Should We Eat Grains?

A world in which we are bombarded with carbohydrates, and whole grains are touted as a health food while low-carb, no-carb, and Paleo diets are ever increasing in popularity makes for mixed messages and much confusion. What’s the deal with grains? Are they good for us or bad for us?? Well, the answer, as you may have suspected, is complicated.

  Photo taken by Harris Ueng. Used with permission

Photo taken by Harris Ueng. Used with permission


Most of us know that processed white grains that have been removed from their fibrous and vitamin- and mineral-rich hulls are composed mainly of starch and depleted of nutrients. A diet rich in processed grains in the form of snacks and desserts, breads, tortillas, and even white grains can lead to blood sugar dysregulation, weight gain, and subsequent health problems.

But what about whole grains??

Let’s take a closer look at what these grains that we eat do for the plant itself. Grains are the seeds of plants and contain an embryo, or a baby plant, which requires nourishment to grow. Seeds are naturally full of nutrients because, much like the yolk of an egg, the carbohydrates and proteins are needed for the embryo to sprout, then grow into a full fledged adult plant. 

Unlike in flowering plants with which animals have a “I scratch your back, you scratch mine” evolutionary relationship (think delicious fruit for animal and seed dispersal for plant), grasses, which rely on wind to spread their seed don’t have to offer anything to an animal. On the contrary, the plant attempts to selfishly hold on to its nutrients so that they can be reserved for the young embryo. The less digested the seed passes through the animal’s digestive tract, the better for the plant. Unfortunately what this means for us, the animals who’ve decided to cultivate these plants’ seeds for our own benefit, is nutrients are difficult to extract from the grain.

Let's examine some of these nutrients and anti-nutrients.

Gliadin in wheat, secalin in rye, and hordein in barley are proteins that are particularly difficult to digest and remain partially undigested in even the healthiest of guts. We simply don’t have the digestive enzymes to completely break these proteins down. Inevitably, some food will always pass through our digestive tracts undigested, but undigested food in the gut increases the chance of allergies as our immune systems are exposed to more foreign particles.

In fact, gluten intolerance is on the rise. The incidence of Celiac disease, an autoimmune disease that is directly triggered by gliadin, is increasing and is estimated to affect 1 in 133 people in the United States, and Celiac specialists estimate that the number is actually higher due to misdiagnoses. Additionally, some people who don’t have Celiac may still have an increased sensitivity to undigested gluten and experience corresponding adverse reactions. It is most important for those with Celiac disease or gluten sensitivities to eschew gluten-containing grains.

Gluten is a protein complex composed of two proteins, gliadin and glutenin. It is found in grains such as wheat, rye, barley, and spelt. Gluten, which means “glue” in Latin, gives bread its lofty, chewy, elastic qualities. Its elastic molecular structure allows bread to maintain its form while it rises—just think of your favorite airy, crusty-on-the-outside-chewy-on-the-inside baguette, mmm…

  Photo taken by Harris Ueng. Used with permission

Photo taken by Harris Ueng. Used with permission


Because of the very desirable qualities that this protein provides, wheat, the primary grain used for bread-making, has been bred for high gluten content since the advent of leavened bread 2000 to 5000 years ago. In fact, 70-80% of wheat grown in the United States is the hard winter variety, with twice the gluten content of the soft spring variety, which is bred for more starch rather than protein to yield soft, tender cakes and flaky pie crusts.

Phytic acid, present in the hulls of all seeds, and therefore grains, binds phosphorus and minerals. It is merely a way for the seed to store these nutrients. Non-ruminant animals, such as ourselves, lack the enzyme phytase that can digest phytic acid to liberate the phosphorus and bound minerals for utilization. Phytic acid attaches to important minerals such as zinc, iron, calcium, and magnesium as well as certain B vitamins and prevents their proper absorption when we eat grains. Thus, a diet based on improperly prepared grains can lead to mineral deficiencies and corresponding illnesses.

Lectins, carbohydrate-binding proteins, are extremely irritating to the gut and are found in high concentration in grains.

Because seeds are dormant, just waiting for those perfect conditions to sprout, they also contain enzyme inhibitors, further decreasing digestibility.

With the encouragement of government farm subsidies and the USDA food pyramid, which showed grains being the foundation of a healthy diet, Americans have been eating more grains than ever before. According to the USDA, grain consumption was 45% higher in 2000 than the 1970s. The USDA estimates that the average American even exceeds the daily recommendation, eating more than 11 servings per day, mostly of refined carbohydrates.

  1992 USDA Food Pyramid. Source: USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion

1992 USDA Food Pyramid. Source: USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion


Traditionally, grains were never consumed in the large quantities they are today, and when they were, they were prepared in ways with care that made the tightly bound and difficult-to-digest nutrients more available and absorbable. Grains were soaked, sprouted, or fermented—these preparations increase the nutrient availability, and we turn to ancient wisdom to properly prepare our grains today.

Soaking in acidulated water, such as with vinegar or lemon juice, causes a twofold release of minerals and phosphorus from phytic acid. Binding of minerals to phytic acid is pH-dependent and phytase, the naturally occurring enzyme that breaks it down, functions optimally under slightly acidic conditions. The acidic environment also neutralizes enzyme inhibitors, further enhancing nutrient availability.

  soaking grains

soaking grains


Sprouting grains causes the release of phosphorus and minerals from phytic acid as well as the activation of enzymes and the production of vitamins, as nutrients are liberated so that the seed can begin its germination process. What that translates to for us is again, increased availability of those nutrients. Lectins, thought to play a role in germination, decrease in concentration when seeds are sprouted. Young sprouts, however, in efforts to keep animals from eating them, produce irritating compounds that can be neutralized with cooking.

  sprouting quinoa

sprouting quinoa


Fermentation is arguably the most nutrient dense preparation of grains--it increases nutrient accessibility because bacteria produce phytase, and gluten and other proteins that are difficult for us are a cinch for the bacteria and are thus predigested. In fact, some people with gluten sensitivities can tolerate sourdough breads that have been naturally leavened! The increased acidity created by the fermentation process doubly facilitates nutrient enhancement.

These traditional preparations transform the grain from a seed with difficult-to-access nutrients and even some toxic anti-nutrients to one rich in health-promoting, bioavailable nutrients. Modern processing of grains, including extrusion and with quick-rising yeasts, don’t follow methods of traditional wisdom. The resulting ubiquitous grains and grain-based foods, while often delicious, should be consumed sparingly.  As long as you don't have adverse reactions to grains, those that are properly prepared can be a part of a health promoting diet.



Give it a Try!

A sprouted grain recipe perfect for those summer BBQ's...enjoy!


Sprouted Rice and Quinoa with Orange and Pistachios

1 cup sprouted quinoa
1 ½ cup sprouted rice
1 onion, sliced
4 T butter
1/3 cup olive oil
zest and juice from 1 orange
2 tsp lemon juice
1 clove garlic, crushed
4 scallions, thinly sliced
¾ cup dried apricots
2/3 cup crispy pistachios
2 cups arugula
salt and pepper to taste

Add rice to a saucepan with 2 ¼ cups water. Cook until water is absorbed and rice remains al dente, about 20-25 minutes. Add quinoa to a saucepan with 1 ½ cups water. Cook until water is absorbed and quinoa remains al dente, about 8-10 minutes. If desired, spread grains out on a sheet pan to cool.

Meanwhile, sauté onion in 4 T butter for 10-12 minutes, until golden. Let cool. In a large bowl, combine rice, quinoa, onion, olive oil, and remaining ingredients. Taste and adjust seasoning.

Adapted from Ottolenghi, by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi