whole grain cereal boxes on supermarket shelf

Are Whole Grains Good or Bad For You?

[toc]Is a grain-free diet good for you? Do they cause inflammation in the body?

From paleo, to promoters of more obscure diets, everyone these days seems to be ganging up on grains.

The arguments against them can sound logical, until you realize the house of cards they’re built on…

The definition of a grain. It’s not a scientific or botanical term.

What are grains?

Whether it’s Wikipedia, Merriam-Webster, Oxford English, or another dictionary of your choosing, you will discover how vague the definition truly is.

When related to food, Merriam-Webster defines grains as:

  1. (a) a single small, hard seed, or (b) a seed or fruit of a cereal grass
  2. the seeds or fruits of various food plants including the cereal grasses and in commercial and statutory usage other plants (such as the soybean)
  3. plants producing grain

Countless plants produce “a small, hard seed” beyond wheat, rice, etc.

It is true that those plants, along with soy, corn (maize) and others are called grains in commercial trade.

However, the legal trade definition of a “cereal grain” means it’s a member of the grass family, Poaceae. Soy is in the bean family, Fabaceae.

gluten free buckwheat noodles with vegan pesto sauceThe grass family also excludes amaranth, buckwheat, and quinoa, even though they produce a “small, hard seed” of comparable size and nutrition.

Before you argue that buckwheat is the seed of a fruit related to rhubarb, and that corn is a vegetable, know that a vegetable doesn’t have an official definition, either. It’s merely a culinary term.

Oh and botanically speaking, corn is a fruit, too!

In botany, a fruit is the seed-bearing structure of a flowering plant.

If you base your definition of a grain on gluten, that only covers wheat, rye, barley, and triticale. Rice, corn, sorghum, millet and many others are all gluten free.

And why do paleo food lists chastise those grains but permit sesame, chia, and flax? Are those not “small, hard seeds” too?

The typical serving size for those – just a spoon or two – seems to be the only logical reason why those are allowed in the paleo diet, while certain grains with comparable nutrition are not… because we associate them with larger serving sizes and refined flours.

Since there’s no neat category which captures what we typically think of as grains, some people turn to alternate characteristics, in an attempt to lump them together.

So-called anti-nutrients like phytic acid and lectins fall flat on their face though, because these too are shared by typical grains and non-grains alike.

In fact, all foods – both plant and animal-based – contain lectins.

What it boils down to is this…

Forget the grain label.

Instead, focus on the specific characteristics you are trying to avoid, rather than avoid the whole category of what people consider to be grains.

They differ so much that, regardless of your dietary goals, chances are that at least some will work for you.

Whole vs. refined?

diagram of parts retained in whole wheat and similar cereal grains
Diagram by Jkwchui via Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0]
The difference between a whole grain and refined grain are the parts retained. With whole wheat and other whole grains, the endosperm, germ, and bran are kept. With refined, such as white flour, only the endosperm is used. This results in a lower amount of nutrients and a higher glycemic impact.

Grains to avoid?

For the sake of understanding what the beef is all about, let’s make sure we are all talking about the same thing, since there’s no clear definition.

What can you eat on a grain free diet?

According to most definitions, a grain-free diet means avoiding wheat, rice, corn, oats, barley, rye, sorghum, and millet.

Bulgur, einkorn, spelt, emmer, and farro are all types of wheat, which means they’re banned on a grain-free diet.

Certain pseudo-grains, or seeds not always thought of as grain, are allowed according to some grain-free diets. These may include quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat, teff, and wild rice (which botanically, is not a rice). The strictest definitions of the diet will prohibit these, too.

Why should we avoid grains?

The reasons people say grains are bad for you can be summed as:

1. They’re too high in carbs

Many of today’s popular weight loss diets focus on high protein content. The idea that protein = muscle only further reinforces that mindset.

Ironically though, many on the Western diet today eat too much protein and the excess is linked to osteoporosis, kidney disease, and even some cancers. (1)

As with protein, it is also true that too many carbs are bad for you. They spike your blood sugar and when they’re not whole grain, the energy boost you get is short-lived… which can result in more eating.

However, we still need carbs. Along with protein and fats, carbs are one of the three essential macronutrients. Their weighting in the human diet is even higher than those other two.

The USDA’s dietary guidelines advise 45% to 65% of daily calories consumed should be in the form of carbs. (2)

You can disagree with the USDA’s percentage. In fact, there’s a lot they say to disagree with.

Yet still, even if you think it’s only half that amount – say 22.5% to 32.5% – that still is around 500 calories per day coming from carbs alone.

A study was published titled: Evidence-based recommendations for natural bodybuilding contest preparation: nutrition and supplementation. After reviewing 216 related studies and pieces of medical research, their conclusion stated:

“While it appears low carbohydrate, high protein diets can be effective for weight loss, a practical carbohydrate threshold appears to exist where further reductions negatively impact performance and put one at risk for lean body mass losses.”

In short, to perform and look the best possible, you actually need adequate carb intake. Whole grains are a good source for those. You just need to eat them in moderation. (3)

2. They’re low in protein

Eating less meat and more whole grains isn’t such a bad idea.

Based on data from the diets of over 10,000 Americans, nutritionists at the Military Nutrition Division of the US Army reported that many of us should “reduce overall intake of protein foods” and those overdoing them the most were “especially teenage boys and adult men” (4) (5)

The refined forms of grains are low – perhaps 1 or 2g or protein per 100 calories. The whole grain forms can be much higher.

Ezekiel bread at grocery storeThe brand Ezekiel bread is made using various sprouted grains such as organic wheat, barley, millet, and more. Each slice is only 80 calories and 20% of those are in the form of protein (4g). Unlike meat which offers zero fiber, the bread has 11% of the daily value and is cholesterol free.

Ezekiel aside, according to the USDA National Nutrient Database, even your average multi-grain bread slice offers comparable amounts of protein and fiber per calorie. (6)

While it’s true that brown rice has less protein than quinoa, it still has an excellent and complete amino acid profile.

In fact, compare amino acid profiles of brown rice vs. whey and you will see that on a per gram basis, the protein in brown rice actually beats whey for 2 out of the 3 BCAAs.

It’s the refined forms that are low protein. Many whole grains have around 20% of their calories coming from protein.

3. They spike your blood sugar

diabetic man pricking finger for blood glucose testIf you were asked to name carb-rich foods, which would come to mind?

You probably would say bread, pasta, pizza, cereal, baked goods, and so forth.

Typically, those are all made with refined flours and served in big portions. Absolutely that combo is bad for you. Even more so for diabetics.

How much – or how little – grains affect your blood glucose levels has to do with (a) whether they’re refined or not, (b) serving size, and (c) how they’re cooked.

A 5 oz. serving of white rice boiled for 13 minutes has a glycemic index (GI) of 89. (7)

For comparison, 12.5 teaspoons of pure white table sugar has a GI of 84. Yes, even white sugar ranks better for blood sugar than white rice! (8)

A 5 oz. serving of steamed brown rice only has a GI of 50. That qualifies as a low GI food. (9)

Eating whole and less refined grains in moderate portion sizes will have a minimal impact on blood sugar.

When people say “avoid carbs” or “avoid grains” they often have in mind the bad stuff, like plates of pasta, baguette sandwiches, and tortilla chips. Those, as well as most forms in the modern diet, are unhealthy to eat on a regular basis. But don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

4. Many grain-based foods contain gluten

Setting aside celiac disease and true gluten intolerance and allergies, now is not the time to argue for or against gluten. You can’t cover that in a paragraph or two.

Without taking sides, let’s say you want to avoid gluten.

Even with grains, that’s no problem.

The grains that contain gluten are:

  • wheat, which contains gliadin
  • barley, which contains hordein
  • rye, which contains secalin
  • triticale, which contain gliadin and secalin
  • oats, which contain avenin*

*Some argue the avenin in oats is molecularly similar and therefore counts as gluten, but that too is a debate for another time.

There are many gluten free grains and pseudo grains; corn, rice, millet, sorghum, amaranth, buckwheat, quinoa, kaniwa, teff, and Indian rice grass.

Of course, the average bread and pasta will be made using wheat, but there are plenty of whole grain and gluten free alternatives available. Consider these high protein gluten free pasta brands.

5. Grains are empty calories with little nutrition

bowl of fresh breadThis is true in many ways.

White bread, durum semolina wheat pasta, yellow corn and wheat tortillas provide you with some dietary fiber, iron, magnesium, vitamin B6, and protein. Yet the amounts fall far short of superfood status. However, many grains have impressive amounts of antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals.

ORAC values are the best in vitro (lab) measurement for antioxidant activity. Based on 100g portions, here’s how some grains rank alongside other superfoods:

  • 30 – salmon, raw
  • 1,770 – green kale, raw
  • 2,125 – black/purple rice, uncooked
  • 2,828 – Gala apples with skin
  • 3,200 – white quinoa, uncooked
  • 3,598 – red rice, uncooked
  • 4,669 – blueberries, raw
  • 4,800 – black quinoa, uncooked
  • 10,800 – purple corn, raw

You can see how many grains rank alongside or even greatly exceed many non-grains typically viewed as superfoods.

The varieties of grains that come in blues, purples, reds, and blacks have antioxidant content that exceeds most of the common fresh fruits and vegetables.

The bad news is they tend to cost more and for that reason, restaurants aren’t really using them much. Fortunately, things like quinoa are easy to cook at home. On Amazon, you can get black quinoa for a good deal.

6. They’re genetically modified

Did you know that the most popular grain, wheat, is actually 100% non-GMO?

That’s right. Genetically modified wheat has not been approved anywhere. So even when you buy non-organic wheat, it’s still non-GMO. (10)

While genetically modified rice has been approved in the US and some other countries, it still hasn’t been commercialized on a major scale. The reasons are two fold; it’s a hardy plant to begin with and much is grown overseas by farmers who aren’t interested in being bullied by Monsanto. (11)

It is true that most corn is GMO and finding fresh that’s organic (and therefore non-GMO) can be tough. Though when it comes to shelf-stable flours and foods made from them, even the average grocery store these days carries organic versions.

All wheat is non-GMO and so is most rice. Other grains will be non-GMO too if you buy organic.

7. They’re loaded with anti-nutrients

Finally, when folks can’t make a persuasive case against grains based on nutrition and other facts, they turn to more vague reasons – like anti-nutrients.

The definition, which also varies by source, typically means compounds that interfere with the absorption of nutrients.

Anti-nutrients may include phytic acid, gluten, tannins, trypsin inhibitors, oxalates, lectins, saponins, chaconine, and solanine.

Some are totally unrelated to grains, like the last two which are only in nightshade vegetables.

For those that are related, often the bark is worse than the bite. Some are even based on myths or outdated science.

For example, many online sources report that oatmeal and oats will inhibit the absorption of calcium, magnesium, iron, copper, and zinc due to the phytic acid.

Oats have 2 to 7 mg of phytic acid per gram. In studies where 4 mg of phytic acid is in the grain, absorption of these minerals may average 20-30%. When 100% of the phytic acid is removed, it’s still only 25-40%. For some of minerals, like copper, the absorption doesn’t change whatsoever. (12) (13)

In short, phytic acid may decrease some mineral absorption, but consider the higher mineral content oats have versus many other foods.

Saponins do cause the potential side effects of quinoa, like stomach ache, but rinsing before boiling virtually eliminates the saponins.

The hottest anti-nutrient topic today is lectins. You see clickbait ads for that “one food you must avoid” which turn into a sales pitch for protective supplements (or a book, trying to sell the same).

Because vegetables and some grains were among the first foods to have lectins identified in them, they seem to get all the blame.

A certain doctor seems to emphasize those early findings, while not focusing enough on the latest science which is the fact that all foods have lectins.

Furthermore, other foods have lectins which are biologically active in even more ways…

lectin familes

Lectins found in plants cover 4 categories, while vertebrates – which are the meats you eat – have up to 8 categories of lectins!

As you see, lectin foods aren’t exactly what the scaremongers are leading you to believe.

Most anti-nutrient arguments don’t hold up to the science and when they do, you often discover they’re not unique to grains.

The verdict

While the nutritional profiles and glycemic indexes of refined flours can be unhealthy, whole grains are good for you. In moderation, they don’t provide too many carbs and their content of protein and antioxidants is underappreciated. Myths and misunderstandings are responsible for much of the negativity about grains.

If you have certain requirements, like only eating gluten free or non-GMO, you don’t need to go on a grain-free diet to achieve that. You just need to be more selective.

While you’re less likely to encounter them eating out, consider substituting your regular grains with supergrains. Here are some you can pick up on Amazon…

For colored corn, get Bob’s Red Mill blue cornmeal.

For red rice, get the organic 6-pack by Lotus foods.

For black quinoa, which is very high in antioxidants, it’s nearly impossible to find at stores. The major brands don’t sell it, other than as a mixture with the white. Check out the brand QA Quinoa. It’s pre-washed and 20% of the company’s profits go to children in developing Bolivia, which is where it’s grown. You can buy their organic black quinoa in a bulk bag on Amazon.