Epidemiological studies have repeatedly found that whole-grain (WG) cereal foods reduce the risk of several lifestyle-related diseases, though consistent clinical outcomes and mechanisms are elusive. To compare the effects of a WG-rich diet with a matched refined-grain (RG) diet on plasma biomarkers and bowel health parameters, seventeen healthy subjects (eleven females and six males) completed an exploratory cross-over study with a 2-week intervention diet based on either WG- or RG-based foods, separated by a washout of at least 5 weeks. Both diets were the same except for the use of WG (150 g/d) or RG foods. Subjects undertook a 4 h postprandial challenge on day 8 of each intervention diet. After 2 weeks, the WG diet tended to decrease plasma total and LDL-cholesterol (both P = 0·09), but did not change plasma HDL-cholesterol, fasting glucose, C-reactive protein or homocysteine compared with the RG diet. Plasma betaine and alkylresorcinol concentrations were elevated after 1 week of the WG diet (P = 0·01 and P < 0·0001, respectively). Clostridium leptum populations in faeces were increased after the WG diet, along with a trend for decreased faecal water pH (P = 0·096) and increased stool frequency (P < 0·0001) compared with the RG diet. A short controlled intervention trial with a variety of commercially available WG-based products tended to improve biomarkers of CVD compared with a RG diet. Changes in faecal microbiota related to increased fibre fermentation and increased plasma betaine concentrations point to both fibre and phytochemical components of WG being important in mediating any potential health effects.