5 Reasons why Grains are not a Health Food: Part I

Today I want to do some myth busting and show you that grains are not a health food.

For decades we have been told to eat a diet rich in ‘healthy whole grains’ because they low in fat, high in fibre and rich in minerals. We are told to increase our consumption of these healthy grains and minimise our consumption of fats to achieve health, maintain a healthy body weight, lower our cholesterol and reduce our risk of heart disease. You can’t get away from this advice because one of its biggest proponents is government.

In developed Western countries and indeed across most of the world today, government nutrition recommendations still centre on low-fat diets that include plenty of “healthy wholegrains.” For example:

– The Victorian Government in Australia says: “cereals and wholegrain foods can reduce the risk of developing diseases such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes and diverticular disease.”

– The NHS website in the UK recommends: Starchy foods such as potatoes, bread, cereals, rice and pasta should make up about a third of the food you eat…”

These government recommendations have existed for decades without being adjusted to keep up with new science. A big reason for this lack of development is the power of industry and big food corporations in influencing public policy. I will get more into the politics behind this at a later date.

As a result of this misguided ‘science’ and advice around the world it is still commonly accepted that grains, particularly wholegrains should make up a significant proportion of our food intake. Healthy eating pyramids and the NHS Eatwell plate encourage consumption of between 5-12 servings of starchy foods a day.

For those people who dutifully follow government dietary guidelines a ‘healthy’ day of food could very well look something like this:

  • Breakfast: cereal or toast
  • Lunch: a sandwich or some kind of salad (perhaps with pasta, rice or quinoa if we are feeling fancy!)
  • Dinner: Pasta, rice or some kind of grain with some meat and vegetables.
  • Snacks: a museli bar, crackers and perhaps some fruit

While this might not be true for you, I think it is a safe bet to assume that most of us eat a LOT of grains. And why wouldn’t you when they are held up to be such a healthy choice?

In this article and its follow up we will unpack the nutritional value of grains and examine why they are a poor foundation for our diets. Ultimately I want to show you that despite years of lies and misinformation, grains are not a health food. I will show you why will benefit from swapping at least some grains out of your diet. My reference to grains includes those most commonly consumed in the UK and Australia including wheat, rye, oats, barely and rice as well as some less familiar grains such millet, quinoa and sorghum.

In this and upcoming articles I’ll highlight 5 important reasons why reducing or eliminating your consumption of grains and eating more ‘whole’ foods (food straight from nature and still in its natural form) is a great choice for your health and well being.

 

1. Grains are nutrient poor

2. Humans have not evolved to eat grains

3. Our digestive systems are not built for grains

4. Grains raise your blood sugar

5. Grains have a host of protective components and mechanisms that disrupt your digestion

Summary: At a minimum grains are a nutritionally poor source of calories, and for many people they could be seriously disrupting digestion and nutrient absorption.

1. Grains are nutrient poor

Despite the idea that grains are a rich source of nutrition, when compared to whole foods they don’t actually stack up all that well.

All the food we eat is made up of:

  1. Macronutrients – carbohydrate, protein and fat. Most grains are a dense source of carbohydrate with some proteins. While carbohydrates are important, you should be getting them from nutrient dense sources;
  2. Micronutrients/ vitamins – these are the extra goodies you get from food, which are essential for your health. For example you need enough vitamin A for immunity, vision and reproduction. You need sufficient potassium for proper heart function and smooth skeletal and muscle contraction.
  3. Calories – the unit of measurement to count how much energy is in your food. Ideally you want to get the most nutrients you can for each calorie you consume. In the case of grains, you’re not getting huge bang for your buck.

Most foods that are straight from nature and consumed in their whole form are full of extra vitamins and minerals in addition to being a source of carbohydrate, protein, fat or a combination. Conversely, many foods that are processed then promoted as healthy often have nutrients added to them. If a food is ‘enriched’ it has had nutrients added that were lost during processing in an attempt to make them more nutrient dense. If it is ‘fortified’ it has extra nutrients added, irrespective of whether they were naturally occurring to begin with.

For example there are quite a few breakfast cereals that are fortified with the B vitamin, folic acid, which is really important for pregnancy. Nice one Kellogs! However, folic acid is the oxidised synthetic compound, not the naturally occurring vitamin folate. Excessive doses of this are not necessary, and could even be harmful for men or women past child-bearing age. (1)

We should be searching for foods that are a rich source of vitamins and minerals, because this is how we ensure optimal health. Your body requires certain minerals and vitamins to perform its regular processes. Magnesium for example is required for over 300 enzymatic processes alone. Often cravings are a result of a particular nutrient deficiency.

Mineral deficiencies lead to a host of health problems such as fatigue, migraines, hormone imbalances, muscle cramps and spasms and many, many more. It is adequate consumption of minerals and vitamins that will leave you feeling satisfied from your food and not searching for more sources of nutrition or calories.

Despite what you’ve been told by government and Kellogs, grains are not a nutrient dense source of vitamins and minerals.

Grains contain negligible amounts of vitamin A or C. They contain no vitamin B12. The way we consume most grains is just as a dense source of carbohydrate, so eating a lot of them isn’t going to leave you feeling energised, nor will it satiate you for long. While not completely devoid of nutrients, grains don’t give you a full package and (as we will see later) many of the minerals you do get are compromised anyway. Grains contain phytates, which bind to nutrients such as zinc and iron in your food and prevent you from properly absorbing them.

We want to get maximum nutrition for the calories we consume so we nourish all our body’s systems and cells. This table, which shows the nutritional profile of a few different kinds of carbohydrates. Keep in mind that 100g is a different portion size for each food; however, for the purpose of gauging the nutrient density vs calorie content of foods we will use the same weight.

Nutrition White bread Whole wheat bread Rice White potato Sweet potato
Calories 361 247 130 94 90
Carbohydrate 73g 41g 28g 21g 21g
Fibre 2g 7g 0g 2g 3g
Vitamin A (%) 2.7 IU     (0%) 3 IU          (0%) 0 IU     (0%) 10 IU    (0%) 19,217 IU (384%)
Vitamin C (%) 0mg          (0%) 0mg        (0%) 0 mg     (0%) 12.6 mg (21%) 19.6mg (33%)
Calcium (%) 15mg       (1%) 107mg     (11%) 10mg     (1%) 10mg     (1%) 38mg     (4%)
Iron (%) 4.4mg  (25%) 2.4mg     (13%) 1.2mg     (7%) 0.6mg   (4%) 0.7mg   (4%)

As the table shows, potatoes are by far a superior food for getting the most nutrition for your calories. While there is quite a bit of calcium contained in whole wheat bread, the grain itself often renders this bio-unavailable, so your body cannot absorb it (more on this here).

At the end of the day bread, pasta and any other grain or wholegrain is still a processed food and not nutrient dense. When you eat a potato it has come out of the ground in that state. The same applies to fruit. Meat isn’t a whole lot different either; although it is usually cooked by the time it arrives on your plate.

Grains however, even in their most whole state, have still undergone significant processing to become your dinner roll. Anything that comes to you as flour, flakes, cereal puffs or bars or an instant form has been processed and refined.

Nutrients from whole foods are the most bioavailable. This is because most nutrients require other vitamins and minerals to be absorbed and utilised by the body properly. These nutrient partners are referred to as co-factors. Equally some nutrients act as blockers for others, preventing your body getting anything out of them – this is the problem with much of the nutrition in grains. In whole foods, like a sweet potato or a piece of steak, nature provides foods and nutrition to your body in a way that it is readily available. When a food – like processed bread or cereal – has been artificially pumped full of a nutrient you simply won’t get the full value of the nutrients marketed on the front of the packaging.

Part I summary

From this short introduction to the truth about grains, we should see that whole grains are not nutrient dense or an optimal food source. While this might not be enough to switch you to grain free living, it should at least highlight the benefits of choosing whole foods in their natural state wherever possible.

In the part II of this article, we will talk through some of the more serious reasons to be avoiding grains.

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