Are whole grains healthy? This is a question we get asked a lot, presumably because whole grains fit snugly into the carbohydrate category and carbohydrates in general are a very misunderstood bunch. In fact, of all the three macronutrients (which include fats, proteins and carbohydrates) carbohydrates are the most unfairly maligned of all. Unfortunately, the truth about carbohydrates has been trapped in a labyrinth of erroneous misinformation for decades.
By the way, if you have our Clean Cuisine book, now would be a good time to read chapter 4 titled “Clean Carbs”, which is where you will find the scoop on carbohydrates as they pertain to health and weight management plus how to choose the cleanest, best carbs. Chapter 4 is long (it is 46 pages!) but we promise it will give you a very good understanding of carbohydrates.
But for now, let’s get back to whole grains…
Are Whole Grains Inflammatory? Are Whole Grains Healthy?
The short answer to whether whole grains are inflammatory is NO. And yes, they are healthy if they are eaten in their true whole and unrefined form, such as a bowl of brown rice or steel cut oats. Processed foods that are “made with whole grains” such as a whole wheat bread that might have a wee-bitty bit of whole wheat flour but also has about 20 other additives, processed oils and sugars is not healthy and is not at all what we are endorsing.
However, we acknowledge whole grains are a bit complicated these days and so we have put together a complete article discussing whole grains and their role in the inflammatory process in more detail (with references to mainstream medical journals) HERE.
We specifically address the concerns / rumors circulating about whether or not whole grains exacerbate the symptoms of inflammatory conditions, whether they contribute to obesity and whether they are helpful or harmful for gut health.
More is Hardly Ever Better, But Abstinence Is Not Necessary (Nor Optimal)
One of the biggest problems surrounding whole grains is the amount of whole grains eaten. We have found people typically approach whole grains with either a “more is better” mantra or complete abstinence, neither of which we support.
On one side of the table you have people who are jumping up and down about how we need to eat more whole grains; 6 to 12 servings a day! At the other side of the table we are told by Paleo enthusiasts that whole grains were not part of the human diet until as recently as 10,000 years ago, when agriculture was developed; this is the bunch at the table who like to say that because our early ancestors did not eat whole grains, we are not genetically designed to eat them and shouldn’t eat them either.
Uggghh. Confusion! If we were sitting at such a table here’s what we would have to contribute to the whole grain debate…
First, the average noncompetitive athlete living a moderately active lifestyle does NOT need to eat 6 to 12 servings of whole grains a day. If you ate this many whole grains you’d be getting anywhere between 600 and 1,200 calories a day and you would be pretty darn full and therefore have a hard time finding room for all the other healthful foods you should be eating.
NOTE: If you are a growing teenage boy who happens to also be a competitive athlete or a well-muscled competitive adult athlete, you might do just fine eating 6 to 12 servings of whole grains each day simply because your calorie needs are far greater than those of the average person.
If you are an average person who exercises moderately (anywhere from 2 to 5 hours a week), eating massive quantities of whole grains can actually shortchange you in the nutrition department because you’ll quickly meet your calorie needs but not have room left over for more nutrient-dense fruits and veggies. Although whole grains are absolutely healthful and have plenty of nutrients, calorie for calorie they are not nearly as nutrient-dense as vegetables (including starchy vegetables), fruits, and beans so you shouldn’t fill up so much on whole grains that you don’t have room left for other “super whole carbs” (we talk more about these in chapter 4 of the Clean Cuisine book.)
As for the Fred Flintstone–era grain-free, semi-Atkins caveman (or Paleolithic) diet, we don’t exactly consider early humans to have had the highest quality of lives; they certainly didn’t have a long life span! The reason early humans supposedly did not suffer from the degenerative diseases we acquire today (heart disease, arthritis, cancer, and so on) is mostly because they died so young. The Paleolithic diet was lacking in anti-aging phytonutrients because it did not contain enough fruits and vegetables. It was also a diet way too rich in animal protein. It is also interesting to note our ancestors were a lot shorter than we are today too. And besides, whether early humans ate grains is irrelevant because our goal in Clean Cuisine is not to go back to the good old days of living without modern conveniences. And how can we even be sure of exactly what our ancestors ate anyway? While they might not have eaten whole grains, we really don’t know exactly what their diet really looked like. Did they keep accurate “diet journals” dating back 2.6 million to 10,000 years ago? Doubtful. In addition, the animal foods our ancestors ate were distinctly different from the animals we eat today; their meat did not come from animals raised in feedlots and fed cheap and inferior foods; instead, they hunted animals that grazed on pasture and had significantly more omega-3 fat intake than the animals we eat today.
Anyway, instead of wasting time debating the Paleolithic diet, what we should try to do instead is move forward and learn how to optimize our health in today’s world. We should also analyze modern, well-documented nutrition studies that look closely at whole grain consumption and human health. When we look in the nutritional medical literature we find studies on real humans (not rats, not chimpanzees, not dogs, not cats) documenting that people who eat whole grains as part of their diet are healthier and slimmer than those who don’t. Cohort studies have also linked a diet rich in whole grains to a reduced risk of heart disease and diabetes and to the prevention of constipation and other digestive problems.
So in today’s world, a moderate amount of whole grains should absolutely be part of our diet.
Whole Grain Perks
You can read in more detail the science behind the anti-inflammatory, weight-loss and gut-promoting benefits of whole grains HERE, but we have also included the following quick-read version too:
- Whole grains contain a broad spectrum of energizing B vitamins, anti-aging antioxidants,disease-fighting phytonutrients, vitamin E, selenium, and magnesium.
- Whole grains supply a super-clean source of nutritious energy, and they help keep us feeling full and satisfied.
- Eating whole grains is also associated with longevity and good health; people who eat whole grains as part of their diet are less likely to develop heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer.
- Whole grain eaters are also less likely to be overweight; studies show people who eat whole grains tend to weigh less and have less body fat than people who skip them. (1) In 2004, researchers at Harvard University published results of an analysis of more than 27,000 men over an 8-year period showing that those who consumed more whole grains consistently weighed less than those who consumed less whole grains. (2)
- Eating whole grains has also been associated with lowering blood levels of CRP, a marker for inflammation in the body that is associated with increased risk of heart disease. (3)
What About Gluten-Sensitivity?
There is no doubt that some people have issues with gluten and certainly celiac disease is real. However, we have a sneaking suspicion that glyphosates used on GMO wheat might have something to do with the increase in gluten sensitivity over the last few years. And, because “gluten-free” does not mean “glyphosate-free”, it could be the reason why some people who have eliminated gluten-containing grains still have a problem with other grains. To learn more about how to test for gluten-sensitivity and how to avoid glyphosate in all grains click HERE.
Identifying Clean Cuisine-Approved Whole Grains
Clean Cuisine-approved whole grains are NOT processed crackers, breads and cereals that are “made with whole grains” and we aren’t even particularly big fans of whole grain flour either (more on this later in the Challenge.) The whole grains we want you to eat are the unadulterated ones including that come in dried form just like uncooked brown rice. We buy our whole grains in bulk from the natural food store and store them in the pantry in mason jars. The wide variety of Clean Cuisine-approved whole grains include:
- Amaranth: A mildly spicy, South American whole grain with a slightly pepper flavor, amaranth is rich in calcium, protein and iron, and be served as either a side dish or as a cereal. It develops a creamy texture when cooked and makes a great high-fiber soup thickener.
- Barley: Relatively easy to find, whole barley can be used to make tasty pilafs, soups, stews and cold vegetable salads. Because of its neutral flavor, fiber-rich barley can be used instead of white rice in many of your favorite recipes. Avoid processed “polished” barley.
- Brown Rice: This gluten-free grain is nutrient-rich with a pleasant nutty flavor. Choose either short-grain or long-grain brown rice but avoid the white stuff entirely. Add interest to your meal by combining brown rice with wild rice, chopped nuts, dried cranberries, finely chopped vegetables, your favorite fresh herbs and a bit of extra virgin olive oil for a delicious pilaf.
- Bulgar: Sold precooked and ready to use, this traditional Middle Eastern whole grain is used to create dishes such as tabbouleh and kibbeh. Purchase fine or medium-ground bulgar for tabbouleh. Use more coarsely ground bulgar for making pilafs.
- Buckwheat: Despite the fact it has the word “wheat” in its name, buckwheat is gluten-free. It has a deliciously mild nutty flavor. We also love soba noodles (look for ones made with 100% buckwheat flour.)
- Corn and Stoneground Cornmeal: Stone-ground cornmeal is excellent in cornbread, polenta and tortillas, but be sure to avoid processed, nutrient-poor and fiber-poor “de-germed” cornmeal.
- Farro; Like barley, farro can be used as an alternative grain for risotto-type dishes. Although it is an ancient grain, farro has become somewhat of a trendy ingredient among health conscious chefs who recognize it’s impressive nutritional profile.
- Freekeh: The hot “new” supergrain, freekeh is actually young wheat that is harvested while it is still green and then roasted. The texture is somewhat like barley and the flavor is similar to bulgur wheat, but with a grassier note. Because it is harvested when it’s young, the gain retains more protein, fiber and nutrients than mature wheat. And it is incredibly rich in fiber containing three times as much fiber as brown rice and twice as much fiber as quinoa. Freekeh also contains resistant starch, which is a type of carbohydrate that acts like a fiber and also helps to keep you feeling pleasantly satisfied longer (we’ll talk more about resistant starch later in the Challenge.)
- Kamut: A high-protein variety of wheat berry, kamut has an appealing chewy texture when cooked and can be made into a variety of side dishes.
- Millet: Rich in B vitamins, copper and iron, this gluten-free whole grain makes a great side dish and a delicious alternative to fried rice (check out our “Millet Fried Rice” recipe on our website.) You can serve it as a breakfast cereal with a little hemp or almond milk plus fresh fruit and chopped nuts. Because of its mild, pasta-like taste, kids love it!
- Oats: Oatmeal’s health benefits have been published in major medical journals. Oat fiber has been specifically shown to possess heart-healthy benefits, including a reduced bad LDL cholesterol level in your bloodstream. Whole grain oats contain the antioxidant vitamin E, seven B vitamins, and nine minerals including calcium and iron. Avoid “instant” refined versions and look for “old fashioned rolled oats” or better yet, steel cut oats.
- Quinoa: The queen of grains when it comes to protein, iron and calcium. This gluten-free grain has a mild taste and can be used as a side dish to meat, fish, poultry; stuffed in peppers or tomatoes; used in puddings and stir fries; or tossed into soups and salads. As a simple, quick side dish, top cooked quinoa with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, finely chopped basil, a squirt of fresh lemon juice and crushed pine nuts.
- Whole Wheat: Wheat is ubiquitous–it’s everywhere!! Of all the whole grains wheat is the one people eat the most of and most people eat way too much of it. People hear about whole grains being healthy and they head straight to wheat loading up on foods made with whole wheat flour such as whole wheat pasta, whole wheat crackers, whole wheat bread, whole wheat muffins, whole wheat bagels, etc. While whole wheat flour is absolutely better than refined flour (often listed on ingredients labels as “enriched flour”), flour is still refined and still not as healthy of a choice as eating whole grains in their unrefined form, in this case that would be wheat berries. Wheat berries are chewy and look sort of like a darker and larger cousin to barley.
Easy, Healthful Ways to Add Whole Grains to Your Diet
Cooking with whole grains can be a fantastically fun (and tasty! adventure! Here are some ideas to get you started…
- Buy a rice cooker (we like VitaClay) and get in the habit of cooking big batches of whole grains on a regular basis. You can cook any variety of whole grain in a rice cooker and doing so requires zero pot watching. Cooked whole grains will keep nicely for about 3 days if stored in the refrigerator in a covered container or a self-sealing plastic bag. You can add cooked whole grains to soups, stews, and salads or serve them as an easy side dish. Whole grains make the perfect bed on which to nestle a medley of stir-fried veggies. They are great for breakfast when mixed with fruit and chopped nuts. And just about any cooked whole grain can be turned into a delicious and elegant pilaf for dinner in a matter of minutes.
- Try making an all-veggie sandwich with toasted sprouted whole grain bread.
- Mix sprouted whole grain pasta with roasted spaghetti squash and top with a roasted root vegetable ragù.
- Give your regular rolled oats a break and try even more healthful steel-cut oats for your morning breakfast. Even though rolled oats are a healthful choice, they are still a bit processed—steel-cut oats are the superior choice from a nutritional standpoint. Plus they keep you feeling full longer because they have more soluble fiber. Steel-cut oats are a snap to make in a slow cooker: Simply combine 3¾ cups water (or hemp or almond milk), 1 cup steel-cut oats, and a pinch of sea salt in the crock, and cook on high for 2 hours. You can prepare the night before then refrigerate so it’s ready when you are first thing in the morning.
- Buy some wheat germ and sprinkle it on top of your fruit.
- In a mega rush? Nothing wrong with raw oats! Try a morning muesli with raw oats (refer to our muesli recipe in the “Week 1 Meal Plan”) or simply lightly moisten raw oats with hemp milk, almond milk, or soy milk and add some fresh chopped fruit.
- Get exotic with your rice! It’s hard to keep up with nutrition news, but in case you haven’t heard, black rice is the new brown and considered to be the most healthful rice of all. Black rice is popping up everywhere. You can find black rice at Asian markets and natural foods stores, such as Whole Foods Market. Black rice can attribute a good deal of its health benefits to exceptionally high levels of antioxidants. Specifically, black rice is rich in a class of flavonoid antioxidants called anthocyanins (also found in blueberries, açaí, and grapes.) Exotic black rice has a mild but distinct flavor that pairs perfectly with a tremendous number of foods and flavors. Plus it looks beautiful and makes an impressive presence on any plate; it’s the easiest ever side dish because it doesn’t need to be all dolled up to look or taste exciting. You can cook black rice just like you cook any other rice—stovetop or in a rice cooker (which is how Ivy cooks all rice!)
- Add whole grains to your vegetable soups.
How Many Servings of Whole Grains Should You Eat a Day?
For the average person who participates in a moderate exercise program (such as what we suggest as part of the Clean Cuisine Challenge), 2 or 3 servings of whole grains a day is a good guideline. In general, men should eat slightly more whole grains than women because of their increased muscle mass.
Variety is the Spice of Life!
And finally, we think it’s important to eat a wide variety of different whole grains so we like to rotate our grains on a regular basis. The whole grains we include in our diet include: amaranth, barley, brown/ black and wild rice, bulgur, buckwheat, corn, kamut, freekeh, millet, oats and quinoa.
Ivy generally makes a big batch of whole grains with the rice cooker then stores them in the fridge for up to 3 days in a covered container. She then uses the grains for hot breakfast cereal, to make pilafs, to add to salads, to eat with vegetables, to add to soups, and so forth. When the grains are gone she starts all over and makes a new batch with a new whole grain.
- N.M. McKeown, M. Yoshida, P.F. Jacques, et al. “Whole-Grain Intake and Cereal Fiber are Associated with Lower Abdominal Adiposity in Older Adults.” Journal of Nutrition 139, no. 10 (2009): 1950-55.
- P. Koh-Banerjee, M. Franz, L. Sampson, et al. “Changes in Whole-Grain, Bran, and Cereal Fiber Consumption in Relation to 8-yr. Weight Gain Among Men.” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 80, no. 5 (2004): 1237-45.
- H.I. Katcher, R.S. Legro, A.R. Kunselman et al. “The Effects of a Whole Grain-Enriched Hyocaloric Diet on Cardiovascular Disease Risk Factors in Men and Women with Metabolic Syndrome.” America Journal of Clinical Nutrition 87, no 1 (2008): 79-90.