Are Grains Healthy?

Updated: Sep 21, 2020

The relationship between humans and grains has been a wild journey, one full of twists and turns, passionate romance and devastating heartbreak. Once filling the entire bottom of the food pyramid in the 90’s, grains formed the base of what we were told was a “healthy diet”. I still remember when I was in second grade learning about the food pyramid, it was recommended that we eat 6-11 servings of grains per day. Even at that young age I remember thinking to myself, “man… that seems like a LOT! I don’t know if I can eat that much.”

In contrast, some experts now recommend that we eliminate grains completely from our diet. Thanks to diet fads like Atkins, Paleo and Keto, many people are not only avoiding grains entirely, but some seem to have developed a fear of grains or carbs, believing that they are the root of disease and obesity. Then there’s gluten. 10 years ago when I first identified my gluten sensitivity, there weren't many options for people with gluten allergies. However, “gluten free” is a household term now. There are gluten free options for just about every baked good, pasta or food product on the market, often just as highly processed as the glutenous options. When I order a burger at a restaurant now I can often get it on a gluten free bun. What a time to be alive!

But is eliminating gluten, bread, carbs and grains really the answer to better health? Do grains deserve the amount of vilification they’ve received? Are they really THAT bad for us? There does seem to be some general agreement among nutritionists that whole grains are healthier than refined grains. But are whole grains truly better for our health? It seems like we’re stuck somewhere in the polarization of them being “good” or “bad”, with little room in the middle for any gray area. Actually, maybe you’ve noticed that us humans love to polarize just about everything in this way. In my experience, when it comes to any subject where things are presented as either “black or white”, the truth often lies somewhere in the middle.

If you’ve read my blogs in the past, you’ll already know that I believe that every person has their own bio-individual needs and that finding the foods that work best for you is a wholly unique journey. There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to nutrition. You will also know that my approach to food involves honoring ancestral wisdom, in other words, looking to the traditional preparation of food - the way our great-great grandmothers would have done. Why? Because as it turns out, many of these methods actually produce food that is more nutritious and easier to digest. You may remember from my previous posts that the first foundation of health in nutritional therapy is “Properly Prepared Nutrient Dense Foods”. So what is the best way to prepare grains for consumption?

When it comes to grains, virtually every pre industrialized culture around the globe soaked and fermented their grains before eating them. This process took time and forethought. It is the opposite of instant gratification. However, as humans moved away from preparing all of thir meals and transitioned into a busier lifestyle outside of the home - time consuming food preparation techniques fell away to give rise to “fast and easy”. Unfortunately this meant part of our connection to food was lost along with important nutrients.

So let’s take a closer look at grains. Whole grain products are made by using all three parts of the grain shown in this diagram - bran, endosperm and the germ. Refined grains like white bread products only use the endosperm part of the grain. Theoretically, this makes whole grain products “healthier” than refined products because it includes the parts of the grain that contain the vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. However, the outer bran layer of all grains contain an “anti-nutrient” called phytic acid. We call it an anti-nutrient because phytic acid binds to important minerals like calcium, magnesium and zinc in the intestines and prevents them from being absorbed. Because of this, a well intentioned diet, rich in whole grains can actually lead to serious mineral depletion and health problems.

However, when grains are prepared properly by soaking and fermenting for several hours or days, it allows natural enzymes and beneficial bacteria to break down the phytic acid. Essentially, we’re allowing the enzymes and microorganisms to begin the digestive process for us. When the phytic acid has been neutralized, we can then absorb and utilize the nutrients from the grain! Soaking and fermenting grains that contain gluten is beneficial as well since the process actually breaks down the gluten protein. Part of the problem with gluten is that it is actually pretty difficult for us to digest, so people who have a gluten sensitivity may find they do better with it when it is properly prepared. This process also makes the grain taste much better, often with a delightfully sour taste. When we taste the sour flavor, our salivary glands kick in - another benefit because saliva contains important enzymes that begin the proper breakdown of carbohydrates. This means our stomach and pancreas don’t have to work as hard as the food travels south. All in all it's a win-win situation.

If you follow me on Instagram or Facebook, you’ll know that I’ve been experimenting with soaking and fermenting grains to see how my body responds to those foods. I’m currently making my own sourdough starter and I made buttermilk pancakes this week after soaking the flour in buttermilk for about 18 hours. I’ve found that cooking in this way doesn’t involve too much extra time on my part, but mostly more forethought. Most recipes just call for you to combine flour with a liquid and then let it sit in a warm area for 7-24 hours. It’s pretty simple. Plus, my kitchen kind of looks like a witchy science lab with bowls of goop hanging out on the counter, which I love!

When it comes to consuming grains, just like with any type of food, you’re going to have to find the right balance for yourself and your family. If you are highly sensitive to gluten or have celiac disease, you may find that even properly prepared grains aren't right for you. If you suspect that you may have a food sensitivity but aren’t sure, it can be a confusing thing to navigate on your own. I can help you save time and a lot of guess work, by identifying problematic foods with non invasive testing procedures that you can actually do on your own at home! You don't have to do it alone, contact me for more details .

While I’ve really enjoyed this process of slowing down and connecting to my food in a new way, maybe your life just won’t allow for that and that's ok! You don’t have to become Laura Ingalls on the prairie to have access to quality food. Luckily there are bakers who are embracing these time-honored traditions, producing high quality grain products so that you don’t have to. I know that here in Ithaca, Wide Awake Bakery allows their products to undergo long, slow fermentation. Do a little research and see if there are any options in your area.

If you are interested in experimenting with soaking your grains there are a few pointers that you may find helpful. First, this is one instance where choosing organic grains is fairly important. Grains that have been treated with pesticides can inhibit the beneficial microorganisms that need to grow in order for the process to be effective. Second, you don’t have to start with a full boar, seven day long sourdough starter, you can start with something less involved like overnight oats or simply soaking rice before cooking it. I’ll include those recipes below.

Thanks so much for taking the time to read my blog today! I hope you find it helpful. If you are interested in learning more about what foods are right for your body, please reach out to me to discover the ways that I can support you with Nutritional Therapy!

Overnight Oats

1 cup oats

2 cups water

4 tbsp full fat yogurt, kefir or buttermilk (can use lemon juice or vinegar in case of milk allergy)

1 tsp unrefined salt

1 ½ cups water

Combine oats, 2 cups of water and your choice of yogurt, kefir or buttermilk in a bowl. Let sit in a warm place for 7-24 hours. Skim the fine flour particles off the top. Bring additional 1 ½ cups of water and salt to a bowl, add the soaked oats and simmer over very low heat for about 10 minutes. Add fruit, nuts or natural sweeten like maple syrup and enjoy!

Soaked Brown Rice

2 cups organic brown rice

4 cups water

4 tbsp yogurt, kefir, or buttermilk (can use lemon juice or vinegar in case of milk allergy)

2-4 tbsp butter

Combine rice, water and your choice of yogurt, kefir or buttermilk in a pot. Let sit in a warm place for at least 7 hours. Bring mixture to a boil, reduce heat, add salt and butter. Cover pot with a tight lid and simmer for about 45 minutes.

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