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Are Grains Good For You?

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14 min read
Summary

What are grains, and are they good for you? Are there certain grains you should avoid? How can you incorporate grain alternatives into your diet, and why would you want to? This article answers these questions and more.

Are grains good for you? Many leading health organizations, including the American Heart Association, the American Institute for Cancer Research, the American Diabetes Association, and the Alzheimer’s Association, recommend whole grains as an important part of a healthy diet.

But some Paleo diet proponents are not convinced. They remind us that humans didn’t begin eating significant amounts of grains until the advent of agriculture. We didn’t evolve to digest them, these advocates say. And when we do eat them, our bodies can revolt — leading to celiac disease, gluten intolerance, autoimmune disease, and other serious problems. The popular website, paleoleap.com, goes so far as to tell us that “of all the habits that you can develop regarding your health, dropping the grains from your diet is probably the one that will pay off the most.”

So what’s the truth? Do grains help your cells, your heart, your brain, and your blood sugar balance? Or are they inflammation-promoters and health-destroyers?

The fact is that not all grains, and not all ways of consuming them are equal. Not even close. In the industrialized world, we turn our wheat into white flour for bread and cakes. We turn our corn into high-fructose corn syrup and Doritos. And we turn our rice into Uncle Ben’s and Minute White. But that’s not how it started out.

Types of Grains

variety of whole grains in bowls
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As a food source, grains are a staple in the diets of populations all around the globe. There are many different grains, which can be separated into two major categories: true grains and pseudo-grains.

True Grains

True grains are the seeds of grasses, which are defined as plants that have narrow-bladed leaves. Just about every true grain we eat today has undergone huge changes from its evolutionary ancestors, thanks to selective breeding by humans. For example, we’ve turned corn from a few tiny dry seeds on a thin grass blade into luscious ears on a strong stalk.

True grains that humans commonly eat include the following:

  • Wheat (includes spelt, freekeh, emmer, and einkorn)
  • Oats
  • Rice
  • Rye
  • Wild rice
  • Brown rice
  • Barley
  • Corn
  • Triticale
  • Sorghum

Pseudo-Grains

Pseudo-grains are what they sound like: seeds that are not actually grains. Most pseudo-grains come from shrubs and bushes, instead of grasses. Despite their different origins, pseudo-grains have a nutrient composition that’s similar to true grains.

Pseudo grains include:

  • Quinoa
  • Millet
  • Amaranth
  • Buckwheat
  • Teff

Pseudo-grains are almost always consumed whole and are rarely refined. That’s one of the reasons they’re considered healthier than common grains like wheat or rice, which are often processed to make them more palatable or to increase their shelf life.

And there’s a world of difference, nutritionally speaking, between grains that are whole and those that are refined.

Whole Grains

Whole Grains contain the entire grain kernel, which is made up of three parts:

  • Bran – The hard outer shell of a grain, which contains fiber, minerals, and antioxidants.
  • Germ – The inner layer of a grain, which is full of vitamins, minerals, protein, and healthy plant compounds.
  • Endosperm – The middle of the grain, which is rich in carbohydrates.

As long as all three of these components are present, the grain is considered whole. But there are a couple of things we need to be aware of that may compromise the healthy properties of whole grains. First, products that are labeled “whole grain,” like breads, crackers, and cookies can contain refined flour as well. The U.S. FDA gives the food industry permission to advertise products with as little as 51% of whole grains by weight as “whole grain.”

Second, there’s a difference, and sometimes a significant one, between grains in which the bran has not been broken and those that have been crushed, cracked, blended, or rolled.

Broken Whole Grains

You might think that it wouldn’t matter what’s been done to a grain, as long as all the parts are still there in your food. Is there really a difference between whole oat groats (which look like barley or wheat berries) and oats that have been steel-cut, rolled, or made into oat flour? Or between intact wheat berries and a loaf of 100% whole wheat bread?

Yes, there is. The more processed the whole grain, the faster the carbohydrates in that grain enter your bloodstream and spike your blood glucose levels and insulin requirements.

To understand why this is, imagine a black asphalt driveway with a hot sun shining directly on it. Now picture placing a very large chunk of solid ice on the driveway. The chunk of ice will melt, but it will take some time to do so. But what would happen if you dumped a bucket of ice chips on the driveway? They would melt almost instantly.

Similarly, when a whole grain is ground into flour, the amount of surface area that is exposed to the air is greatly increased with the result that, like the ice chips melting almost instantly, your digestive system absorbs the energy from the flour very rapidly, which can spike your blood sugar levels.

In contrast, it takes time for your digestive system to break down intact grains, much as it takes time for the asphalt to melt the chunk of solid ice. When whole grains are already broken or ground, the energy they contain enters your body much more quickly. But unlike refined grains, the presence of the bran and the germ will help slow things down.

Refined Grains

Refined grains are those that have been put through a process to remove the bran and germ. This is called milling. It’s done to increase shelf life and give them a finer texture that many people prefer. But it also, unfortunately, removes a significant amount of nutritional benefit. Refined grains lose much of their fiber, iron, and many B vitamins through the milling process. As such, most refined grains on store shelves have synthetic vitamins added back. These are known as “enriched” products, and their nutritional benefits are dubious at best.

Some examples of foods that contain refined grains include:

  • White breads
  • Baked goods made with white flour
  • White pasta (including semolina)
  • Crackers
  • White rice
  • Breakfast cereals

Most of the grains eaten in the modern world have  been refined, and their impact on human health is disturbing. For example, in one major study tracking tens of thousands of participants, researchers found that those who ate the most white rice — five or more servings per week — had a 17% higher risk of diabetes than those who ate white rice less than once per month. But those who ate the most brown rice — two or more servings a week — had an 11% lower risk of diabetes than those who rarely ate brown rice. The researchers estimated that swapping whole grains in place of even some white rice could lower diabetes risk by 36%.

5 Health Benefits of WHOLE Grains

farmer holding grain in sunset
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Here are some of the most well-researched health benefits of eating whole grains.

1. Whole grains may reduce the risk of developing heart disease, the leading cause of death worldwide, as well as stroke.

A 2016 review of 45 studies (64 publications) published in the British Medical Journal looked at the relationship between how many whole grains people consumed, the types of grains they consumed, and their risk for developing disease. Researchers also looked at how eating whole grains may impact all-cause and cause-specific mortality. What they found was that people who ate about a cup of whole grains per day saw a reduced risk for both cancer and heart disease. Refined grains, like white rice, were not associated with a lower disease or mortality risk.

Another 2016 study published in the journal Nutrition, Metabolism, and Cardiovascular Disease examined whole grain intake among 17,424 adults over 10 years, finding that those who ate the most had a 47% lower risk for developing heart disease.

And whole grains could help prevent stroke, too. A 2015 analysis of six studies looked at whole grain consumption among almost 250,000 people and found that those who ate the most had a 14% lower risk for having a stroke than those eating the least.

2. Whole grains support healthy digestion and may lower your risk for digestive diseases and cancers.

The fiber in whole grains can play a huge role in keeping your digestive system healthy. Fiber adds bulk to your stool and prevents constipation. One 2015 study showed that fiber from cereal grains and fruit was especially beneficial for protecting gut health.

This is important because bowel regularity not only makes your belly happy; it also lowers your risk for digestive conditions, including diseases like colorectal cancer. According to the American Institute for Cancer Research, whole grains contain unique anticancer compounds like resistant starch (fiber your body doesn’t digest), polyphenols, saponins, and phytic acid that may prevent and slow the development of cancer.

According to one meta-analysis of studies, consumption of an average of approximately six ounces of whole grains per day reduced colorectal cancer risk by 21%.

Now, consider for a moment that 1.4 million people will be diagnosed with colorectal cancer worldwide this year. What we’re seeing is that if the average human ate just six ounces of whole grains per day, we might be able to prevent 294,000 cases of colorectal cancer every year.

Fiber also benefits your gut health in other ways. Research shows that certain types of fiber in whole grains act as prebiotics — food for probiotics, the good bacteria in your gut. Maintaining a healthy gut microbiome is important for digestive health.

3. Whole grains have been shown to support healthy weight management.

Whole grains are high in dietary fiber, which helps keep you satiated and can prevent overeating. This relationship has been studied in-depth, and as a result, high fiber diets are often recommended for weight loss. In fact, a 2008 study that analyzed the results of 15 studies involving almost 120,000 people found that eating three servings of whole grains per day was linked to less abdominal fat and a lower body mass index.

Okay, you might be thinking, that’s all well and good. But what about all the people who are cutting out carbs and losing weight? A lot of them are giving up grains. Are we supposed to ignore their obvious results?

Here’s the thing to remember. People who eat whole grains and people who eat no grains often have one thing in common: they’re steering clear of sugar, refined flour, and other processed carbohydrates. When you do that, chances are excellent that you’ll lose some unwanted pounds, and your health will improve.

4. Whole grains could help lower inflammation.

Inflammatory markers appear to decrease when you switch from refined grains to whole grains in your diet. This was demonstrated in a 2015 study that had people swap refined wheat products out of their diet and replace them with whole wheat products.

And a 2007 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition followed 41,836 postmenopausal women for 17 years. Researchers concluded that those women who ate the most whole grains were the least likely to die from inflammatory conditions.

5. Whole grains may reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Evidence shows that replacing refined grains with whole grains can lower your risk for type 2 diabetes. This is largely because whole grains have a lower glycemic index, meaning they don’t spike (and then drop) your blood sugar to the degree that refined grains do.

A 2013 review published in the European Journal of Epidemiology looked at 16 studies and found that replacing refined grains like white bread with whole grains — and eating at least two servings of whole grains per day — could lower your risk for type 2 diabetes. Other studies link a diet high in whole grains to lower fasting blood sugar levels and to better insulin sensitivity.

One often-overlooked reason for the blood sugar benefits of whole grains may be their high magnesium content. Magnesium seems to support insulin sensitivity and may even help your body break down and digest carbohydrates more slowly.

3 Negative Health Effects of Eating Refined Grains

hands motioning no to bread
iStock.com/MarsBars

While whole grains offer health benefits, reducing our intake of refined grains is equally important for long-term health. Here are a few of the biggest reasons to eat fewer refined grains and products primarily made with them.

1. Diets high in refined grains have been linked to obesity.

Refined grains have been stripped of much of their fiber. As a result, they don’t keep you full for as long as whole grains do. This often causes your brain to crave more food to feel satisfied, which can lead to overeating, a large factor in becoming overweight or obese. Furthermore, being overweight or obese is a significant risk factor for developing chronic diseases like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, inflammatory conditions, and certain cancers.

Think about how you feel after you eat a bowl of breakfast quinoa with nuts and berries, versus a bowl of sugary cereal. How long does it take for you to start feeling hungry again? Likely, a much shorter time after the sugary cereal.

2. Eating refined grains causes rapid spikes in blood sugar.

Refined grains have a high glycemic index, which means they result in a larger spike (and drop) in blood sugar after you eat them, compared to the effect of whole grains. If this continues, it can contribute to prediabetes, insulin resistance, and, eventually, the development of type 2 diabetes.

3. Nutritionally, refined grains don’t measure up to whole grains.

Refined grains are low in fiber, as they have been stripped of the components that contain this important nutrient. Low fiber diets have been linked to an increased risk of chronic diseases like heart disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, colon cancer, and various digestive problems.

Whole Grain Dangers and Controversies

woman showing signs of nausea during breakfast wondering are grains good for you?
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While whole grains offer a variety of health benefits, they’re not necessarily for everyone all the time. Here are some things to consider when choosing whether to eat whole grains.

Gluten

Some people may need to avoid gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. This is especially true for individuals who suffer from celiac disease, a condition in which exposure to any amount of gluten can cause serious symptoms. Up until recently, only around one percent of the population had celiac disease. But for reasons that are not well understood, the incidence of celiac disease seems to be rising rapidly now.

Fortunately, there is a diagnostic test that can determine with 100% accuracy whether or not you have celiac disease. If you have the condition, your body will produce specific antibodies to gluten that destroy the lining of the small intestine whenever gluten is present. The test looks for those antibodies. If you have them, you have celiac disease. And you must avoid all gluten. If you have celiac disease, you’ll experience remarkable and dramatic improvements from completely avoiding gluten.

Is gluten harmful to some people who don’t have celiac disease? Or has the “gluten-free” craze taken on a life of its own, in effect becoming a case study in marketing and mob mentality?

The presence of the words “gluten-free” on a package or menu implies that gluten might be worth avoiding. “Gluten-free” has become one of the most often searched phrases on Google. For those of us who do not have celiac disease, how do we know if going “gluten-free” might help us?

Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity

The term “non-celiac gluten sensitivity” was originally described in the 1980s, but was coined in 2012 by Harvard University professor of medicine Alessio Fasano and his colleagues. Dr. Fasano emphasizes that we still don’t have good biomarkers for gluten sensitivity. So there currently are no tests that can tell us who does and who doesn’t have this condition. There are tests out there that claim to give us this information, but Fasano says these tests “have not been validated.”

There are many people who do not have celiac disease and yet who report feeling better when they avoid gluten. Is this testimony to the power of belief? Is it because when they avoid gluten, they also avoid many processed and refined foods? Or do they really have non-celiac gluten intolerance or sensitivity?

Since we don’t yet have a reliable test, each of us are in many ways on our own to determine if our unique bodies do indeed fare better when we avoid gluten. Symptoms of gluten intolerance can include headaches, joint pain, skin problems, seizures, mental disorders, and digestive problems. (For more on gluten, read this article.)

Lectins and Phytic Acid

Some whole grains contain lectins and phytic acid, both of which are sometimes referred to as “anti-nutrients.” This means that they can interfere with the absorption of vitamins and minerals such as calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, and zinc. As we’ve written about in this article, though, the hysteria about lectins is largely overblown. Cooking your grains pretty much neutralizes any problematic lectins they might contain. And phytates aren’t all bad. They also have properties that aid in the prevention of cancer, cardiovascular disease, kidney disease, and other illnesses.

Most whole grains can be soaked for 24 to 48 hours before cooking (pouring off the water twice daily) to activate their germination process and make their nutrients more bioavailable. This has also been found to reduce phytate content significantly, which will help you get more value from the vitamins and minerals in your diet.

Pesticides

Non-organic whole grains may be sprayed with pesticides like glyphosate — an endocrine disruptor, antibiotic, and probable carcinogen. This includes glyphosate used as a desiccant to dry out crops prior to harvest, especially wheat, barley, oats, and corn. This is a good reason to consider buying organic whole grains whenever possible.

Arsenic

Studies show that rice — including brown, basmati, wild, black, and white — typically contains arsenic, a heavy metal in much of the soil in which rice is cultivated. Over the last couple of centuries, arsenic levels in our soil have risen dramatically as a result of pesticides and industrial pollution. Unfortunately, brown rice is especially problematic because the arsenic tends to concentrate in its outer hull. This may be a reason to minimize rice and rice products in your diet, choosing other whole grains instead. You can find out more about arsenic in rice and how to protect yourself here.

Commercial Baked Goods

Most commercial bread products, even those that contain whole grains, come with quite a laundry list of ingredients. In my local supermarket, I can buy Sara Lee “100% Whole Wheat” bread. That sounds healthy, but in addition to whole wheat flour, water, and yeast, which is really all you need to make bread, the label tells us it also contains sugar, wheat gluten, soybean oil, calcium propionate, datem, monoglycerides, calcium sulfate, monocalcium phosphate, potassium iodate, cornstarch, and other laboratory-derived compounds. That doesn’t sound like a recipe for natural health, to me.

If you’re going to eat flour products, make sure they’re 100% whole grain. Read legally mandated ingredient lists, not just front-of-package claims. If you see any reference to wheat flour, and you don’t see “whole grain” or “whole wheat,” then you can assume it’s white (refined) flour. And sprouted-grain breads may be the best breads of all because they will digest more slowly and are therefore easier on your blood sugar balance.

Grain Alternatives

zucchini pasta in bowl
iStock.com/Rocky89

While grains offer many health benefits, some people may still choose to avoid them. If you need or decide to limit or avoid grains in your diet, what are the alternatives? Fortunately, there are plenty of other plants that can take their place in many traditional recipes.

For example:

Try vegetables like cauliflower, zucchini, beets, sweet potatoes, eggplant, yellow squash, broccoli, and carrots as a base for a dish. Many of these can be spiralized into noodles in place of spaghetti and topped with tomato sauce just the same. You can also try slicing some of them into layers and making a grain-free lasagna.

Legumes, like beans, peas, and lentils, are a great protein-rich substitute for grains. Many consumer brands of pasta are now using legumes to make their products as well. I’ve seen some made from green peas, red lentils, chickpeas, edamame, and black beans — and they’re delicious! Legumes also work well as a base for cold salads, warm casserole dishes, or even to stuff grain-free burritos.

If you like tacos or tortillas, but want to go grain-free, try lettuce wraps instead. Big, buttery lettuce leaves make the perfect casing for a tempeh sloppy joe or a lentil taco. You can also use dark leafy greens to turn grain dishes into salads, by placing all of the non-grain ingredients on top of a bed of lettuce. Raw or lightly steamed collard leaves make great wraps as well.

Recipes Using Grains

vegan quinoa chili bowl
Photo Courtesy of Simple Vegan Blog

Making nutritious meals using grains can be simple and delicious! Here are some great recipes you can try at home that incorporate whole grains and grain alternatives.

Whole Grains

Cozy Millet Bowl with Mushroom Gravy and Kale by Oh She Glows

I like this comforting recipe because it uses millet, an underdog of the grain family. And the flavor is rich and light.

Super Satisfying Vegan Quinoa Chili by Simple Vegan Blog

If you like regular chili, this quinoa version might just blow your mind! It’s a warm and creamy blend of spices and veggies that’s sure to satisfy any stomach.

Banana Almond Teff Porridge by Eating Bird Food

Teff is most commonly known for being the basis of the Ethiopian flatbread known as Injera. But that’s not all it can be used for! For example, this is a fantastic and surprisingly creamy teff oatmeal, similar in texture to cream of wheat.

Grain Alternatives

30-Minute Cauliflower Rice Stir-Fry by Minimalist Baker

Riced cauliflower (and other riced veggies) is an awesome substitute for traditional rice and can be used in a number of the same ways. This is a great rice-based stir-fry that’s grain-free and full of flavor.

Avocado Pesto Zucchini Noodles by Yup, It’s Vegan!

Here’s a super easy, tasty combination of spiralized zucchini noodles slathered in homemade avocado pesto and packed with nutrients.

Raw Vegan Collard Wraps by Avocado Pesto

Who needs the wheat tortilla when you have collard greens? These wraps are stuffed with bell peppers, alfalfa sprouts, and avocado — with a blended dressing made from pecans and tamari. Yum!

Are Grains Good For You?

So now that you know all about grains and grain alternatives, are they good for you?

Whole grains and pseudo-grains are highly nutritious and versatile staples that offer countless health benefits. They’re packed with B vitamins, fiber, and minerals — and have been proven to help lower your risk for many chronic diseases. But most of the grains eaten in the world today are grown with pesticides, including glyphosate, and are highly processed and refined.

Most of us, if we choose wisely and prepare them deliciously, can enjoy the health-giving benefits of organic whole grains and pseudo-grains. And know that we are likely doing a very good thing for our health. Listen to your body, observe how it responds, and you’ll be well-positioned to make sound choices for your long term well-being.

Featured Image: iStock.com/fcafotodigital

Tell us in the comments:

  • Do you eat whole grains?
  • What are your favorite pseudo-grains?
  • Do you have any favorite whole grain or pseudo-grain recipes?