Buzzwords, fad diets, new trends like vegan, grain free, gluten free, vegetarian, organic, grass fed, free range, ancient grains, paleo, ancestral… It’s enough to make you want to rip your hair out! Today we will get into grains a little bit and talk about some of the many options there are, and how good they are or aren’t for you, without worrying too much about any particular diet or fad. Remember that from a health coach’s perspective, diet is not a short term fix to a weight problem, diet is how we eat everyday to maintain the health and well-being that we want. Occasionally breaking from that diet and eating something we normally wouldn’t is much easier and healthier than forcing ourselves to count calories and eat stuff we don’t like for months on end, only to let all that hard work go to waste (or waist lol…) when we can’t take it anymore and finally binge on junk.
So, what are grains and are they good for us? I grew up in a typical family and ate what I think was pretty common: Most meals were a meat, a starch and some vegetables. In 1943 the USDA had introduced seven categories by announcing the ‘Basic Seven’ which modified nutritional guidelines to alleviate food shortages during WW2. The seven categories included milk, vegetables, fruit, eggs, all meat, cheese, fish, and poultry, cereal and bread, and butter. Later that was simplified to the ‘Basic Four’ and later became part of the food pyramid. The simplification to four categories created ‘grain’ out of cereal and bread. To this day, people still think that grains are necessary and are told to think have some with every meal. Since bread at every meal is a bad idea, let’s investigate them a little more. Grains are the small, hard, dry fruit from grasses (cereal) or legume plants, harvested for human or animal consumption.[i] Grains within the cereal family include wheat, oats, rice, corn (maize), barley, sorghum, rye, and millet. Pseudo-cereal grains (or non-cereal grains) include Quinoa, Buckwheat, Chia, and Amaranth. What about whole grains, or ancient grains or whole ancient grains, or whole, ancient raw food grains? Relax – we’ll talk about all of those, and more buzzwords is not necessarily better when it comes to what we eat. Have a look at the infographic, that shows the germ, endosperm and bran of a grain – they’ll be important later.
I think the best way to tackle this would be to list each type of grain, along with it’s pro’s and con’s, and then I’ll summarize quickly at the end. First, I am biased against wheat because it has recently come to my attention that ALL humans are sensitive to glutens, which primarily are found in wheat. Yes, ALL. At a minimum it causes internal inflammation that you may not notice; on the other end of the spectrum people can have severe reactions. Maybe we have been eating wheat since the farming revolution about 10,000 years ago, but we existed for many tens of thousands of years without it and just because we add something to our diet doesn’t make it good for us: life expectancy has actually begun DECREASING in the last few years, despite modern medicine and all the scientific wonders of the 21st century.
Ancient grains: This is one of the buzzwords being tossed around today, with a handful of self proclaimed experts telling you that ancient grains are better for you or have some superpowers that the more modern varieties don’t have. So what are ancient grains? Some state that they are “largely unchanged since their initial domesticated variety”, and there are claims we can compare specimens with those from the early neolithic period to prove it. More realistically, the whole grain board (yes, that is a real thing) states that “All whole grains in the larger sense are “ancient” — they all can trace their roots back to the beginnings of time”, but they generally deﬁne ancient grains as “largely unchanged over the last several hundred years”[ii] That’s better. On a different website, one writer said of ancient grains that they are “steeped in history and have been gaining popularity as incredible sources of nutrition”[iii] LOL. Grains that everyone agrees are probably heirloom varieties are Quinoa, Amaranth, Sorghum, and Chia, since wheat is a broad term, there are several varieties considered ancient: Spelt, Khorasan or Kamut) Einkorn, and Emmer. Millet, Barley, Teff and oats are generally accepted as ancient too, but again there are a lot of different varieties out there so you would need to know which variety you were buying and that isn’t always disclosed. All in all, I would say don’t believe the hype – Ancient grains are the grain equivalent of eating heirloom vegetables instead of other varieties. Maybe you would notice a taste difference, but that’s about it.
Wheat: Again, this is actually a broad term which Includes numerous varieties, including Spelt, Durham, Kamut, Emmer, Hard red winter, soft white and on and on… The grains of these varieties can be sold as whole wheat or turned into many more whole grain products, such as farro, bulgur, and freekeh. Alternatively the grain can be refined (a process that removes the bran and germ along with most of the dietary fiber, iron and B vitamins) and turned into things like flour. Again the refining process strips the nutritional value from the grain, so ancient or not – you’re not eating anything but empty calories when you eat flour. But whole grain wheat is an amazing source of fiber, vitamins, minerals other nutrients and fiber. Did I say fiber? But it has to be whole grain – something like bulgur (which is a type of processed wheat, not a variety) being the best as far as fiber – at 18% fiber (by weight), the only grain with more are chia seeds. Because of this, whole-grain foods help with control of cholesterol and blood sugar levels, weight and blood pressure. Unfortunately, all wheat varieties and products contain glutens and will have negative effects ranging from barely noticeable to debilitating or life threatening. If you want to enjoy some wheat, go right ahead and make it part of your diet, but use whole wheat or whole wheat products like bulgur or farro with high fiber content.
Rye: Similar to wheat and results in many of the same products. Whole grain Rye is fourth on the list of fiber content at 15% by weight (Chis seeds 35%, bulgur wheat 18%, barley 17%). Rye is a member of the wheat family, but is not wheat. It does contain some gluten, although not as much as wheat and has higher fermentable sugar content than wheat. Because of the health benefits of fiber and Rye’s high fiber content it’s worth adding this to your diet – as long as it’s whole.
Barley: Another unsung hero that doesn’t show up enough. Barley is a cereal grain with a chewy texture and mild, nutty flavor. It’s the seed of a type of grass that grows in temperate climates throughout the world and one of the first grains to have been farmed by ancient civilization. While not wheat, it also contains gluten, but not as much. Hulled barley, considered a whole grain, has had just the indigestible outer husk removed. It's darker in color and has a little bit of a sheen. Pearled barley is not technically a whole grain, but unlike other refined grains, it doesnt lose as much of it's nutritional benefits when it goes through the process of losing its outer husk and its bran layer, and being polished, Whole grain barley is nutrient-rich, containing high amounts of antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, as well as being an excellent source of dietary fiber. Pearled barley is considered refined, but actually still contains a lot of fiber and nutrients, so as a starch on you plate it would definitely still be a win.
The seeds: I could write several more pages if I went into depth on Amaranth, Buckwheat, Quinoa, Chia seeds, Canihua and Millet, so I’ll lump them together and discuss what they have in common. Pseudocereals are a group of plants that produce starch-rich seeds that can be used in food applications similarly to cereal grains (like wheat and rye for example).[iv] They are gluten free, and generally have high fiber along with phytonutrients and antioxidants like rutin, quercetin and peptide chains, which all help our bodies repair themselves. Additionally, the high quantity of soluble fiber in them helps to regulate bowel movement, control hypercholesterolemia (high cholesterol), high blood pressure and other cardiovascular diseases. This category of grains generally has between 10 and 14 grams of protein per 100 grams serving, and between 6 and 10 grams of fiber. That’s the science, but what that doesn’t tell you is that adding these grains and seeds to your diet is a great way to change it up and add some zest to your diet! Tired of beef, potatoes, vegetable one night followed by chicken, rice, vegetable the next, and on and on? Try making a quinoa salad (like the one in the picture) or throwing some chia seeds into your next smoothie. Too far-out or different for you? Replace your plain old rice with barley. It cooks up similar, and is a great substitution, but has a lot more nutrition than rice. (By the way, we really shouldn’t be eating white rice, as it has very little nutritional value – but that’s another story for another time.)
Whether you eat gluten free or not, there are a huge variety of grains you can add to your diet to change up how you get your starch and fiber. You should always have fiber with your starch to slow down the absorption of the starches, and if you can get a fair amount of protein at the same time that’s even better. Carbs by themselves spike blood sugar, which leads to a crash later. That roller coaster leads to insulin resistance, a precursor to diabetes. Robin and I have both worn continuous glucose monitors several times to see how foods effected our blood sugar. It’s amazing and scary what simple carbs do to our blood sugar when there aren’t enough fiber, fats or protein to slow them down… Try some of the grains I’ve mentioned here and your mouth will love it and your body will thank you. If you have questions about how you can use this info to improve your health, send us a question. To your health! Doug