Image by Jayne and D
I’ve talked a whole lot about grains on here — going grain-free, eating grains again, sprouting them, soaking them, and so on. I haven’t even gotten down to the nitty-gritty, though: are grains good or bad? What do you do with them if they’re good…and why? Today we’ll look at the first part of that question. Next week we’ll talk more indepth.
The USDA Food Pyramid
Most of us grew up thinking grains were good. After all, the USDA food pyramid — now a “plate” — recommends that we eat 6 to 11 servings per day. Each serving is about 1 slice of bread of 1/2 cup of cereal or pasta. The recommended amount of carbs per day is around 300g. That’s…a lot.
It’s also true that, despite more recent recommendations to get the majority of your grains from whole-grain sources, most people get the majority of theirs from white sources. Sources like:
- Corn (yes, it’s a grain)
Most meals are based around grains. Breakfast foods (bread, pancakes, biscuits, muffins), lunch foods (sandwichs), dinner foods (pastas, sandwiches, pizza). It’s rare to find a meal that isn’t grain-dependent or served with a grain (like dinner rolls). The vast majority is white flour. Even “whole wheat” products that are commercial are still largely made from white flour, with a small amount of whole grain wheat. The rule is often no more than 1 part wheat to 2 parts white, lest the bread not rise as well.
Everyone knows this isn’t healthy — eating a large amount of white flour products. Nobody thinks it’s a good idea. Yet, it’s so ingrained in people that eating grains is good, and most of what’s available is white, so…that’s what they eat. White flour is generally nutritionless, and, in the vast majority of cases, not even worth eating.
Whole Grains are Better?
This has been promoted for several years now — “Eat whole grains for your health!” There are claims all over different foods that eating this whole grain or that whole grain improves heart health or improves overall health or whatever.
It’s true — to a point.
Regular whole grains are better for you than white grains. White flour is the endosperm of the grain, which has been stripped of its bran and germ. The majority of the nutrients are in the bran and germ. The endosperm is primarily starch. It spikes the blood sugar because it is absorbed rapidly, and heavy consumption over time can lead to insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, and diabetes.
When doctors realized this several years ago, they began to research and compare whole grain products to their white counterparts. And they found that in comparison, the whole grain products were healthier. They did not study the effects of reducing or eliminating grains on health at all. Therefore, they’re leaving out a crucial part of this study when they state, “Whole grains are good for you!” It’s a “Yes, BUT” situation.
Why Are Grains ‘Not So Good?’
It’s important to understand that even whole grains are carbohydrates, and all carbs break down to sugar (glucose). Eating a large amount of grains can spike your blood sugar. Consuming grains along with plenty of fat and protein reduces this effect, because these slow the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream. Fat also aids the absorption of important fat-soluble vitamins, like A, D, E, and K.
When half of your diet comes from grains, especially if you are following current recommendations and limiting your fat, your blood sugar spikes and drops throughout the day. Over time, this can affect other hormones in your body, including your thyroid and adrenals (cortisol is heavily affected by insulin). You may be on the road to diabetes, or suffer from attacks of hypoglycemia.
For this reason it is wise to be cautious about grain consumption. Ideally all grains consumed will be soaked or sprouted or soured (more on this next week — we’ve noted some additional interesting results as we’ve experimented with preparing and not preparing the grains), consumed with plenty of fat and protein, and will be consumed in moderation.
Example: Having a slice of toast with lots of butter or nut butter and a scrambled egg is fine for breakfast; eating dry toast (even whole grain) is not. Cooking rice in stock with butter and serving it alongside baked chicken (with the bone in and skin on) is fine; cooking rice in water and serving it with skinless, boneless chicken with the fat trimmed off is not.
Why Not Just Grain-Free?
This has become the popular move — for us, too. And in the short-term it can be a very good thing, as a healing diet. But it’s not a good idea in the long run.
A general rule of thumb: Any diet which completely removes one or more food groups permanently is not a healthy diet in the long run. (Yes…this includes vegan diets, grain-free, vegetarian, etc.)
Here’s the thing. Your body cannot use vitamin D without magnesium (vitamin Dis a pre-hormone that’s responsible for many aspects of health). In fact, magnesium deficiency is widespread and it’s needed for many important functions in the body. If you follow Cheeseslave, you may have noticed that she’d been on GAPS to try to fix some hormonal issues she was having — without success. Once she discovered magnesium deficiency was the key, everything changed.
Grains are a primary source of magnesium.
So, yes, grains are actually needed, in moderation. Nuts are high in magnesium, too, and so is chocolate, but these don’t present an adequate solution. Most people won’t eat enough nuts or chocolate to get what they need, and chocolate has theobromin (a caffeine-like chemical that some people are sensitive to), making it a less-ideal solution. (Read: is chocolate good or bad for you?) If you choose nuts, make sure they are properly prepared!
Soaking, Sprouting, and Souring?
We’ll talk about this more indepth next week, but there’s a lot of talk about sprouted flour, and soaked doughs. I first heard of this myself over two years ago and thought, “Gee, why would you bother?” I found out through unfortunate experience.
Traditional cultures prepare their grains by soaking them (the flour, in an acidic medium), sprouting them (allowing the grains to grow tiny sprouts, then drying them), and souring them (think a sourdough starter). Doing so reduces the phytic acid that protects the grain from “damage” (remember that grains are seeds, intended to produce new plants).
Phytic acid can bind up nutrients, including magnesium, inside your body. This can cause deficiency if you eat a lot of grains.
We have noted that if I eat improperly prepared grains, it bothers Jacob. He becomes fussy and gassy and doesn’t sleep well. Yet if the grains are properly prepared, we don’t have any problems. Clearly this is causing gut damage to me and allowing partially digested bits of grain to leak through and get into my milk, and into him. This isn’t good for my health or his!
Next week we’ll look at how to prepare grains and more on the “why.”
Great post! We've been on GAPS for 6 months and have recently had the "to grain or not to grain" discussion with our holistic chiropractor. We will be returning to grains in moderation in a while, but as you made note of, ONLY soaked, sprouted or soured!!
Very interesting. I'm currently on GAPS. And have been debating about taking a magnesium supplement. Especially after some research and finding that it largely comes from grains…which I don't eat right now. I hope I can add them back in at some point. For now I may have to supplement, like on Cheeseslave.
Thanks for the balanced perspective! I have definitely reduced our family's grain intake to a few servings a day and make sure that it's pretty much all soaked/sprouted (at home anyway). But I couldn't bring myself to totally cut grains out because it just didn't feel right or "traditional." I think you nailed what I couldn't quite put my finger on: "Any diet which completely removes one or more food groups permanently is not a healthy diet in the long run." Wise words in our diet-fad culture.
Without trying to assign moral value judgments to facts, I think that unless your only alternative is death by starvation, the negative consequences of eating grain far outweigh any potential benefits.
I'm not really convinced about grains. On the one hand, even with soaking, you can't free up all the nutrients in grains. So I'm not sure you're going to get much magnesium that way. And on the other, there are nuts to supply magnesium, without the negative effects on blood sugar. I do tend toward magnesium deficiency, with or without grains, so I make sure to get good non-grain sources of it whether I'm eating grains at the time or not.
And as for the argument that you can't take a whole food group out of the diet — I heard the same one from an overweight blogger I read. Her midwife had told her to cut out white sugar and white flour, and she was sure that cutting out an "entire food group" like that couldn't be healthy! White sugar and white flour are very modern innovations, but grains are an innovation as well, just less recent. I was just reading about how early European and North American cultures ate bread made from acorns instead. I don't think grains are a vital food group, just something commonly eaten to fill up calorie requirements in agricultural peoples.
Now, I currently eat grains, though I try to limit them. But when I hear stories of the vibrant health of people who kick them altogether (to say nothing of many primitive cultures that did not eat them and enjoyed excellent health), I can't deny that they seem not to be essential to health. I eat them because I have immense calorie needs and a small budget, and because I like them. But if I were experiencing health problems, cutting them out would be one of the first things I'd try.
You should read Ann Marie's story at Cheeseslave.com. She's done GAPS (no grains) for so long to try to improve her health. But when she discovered magnesium deficiency, she went back to eating grains in a careful manner and actually saw her health improve over NOT eating grains. The amount of grains each person needs to consume can vary quite a lot. But some people do need them. Certainly you should cut them out if you are experiencing health problems, as a method cleansing/healing. But then bring them back in again. On Wednesday I'll be discussing why we prepare them in a certain way and how much that really affects the phytic acid.
The whole "white flour/white sugar" thing being its own food group — that sounds like that blogger's rationalization for continuing to eat whatever she wants. Refined foods are not a food group and are not necessary.
I'm certainly not opposed to the occasional properly prepared grain but they are not a nutrient dense food. I don't know why you would include a less dense food like grains, to plain old vegetables which are a much higher quality food source and a better source of digestible Magnesium. Anyone interested in reading a decent study comparing food density check this out "http://www.ajcn.org/content/81/2/341.full"
what about gluten free diets. i have just started eating gluten free for several reasons – i find any wheat product causes me to bloat and have gas even when i soaked the grains and also i have finally realized that eating food that contains gluten causes my skin to break out (after dealing with terrible skin all my adult life)! i eat maybe 3-4 servings of carbs a day including some gluten free bread products (although i really need to spend some time researching how to make this stuff at home:), on a rare occassion cereal and rice. if i homemake this stuff do i have to soak them as well?
But grains are also a novel food group that many people did and do live without. I see them as optional. Each person might have a different "ideal" bunch of foods that they should be eating, and certainly if someone's having problems without grains, they could try eating them again. But I thought Ann Marie was improving based on a lot of different things — including magnesium supplements, earthing, and a lot of other stuff. I wouldn't put it down to just the grains.
In the end, all we can really do is experiment with our own diets. I'm realizing more and more than each of us is individual and the things that make one of us flourish make another one sick. I haven't found the perfect solution for anyone in our family yet — I'm pretty healthy and don't worry too much, my son's too picky, and my husband isn't convinced food is the source of his issues. But I might find someday that each of us needs different things for our perfect health.
I just hear too many success stories of people who are grain-free — and I mean for years and years, not just a one-month effect — to believe that they are really necessary for all people for ideal health.
I’m really excited about this series, as it’s very timely for my family. We’re starting to think that some of my husband’s health issues could be related to too many grains, as well as my life-long skin problems (eczema and acne). We’re struggling with whether we need to cut out grains completely (which would be so hard for us!) or if soaking/sprouting is the way to go. Looking forward to the next post!
I have had to cut out several food groups due to health issues. I cannot have Dairy or grains. I wish I could but I am lactose intolerant and grains cause bloating and severe pains in my sides. I have tried sprouted and gluten free bread with no success. I have also cut out all meat but seafood. and even then it is on a rare occasion. And by eliminating these food groups I have lowered my cholesterol, blood pressure and weight significantly. I was border line diabetic and suffered from obesity and joint pains all before my 30th birthday. I have been eating this way for 4 months now and have never felt this good. So if by saying it is unhealthy to cut out food groups I say that if the foods you eat do not allow you to feel great or if they slow you down mentally or physically then cut them out and then experiment on what the cause is. It may just be bread and you can have oats. I have experimented before adding anything back into my diet and found that I can have nuts where before I thought they were causing issues. I have substituted quinoa for the flour I need and the grains I need. Even though it is a seed it has the properties of grain and it causes no issues. There is always a substitute you just have to google for it.
Magnesium… BEANS AND GREENS! come on! how can you not mention those
I love this post. I am trying to figure our what balanced looks like for our family!
In an attempt to help heal my six year old who was very ill last summer with allergies and eczema (so much so, that she was literally shedding a layer of skin every day, we had to change her sheets daily, and she was covered with skin infections) we went to basically a full GAPS diet. I was scared to start with the intro, even though I believe in the diet, because she hadn’t been growing much and I was afraid she’d loose weight on such a restrictive diet. While the diet helped us realize she was allergic to not only wheat, but oats and corn as well, we noticed that she was suffering from certain deficiencies when she’d been off the grains for three months or so. Her hair started falling out. She was lethargic. I finally put her on a B complex supplement and started adding nutrient rich gluten free grains like buckwheat, millet and sorghum–soaked whenever I could. With those changes (and a lot of prayer) she began to recover and just look a lot healthier.
While I feel I tend to do better grain free, I’ve realized we’re all different and sometimes it’s best to eat what your body needs, prepared as well as possible.
Fantastic post. Very informative. I’ve been confused about grains lately started thinking they are not good for us in whatever form. I’m looking forward to your article about sprouted flours and breads too. I’d love to get your insight on grains that include gluten vs those which do not (for non-celiacs)
Thank you for the info, really looking forward to learning more. The discussion is very helpful also. Once again Thanks for all of the hard work that goes into the reserch and getting out there for us to use.
As for me, any program that cuts out an entire food group will not work. Back in the 80’s. I tried a little known diet called “The Woman’s Advantage Diet.” You ate different things depending on where you were in your onthly cycle. For the vast majority of the time, I was forbidden to eat BROCCOLI. And do you know I craved it? Just because I couldn’t have it! I would literally fantasize about having broccoli! No, forbidden foods do not work in my world. If I were to attempt to cut out grains, I would wind up eventually stuffing myself with them. Could I eat LESS grains? Sure, but I refuse to demonize them.
And please don’t try and tell me man “evolved” for millions of years before starting to eat grains. I don’t but that. I believe we were created by God and began to farm crops (including grains) within the first 100 years since Adam.
If Jesus called Himself “the bread of life” it must have good in it – at least the kind they had in His day!
I have been diagnosed with a weak positive celiac but at the time I took the blood test I was on the Atkins diet so it makes sense I was a weak positive if I eat gluten bam I react stomach pain first then straight to the bathroom with diarrhea I would love to learn how to cook with sprouted grains an get back to some kind of normal
Why can’t you just supplement with a really pure magnesium oil? Rub it on your legs at night with some coconut oil
You could — I choose to make my own magnesium lotion because I like it. Easy for kids too.
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