The latest diet trends have attacked carbs, specifically grains, saying they are bad for your health and make you fat. High protein and fat diets like Paleo and Keto cut out all grains. On the other hand, the heart association stresses that whole grains are essential for good heart health, reducing the risk of high blood pressure and diabetes. So, what’s the truth? And, can you be healthy on a grain-free diet?
What exactly is a Grain?
Whole grains are the seeds from grassy plants called cereals, like wheat, barley, rye, bulgur wheat, millet, spelt (gluten-containing), rice, corn, sorghum, and oats (gluten-free). And, non-grassy plants called pseudocereals, like buckwheat, quinoa, and amaranth (all gluten-free).
Whole grains contain three parts: bran, germ, and endosperm. The bran contains the fiber and the germ contains all the vitamins and other nutrients. The endosperm, the largest part of the grain, contains the starchy carbs which turn to sugar, and in wheat, barley and rye, the gluten.
Processing and refining grains means the bran and germ have been stripped out and what is left is the endosperm. Artificial fiber, called functional fiber, and nutrients can be added back in, but it’s not the same as consuming the whole grain.
Even flour made from whole grains is processed and not as healthy as if left intact, including whole wheat flour. Check the nutritional value and make sure it says whole grain. Look for bread with seeds in it, as it’s less processed than bread solely made from pulverized flours.
What About Gluten?
Gluten is the protein in certain grains like wheat, barley, and rye that make it stick together. Remember good old “white bread” that your mom made your peanut butter and jelly sandwich with and you could squish it? What makes wheat stick together is the gluten.
Many people have an intolerance to gluten, causing stomach and digestive issues. Celiac Disease is a hypersensitivity to gluten where a person cannot digest gluten at all, inducing serious health problems. Those with Celiac disease cannot consume any food containing gluten.
But is gluten bad for everyone? Not necessarily. If you consume whole grains and you don’t experience any digestive issues, you probably are not sensitive to gluten. Some people have digestive issues with other grains as well.
Stick with wholegrain options. Even whole wheat bread is processed, and not as healthy as you might think. And many gluten-free grain alternatives may or may not contain whole grains.
So, does that mean that grains are bad for you?
Simple and refined carbs are easily digested by your body, and they quickly turn into sugar. Consuming a lot of refined carbs like bread, cake, and pasta, make us hungrier so we eat more, and leads to storing fat.
However, whole grains like brown rice and whole oats are very nutritious as long as they have not been genetically modified and are indeed whole and fiber rich. Watch out for foods with fiber added. They are not whole grains.
And processed grains like instant oatmeal contain unwanted sugar and no nutritional value.
Fiber and Your Gut Health
Fiber has always been linked to digestion, good bowel habits, and heart health. But new studies have shown that fiber contains prebiotics essential for gut health.
Your digestive system contains millions of bacteria called microbiome. Most are good, and some are bad. The good bacteria aid in digestion, heart, and brain health, and fight the bad disease-causing bacteria which can contribute to weight gain.
Eating a diet full of probiotic foods like yogurt, and fermented foods like sauerkraut and kimchi, help your gut lining, digestion, and your immune system. However, cooking those foods will kill the probiotics.
Prebiotics feed the probiotics, so you need both to be effective. But prebiotics also feed your good gut bacteria directly, making them multiply, lessening your need for probiotic supplements.
The recommended daily amount of fiber is around 28 grams per day for women, which ensures you are getting the prebiotics that the healthy bacteria need to grow and fight the bad guys.
The problem is that most of us don’t get the recommended amount of fiber. The standard American diet contains too many processed foods like white bread and pasta, and not enough fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, which are the only way to get natural fiber into your diet.
The Veggie Story
Vegetables contain carbs. Yes, that’s true. But, the carbs in vegetables are different than in grains. The carbohydrate chain in vegetables, called fiber, cannot be broken down by the body, therefore it passes through the intestines, adding bulk for healthy bowel movements. And, it does not quickly turn into sugar. Whereas the starchy carbs in grains and root vegetables like potatoes, turn immediately into sugar and then pass through our system. Whole grains also contain fiber, but wheat contains about 83% starch and 12% fiber.
Eating cruciferous vegetables like broccoli gives you nutritious gut fiber without the starch and empty carbs.
Green, leafy vegetables contain much-needed vitamins, minerals, and protein. Avocados provide healthy fats along with fiber.
Fruits like apples also provide healthy prebiotic fiber for your gut.
Can You Go Grain-Free and be healthy?
The answer is absolutely, yes. Whole grains contain a lot of dietary fiber, but they also contain even more starchy carbs, whether gluten or gluten-free.
If you go grain-free, you’ll need to consume more healthy fruits and vegetables and they may not fill you up as much as a bowl of oatmeal. You need fiber for proper digestion, to avoid constipation, and, to feed your good gut bacteria. Get your fiber from real foods like fruit and vegetables.
There is no right answer here, and it’s a personal decision.
Whole grains provide a lot of good, nutritional fiber and fill you up. But grains can cause digestive issues for many people. If you can’t tolerate gluten, try brown rice or oats. If you still have problems, then go grain-free and have an apple and some spinach instead.