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Grain Free: Yes or No?

A grain is a hard, dry seed, making them a durable and transportable staple food.

Grains are full of nutrients, including dietary fiber, B vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and folate), and minerals (iron, magnesium, and selenium).

  • Fiber helps reduce your risk of heart disease, obesity, and type 2 diabetes.
  • Fiber makes you feel full and is important for proper bowel function.
  • B vitamins help your metabolism and are essential for a healthy nervous system.
  • Folate helps the body form red blood cells and reduces the risk of types of birth defects.
  • Iron reduces the risk of anemia.
  • Magnesium helps build bones and release energy from muscles.
  • Selenium is an anti-oxidant and important for your immune system.

Grain products include foods made from wheat, rice, oats, cornmeal, barley, or other cereal grains. Common examples are bread, pasta, oatmeal, breakfast cereal, tortillas, and grits.


Whole grains versus Refined Grains

Whole grains contain the whole grain kernel. Common whole grains are bulgur, oatmeal, brown rice, chia, rye, barley, and whole-wheat flour.

Refined grains have been milled, removing the bran and the germ. This improves their texture and increases shelf life, but dramatically reduces nutrition. Refined grains are missing the dietary fiber, iron, and B vitamins that make whole grains so good for you. Many refined grains are enriched, meaning vitamins are added back after processing.

Common refined grains are white flour, white bread, and white rice.


What’s the paleo diet?

The paleo diet is based on foods people believe were available to humans during the Paleolithic age. There are many different variations of the diet, but generally it focuses on eating vegetables, fruits, nuts, roots, and meats (including organ meats) while excluding dairy products, grains, sugar, legumes, salt, and alcohol.

The paleo diet is not for vegetarians or vegans. Meat and fish can also quickly send your grocery bill through the roof.

You can learn more about the paleolithic diet on Scientific American and the Mayo Clinic.


The Claims

Claim: 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.


Claim: Our ancestors did not eat grains

Little is known about the diet of Paleolithic humans, but it seems likely that they did eat wild grains and legumes. Archaeological evidence suggests humans developed tools, like the mortar and pestle, to do so in the Upper Paleolithic era. Humans are highly adaptable and the digestive abilities of modern humans are different from paleolithic humans.

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.

Cutting out processed foods and eating lots of lean protein will make you feel full quickly, leading to weight loss and better health. However, the paleo diet carries a risk of deficiencies, like vitamin D and calcium, and toxins from so much fish. The same benefits can be had, more safely, from the Mediterranean diet.


Claim: Grains cause insulin resistance and inflammation

Grains themselves are not the cause of insulin resistance and inflammation. Eating too much food leads to “belly” fat and development of both. 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.

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. 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.


Claim: Grains are GMOs

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, or genetically modified organisms, 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.

For more information on genetically modified wheat, check out an excellent (free to watch) documentary on the subject by the CBC, The War on Wheat.


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:

  • Prebiotics – Non-digestible carbohydrates, like those found in 100% whole grains serve as prebiotics, 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
  • Roughage for detoxification and hormone balance – Grains contain 2 kinds of fibers: insoluble fiber and 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.
  • 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.


8 tips for choosing the best grains

  1. Make sure the whole grain is the first ingredient. The list should not say refined or enriched. Foods that are multi-grain, stone ground, or bran usually aren’t whole grains.
  2. Don’t trust color, as the brown could be from molasses or other ingredients.
  3. Not all grain products are high in fiber, but most are. There should be at least 3 grams of fiber per serving.
  4. Choose foods without added sugars like sucrose, high-fructose corm syrup, honey, malt syrup, maple syrup, or molasses.
  5. Watch out for sodium. Most salt in our diet comes from packaged foods. Choose foods with less than 140 mg of sodium per serving.
  6. Typically a serving of grains is anywhere from ½ cup to 1 cup. Small serving sizes can be used to hide large amounts of sugar and calories. Eating too much of any food isn’t healthy.
  7. When buying brown rice, choose those that are grown in California, India or Pakistan to minimize arsenic consumption. Other ancient grains like quinoa, millet, faro and buckwheat have negligible amounts of arsenic as well.
  8. Choose organic if concerned about GMOs and/or pesticides.


Getting more whole grains

It’s easy to add more whole foods to your diet by tweaking the grains you eat. It’s also an inexpensive way to make your meal plan healthier.

  • Substitute whole grains for refined grains.
  • Start your day with overnight oats, chia pudding, or muesli and yogurt.
  • Make quinoa, brown rice, bulgur, or farro salads for easy take-to-work lunches.
  • Try barley in soups.
  • Choose cookie recipes with whole-grain flour or oatmeal.
  • Popcorn is a great snack, just don’t go overboard with the salt and butter. Old Bay is a popular — and flavorful — popcorn topping.

Don’t try to do all of these things at once, since variety is the spice of life — you don’t need to live entirely off grains.

Just because you may not be following the paleo diet doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy some of the recipes it’s made popular. Spiralizing veggies and substituting them for pasta is delicious, as are foods made from coconut and almond flours.

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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