Should I Eat Grains?

This is a common question. Another way to look at it is, “are grains evil?” Civilization has thrived on grains for thousands of years. So why all the problems with grains now?

Do grains have benefits? Absolutely. Some people flourish on grains. Rice is the main component of many Asian and Middle Eastern diets. Quinoa, rye, barley and oats are staples in many other countries. When prepared properly, they are good sources of vitamin B and minerals, and quinoa also has some essential fatty acids, such as Lysine. Whole grains are great forms of carbohydrates because the fiber in them causes the sugars to break down slowly, so they won’t spike your blood sugar levels creating a need for an insulin spike (which is a major cause for weight gain). While some people may thrive on a grain based diet, others do not. Since we have devastated our intestines with this non-nutritive fiber for so many years, you may need some healing before you can safely eat many grains. What’s important is recognizing how your body handles grains, and which grains work best for you. Another thing to keep in mind is the state of grains today, be sure you are eating whole grains, that are properly prepared.

I honestly feel the biggest problem with grains now is what is considered “grains”, and how often we eat them. You have heard we should eat “whole grains”. However, most people have no idea what a whole grain actually looks like. You know what a grain of rice looks like; an enclosed seed, that theoretically, if you planted it, it would grow into a plant. Imagine planting a slice of “whole wheat” bread; you know darn well nothing would grow from it. Oats, wheat, soybeans; when do you see these products in a whole state? You probably know that wheat looks sort of like a grain of rice, but did you know that is what oats look like too? We usually picture oats as flat, because we think “healthy” oats are rolled oats. Processed, pulverized grains are not whole grains.

How we eat our grains: highly processed. We eat them flattened, ground and milled. Even worse, they are heated, dried and extruded. Once the seed has been opened, the delicate oils inside are exposed to oxygen. Once they are exposed, the oil starts to become rancid. Many of the vitamins in grains are oil based, and are destroyed by oxygen. In order to get any benefit from the oil of the seed, it must be in it’s whole state. Otherwise, you basically get fiber, although we hear fiber is good, in this state it is basically undigestible and yields no nutrition.

How often we eat grains. Toast and microwave oatmeal for breakfast, sandwiches for lunch, rice and rolls at dinner, then baked goods for dessert. Our digestive system never gets a break. The constant barrage of non nutritive and undigestible fiber causes our bodies to work too hard to remove the offenders. This fiber can sit in our small intestines and ferment, or go to our large intestines and feed the bacteria that thrive on this type of fiber, which can cause gas and bloating. Like a conveyer belt that gets backed up with too much work and not enough workers, things usually go awry, and if we don’t listen to the warning signals, they just get worse.

The Dark Side of Fiber.  Fiber is good for our digestive systems, but how much and what kind makes a huge impact. Fiber comes from many vegetables, fruits and seeds, and many of us do not get enough of those.  If we can aim for 20-35 grams of fiber per day form these foods, we should have healthy stools if our digestive system is healthy.  However, there are fibers that are difficult-to-digest, including lactose, fructose, resistant starch (found in grains), and even sugar alcohols. If we have digestive issues such as small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) or irritable bowel disease (IBS) it can cause some negative effects. Our bodies do not digest fiber, the microbes in our intestines do. What is even more interesting is which bacteria eat the fiber, and what their waste product is. Without getting into too much detail, let me just say that the bacteria we feed with this type of fiber is the same one that emits methane gas as it’s byproduct. This is why you can feel that “bloat” during the day, or tend toward gassiness or burping.  Here is a good article about this connection.

White rice or brown rice? We hear brown rice is best because of the fiber, and that it is a whole grain. This may be true, but some people have so many problems digesting this fiber, that it is actually better for these people to eat white rice. This may sound confusing, but remember, as long as that grain is intact (not cut or ground), it still has its oils intact. When choosing between brown rice and a good organic white rice, think about whether your digestive tract can handle it.

Soak your grains. This may sound crazy, but most grains have traditionally been soaked overnight, and there is a reason for it. Grains contain a substance called phytic acids, or phytates that have hit the news lately as being “antinutrients”, because they bind to minerals and prevent them from being absorbed. However, the phytates in grains, nuts and seeds can be easily broken down by soaking. So if you can, please soak your grains, it will be beneficial for you to make the effort. Some “grains” such as quinoa and amaranth only need to be soaked for a short period of time, because they are actually more of a seed than a grain.

Monitor your body’s response. I would suggest that you first make sure you are eating properly prepared whole grains, then monitor your body’s response. If you feel gassy, bloated or need to burp a lot, I would reduce or eliminate grains from your diet for a while. Give your body a chance to catch up and rid itself of the backlog. Give it a rest for a couple weeks, then try again, adding only small amounts at a time, and monitor your response. If you react again, you may need a longer break. You also may need to do some healing of your digestive tract.

So, should I eat grains? Do you see why there is no easy answer to this question? Are grains evil or beneficial? It depends. Is fiber really “good for you”? I believe the health benefits of consuming large amounts of hard to digest fiber are overstated and need to be balanced with the risk of digestive problems that can be caused or exacerbated by excess fiber. From here it is up to you to listen to your body and find out what really works for you, and stop listening to all the “experts” on your body, when they know nothing about you. Take responsibility for the body you have been given.

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