vegetables and grains differ when it comes to the roles they play in our diets. And what about how these two plant types differ from one another? The short answer is that grains are specifically the seeds from grasses, while vegetables can come from almost any part of a variety of types of plants. But the closer you look at the question of vegetables versus grains, the more complicated it becomes—so let’s dive in.
Vegetables Versus Grains: In the Garden
One way to examine the difference between vegetables and grains is botanically. Both these food groups come from plants, but the difference is in the details. Vegetables and grains each come from certain portions of the plants they’re a part of. Keep reading for the details.
- Grains are similar to legumes in that both consist of the seeds of the plants they come from. However, grains come from a specific type of plants (and only from that type of plants): grasses.
- Vegetables are a wider food group, consisting of the edible portions of the plants they come from. Vegetables can come from any almost part of the plant, whether it’s the root, stem, leaf, sprout, or the whole thing.
- However, vegetables do not consist of the seeds or ripened ovaries of the plants they’re derived from. (The ripened ovaries of certain plants are what we call fruits.)
- Corn is an exception, as each kernel is a seed, attached to the cob, which is the ovary of the corn plant. However, the kernels become seeds once they’ve been dried, and we don’t eat corn as a vegetable when it’s been dried. Although we consider popcorn, which comes from the dried kernels, a whole grain food, the entire corn cob in its dried form is actually a fruit.
But we don’t eat the entire cob, only the kernels. And because corn is the descendant of a grass plant called teosinte, the dried kernels count as a grain like other grass seeds. Before the kernels are dried (the way we eat them at the dinner table, on the cob or off), the kernels aren’t seeds but are actually “non-seed edible structures,” according to the food writer behind joepastry.com. In that form, corn counts as a vegetable.
Vegetables Versus Grains: In the Diet
Of course, looking at the botany is only one way to think about the question of vegetables versus grains. We normally think about these categories more in terms of how they function nutritionally than in the garden, so it makes sense that we’d see nutritional difference between the two groups. Let’s take a look at how vegetables and grains stack up when it comes to the nutrition they contain.
- One nutritional profile we can use to examine vegetables versus grains is their carbohydrate content. Complex carbohydrates, which are often referred to as starches, can be found in grains (both whole grains and processed or refined grains) as well as certain vegetables (such as potatoes or corn) as well as legumes (like beans or lentils). Carbohydrates fuel your brain, also supplying energy to your red blood cells and your central nervous system.
- When it comes to the carbohydrate content of grains in particular, there’s a big difference between the carbs contained in whole grains and refined grains. The carbohydrates that come from whole grains (like brown rice or unprocessed oatmeal) contain more vitamins and minerals than the carbs you get from refined grains (like white flour or white rice).
- You’ll find dietary fiber in both whole grains and the indigestible parts of vegetables. Fiber can also be found in beans, fruits, and nuts, but you won’t find fiber in foods derived from animals. Vegetables (and green vegetables in particular) tend to contain more fiber than whole grains do. Fiber benefits the digestive system, lowers cholesterol, reduces blood clotting, and also helps people feel fuller from the food they eat, contributing to weight loss.
- Refined or processed grains such as white rice or white flour contain carbohydrates, too. However, as opposed to the complex carbohydrates in whole grains, refined grains contain simple carbohydrates, which are less healthy nutritionally. These carbs don’t have the fiber of complex grains and are digested by the body more quickly, resulting in a quick spurt of energy that’s often followed by a crash.
- Both vegetables and whole grain foods can be packed with vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals (like carotenoids and bioflavonoids). These building blocks of nutrition come along with various health benefits depending on the specific type of vitamin, nutrient, or phytochemical. Some are good for eyes, while others support heart health, and still others improve brain chemistry—the possibilities are almost endless.
As you can see, although the question of vegetables versus grains seems clear-cut at first glance, there’s a lot to be learned about these two food groups. However, both are part of a healthy diet and both have nutritional benefits. And although processed, unrefined grains are less healthy than their whole grain cousins, they can still be part of a healthy diet; all things in moderation.