It seems no matter where you turn you're likely to encounter a whole grain enthusiast, or a no grain brain. We have Grain Brain and Wheat Belly on one side proclaiming all the ill effects of grain and whole grain promoters on the other end of the spectrum, assuring us of the healthy properties of whole grain. So what's the deal? Is grain good, or bad for you? The answer is both. To get to the bottom of it, let's first look at what we are, or are not doing that may be the real issue with grains.
We eat more wheat than any other food! It's by far the number one thing American's consume! Whether you realize it, or not, modern wheat makes up the overwhelming majority of a typical American diet. We fill up on such a high volume of wheat based foods, that we tend to exclude other foods from our diet. What's worse? It's almost always in refined form. That's tragic! It's ironic that we are an obese nation, that's starved of nutrients. We consume wheat in many products in obvious ways like toast, pancakes, waffles, french toast, cereal, bagels, muffins, croissants, pitas, sandwiches, tortillas, crackers, hamburger buns, hot dog buns, rolls, pasta, cookies, brownies, pie and other deserts etc. What we often don't realize is that we are consuming it unknowingly in many other foods as well. Wheat based products are added to the majority of processed foods, in one form or another. A derivative of wheat is in most condiments, including salad dressing, mayonnaise, catsup, mustard, soy sauce, some vinegars and many seasoning blends. It's also to be found in much of the following: processed and pre-seasoned meats, processed cheese, sauces, tomato sauce and paste, imitation crab meat, veggie burgers, beef jerky, marinades, vegetarian meat alternatives, potato chips, french fries, canned soups, broths and bouillon. It's sometimes added to restaurant scrambled eggs, omelets, and mashed potatoes. It's a way to give foods bulk in a cheap way. It doesn't stop there. Roasted nuts, gravy, flavored coffee and tea, beer and vodka, sour cream, and many other dairy products, even ice cream, and many medications and supplements have a form of wheat in the ingredients. The list goes on and on. It's even in many cosmetics and personal care products.
The insanely high volume of refined modern wheat being consumed is not only a hazard to our health; it's not environmentally responsible. Unfortunately, poor environmental choices have a huge impact on our health. As a nation, we consume so much refined wheat and wheat by-products that it's production is just not sustainable; hence the push towards genetically modified wheat to keep up with demand.
We eat modern wheat. While modern wheat at this time, is not genetically modified by American Government Standards, it certainly was not produced by nature. By this, I mean that without laboratories and scientists, nature would not have been able to naturally produce our modern wheat. Of course, ancient wheat varieties have been around for thousands of years, but modern wheat is not a natural hybridization. It's very difficult on our system and damaging to our gut, which is so critical to our overall physical and mental health. When will we learn? Mother nature knows best! If you still want to consume wheat, look for ancient wheat varieties: my suggestion is whole grain Einkorn. It still has gluten, but it's genetic structure is very simple and the gluten structure is different as well, making it more easy to digest. It's more nutritious too!
We don't eat whole grains. The Standard American Diet is largely centered around refined grains. We just aren't getting the fiber, vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and other benefits that whole grains offer. When's the last time you ate oat groats, millet, amaranth, sorghum, teff, buckwheat, or einkorn? The answer for the overwhelming majority of Americans would be... never! It's interesting that so many people jump from a diet of refined wheat flour, to vilifying all grains. Whole foods are critical in that one part of the food helps us digest and assimilate the other part of the food. When we fraction grains into parts, we run into trouble health wise. When we eat refined grains, even gluten free refined grains, we're missing out on not only important nutrients and fiber, but also important properties that allow our body to digest and assimilate the grain.
We eat A LOT of products produced with flour. Most of our grain consumption is in the form of flours ie: bread, rolls, muffins, bagels, hamburger buns, hot dog buns, tortillas, crackers, pasta, cookies, pastries, desserts etc. Instead, we need whole grains and I'm not talking about a piece of whole wheat toast, whole grain pasta, or whole grain crackers! I'm talking about the intact whole grain berry! For example, brown rice, oat groats, quinoa, amaranth, millet, wild rice, buckwheat, sorghum etc. Because of the lack of fiber in refined grains, one can easily overeat white bread, white rice, pasta and pastries. In contrast, it's difficult to overeat whole grains, particularly in whole berry form.
For example, if you take say, 4 cups of grain and refine it, removing the bran, and germ and make a light, fluffy loaf of bread, you could gobble it up. On the other hand, if you cooked the same amount of whole grain berries and tried to eat it all, it would be impossible. At least, I think it would. Anyone want to give it a go?
Bread products, especially when made from refined flour, are very calorie dense. Healthy whole grain berries are low in calorie density, but high in nutritional and fiber density. Foods low in calorie density, like veggies, fruits, legumes and whole grain berries tend to be higher in satiety. This means you will feel satisfied on less calories. If you're looking to maintain a healthy weight, this is the way to go! Eat real, nutrient dense food. No worrying about points, portions, or carbs.
Products produced with flour are not fermented. Ever heard of sourdough? Flour has been fermented for centuries using beneficial wild bacteria to make a lighter and more digestible bread product. The bacteria and yeast in a sourdough culture are helpful little critters in making products produced with flour more digestible. Unfortunately, bread production changed in the late 1800's and has gone downhill from there. First we had cream yeast, then compressed yeast, then active dry yeast, and now instant yeast. Each new yeast development allowed bread to be produced in a faster and faster time frame. Today with instant yeast, it's possible to mix, rise and bake a loaf of bread, or batch of rolls in 1 hour, start to finish. While this might be terribly convenient, it's terrible for our health! Bread just isn't what it use to be.
Is it any wonder with a typical diet so high in bread products, that our nation suffers with colitis, crohns, candida, constipation, IBS, colorectal cancer, obesity, diabetes etc.? I recommend focusing on whole grain berries, but occasionally true sourdough, whole grain products, made with healthy grains are acceptable. For instance, pancakes, waffles, crackers, muffins, crepes and breads. If you notice sourdough bread in the store and think you've found a good thing, check the ingredients. If there's yeast in the ingredients, it's not a true sourdough product. You'll also want to be cognizant of what type of grain is used. For the most part, sourdough bread products will be most healthy when produced in your own kitchen, using methods and grains that you can feel good about.
We eat a toxic overload of gluten. As I said above, refined wheat makes up the majority of a typical American diet. We eat vast amounts of gluten without the bran, germ and fat to support it. Modern wheat was designed to have an unnatural amount of gluten in it; it's a perfect medium for processed foods. If we aren't getting enough gluten in products made with refined flour, consider that vital wheat gluten is added to many breads, especially whole grain breads. The unfortunate part is, it's not so vital. Our bodies just aren't made to process the amount of gluten in a typical western diet. It's very damaging to our gut and overall health.
We don't eat a variety of grains. You've heard that you should eat a rainbow of colors when it comes to vegetables and fruits, to get a wider range of nutrients in your diet. The same type of advice can be applied to grains. Different grains have different nutrient profiles. It's best to include a variety of whole grains in your diet for the most benefit. If you are on a gluten free, or low gluten diet, never fear! There are more non-gluten whole grains, than grains that contain gluten.
Just because something says gluten free, does not mean it's healthy. In fact, almost all gluten free products that come in a package, with a list of ingredients, are anything but healthy! Most gluten free bread products, crackers etc. are made with refined grains. This puts you back in the very same conundrum as people who eat refined wheat flour, you've just switched one crappy food for another one. In addition, gluten free products made with flour almost always include gums of some sort and a high amount of refined starch. Both of which are very damaging to your gut. So, while you may feel amazing for awhile on your new gluten free diet, at some point, you will likely suffer the health consequences of a diet high in refined gluten free flours, gums and an unnatural amount of refined starch.
Some people try nut based bread products. This really isn't any better. Nuts, need to be prepared properly, similarly to grains. The fat in nuts is also very heat sensitive, making nut flours very unsuitable for a healthy baked good. A healthy gluten free diet, would ditch the packaged products, breads and other products produced with gums and starches, and include a wide variety of gluten free whole grain berries. Sourdough products produced with whole grain, gluten free flours, free of gums and refined starches are fine to be consumed in moderation.
We don't drink enough liquid. Fiber is sorely lacking in our Western diets and we have a whole host of health issues as a result. Thankfully, healthy whole grains are a great source of fiber. However, it's very important to note, that when you increase your fiber consumption, it's critical that you also increase your healthy liquids! Fiber needs liquid to function effectively and efficiently! Let's just say, water and other liquids keep fiber moving things along in the right direction. Drinking adequate water and other healthy liquids along with increased fiber consumption will help alleviate gas, bloating, hard stools, cramping and constipation. It should be noted that caffeinated soda, coffee and tea tend to reduce the fluid content in stools and should therefore not be counted as a healthy liquid.
We don't eat enough healthy fat. Healthy fat helps our body absorb valuable nutrients. The problem is, a typical western diet is made up of almost all unhealthy fats. This leads us to believing that fats are bad and we turn to eating low fat and fat free, which leads to health issues, specifically vitamin deficiencies. Some vitamins and nutrients require fat to be absorbed; without an adequate amount of fat in your diet, this just doesn't happen. The nutrients in healthy whole grains are no exception. In addition, fat helps slow down carbohydrate digestion in a healthy way, alleviating spikes in blood sugar and other unhealthy side effects. Read here and here and here for more information.
We need more food based probiotics in our diet. In a nutshell, probiotics are the beneficial microflora that keep humans healthy and strong. These happy little creatures are essential for our digestive and overall health! Are you getting enough in your diet? I hate to tell you, but that occasional cup of yogurt, just isn't cutting it and that probiotic pill isn't either. Food based probiotics contain the type, combinations and diversity suited to your intestines, probiotic supplements, not so much. In most cases, these supplements are a big fat waste of money. Food based probiotics that I would suggest are raw kefir, raw yogurt, sauerkraut and other cultured vegetables, cultured salsa, beet kvass, kimchi, raw apple cider vinegar with mother, cultured butter, and raw fermented cod liver oil. The great news is the soluble and insoluble fiber in whole grains has a very symbiotic relationship with the microflora in your body, keeping it in tip top shape. This = a healthy, happy you.
We don't eat enough enzyme rich foods. In fact, the typical American diet is almost completely void of enzyme rich foods. Americans eat a diet of dead food, if you can even call it food. This is a serious problem where enzymes are concerned. Enzymes are critical for digestion. Just to name a couple of the functions enzymes perform; they break food down in to smaller absorbable components and aid in circulating nutrients. Without enough enzymes, we have trouble digesting and assimilating grains, as well as any other food that we consume.
Grains are often produced using toxic chemicals: We usually think of herbicides and pesticides, but so many more chemicals and unnatural substances and processes are used in the production of grain, as well dough conditioners and preservatives that find their way into our modern bread. It's very destructive to our health! In particular, it's damaging to our gut. The gut is home to 75-80% of our immune system. When we mess with our gut, we mess with our health.
Our soils are depleted. Commercial agriculture has taken a huge toll on the health of our soils and in turn our own health. The soil is often amended with additives, but farming today, particularly conventional farming, is not done in a way that keeps our soils naturally rich and fertile. When our soils are depleted, the nutrients in our foods are as well. One nutrient in particular is magnesium; a deficiency in this mineral can lead to constipation and an impacted colon. When our system is not functioning properly, we have a hard time digesting grains, and really any food.
We eat lots of cereal and hastily prepared grains. Cereal is breakfast in America. Sadly, almost all breakfast cereal, including organic whole grain cereal, is produced by extrusion- a method that subjects grains to intense pressure and heat. The nutrients in the grain are not only severely reduced in this process, they are denatured, in particular, the protein. In the extrusion process, healthy grains are changed into a snap crackle and pop that is anything but natural and in fact, down right destructive to our digestive system. We are living on cereal that is doing the very opposite of nourishing our body; it's hacking away at our health.
Commercial flours are milled at high speeds. This process can heat flour up to 400 degrees, destroying nutrients and rendering the germ and bran rancid. Unfortunately, the breads and products produced with conventional flour that seem so innocent and enticing, are closer to a toxin than a nutritious food.
I often have people ask me if they can pressure cook their grains. Of course, you can do whatever you want with your grains, but pressure cooking is not a natural process. Grains need to break down slowly to become digestible and beneficial sources of nutrients. Whole grains can and should make up a very simple, uncomplicated part of our diet, but we need to take our time to reap the benefits of what grains have to offer. A morning bowl of oat groats, amaranth porridge, or warm brown rice with honey, raw milk and fruit, honey einkorn berries over raw yogurt are all simple foods that take less than 5 minutes hands on time to prepare. You don't need to spend all day in the kitchen to eat healthy. Keep it simple.
We don't prepare grains properly. Grains are the seeds of certain types of plants and seeds have a protective nature. This is beneficial in allowing the seeds to not begin growing before the conditions are right. However; when it comes to eating them, it's a different story. This protective nature, or anti-nutrients, as they are often referred to, keep the nutrients from being well absorbed and assimilated in our bodies. In particular, Phytic Acid can bind minerals, preventing them from being absorbed. Lectins can cause inflammatory reactions.
There are many blogs and books that tout the benefits of properly preparing grains to make the nutrients more available and easier on our body. It might seem like a crazy new fad, but actually, it isn't new. To counteract these anti-nutrients, many traditional cultures have soaked, sprouted and fermented their grains. Simply put, these methods perform a type of pre-digestion on the grains and/or mimic natural germination. It activates enzymes and nutrients in grains, and makes grains more digestible and gentle on the digestive system.
Before the industrial age, people understood that grains needed to be soaked, sprouted, or fermented. Many traditional cultures had a fermented porridge of some sort, or another type of fermented grain product as a mainstay of their diet. Many cultures still ferment their grains. Some examples of this are traditional corn tortillas from Mexico, Ogi from Africa, Injera from Ethiopia, sourdough from Europe and America, Idli and Dosas, Brem, Kenkey, Kisel etc. I suppose ancient people didn't know the science behind why this made their grains more nutritious and digestible, but over time, they gained an understanding of what worked and what didn't when it came to their diet.
We can also gain a better understanding of what works and what doesn't in our diet, as we take a deeper look into grains. Now that we've discussed the reasons why grains may not be working in our diet, check back for posts on: How To Properly Prepare Grains and Why We Shouldn't Be So Fast To Throw Grains Off Our Plate.