From low-carb diets to gluten-free foods, there has been a growing interest in the entire grain food group which once served as the base of the well-known Food Guide Pyramid. Keto and paleo diets tipped that pyramid on its side only to have Mediterranean-style diets tip it back up. We get the confusion!
Low carbohydrate diets are effective at short term weight loss. The general population over-consumes starches and has higher rates of obesity, heart disease and cancer. Grains are out, right? Wait… people who consume unprocessed grains (usually as part of a vegetarian diet) are far healthier and live longer than their counterparts eating a traditional Western diet. So grains are still good?
Yes! If we look closely, we see that the problem starches are refined grains, potato products and processed cereals that are depleted of fiber, other nutrients and phytochemicals. It’s the quality of your starch sources that matter. The 2015 U.S. Dietary Guidelines encourage Americans to consume one-half of the recommended 6 servings of grain-based foods per day as 100% whole grains, equating to three 16-gram servings.
Whole grains left in their whole plant form with bran and germ intact (inedible husk/hull removed) are healthy! They are nutrient-rich, have prebiotics to improve digestion, and boost immunity. Whole grains are richer in phytochemicals, antioxidants and nutrients (including fiber, protein, B vitamins, vitamin E and minerals) than refined grains1.
Whole grains offer more satiety and less impact on blood sugar than refined grain products. Consumption of whole grains protects against several major chronic diseases (obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, colorectal cancer) and is associated with better gastrointestinal health2,3.
The downside? Several grains are deficient in the essential amino acid lysine, which is why they are often paired with beans. Whole grains also take a bit longer to cook than their milled counterparts. There are more phytates in the fibrous parts of grains. These bioactive compounds bind to toxins but also minerals in the digestive tract making them less available, prompting some to refer to them as “anti-nutrients.” The impact of phytates is small in a well-balanced diet with a variety of foods.
Whole grain forms include intact grains such as: wheat berries, maize (corn) kernels, fresh air-popped popcorn, whole oats, buckwheat groats, hulled millet, barley flakes, wild rice, brown rice, red rice, black rice, purple rice and whole grits. No ground, floured, pearled or “quick” cooking types are included. Okay if you mill your own in a coffee grinder or spice mill.
By nature, grains are the seeds of certain grass plants which contain all the building code to form a new plant. Soaking the intact grains allows them to sprout, sending a tiny root out in search of soil to establish a hold.
This germination process helps break down some of the phytates mentioned previously and increases digestibility1,4. Not only do sprouted grains contain more nutrients than refined grains, research suggests they may contain more fiber and antioxidants and have greater bioavailability of micronutrients than ungerminated whole grains4.
Sprouted grains can be used raw or lightly cooked, often found in wholesome breads. The popular smoothie ingredient wheatgrass is cut from the shoots of sprouted wheat but leaves the grain. “Sprouts” for salads and sandwiches are not usually from grains; they can be from any seed – usually from beans, alfalfa or clover.
According to the Oldways Whole Grains Council, ancient grains are generally considered those which are still like the way they were several hundred years ago. They are typically higher in protein than today’s cultivated wheat and offer different flavors and textures.
They notably grow more easily requiring less irrigation and fertilizers, but also cost more than wheat, oats and rye. Found from across the globe, ancient ‘grains’ include amaranth, buckwheat, farro, khorasan wheat, millet, quinoa, sorghum, spelt and teff.
Remember that not all foods using ancient grains include them as whole grain but may be just as processed as conventional wheat products.
A small portion of the population has celiac disease and is allergic to gluten, while others may have gluten sensitivity or intolerance. Gluten is also found in barley, rye and triticale (a wheat/rye hybrid) plus wheat products like bulgur, farro (emmer wheat), freekeh, Kamut® (khorasan wheat), seitan and spelt.
Corn, oats and rice are widely available gluten-free grains, though products using oats are often contaminated by wheat. Joining them are millet, sorghum and teff grains. Amaranth, buckwheat and quinoa are gluten-free pseudograins, meaning they aren’t actually from grasses, but from broadleaf plants. Many products are certified gluten-free, but otherwise be sure to read the full ingredients list!
Cooking with Grains
Grains are endlessly versatile and can be incorporated into side dishes, porridge and baked goods. Most grains need to be cooked first to facilitate digestion and assimilation of nutrients.
As stated previously, whole grains may take longer to cook, but soaking them overnight can shorten cook time, help reduce phytates and improve digestibility. Additionally, you can utilize a slow cooker or cook a big batch and freeze smaller quantities until needed.
Some smaller grains such as teff or cut groats can be left whole to provide crunch and texture to other foods, in the same way as flax and chia seeds are used. For example, Qi’a® contains whole buckwheat groats (plus hemp and chia seeds) as a hot cereal topper. Whole grain and sprouted grain flours can be substituted for all-purpose flour in baking, though you may need to add a little more liquid to the recipe.
ready to up your Grain Game?
When dining out look for oatmeal, brown rice, whole grain bread/buns and bowl-style meals with quinoa. Try using a different grain or flour in familiar dishes (some recipe modification may be necessary) or add a new grain to something you already cook like pilaf or soup. Experiment with foods made from less common grains but remember to avoid highly refined products.
L Lentz. Sprouted Grains: Research Suggests They Have Greater Health Benefits Than Regular Whole Grains. Today’s Dietitian June 2015. 17(6): 18-19.
McKeown NM, et al. Whole grains and health: from theory to practice—highlights of the Grains for Health Foundation’s Whole Grains Summit 2012. Journal of Nutrition. 143(5): 744S-758S.
Whole Grains. The Nutrition Source, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/what-should-you-eat/whole-grains/ Accessed 9.10.2019
Sprouting the Truth About Sprouted Grains. Penn State Extension. https://extension.psu.edu/sprouting-the-truth-about-sprouted-grains January 18, 2018. Accessed 9.10.2019