A diet rich in whole grains may boost digestive health, promote vibrant skin, while giving the body essential nutrients to function optimally. But knowing your wheat from your buckwheat is a must before loading up your plate.
As diet fads come and go, grains have received a bad rap, with some dieticians and enthusiastic health bloggers suggesting to stay far away from the grains and fruits of cereal grasses in order to foster better health. However, health experts who sing the dietary praises of the ancient foods say, eaten in their whole state, grains are essential eating for their fibre, nutrients and overall health and beauty benefits.
Extensive research has shown our hunter and gatherer ancestors relied on whole grains to survive and thrive, with proponents suggesting the human digestive system has evolved over time in order to fully break down the grains once eaten. However, grain critics deny this, and advise to steer clear of all grains, processed or unprocessed. Doing so, they say, may help heal the intestinal and gut linings, settle bloating and generally make the non-eater feel better.
However, ill health by grain consumption may have more to do with the way it arrives on the eater’s plate. Eating a highly processed grain, such as in conventional breads and other bakery fare, means essential nutrients that our ancestors enjoyed are missing.
They key, says leading nutritionist Kimberly Snyder, is to ensure any grain consumed is in its whole state.
“Refined grains are stripped of most of their nutrients, leaving you with empty calories and very few health benefits,” she says. “You’ll be missing out on the bran and the germ and only eating the endosperm portion of the grain. In the refining process, the B and E vitamins, fibre, minerals and phytochemicals from the bran and germ are stripped away, leaving only the carbohydrates and protein from the endosperm for consumption.”
The Problem with Wheat
While our hunter and gatherer forbearers may have enjoyed wheat in its whole state without a problem, today’s growing and manufacturing processes have seen a rise in gluten intolerance and other health issues amongst those who regularly consume wheat.
Why? Modern-day wheat crops have been hybridised many times over, and in the process, contain toxins from three different species. While our anscestor’s grain, Einkorn Wheat, boasted 14 chromosomes, today’s offerings are very different. Modern wheat is hybridised with Goat and Triticum grasses, which means we’re consuming a whopping 42 chromosomes, which many experts say our bodies are not designed to deal with effectively.
Grain Health Benefits
With refined and hybridised grains off the menu, what nourishment can one expect from a diet that includes organically grown whole grains?
A diet rich in fibre keeps the bowels moving and helps remove any build up from unhealthy foods that may have been consumed. Health-friendly fibre has been lacking from the 21st Century table, which many experts link to a rise in constipation, cancers, appendicitis, hemorrhoids, diverticulitis and polyps.
Highly processed modern foods may give us energy, but high sugar content paired with refined grains, means our stamina may be short lived. Energy from whole grains provides more sustained energy. However, unless exercise is a regular part of the day, excess weight may result from high consumption.
Grains contain a compound called “resistant starch”, which some dieticians and health experts believe may act as prebiotics, aiding the digestive process, while preventing certain cancers, steadying blood sugar, while fostering healthy bacteria growth.
Vitamins and Minerals
Grains need nutrients to sprout in order to grow into large plants, therefore within each tiny pod are fatty acids, minerals, micronutrients and B vitamins.
While a diet in whole grains is important, there are production processes many grains must go through in order to reap the best health benefits. Usual methods include rolling, steaming, cutting, cracking, pearling, puffing, ground and soaking and sprouting.
IN THE KITCHEN: Be sure to rinse thoroughly before soaking or boiling to rinse away saponins—chemicals that deter animals in the wild. Place one cup of quinoa into two cups of water. Cover and bring to the boil, reducing heat to a simmer until all water is absorbed. Serve instead of rice or use in salads, hot breakfasts or desserts.
BODY BENEFIT: Said to contain up to 22 per cent protein, quinoa is actually a member of the chard and spinach family. It boasts high levels of calcium, iron, potassium, sodium and zinc, as well as copper, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus. It also contains a balanced combination of all essential amino acids, including lysine, which is vital for tissue growth and development.
IN THE KITCHEN: Despite its name, buckwheat is actually a fruit that’s related to rhubarb and not to wheat. Soak and blend with dates, cold pressed coconut oil and raw cacao for a nutritious summer porridge, or heat at a low temperature to make a warming winter breakfast topped with honey and banana.
BODY BENEFIT: From protecting against heart disease to aiding menopausal symptoms, buckwheat is a complete protein that is also said to lower cholesterol and improve circulation.
IN THE KITCHEN: While often considered a “seed for birds”, millet is in fact a grain that deserves attention at the dinner table. Boiled or soaked, millet makes for a great breakfast cereal, while adding texture, taste and nutrients to tossed salads, or blended to replace nutrient-devoid white potato mash.
BODY BENEFIT: Brimming with copper, manganese, phosphorus and magnesium, millet, when consumed regularly, is said to help prevent heart disease and aid in development and repair of body tissue.
IN THE KITCHEN: Besides being a popular baked bread ingredient, spelt can also be boiled and soaked and added to salads, soups and hearty winter dishes.
BODY BENEFIT: A non-hybridised relative of wheat, spelt features high water solubility, which means easy digestibility, with nutrients readily absorbed. High in protein, it also boasts B complex vitamins and is high in simple and complex carbohydrates.
IN THE KITCHEN: Brown, black and wild rices are more nutrient-rich than white. Each may be soaked or boiled, eaten alone or as an accompaniment to curries and vegetables. Rice can also be fermented. However, avoid consuming day-old boiled rice, as it quickly becomes a breeding ground for toxins than can be associated with some food-borne illnesses.
BODY BENEFIT: Energy-rich rice may help to regulate bowel movements, stabilise blood sugar levels and provide body-essential Vitamin B1. Rice is also said to help increase metabolism, boost the immune system and ward off cancers and heart disease.
IN THE KITCHEN: Soaked, boiled or baked, oats are a healthy ingredient in pancakes, biscuits, warm porridges or even as baked toppings on lightly steamed organic vegetables. Steel cut oats are minimally processed and can be soaked or slow boiled to retain many of the grain’s health benefits.
BODY BENEFIT: Regular oat consumption is said to help regulate blood pressure and cholesterol levels, with their antioxidant levels working wonders for healthy skin promotion, while reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease.
IN THE KITCHEN: Perhaps lesser known than other grains, freekah is in fact the young, green version of wheat that has been toasted and cracked. Use this ancient grain in salads, risottos, tabbouli, soups and pilaffs.
BODY BENEFIT: Fibre-rich, freekah is also a good source of vegetarian protein, while featuring good amounts of health-loving selenium, potassium and magnesium.
IN THE KITCHEN: A highly nutritious grain, amaranth is ideal for replacing lesser healthy foods such as couscous and pasta. Soak and toss into salads, brew into stews and bake into healthy muffins.
BODY BENEFIT: According to noted physician, Dr Andrew Weil, amaranth is an especially high-quality source of plan protein that includes lysine and methionine: two essential amino acids that are low in other grains. “Amaranth is packed with iron and calcium, and it’s fibre content is triple that of wheat. It is completely gluten-free and an especially digestible grain,” Dr Weil says.