Grains: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Are grains good for you or bad for you?

Have you heard of all the dangers of eating too many carbohydrates?

Have you heard that bread causes gluten sensitivity?

Have you heard that grains provide much needed B vitamins?

Have you heard we need the fiber?

Are you confused?

Well, most or all of that is true, but that doesn’t mean you should avoid all grains, or eat them to excess. Or even take the idea that “it’s all bad for you anyway, so who cares”. You do! It may seem overwhelming, but when we break it down into some simple ideas and techniques, it may not feel that way in the end.

My goal for you is to be able to make smart choices in the area of grains, to learn what nourishes your body, so you can live a vibrant, healthy life.

The Good

Let’s start at the beginning. What does a kernel of grain look like? The most common grain that people see in it’s original form is rice. It is in it’s whole form and looks like a seed. That is because it is a seed. Theoretically, if it is a seed, you should be able to either germinate it or plant it and get a rice plant (in the right conditions). Some people call this “live food”, as it actually has the capability of bringing a plant to life.

Think about that for a minute, a true grain has the capability of bringing forth life from it’s seed. It has capabilities beyond the sum of its parts, it is also has viable DNA strands. I have even known people to sprout their seeds, to see if they are still “alive”.

Grains left in their original state can have some great benefits to us, including some fiber that helps keep us “regular”. Whole grains are packed with nutrients, including protein, fiber, B vitamins, antioxidants, and trace minerals (iron, zinc, copper, and magnesium).

“A diet rich in whole grains has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and some forms of cancer.” from WebMD (http://www.webmd.com/diet/healthy-kitchen-11/reaping-benefits-whole-grains)

Beans and legumes provide additional fiber which helps clean out the colon and feeds beneficial bacteria. However, soaking them and cooking them slowly will allow your body to digest them more easily.

The Bad

Processed grains: flour based foods

Grains are so often the foods that we find in processed foods: cookies, chips, crackers, and is the basis for about every dessert, along with sugar. The processing of these grains is essentially pulverizing them to make a flour.

For the rare person that buys organic, whole grains, mills them themselves and make your bread or cookies right away you are the exception, and you know it. In fact, you know what I am talking about here, because that is why you do just that.

For the rest of us, we don’t grind our own flour, we allow a grain mill to process the flour. The companies that sell that flour want it to last a long time on the grocery store shelves, and we want it to last a long time in our pantries. When grain is pulverized, or milled, it allows the oil in the grains to be exposed to oxygen, which causes the oil in the resulting flour to go rancid too quickly. We want nice white flour that smells, well, not rancid. So the companies found a way to process the flour with chemicals, including bleaching the flour so it looks nice and white (white is good, right?), and eliminate any odors from the rancidity of the flour (yes, the oils are still rancid).

Those refined grains, such as wheat, corn and soy basically are left with just the high-carb, high-calorie endosperm with lots of starch and small amounts of protein. The resulting product gets digested and absorbed very quickly, leading to rapid spikes in blood sugar and subsequent hunger and cravings. They are linked to obesity and many metabolic diseases.

Keep in mind, I am not saying “never eat corn chips again”, just be very aware of what you are actually doing to your body. Limit these products, and listen to how your body reacts to them.

What about “whole wheat” products?

Did you hear that whole wheat bread and flour products are better? Well, the difference between white wheat flour and “whole wheat flour” is they take the outer bran off the wheat kernel (they also remove the germ); in whole wheat flour they leave it on. They still pulverize it, the oils are then still oxidized, and the flour is still processed to make it appealing.

But I can’t grind my own wheat and make my own bread! Ok, so here is an action you can take. Buy better breads! Wonder Bread was made so it would stay soft for a very long time. Good bread, made from better ingredients will get hard in a day or two. If you go to a bakery, and they have made their bread without all the preservatives and used fresher flour, it gets hard quickly. Day old bread was sold cheaper because it wasn’t going to be soft for much longer. Wonder Bread changed all that, at the expense of our health.

How long does your store bought bread last?

So, are flours and grains bad for us?

The Ugly

A lot of research has been done on the detrimental effects that grain has on our immune function, our gut microbiome, and our health. Grains have been blamed for leaky gut syndrome and everything from dementia, to rheumatoid arthritis. Books such as Grain Brain and Wheat Belly bring us evidence that grains are inherently bad for us.

But is that true?

Yes and no.

Remember what I said about The Good and The Bad? I don’t believe grains are inherently “bad” for us, but the way we process them, eat them to excess and take such bad care of our gut micro biome, it basically makes them into the bad guys. It doesn’t have to be that way, but you can’t solve the problem by doing the same thing with just different ingredients.

How about “gluten free” products?

The next step to claiming that wheat contains gluten and is bad for you, comes the step of substituting other grain flours or nut flours for the wheat flour. Is that a proper solution? Besides the fact that gluten free cookies, cakes and pasta are still cookies cakes and pasta, it is still not a whole life giving product! It is so far removed from the original food that it is no longer recognizable. If I poured 4 or 5 different flours on the table, you probably couldn’t tell the difference. Do you think your gut lining can? Shard of unrecognizable DNA are still the same, just from different sources. How long do you think you can trick your body into believing it is really getting what it needs?

What can we do?

Think of whole grains as WHOLE grains, they should be in their original form and look like a seed.

Think outside the box of wheat, rice and corn. Think of other grains that aren’t over used, such as quinoa, barley, buckwheat, amaranth. Many of these are gluten free, although not all are.

Do NOT make grains the staple of all of your meals. You may want rice with dinner, then you may not want to have oats for breakfast or a sandwich for lunch.

Find alternatives to the old trusty sandwich. Roll up meat and cheese together, eat your hamburger pattie without the bun. Put your taco meat on a salad instead of in a shell.

Find alternatives to those “trusted” cereals. At least use Old Fashioned oats, instead of microwaved packages. Even better, whole oats or steel cut oats, soaked overnight and cooked in the morning. You will find that chewing will make you feel like you actually ate something. I think often we feel we haven’t chewed anything, so we feel lacking in something or like we haven’t even eaten. Chewing is great exercise for the jaw. No wonder people have TMJ syndrome or clench their jaws now.

Mix it up. Eating the same foods over and over is not the best way to get our nutrients. Variety is important, so we can get a more diverse range of micronutrients. Experiment with soaking and cooking buckwheat, and see if that makes as good a breakfast as oats. Only eat grains a couple days a week, break it up with eggs or smoothies.

Remember, if you have celiac disease, IBS or other digestive issues and want to avoid gluten, there are grains you can still try, but please, experiment slowly and make sure they are truly whole grains, not the pulverized version of “gluten free” concoctions you find in the stores. You gut will thank you. (Also, read my articles on “gut health”.)