We're in a low-carb diet era, which means many people are avoiding grains to lose weight. As well, a lot of new research is pointing to the health hindrances of gluten––a family of proteins found in wheat––namely that it causes inflammation. Many people assert that they're sensitive or intolerant to gluten, but in reality, studies suggest that only 0.5 - 6% of the global population is sensitive to gluten, and even fewer have a more severe gluten intolerance known as celiac disease (1).
But not all grains have gluten, and our bodies need the essential nutrients contained within grains for proper functioning and health. In this article, we'll clear up some misconceptions about grains, explore why we need grains, and share info on five of our favorite grains for nutritional value.
The #1 Reason Grains Are Good For You
Pushing grains off your plate may initially prompt weight loss, but in the meantime, your body is missing out on essential nutrients, for example, fiber. Fiber, also known as roughage, is the part of a carbohydrate that the body can't break down (sugar and starch make up the rest of a carbohydrate molecule). It moves through your digestive system whole and has a cleansing effect on the bowels, flushing out toxins, cholesterol, and relieving constipation.
There are two types of fiber: soluble and insoluble. Insoluble fiber, which cannot dissolve in water, helps prevent constipation and is found in many vegetables, like carrots, celery, and whole grains. In contrast, soluble fiber dissolves in water and helps to reduce cholesterol and maintain healthy blood sugar levels. It's found in beans, nuts, berries, and more.
The average American diet contains a lot of sugar, processed foods, meat, dairy, and white bread. None of these foods contain fiber, so most people aren';t getting enough and are thus missing out on vital nutrients.
Because fiber breaks down so slowly, it keeps blood sugar stable, which may help lower the risk of diabetes. Fiber also supports healthy digestion and elimination because it's a prebiotic. Prebiotics help feed and sustain the beneficial bacteria in the intestine, which outnumber human cells by about 10 to 1 (2)––and yes, that makes us more bacteria than human!
Before we get carried away (we could go on and on about fiber), let's make it relevant to what's sitting in your kitchen pantry right now. If you don't have any of the following grains, then take five minutes to read our five favorite grains for nutrition and flavor––guaranteed you'll want to add them to your shopping list!
What Grains Are Good For You? Our Top 5 Choices
Bulgur is one of those grains you don't hear mentioned very often, which is surprising, given that it has more protein and fiber than rice and loads more protein than quinoa––a far more popular grain in the West.
You might have heard of wheat berries or cracked wheat. While bulgur is similar to both grains, the difference is that bulgur is parboiled––semi-cooked and dried before packaging. Parboiling helps preserve bulgur and enables faster cooking, making bulgur an efficient go-to grain for busy weekday dinners.
One cup of cooked bulgur has 5.6 grams of protein, or 11% of the daily recommended intake. It also has 8.2 grams of fiber or 33% of what the average person needs in a day. That's a lot of fiber just from one meal! Besides its high nutritional value, bulgur tastes “like sunshine” according to bulgur blogger Ginger Kroeze of Kitchen Is My Therapy. (To learn everything there is to know about bulgur, check out her charming blog here).
One of the main things you';ve probably noticed about quinoa is that it's often mispronounced. Quinoa (keen-wah) is a protein-rich seed that is popular for it's low GI value. A GI score close to 100 is high, while close to 0 is low and far less risky for diabetes and people with high blood sugar. At 53, quinoa receives a “good” stamp of approval for stabilizing blood sugar.
By the way, did you notice we wrote seed and not grain above? That's right, quinoa is not actually a grain, but it so closely resembles one that most people assume it is. Quinoa is naturally gluten-free, making it a friendly grain alternative for people with celiac disease or sensitivity to gluten. Quinoa is also rich in magnesium, thiamine (vitamin B1), and folate.
But what makes quinoa such a happily-devoured grain in the world over is its protein profile. Quinoa contains all nine essential amino acids, making it a complete protein. It's light and fluffy, cooks up quickly, and tastes delightful sprinkled with fresh-squeezed lemon.
Amaranth is ancient! For nearly 8000 years, this earthy grain has been cultivated by Inca, Maya and Aztec civilizations. But amaranth isn't a grain all by itself. Rather, it's a classification of over 60 different types of grains. Like bulgur and quinoa, amaranth is an excellent plant-based protein source and contains loads of fiber. It's naturally gluten-free, rich in antioxidants, and has important micronutrients, most notably manganese, magnesium, phosphorus, and iron. These nutrients support neurological functioning and brain health, DNA synthesis, bone health, and blood health, respectively.
Amaranth may also help combat chronic inflammation––one of the body's protective responses associated with health conditions such as autoimmune disorders, diabetes, and cancer.
If you're wondering how to cook amaranth, sprout it first to increase its bioavailability. Soak it in water for 1-3 days, then cook it for about 20 minutes. It makes an excellent substitute for rice and pasta.
Here we have another imposter. Like quinoa, buckwheat is botanically a seed classified as a whole grain. It's also naturally gluten-free and an excellent source of resistant starch––a prebiotic.
Ever had buckwheat pancakes? While they're not as doughy and fluffy as wheat flour pancakes, they are certainly as satisfying, tasty, and a far better source of protein, fiber, and micronutrients.
Although buckwheat is high in carbs, it scores low-to-medium on the glycemic index. A 100-gram serving of buckwheat contains 13 grams of protein and 10 grams of fiber. It's also abundant in minerals, such as copper, manganese, iron, phosphorus, and magnesium, which the body absorbs more easily than minerals from other grains. Compared to wheat, rye, and oats, buckwheat is a better source of antioxidants too, which help slow or prevent cell damage.
Medium, dark, or pumpernickel––however you like rye, it's an excellent choice for the bread-lover who'd prefer to overdose on minerals than carbs. Rye is a member of the wheat family, and civilizations have consumed this grain for centuries.
With fiber as the highlight, rye shows up impressively. We get 22.6 grams of fiber in a 100-gram serving of rye flour. That's about 90% of the average adult's recommended daily intake. The same portion also contains 9 grams of protein and 15% of the daily recommended intake of iron. So, next time you're stuck in the bread aisle at your local supermarket forced to choose from the 1K varieties, go for the rye––but read this next bit first...
Rye is slightly higher on the GI than other grains, like quinoa, so diabetics should be very selective about the type of rye they consume. Experts recommend choosing a rye bread made with whole rye (many add refined rye to the flour), with at least 3 grams of fiber per slice (3).
Get A Better Grain
If you were thinking about minimizing all grains from your diet because you're trying to lose weight or manage blood sugar levels, hopefully this article provided some clarity. Like with anything we eat, moderation is key. The ideal diet contains a balance and diversity of nutrients, wholefoods, and unprocessed or minimally refined foods––grains included. Ones to limit include dehydrated or canned pastas, white rice, and bleached and refined white bread. There are far better options when it comes to getting grains into your diet, like the ones highlighted in this list. Many are gluten-free too! Look for high levels of fiber, protein, and micronutrients.
From our kitchen to yours, we wish you nutritious grainy pilafs and triple-stacked rye sandwiches all the week long with your family!