If you’ve been following the nutrition community closely, odds are high that you’ve heard of the controversy about eating grains. Some experts argue that they are a nutrient-dense whole food that should be included in a healthy diet, while others argue that whole grains are dangerous and detrimental to our health. The truth is, both arguments are valid and it is important to understand why so you can make an informed decision for yourself. As with everything in nutrition, it’s all about context, so let’s discuss all aspects of grains so you can determine if you should be avoiding grains or consuming them for your own optimal health.
Whole Grains: Good or Bad?
In recent years, grain-free and paleo-style diets, which eliminate grains entirely, have risen in popularity. Advocates for these types of diets state that since grains were not consumed by our ancestors, and are damaging to gut health, they should be avoided. At the same time, there is a body of research that shows that grain-containing diets are beneficial for our health, and many cultures around the world have been eating them for thousands of years. So, where does the truth lie? In order to answer that question, we need to start at the beginning, break down all of the components of grains, and discuss the pros and cons, the forms in which we consume grains, and the individuals consuming them.
What’s In a Whole Grain?
A grain is simply a small, hard, dry, edible seed from grass-like plants called cereals. The most common cereal grains are wheat, rice, and corn, while some of the less common include barley, oats, sorghum, millet, and rye. In their whole format, grains consist of 3 main parts;
The Bran: The hard outer layer of the grain, containing fiber, minerals, and antioxidants.
The Germ: The embryo of the plant and nutrient-rich core of the grain which contains carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytonutrients.
The Endosperm: The largest part of the grain, which contains mostly carbohydrates, in the form of starch, and protein.
By definition, a “whole grain” contains all parts of the seed, which also means it contains all of the fiber, vitamins, and minerals present in the grain. Whole grains can be consumed on their own or ground into whole grains flours to make grain products including bread, pastas, cereals, tortillas, wraps, and baked goods.
The Benefits of Whole Grains
Whole grains have been consumed by various cultures for thousands of years and it could be argued that the cultivation of grains made civilization possible as it is today. Depending on the specific type, grains are a source of fiber, B vitamins, magnesium, iron, phosphorus, manganese, and selenium, and in many cases, whole grains have been linked to improved digestive function, reduced cholesterol levels, and reduced risk of heart disease. Although whole grains do contain some nutrients, it is important to understand that whole grains do not contain any nutrients that you can’t get from other foods, and although they have some benefits, they also have some drawbacks.
The Problems with Whole Grains
In their natural state, grains contain substances called anti-nutrients. Since grains are in fact seeds, these anti-nutrients are part of the seed’s natural preservation system which helps to prevent the grain from sprouting until the conditions are just right; the perfect moisture, warmth, time, and soil acidity are needed for a successful sprout. Essentially, these anti-nutrients are a built-in protective mechanism for the seeds to survive in nature, however, these protective mechanisms are not ideal for human digestion. When untreated, anti-nutrients, such as phytic acid and lectins, can inhibit digestion and absorption of nutrients in the gut. Phytic acid, for example, is an organic acid in which phosphorus is bound, which can combine with calcium, magnesium, copper, iron, and especially zinc in the intestinal tract and block their absorption. Not to mention, some whole grains also contain gluten and other hard-to-digest proteins which can be very hard on the gut when not properly prepared.
Preparation is Key
Because of the various anti-nutrients present in whole grains, proper preparation before consumption is key. When grains are properly prepared by soaking, sprouting, or fermenting, they are more easily digested and their nutrients are more bioavailable to us. When soaked, sprouted or fermented, the phytic acid and enzyme inhibitors are neutralized, and friendly bacteria help to do some of the digesting for us. This is exactly why sourdough bread is the healthiest bread, as the natural fermentation of the grain flour helps to mitigate the effects of the anti-nutrients present, making it more easily digested by the human body. So, although well-meaning, the suggestion to simply consume more “whole grains” can be misleading and detrimental if the grains in question were not properly prepared.
Not all Grains (or Grain Products) are Created Equal
Not only is the actual preparation of whole grains important to consider, but so is the format in which they are consumed. There is a big difference between whole grains and refined grain products. Unlike whole grains, refined grains only contain the starch-rich endosperm, while the nutrient-dense germ and bran are removed. Although this has its benefits, since the bran and germ are what contain many of the anti-nutrients, refined grains are often referred to as “empty” calories since they are devoid of their own nutrients and fiber, and are therefore quickly digested, can spike blood sugar, and leave you hungry shortly after eating them. Of course, these types of products can certainly be consumed from time to time, however, you want to be mindful of how much, how often, and the quality of what you are choosing.
For example, bread can be the staff of life, but when made with refined and bleached white flour and quick-rise yeast, it can be a sugar bomb sure to be poorly digested. On the contrary, opting for sourdough bread or sprouted grain bread, which has been naturally fermented and sprouted, ensures that the anti-nutrients have been treated and are therefore more easily digested and nutritious. Unfortunately, a lot of the confusion lies in the labeling and “buzzwords” used by manufacturers. A “whole grain bread” may be made of whole grains, but if the grains were not properly prepared (soaked, sprouted, or fermented) and the bread is loaded with stabilizers, preservatives, additives, and synthetic vitamins and minerals, it is a less than ideal choice.
Grains are Maximized by Fat
Another important point to consider is what we consumed our grains with. Because dietary fats have been wrongly vilified for years, we have been eating bread without butter and plain oatmeal in hopes of achieving optimal health but, the reality is, pairing fats with grains is actually an ideal way to maximize their health benefits. Fat-soluble vitamins A and D found in animal fats help us absorb the calcium, phosphorus, iron, and B vitamins present in grains and grain products, so it is actually in your best interest to spread butter on your bread and add cream to your oatmeal. Not to mention, including fats with grains will help to slow down the digestion of carbohydrates and sugars, and therefore inhibit the potential spike in blood sugar that they could trigger when consumed.
One Person’s Food is Another Person’s Poison
And finally, in addition to the grains themselves, it is important to consider the actual individual consuming them. Because we are all biochemically unique, with different backgrounds, and have grown up in different environments, we do not digest all foods the same way. For someone with impaired gut health, disrupted microbiome, yeast overgrowth, or an autoimmune condition, including grains in the diet can make a bad problem worse. In fact, it becomes a bit of a chicken and egg situation; not only can grains impair gut health, but for someone with impaired gut health grains can impair gut health even further. So although a bowl of oatmeal may be generally considered a healthy breakfast, for some, it can increase inflammation, impair gut health, and inhibit the absorption of other essential nutrients.
The Bottom Line
Grains can be included in a healthy diet, but the ability to do so is determined by their format, their preparation, and the individual who is consuming them. If you have sneaking suspicion grains may be causing you some issues and are unsure if you should be consuming them, the easiest thing to do is omit them from your diet for 14 to 30 days and note any changes or improvements you may feel. For individuals with impaired gut health or autoimmune conditions, this small dietary change can have a massive positive impact. And, for those who do consume grains, it is important that they are properly prepared (soaked, sprouted, or fermented), and are consumed in appropriate amounts. Whenever possible, soak whole grains before cooking them; opt for sourdough or sprouted grain bread; unbleached and stone-ground flours, and enjoy them with a lather of butter, slice of cheese, or drizzle of oil for optimal digestion and absorption.