Shift 3: Go Easy on Grains
Grains are a dilemma. On one hand, unadulterated whole grains, like quinoa, buckwheat, amaranth and millet, are packed full of fiber, macronutrients, micronutrients and phytochemicals. Many studies connect the dots between a diet rich in whole grains and lower rates of obesity, diabetes and even some cancers. But conversely, an honest look at the average American’s grain consumption points to some troubling trends. Most of us eat grains — primarily wheat products — with every meal. And of the more than half-pound of grains we eat every day, less than 1 ounce comes from whole grains.
What Swift calls “nutritionally naked” grains — everything from bagels and cereals to pasta — dominate the American diet. Many experts acknowledge the need for a food shift around grains, especially the disproportionate role of wheat in our diet.
“As a country we are ‘over-wheated,’” says Reardon, who calls it the “crowding out theory.” “Every time you eat another wheat-flour product, it’s a missed opportunity to get a nonwheat grain, like quinoa or buckwheat or, better yet, vegetables, like kale and squash, into your diet,” she says. “It’s time to start thinking more about those near misses.”
The first step is to rightsize the role of grains in your diet, says Swift. “Legumes, vegetables, fruits, and nuts and seeds need to be the foundational elements in building a healthy diet, with whole grains taking a less prominent place at the table.”
The second step is to make the vast majority of grains you do eat whole grains — not just whole-grain flours. Abdulaziz Feeney notes that flour-based foods are more likely than intact grains to create many of the same health problems in the body as sugars do, including unwanted weight gain.
“People need to understand the difference between a whole grain and whole-grain flour,” she says. “If all you’re doing is switching from white-flour products to whole-grain breads, spelt pretzels and rice pasta, you’re missing the goodness that more-intact grains have to offer.”
So, should you avoid grains altogether? That’s a matter of a passionate debate.
Since grains are a relative newcomer to the human diet (arriving a mere 15,000 years ago after 2 million grain-free years), some experts argue that the body isn’t well designed to process them. As noted, eating large quantities of grain is widely considered a recipe for weight gain and inflammation. And with an estimated 30 to 40 percent of the U.S. population at least somewhat intolerant to the gluten present in many popular grains, there may be additional reason to avoid them.
That said, for those who tolerate them well, whole grains can be a good source of healthy carbs, antioxidants and fiber — especially for active people in need of a reliable energy supply.
Whether or not you decide to significantly scale back your grain intake, being selective about the grains you eat can help you accomplish a number of healthy goals:
Stabilize blood sugar. Remember that most flour-based products quickly turn to sugars in your body. On the other hand, most intact whole grains (grains that haven’t been turned into flour) are much slower to digest, and less likely to cause blood-sugar spikes and dips.
Look for whole-kernel grains like quinoa, amaranth, millet and brown rice. And keep in mind that most whole-grain flour has the same glycemic index as refined flour. The glycemic index (GI for short) of a food is based on how much the food raises blood-sugar levels compared with a standard carbohydrate (usually a marker based on white bread). You can reduce the glycemic impact of the grains you eat by mixing them with fats, proteins or high-fiber vegetables. For instance, a cup of white rice by itself is high on the glycemic index, but top it off with 1½ cups of stir-fried vegetables, some protein and fat, and the overall glycemic load of the meal drops dramatically.
Up your nutrient intake. Eating a variety of grains, rather than eating mostly wheat, gives you a much better range of nutrients. Barley, oats, buckwheat and quinoa are rich sources of both macro- and micronutrients. Most contain vitamin E, several B vitamins, calcium, magnesium, and trace minerals such as copper, zinc, iron and manganese. In addition, the soluble and insoluble fiber found in most whole grains, including oats and barley, can lower cholesterol, reduce inflammation and enhance digestion.
Balance your diet. Grains dominate so many foods (pastas, crackers, cereals and so on), they are easy to overeat. By downsizing your grain intake, you free up plate and stomach space for more variety. A daily serving or two of whole grains isn’t a bad thing, but don’t let them dominate your meals. “We are eating grains to the exclusion of plants,” says Reardon, who recommends nine to 13 servings of vegetables and fruits a day — almost impossible to pull off when grains are hogging all the room on your plate, and in your stomach.