Whole grains are nutritious, though like anything, in moderation. In this post, I hope to give you a better understanding of why grains are getting a bad wrap, as well as the healthiest way to include grains in your diet and those best avoided.
I’ve decided to post about grains, basically because it is a great place to start to gain an understanding of how processing can change something whole and nourishing, into a nutritionally void product. Also, because grains are grown in greater quantities, and provide more food energy than any other staple in the world. In fact in many cultures, grains constitute the majority of daily sustenance. As such, refined grains have sadly become the industrialisation of our food chains greatest nutritional disaster.
Whole grains, as they naturally occur, are a source of vitamins, minerals, a little (incomplete) protein, good fats, complex carbohydrates and fibre – all packed in one tiny little grain! They provide the body with a slow release, sustained form of energy, especially when soaked or sprouted. The process of refining grains basically removes the parts of the grain that house the vitamins, minerals, protein, fats and fibre, leaving only simple carbohydrates. Simple carbohydrates equate to a hit of energy (in the form of glucose) without the accompanying nourishment. The effect this has on the body is one of the primary drivers of many modern day diseases.
In the beginning…
So why are grains refined I hear you ask? Lets back track a little and discuss the primary reason, which is to extend their shelf life. By removing the germ and bran, grains last longer without going off. Interestingly, the refining process also makes grains less desirable to their natural predators – namely rodents, bacteria and fungi, all of which have the ability to destroy quantities of grain before it can be sold. For example, in the case of wheat, rats and mice are much less likely to consume it refined (their instincts are obviously better than ours)! So food manufacturers (in the name of profit), removed all the nutritious bits (fibre, fat, protein and over twenty vitamins and minerals – that we know of) to produce flour, a malleable commodity with a very long shelf life. However soon after wheat began to be refined, the people consuming flour and its products developed terrible deficiency diseases like beriberi (caused by a vitamin B1 or niacin deficiency). These same diseases occurred in countries consuming large quantities of polished white rice.
You would think the process of refining would have been re-evaluated at this stage? Think again. Not when there’s a large industry and lots of money at stake. Thus, the process of grain fortification was introduced to correct these clinical deficiency diseases. Today Food Standards Australia and New Zealand dictates a mandatory niacin and folate fortification in all wheat flour used for making bread. Whilst this process synthetically corrects the niacin and folate deficiency associated with making flour, it neglects the other nutrients critical to the nourishment derived from the whole grain. Judging by the growing epidemic of modern degenerative diseases linked to processed foods, I think that foods governing bodies may be missing the big picture all together.
In Australia we are fortunate to have a choice. To eat processed grains, which have had a few of their original nutrients replaced, albeit artificially, or consume whole grains with their nature given nourishment in tact. So what grains should we include in our diet? First I would say to eat ALL grain in moderation, especially wheat. The consumption of wheat has become quite insidious in our culture with many people starting the day with an often wheat-based breakfast cereal or toast. This is followed by a biscuit, cake, cracker or health bar for a snack, a sandwich at lunch and pasta for dinner – sound familiar? Even if you are choosing whole grain products, this is too much wheat. My mantra of variety, variety and more variety needs to be applied. When you eat the same food repeatedly (i.e., wheat), you are really limiting the amount of nutrition you can derive from your diet. Wheat and grains are not so much the problem, as is the way they are prepared and the quantities they are consumed in.
Nourishing v’s empty calories
Here are some suggestions for including a variety of whole grains in your diet. I refer to ’empty calories’ and by this, I mean food providing energy but with little or no nutrition. If you’d like to know more about a particular grain (and where to find it) then click on the link-
- Eat brown rice rather than processed white rice.
- Try spelt, Kamut, rye, millet or mixed grain bread instead of a straight wheat bread (more details on the most nourishing bread next post).
- Quinoa is a highly nutritious seed (containing a complete amino acid profile) and a delicious and an easy to prepare substitution for rice, couscous or pasta.
- Include rolled oats for breakfast or make oat based cookies, slices or crackers for snacks. Try my muesli for a great wholegrain breakfast.
- Any grains that are whole then rolled or ground (to flour) are nutritious grain choices, especially when soaked or fermented.
- Love pasta, then perhaps try some other varieties. I like rice and quinoa pasta (gluten free). Try different blends and brands as they do vary.
- Avoid refined, white flours – substitute with wholemeal or spelt flour. Forget all together ‘added fibre’, ‘added omega oils’ etc products. Health claims are just a marketing gimmick to persuade you to buy inferior products containing empty calories. Remember that if a product is ‘fortified’ or ‘enriched’, the whole grain just isn’t there to start with.
- Puffed or flaked grains, as found in the majority of breakfast cereals and many crackers, are best avoided. They are processed at such high temperatures that the fats and proteins can be dangerously altered and they really don’t contribute much nourishment.
- A frightening study has been described by Paul Stitt in his book Fighting the Food Giants. In the study, four groups of rats were fed a) a diet of whole wheat, vitamins and minerals, b) puffed wheat, vitamins and minerals, c) white sugar only and d) vitamins and minerals only. The whole wheat group lived for 1 year, the vitamin and mineral group lived for 8 weeks, the sugar only group lived for 4 weeks and the puffed wheat group lived for just 2 weeks. Time to look at alternative breakfast ideas perhaps? Click here for some inspiration.
- Lastly, consuming grains with fats like butter or full-fat dairy assists the absorption of many of the important nutrients that grains provide. So get out the butter, milk and cream to make the very most of your grain based meal.
- I’d also like to add that there are NO nutrients in grain that are not found in other foods. We seem to have been brain washed to think that we need grain for fibre and energy, we don’t. Fresh fruit and vegetable are more nutrient dense sources of fibre and carbohydrate.
- What about the bread I hear you ask? Oh, how I love to devour a hot crusty loaf fresh out of my oven, slavered with butter! Sadly not all bread are created equal, in fact, many are outright dangerous to consume. But more on how to navigate the minefield of your daily bread here.
Want to know more
Be kind to your grains, and your grains will be kind to you by Sally Fallon and Mary Enig is a worthy read.