It is not yet common knowledge that not everyone should be including grains in their diet. Grains are touted for all kinds of great things, but the truth is they may be doing more harm than good for many people. So are grains really healthy? Why might they be unhealthy? What about whole grains and gluten-free options? This article will address all these questions and more.
When did we Start Eating Grains?
They are thought to be first introduced into our diet during the neolithic revolution somewhere around 10,000 years ago, but some studies suggest they may have been eaten as long as 90,000 years ago (source). For approximately the 7 million years previous the only method of procuring food was hunting and gathering. Historians agree that the neolithic revolution was one of the most important events in human history because it allowed our civilization to advance to where we are today. The major issue is that compared to our other food groups such as meat, and produce; grains are a relatively new addition to our diet in terms of history. Even if we make the assumption that grains have been eaten for as long as 100,000 years, that only represents 1.4% of the human existence. Imagining living to be 99 years old and then introducing a new food or activity for the next year of your life; you aren’t going to be well adapted to it. This is one of the major arguments against grain consumption.
Why did we Start Eating Grains?
Grains are great because they store much better than produce and meats, and people also like them because they give them that extra feeling of fullness when eaten as part of a meal. But it is not really known what made us adopt farming over hunting and gathering. Some of the leading theories suggest famine due to over hunting, population growth that favored settling over nomadism, and other more politically complex reasons (Read more here).
Are Grains Healthy?
They can be, if properly prepared (explained in more detail below) and eaten in moderation. It also depends on the person. As we are all biochemically unique, some of us will do better to include grains in our diet while some of us will not. One thing is for certain; they shouldn’t be the major constituent of anyone’s diet. The government recommended intake for grains is 6-8 servings daily, which is pretty excessive. Nobody needs that many grains in their diet. You won’t have any room left for truly nutrient dense foods such as organ meats, eggs, nuts/seeds, vegetables, and fruit.
Why Can Grains be Unhealthy?
Out of all the food groups, grains come in last in terms of nutrient density. In other words, they are the least nutrient dense foods we can eat (regardless if they are whole grain or not). Nutrient density means getting the most nutrients (in the form of vitamins, minerals, enzymes, antioxidants, etc.) per calorie from your food. Grains are usually credited for having tons of B vitamins but you can get more than enough of these vitamins from red meat, eggs, dairy, leafy greens, other vegetables, fruit, and yeasts. As far as minerals go, nutrition facts for an 81g serving of whole oatmeal says it contains 3.4mg iron, 2.9mg zinc, 42.1mg calcium, and 112mg magnesium; but you aren’t getting what you think you are getting.
All grains contain anti-nutrients (as well as legumes, nuts, and seeds), which is not as terrible as it sounds. Anti-nutrients bind the nutrients so that our bodies are not able to absorb them. For example, phytic acid is an anti-nutrient that binds iron, zinc, calcium, and magnesium, and oats contain 0.5-1.2% phytic acid by weight. While the nutrition facts are allowed to tell you those are the amount you are getting of iron, zinc, calcium, and magnesium; you are only getting a small fraction of what they state on the package. Phytic acid is the most common anti-nutrient in grains but it isn’t the only anti-nutrient to consider. There are also saponins, oxalates, lectins, and quite a few enzyme inhibitors as well. It is not just grains that contain anti-nutrients, and not all of these anti-nutrients will be present in every type of grain, but in general grains and legumes contain significantly more anti-nutrients than meat, vegetables, or fruit. While animals have physical defense mechanisms in the form of teeth and claws, plants have chemical defense mechanisms; these anti-nutrients are the grains defense mechanism against being eaten. Remember this isn’t just for wheat; it is for all grains. Even pseudo-grains such as buckwheat and quinoa have anti-nutrients.
Then there is the fiber content of grains. While fiber is a healthy part of any diet, it is now starting to surface that the high levels of insoluble fiber in whole grains may not be doing you any favors. Insoluble fiber, the main fiber in grains, can irritate the gastrointestinal lining and cause unpleasant symptoms such as IBS (Source). You can get all your daily fiber requirements from vegetables and fruit, they contain mostly soluble fiber but also small amounts of insoluble fiber in their skins.
Some grains also contain gluten, a protein found in wheat, spelt, barley, and rye flours. Gluten intolerance is an increasing problem today. Many people suffer from Celiac’s disease; a severe gluten intolerance, but those who do not may still have an intolerance to this highly allergenic protein. Symptoms of gluten intolerance include IBS, fatigue, skin conditions, autoimmune disease, and chronic headaches (Source). Glutenous grains can even cause problems for people who aren’t sensitive to it (Source). Check out this resource for even more reasons why you might want to skip on the gluten. But just because you use a gluten free grain doesn’t mean you are safe. Many other grains still contain proteins that are very similar to gluten and can confuse your body into thinking you are still consuming gluten even after you eliminate it from your diet (Read more on how that works here).
Lastly, the wheat we used to eat is actually a completely different species than the wheat we eat today. It has been hybridized (this is different than genetic modification) to produce new species of wheat. To quote Sean Croxton in his YouTube video: “The wheat you eat today is probably not the wheat your grandmother ate when she was a little girl”. Wheat has been hybridized to produce higher yield, better baking characteristics, and resistance to environmental factors. Gluten content has also increased significantly along with hybridization, meaning our new wheat contains much higher amounts of this allergenic protein.
There is another problem with grains; the way we eat them! When people eat grains they generally fill half their plate (at least) with rice or pasta, or eat a whole bowl of cereal. Then we eat them for more than one meal of the day; many people eat them for every meal of the day. If grains were eaten in moderation the way nuts and seeds are (1-2 small handfuls per day) we might not have to worry about all these other issues because the rest of our diet would make up for it. Most people who eat a standard american diet eat wheat every day of their life. The rise in gluten allergies could be due to massive over-consumption of wheat in our population coupled with the increased amounts of gluten in our new species of wheat.
Oh Bob’s Red Mill, you’re so silly.
Are Whole Grains Healthier?
Holistic philosophy suggests that the more nutrients you can get from your diet, the better your health, which is why we recommend whole foods in their unrefined state for optimal health. But when it comes to whole grains, is ‘whole’ really better? If they are prepared properly by soaking, sprouting, or fermenting, YES. I have actually been talking about whole grains the entire time. Whole grains contain the most insoluble fiber and the most anti-nutrients because these guys reside in the bran (shell) of the grain; which is present in whole grains. It brings a whole new level of irony to the idea of bran muffins. Is whole wheat better than refined wheat flour? I find it extremely difficult to pick one over the other, I don’t believe any type of wheat is healthy.
A better question is; is brown (whole grain) rice, better than white rice? To this I say no. White rice, while being pretty nutrient deficient, does not contain insoluble fiber, anti-nutrients, gluten, or any of the other common problems we encounter with grains. White rice is seen as the least problematic grain and is considered a ‘safe starch’ by the paleo community. If you want to keep grains in your diet without going through the work of properly preparing them, white rice is your best bet. I don’t eat grains because I suffer from digestive problems, but I am able to occasionally enjoy a bowl of white rice with some added nutrient dense ingredients such as my Kale Sage Rice Bowl.
So, is properly prepared brown rice better than white rice? Well, it still depends. It will definitely have more absorbable nutrients and be easier to digest after preparation, but it might still cause problems if you are highly sensitive to the proteins in brown rice or the insoluble fiber. If you suffer from IBS, other digestive problems, allergies, or autoimmune disease; it might be best for you to completely eliminate grains from your diet (at least for a while).
What About Gluten-free Grain Products?
If you suffer from Celiac’s disease and eating wheat may send you to the ER, gluten-free products are a great option for you to use sparingly in your diet or for an occasional treat sans the hospital visit. But if you are looking to better your health by going gluten-free, you might want to look for other options. Most gluten-free products aren’t any better for your health than conventional ones for a few reasons. For one, they are still grains. They may have knocked gluten off of the list of problems but there is still anti-nutrients, insoluble fiber, and they are also generally high glycemic index foods. Not to mention they are expensive and don’t taste very good anyways. Some gluten-free products can be very nutritious but you must diligently search the ingredients lists to separate out the junk from the healthy products. One notable gluten-free product I like is Silver Hills Gluten-Free Chia Bread. This bread uses sorghum flour, ground chia, and psyllium husk.
Don’t forget corn is a grain too.
How do You Prepare Grains?
You can soak, ferment, or sprout grains to reduce anti-nutrient content and increase digestibility of your grains. Soaking usually involves soaking grains for at least a few hours or overnight in a slightly acidic medium such as water with a bit of lemon juice in it before draining and rinsing. This can be done with oats or other whole grains used in hot cereals and will also reduce cooking time. Soaking works by activating the enzyme ‘phytase’ which can break down phytic acid and release the minerals (iron, zinc, calcium, magnesium) that were bound. This makes the minerals more ‘bioavailable’ to your body. In other words, you will be able to absorb them now, instead of having them pass through your system unabsorbed as they do when bound in phytic acid. This guide talks more about soaking grains, legumes, and nuts/seeds.
Sprouting is another way to decrease phytic acid and other anti-nutrients while increasing bioavailability of minerals and digestability. You can sprout your grains before grinding them into flours. Some companies do sprout their grains before making them into bread (Silver Hills does) but its always fun to be old-fashioned and do it yourself. I don’t claim to be an expert on sprouting, so if you are interested you might want to try this tutorial on how to sprout whole grains.
Fermenting is perhaps my favorite way of preparing grains because this is how you create good old-fashioned sourdough breads, so good! In addition to reducing anti nutrients and increasing digestibility, these fermented grains also contain probiotics which adds even more digestibility to your bread. This can be done many different ways but it basically involves using a fermented sourdough starter (either bought or home made) which you mix with your flour and leaving to rise for many days. Check out this recipe for traditional sourdough by Nourished Kitchen.
Do you love grains or do you think you could live without them?