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A “Grain” Area: Detangling Truth From Myth Part 1

This is a 2 part blog. Part 1 discusses theories surrounding grains and Part 2 discusses useful tips on selecting grains.

Food and nutrition information can be confusing: one day a food group that we looked to for health benefits is considered beneficial, while the next day it is the center of negative attention. Lately, the media is jumping on the paleo bandwagon and villain-izing grains. Let’s use our “noodles” to examine the science behind the claims to make sense of it all.


Why do people avoid grains unnecessarily?

Theory 1) Grains contain phytates

Phytates (also known as phytic acid) are compounds found in grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. Phytates are able to bind to certain vitamins and minerals, preventing key nutrient absorption, specifically iron, zinc, manganese and calcium. However, only small amounts of micronutrients are usually blocked and most people consume adequate vitamins/minerals to make up for losses. In addition, soaking, sprouting and cooking grains reduce phytic acid content.

Theory 2) Our ancestors did not eat grains so why should we?

Humans have been eating grains since they developed the tools to do so in the Upper Paleolithic era. Tools used for the preparation of grains such as mortal and pestles date up to approximately 10,000 years ago. However, modern diet-related diseases like heart disease were not prevalent until the Industrial era when grains were refined, salty foods, fried foods,and processed oils were eaten and used regularly. It is as this point that the population got away from eating fresh fruits and vegetables and relied more on these processed foods, which is the most likely cause of the negative health consequences.

Theory 3) Grains cause insulin resistance and inflammation

Grains themselves are not the cause of insulin resistance and inflammation; but rather, abdominal or “belly” fat resulting from eating too much of any food group is. When excess fat is deposited in the abdominal region, fat is almost always also deposited in the liver and the pancreas, negatively affecting cholesterol levels and insulin output. In addition, studies show that with just a 10% overall weight loss, diabetes can be reversed, proving that it is not a single food group causing insulin resistance, but rather overall poor eating habits leading to overweight/obesity. Moreover, we know that “belly” fat is not just flab or inactive tissue. It is active tissue that constant secretes inflammatory markers that negatively impact health.

Theory 4) Grains are GMOs (genetically modified organisms)

Many plants are genetically modified to defend against pests and increase the amount of crops produced so that we can feed the population. The long term health implications of eating GMOs are unknown, but the theory is that our bodies may not recognize the food and create an immune attack against it, resulting in various autoimmune disorders like thyroid issues, celiac disease and rheumatoid arthritis. For those looking to decrease GMO or pesticide consumption, buying organic products can automatically reduce GMOs in the diet. Further, ancient grains like kamut, eikorn wheat, teff and quinoa are most similar to their historical selves and are great options to include in the variety of grains that you eat


Health benefits of unrefined grains

The USDA current recommends that men and women 31 and above eat between 5 and 7 ounces of whole grains daily. However this could vary with physical activity levels. Here are some health benefits to whole grains:

1) Prebiotics: Non-digestible carbohydrates, like those found in 100% whole grains serve as pre-biotics, or food for the healthy bacteria in our guts. This bacteria improves our mood and immune system and strengthens the integrity of our digestive system

2) Roughage for detoxification/hormone balance: Grains contain 2 kinds of fibers: 1) insoluble fiber and 2) soluble fiber. Insoluble fiber increases the transit time in our gastrointestinal tract and therefore reduces exposure to potentials toxins. Soluble fiber binds to excess cholesterol and removes it from the body. Both types of fiber help promote regularity and satiety.

3) Decreases risk for certain cancers: Studies show that intake of whole grains is associated with decreased risk of colorectal, gastric, breast, prostate and cervical cancers.

Hillary Sachs, MS, RD, CSO, CDN

Hillary is a Registered Dietitian and Board Certified Specialist in Oncology Nutrition (CSO). She received her BS in Nutritional Sciences at Cornell University and MS in Clinical Nutrition at New York University, and completed her dietetic internship at the James J. Peters Bronx VA Medical Center. Hillary works as an outpatient dietitian at the North Shore-LIJ’s Cancer Institute, where she counsels patients and their families before, during and after cancer treatment. Additionally, Hillary counsels clients on nutrition through her private practice, Recipe for Health, L.L.C., and has been invited to present at several nutrition-related events including the Breast Cancer Update Symposium at North Shore-LIJ (2013) and Adelphi University’s Farm to Table lecture (2014). Hillary strives to translate the science behind health, nutrition and prevention into practical and easy-to-follow recommendations.

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