Settling the great grain debate.
Can wheat and other grains fit into a healthy — and sane — diet?
By Brian St. Pierre
Are grains saving your life — or trying to kill you? In this article, we’ll discuss both sides of the debate. We’ll also leave you with some actionable steps to start eating better immediately.
Quick: How do you feel about grains?
Are they an essential food group that makes up the foundation of a nutritious diet?
Or are they evil little packages of carbs and toxins out to make you fat and inflamed, and slowly kill you?
This discussion is one of the great nutrition debates of our time.
In one camp are vegans, vegetarians, and macrobiotic dieters, who eat a ton of whole grains. They say grains will help them live longer and healthier, free of chronic disease. Indeed, recent news seized on a Harvard study connecting grains with lower risk of death.
In the opposing camp, you’ve got the Paleo, Whole30, and Atkins advocates, who strictly limit or even completely avoid grains. They say not eating grains will help them live longer and healthier, free of chronic disease. They dominate plenty of news, too.
Celiac disease has gone up over the last 60 years, which has given rise to a gluten-fearing food subculture (and the booming gluten-free marketplace to match). Tens of millions of North Americans now conduct grain-free experiments on themselves and read bestsellers like Wheat Belly.
As a result, many people now say they feel better when they limit or cut out one or more grains.
And, most importantly, should you eat grains?
Let’s iron it out once and for all.
An old staple
Grains, the seeds of grasses, are an ancient food source that is still the main source of calories for people all over the world.
Along with the familiar wheat, rice, oats, corn, barley, buckwheat and rye, there are lots of lesser-known grains such as triticale, quinoa, teff, amaranth, sorghum, millet, spelt, and kamut.
The raging debate about grains can make it seem like they’re a relatively new addition to the human diet, but we’ve actually been consuming them in some shape or fashion for millions of years (yes, the real Paleos ate grains, too). Learning to cultivate wheat helped us give up the nomad life and create civilization as we know it today.
Grains provide a wide array of nutrients, including vitamins, minerals, fiber, and phytonutrients.
Of course, when it comes to grains’ nutrients, we’re talking about whole grains. As in the whole seed.
Here’s what we know about the benefits of whole grains. They are:
- high in fiber, a nutrient that can help you maintain a healthy GI tract.
- slow to digest, which helps keep blood sugar under control.
- packed with vitamins and minerals.
- satisfying, which helps keep your appetite in check.
And there may be more specific benefits.
Overall, research shows that whole grains, with varying degrees of success, seem to decrease the risk of colorectal cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes. They also seem to improve blood sugar control and insulin sensitivity, and protect against high blood pressure.
OK, fine. But are grains crucial to health?
Do you need to eat grains?
No. You don’t need to eat any one particular food — be it grains, apples, kale, or fish.
But you need carbs. The amount of carbs you need depends on your activity level.
If you exercise fairly frequently, then you’ll likely do best with a moderate carb intake. Not getting enough could mess with your metabolism, stress hormones, and muscle-building hormones.
If you’re sedentary, have blood sugar issues, and/or need to lose a bunch of weight, then you’ll likely do best with a lower carb intake.
You could replace whole grains with a variety of other high-quality carbs, like potatoes, sweet potatoes, fruit, legumes, squash, yuca, and yams. You’d be able to get all the carbs you need, in addition to plenty of fiber and a wide array of beneficial phytonutrients.
But trying to eliminate grains entirely is going to be difficult in even the best of circumstances.
In a life that involves family holidays, birthday parties, work functions — any instance where others are preparing the food — completely cutting out grains if you’re not suffering from celiac or a sensitivity becomes way, way more trouble than it’s worth.
Getting perspective on where grains fit
Often when we talk about food, we talk about the awesome things food X does. Or the terrible things food Y does.
In reality, foods are often a mixture of both good and bad outcomes, depending on what the diet as a whole looks like, the amount of food X or food Y being eaten, and the person who’s eating them.
The position that all grains are unhealthy and should be categorically avoided is too extreme.
So is the notion that grains are inherent “superfoods” that everyone should consume in massive quantities.
Neither end of the spectrum is right.
Most people can be fit and healthy with a mixed carb intake that includes some whole grains (a few refined carbs can be OK, too).
Weigh the benefits against the risks.
Might wheat carry some low-level of risk for some people? Possibly.
Is it likely that the benefits of whole-grain wheat still outweigh this risk? Yes. The same is true for most whole grains — and whole foods — in general.
In the end the best thing to do is:
- objectively evaluate the research
- review the differing opinions of qualified experts with an open yet skeptical mind
- test to find what works best for YOU
- know that what’s best for you may change over time
Read the full article HERE.
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