Why Do We Need Grains?
Of all the food groups, grain and greens are two of the most essential ones for our health. Greens contain essential micronutrients that support immune function, healthy blood, energy production, and much more. Grains also contain those critical vitamins and minerals, as well as something most of us are missing a whole lot of in our diets––fiber.
In this guide we’re going to explore everything you need to know about grains and give you some useful extra tidbits of info to help you make good grain decisions. Take in this guide from start to finish, or cherry-pick your way through parts that incite your curiosity and are relevant to your life. It’s divided into the following sections. Simply click on the link and it will take you to the desired section.
A grain is a small, hard, dried seed. There are two categories: whole grains and refined grains. A whole grain retains each part of the kernel––the endosperm, the germ, and the bran. Examples are bulgur, oatmeal, whole cornmeal, and brown rice. In contrast, a refined grain has undergone a process called milling, which removes the germ and bran, and retains only the endosperm, the food storage part of the seed for the developing plant embryo.
Refined grains are finer in texture and have a longer shelf life than whole grains, but at the expense of less dietary fiber, iron, and many B vitamins. While many refined grains are enriched with these lost minerals, fiber is not included. White rice, white flour, white bread, and degermed cornmeal may deliver the same quantity of micronutrients, but they are missing the fibrous bulk that our bodies need for optimal functioning.
Fiber, sugar, and starch are plant-based nutrients that make up a carbohydrate. Of the three, fiber is the only nutrient that cannot be broken down into digestible molecules. For that reason, it moves through the digestive tract relatively intact, but that doesn’t mean it’s passive. It acts as roughage or bulk for sweeping out the intestine, promoting regularity, and keeping blood sugar levels in check.
There are two general types of fiber: Soluble, which dissolves in water, and insoluble, which does not. Soluble fiber helps maintain blood sugar levels. Good sources include peas, citrus fruits, blueberries, lentils, beans, oatmeal, apples, and barley. Insoluble fiber helps speed up the passage of food through the digestive tract and increases bulk in the intestine, easing and maintaining regular elimination. Good sources of insoluble fiber include wheat bran, brown rice, cucumbers, potatoes, and cauliflower. Some foods, like carrots and certain nuts, contain both types of fiber.
The dreaded “g-word” has become a household name. Many people are choosing a gluten-free diet in light of research that has revealed the adverse health consequences of gluten, namely, inflammation, abdominal pain, and digestive upset like bloating and constipation. Headaches, fatigue, skin issues, and depression are also suspected signs of gluten intolerance or sensitivity.
What is gluten exactly? Gluten is a family of proteins found in wheat, spelt, rye, and barley. The two main proteins, gliadin and glutenin, bind into a glue-like consistency when water is added to flour. That elastic, sticky stuff is what makes breads and doughs so deliciously chewy––addictively so in many cases––but it’s also often the cause of gastrointestinal trouble.
By far, wheat is the more commonly consumed grain, so most people become aware that they’re sensitive to gluten through their interactions with stacks of pancakes and piles of spaghetti carbonara––or simply good old fashioned toast and jam.
Some experts believe that food and environmental changes are responsible for the increase in gluten sensitivity, such as new wheat varieties with more gluten, and a rise in the consumption of wheat over the past several decades.
Experts recommend approximately 0.8 grams of protein per kilo of body weight, more or less, depending on lifestyle. So a woman weighing in at 60 kg will require about 48 grams of protein daily. How does that translate to your plate? One boiled egg has about 13 grams of protein; 100 grams of chia seeds has 17 grams, and a 250-gram steak has about 62 grams of protein.
When you reach the section on specific grains, you may be surprised to discover that grains contain quite a bit of protein. While a serving of oats may not meet your daily requirement as well as a steak can, for example, it can certainly give your meal an extra protein boost. Concerns about protein intake, however, weigh a bit more heavily with vegans. Most of the meat-eating population exceeds their daily protein requirement with little effort.
Fiber, on the other hand, doesn’t have the same status on our dinner plate. The average adult needs about 25 to 30 grams of dietary fiber, but most of us only get about half that each day. When you look at the following nutritional breakdown of different grains, you’ll notice big discrepancies between each one’s fiber content. For example, freekah and couscous, both wheat derivatives, contain far less fiber than buckwheat or steel cut oats. So, it’s not enough to get more grains to increase our fiber intake. We need more of the right grains for a noticeable impact––your bowels will let you know!
Grains contain micronutrients, the minerals and trace elements the body requires for proper functioning. Sodium, potassium, chloride, magnesium, calcium, and phosphorus are minerals, and our bodies need a minimum of 100 mg daily. We need less than 100 mg a day of trace elements, such as selenium, zinc, iron, copper, manganese.
Most grains are high in both manganese and potassium. Manganese is a trace element required for healthy brain and nervous system functioning. It also activates enzymes in metabolism and supports the body use of protein and amino acids. Potassium is a mineral and key electrolyte. It regulates fluid balance, nerve signals, and muscle contractions. Getting enough potassium in our diet is critical for healthy blood pressure levels and preventing or reducing water retention.
Change your life?––sounds a bit dramatic! But here’s the thing––when your body gets optimal nutrition (read: beyond basic), it rewards you in kind. Optimal nutrition demands diversity, purity, and a connection with food. We’ll dig into these top grains in a moment, but first, let’s consider what diversity, purity, and connection actually mean as they concern our food. Then we’ll take a quick look at the GI, or glycemic index, and what that’s all about.
Diversity relates to the range of foods we put on our plates every day, week to week. You can eat the most densely nutritious food chock full of health benefits, but if you make it a daily habit for months upon months, positive effect is reduced. Variety is the spice of life, in nearly every facet of experience, but most definitely as it concerns what we eat because our relationship with food is a daily commitment; don’t hand it over to monotony and boredom.
Purity has to do with the naturalness of your food. Is it wholesome? Check the ingredients on each item. Is it a long list with several obscure ingredients? If so, it probably contains additives to enhance color, texture, or shelf life. You may have noticed that a tree of broccoli does not come with a list of ingredients! But let’s look specifically at grains. Many commercial varieties of quick-cook oat packages have labels reading “real fruit” which isn’t much more than a clever marketing ploy to denote that your breakfast cereal is sugared-up to keep you happy, hooked, and misled. While those oats may indeed be whole grains, the nutrition quotient is somewhat offset by the addition of refined sugar.
Connection with your food is a slightly more abstract feature of optimal nutrition. Food is energy. Our bodies are energy. And the food we eat literally becomes our body’s substance. When we prepare our meals in a stressed-out or angry state, eat when we’re upset, or interact with our food with little regard to where it comes from, how it tastes, smells, and feels, there are consequences. In contrast, awareness, mindfulness, and calm while we cook and eat enhance how our bodies use that food. Surely you’ve had an instance in which you ate while angry or stressed-out and suffered the digestive discomforts for it. Selecting, preparing, and cooking our food mindfully, with presence and awareness, can foster a more positive connection between our bodies and what we’re putting in our mouths.
Glycemic index (GI) is a measure of the impact of a carbohydrate on blood sugar levels. Foods with a low glycemic index are absorbed and metabolized slowly, causing a gradual and lower rise in blood glucose than foods with a higher GI. A GI of 55 or less is considered low, but nutritionists suggest that 45 is a healthier cut-off score. A 56-69 GI is considered mid, and anything above 70 is high.
We included 3 main nutrient considerations for each grain in the following list. Protein––to support greater consumption of plant-based sources of this macronutrient over animal-based sources. Fiber––because the average person just doesn’t consume enough in their daily diet. And GI––so you can make a more informed choice regarding grain selection if diabetes or high blood sugar is a health risk for you.
Characteristics: Nutty, chewy, slightly dense
Uses: Salads, pilafs, soups, casseroles, porridges, stuffings
Bulgur is like the forgotten grain. Considered one of the five sacred crops, this ancient grain has a pleasing texture, taste, and it’s easy to prepare. It undergoes parboiling before packing, which activates key nutrients and shortens cooking time. It’s loaded with essential minerals, including iron, magnesium, manganese, and 124 mg of potassium. Bulgur is sold in coarse, medium, fine, and extra-fine grinds.
Bulgur Nutritional Facts, based on a 1-cup serving:
Protein: 5.6 gr
Fiber: 8.2 gr
GI: 48 (low)
Characteristics: Slightly chewy, light in weight and flavor
Uses: Salads, pilafs, soups, casseroles, porridges, stuffings
Quinoa, originally from the Peruvian Andes, has taken the gluten-free world by storm (see an article by the Washington Post in our resources section to learn about quinoa’s political status). Botanically a seed, quinoa is light, fluffy, and somewhat flavorless without a little zest added to it. It’s popular in gluten-free, health-conscious communities because it’s nutrient-packed but as satisfying as a heap of rice or plate of pasta without the ensuing bloat belly. It’s available in white, red, and black varieties. White quinoa has a lighter texture than red or black, and is quicker to cook. Red and black have a slightly earthy flavor and are chewier than white quinoa. Sprinkle some fresh-squeezed lemon juice over freshly cooked quinoa for delightful flavor enhancement.
Quinoa Nutritional Info, based on a 1-cup serving:
Protein: 8 gr
Fiber: 5.3 gr
GI: 53 (low)
Characteristics: Sweet nutty flavor and slightly crunchy texture.
Uses: Cook whole as a rice substitute, or ground into flour as a wheat flour alternative for unleavened breads.
Like quinoa, amaranth is also a seed. It’s pseudonym pigweed makes it sound much less appetizing than it actually is. Once a staple crop, it’s now available in about 60 varieties––far too many to recognize here! The tiny yellow seeds resemble sesame seeds, and their flavor is sweet, nutty, and slightly crunchy. Amaranth contains lysine, an essential amino acid that is missing in all other grains. It’s also an excellent source of potassium, vitamin B6, folate, calcium, copper, selenium, and zinc. Given its high GI, amaranth is not a suitable grain for people with high-blood sugar or diabetes.
Amaranth Nutritional Info, based on a 1-cup serving:
Protein: 9.3 gr
Fiber: 5.2 gr
Characteristics: Slightly earthy, nutty, and bitter in flavor
Uses: Raw whole groats in granola, cookies, cakes, crackers, yogurt, and soups, sprouted for use in salads, or milled into flour
This full-flavor grain is suitable for gluten-free diets, and its taste can be tamed through roasting. It’s unique among grains because it doesn’t require fertilizers, herbicides, or insecticides, and it grows well in poor soil, making it an organic and ecological choice of grain. Buckwheat has a few varieties. Groats are the plant’s hulled seeds. Once roasted, they’re called kasha. Both are sold in various grinds, from coarse to fine. Buckwheat flour comes in light or dark varieties, depending on how much hull is included in the milling process. This nutrient powerhouse is high in copper, riboflavin, zinc, and iron.
Amaranth Nutritional Info, based on a 1-cup serving:
Protein: 22.6 gr
Fiber: 17 gr
GI: 55 (low-mid)
Characteristics: Slightly chewy with an earthy flavor, dense in weight
Uses: Porridge, meatloaf, stuffing
Before the oat came the groat––the whole, unbroken grain. Also known as Irish or Scottish oats, steel cut oats are coarser than flattened, rolled oats. The kernel of the oat is cut into two or three pieces, using a steel blade, which is where they get their name from. Because this process causes minimal interference compared to that of rolled oats, steel cut oats retain more fiber and density than their counterparts, making them more satiating. They take longer to cook and may require some soaking beforehand. Steel cut oats are a great source of magnesium, phosphorus, and thiamin (vitamin B1).
Steel Cut Oats Nutritional Info, based on a 1-cup serving:
Protein: 20 gr
Fiber: 16 gr
GI: 57 (mid)
Characteristics: Mild, slightly sweet and nutty flavor with a fluffy texture
Uses: As a rice substitute, fermented, or as a flour
This small, round, whole cereal grain is widely consumed in developing areas like Asia and Africa, but its nutrient profile is increasing its popularity in the West. Most notably, it’s gluten-free and high in protein. Somewhat confusingly, millet is categorized in two ways: minor and major, and both have several varieties. Pearl millet is the most popularly consumed of the major millets, while finger millet, another major, is higher in calcium than other cereal grains. This gluten-free grain is also a great source of antioxidants, though not as blood-sugar friendly as other grains, wavering somewhere in the medium GI range. A drawback to the nutritional benefits of millet is that it contains a compound called phytic acid, which prevents the absorption of some minerals. However, soaking the grains can significantly offset that. Fermented millet makes an excellent natural probiotic.
Millet Nutritional Info, based on a 1-cup serving:
Protein: 6.1 gr
Fiber: 2.3 gr
GI: 54-68 (mid)
Characteristics: Slightly chewy, springy texture and nutty flavor
Uses: Salads, stews, pilafs, tagine (oh my!)
Couscous is a lot like quinoa, except it’s made from semolina, a granule of durum wheat, so it contains gluten. It’s a popular grain in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine, and a quick alternative to rice and quinoa. Couscous has a few different varieties: Moroccan, Israeli, whole wheat, and Lebanese. While each one is slightly different, they all feature a somewhat springy texture that’s both tender and chewy, making it a pleasing garnish for vegetable salads, or a base for more robust pilafs. It’s high in selenium, a powerful antioxidant and vital element for immune health, fertility, and cognitive function.
Couscous Nutritional Info, based on a 1-cup serving:
Protein: 6 gr
Fiber: 2.2 gr
GI: 65 (mid)
Characteristics: Nutty, earthy, slightly smoky flavor and chewy texture
Uses: Soups, stews, salads, pilafs, stuffings, and risotto
If you’re bored with the usual quinoa or brown rice, another ancient elder shows up on the grain stage here, with a delightful chew straight from the Middle East. Made from durum wheat like couscous, freekah is similar to bulgur in texture and flavor, but it has an even lower GI. Because it’s harvested as a young grain, it retains more of its original nutrients. It’s high in protein and fiber and it’s super versatile, making it a great addition to a variety of meals, including casseroles and stuffings. The bonus on top of the bonus? A pot of freekah cooks up in less than 30 minutes.
Nutritional Facts, based on a 3/4-cup serving:
Protein: 7 gr
Fiber: 8 gr
GI: 43 (low)
Grains Are The Good Guys
In this low-carb era, many people are pushing grains off their plate and, as a consequence, missing out on vital nutrients. Grains give us a little bit of everything, except high doses of dietary fat, and what’s more––they’re satisfying. Whether you stick to a gluten-free diet or want to increase your fiber intake, there are a variety of grains to meet your needs.
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