Grains: Should You Be Eating Them?

Now, more than ever, grain consumption has become a huge controversy in the health community. Some say grains are a necessary component of a healthy, balanced diet, while others deem them harmful- even poisonous! So should we be eating grains or not? If so, which ones and how many? In this blog I will answer these questions with well-researched science based facts.

The Basics

Just like most other foods, not all grains are created equal. And as you have heard me say time and time again it is always better to eat whole foods than processed ones. The same goes for grains. Although, there are many kinds of grains, they fall into two main categories: whole and refined.

Whole Grains are grains in their natural state and contain 3 main parts: bran, germ and endosperm. Refined grains have been processed to remove both the bran and the germ leaving just the endosperm behind. The bran and the germ of grains are nutrient dense, containing carbs, fats, proteins, fiber, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytonutrients; whereas the endosperm is made up of mainly carbs (in the form of starch)- and a small amount of protein. So generally speaking whole grains are nutrient dense and refined grains are nutrient poor.

Unfortunately, the majority of grains consumed in the U.S. come from the refined variety. Refined grains not only offer us next to nothing nutritionally, but they have also been linked to numerous diseases like type 2 diabetes, heart disease and obesity. Some examples of refined grains in the modern diet are tortillas, pitas, pastas, pretzels, crackers, snack foods, breakfast cereals, white rice, white breads, pancake and waffle mixes, pizzas, ready-made doughs, pastries, cakes, cookies and anything else that is made using all-purpose or enriched wheat flour.  I recommend that everyone reduce their consumption of these foods, if not eliminate them all together and seek out whole grain alternatives. Some examples of whole grains are barley, oats, rye, brown rice, wild rice, corn, quinoa, buckwheat, popcorn, bulgur, farro and whole wheat.

Now for a few more things you should know about grains…

Grains are NOT Essential

That’s right people, we don’t NEED grains. This may come to a surprise to many of you, considering grains make up the majority of many individuals’ diets. This may be due to the fact that for years grains were featured at the bottom of the food pyramid indicating they should be what we consume the most of. The truth is, even though whole grains contain several beneficial nutrients- there is not a single nutrient that grains offer that you cannot get from other foods (like fruits and vegetables), which means we don’t need to eat them. Research shows that both diets that include and exclude grains can be compatible with excellent health.

Should You Avoid Grains?

As with most things in nutrition, it depends entirely on the individual.  Generally speaking if you are a normal, healthy, active adult you can safely incorporate grains in your diet (as long as they are mainly whole grains). If you suffer from a serious autoimmune disease, insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome or diabetes, you may want to or need to avoid grains (especially refined grains).  Some grains (especially wheat) can cause digestive distress in individuals who are sensitive to it. If you experience excessive bloating, gas or stomach upset after consuming grains you may want to avoid them. Many individuals are sensitive to wheat in particular due to a gluten intolerance or celiac disease, but are still able to safely consume other non-gluten-containing whole grains. Keep in mind that just because some individuals can not tolerate grains does not make grains “unhealthy”. Just like an individual allergic to strawberries doesn’t make strawberries unhealthy. The bottom line is that grains are okay for some people, and not for others. If you are concerned about grain consumption or are still unsure whether or not you should be eating grains, talk to a dietitian.

How Much Should You Eat?

Once again, this depends entirely on the individual.  Some individuals are better off not eating grains at all, while others have diets made up of 50% grains and are perfectly healthy. Next to sugar, which EVERYONE should avoid, grains are our biggest source of carbohydrates. Healthy, active individuals who do a lot of anaerobic work typically need and can tolerate a higher amount of carbohydrates, whereas people who are sedentary, overweight, diabetic or have other metabolic issues are typically better off following a low-carb or grain-free diet. Generally speaking, the average person does not need nearly as many carbohydrates or grains as mainstream nutrition recommends. My recommendation for the average adult is to focus on fruits and vegetables first, then protein and healthy fats, leaving grains as an optional accompaniment. Basically, grains can be a part of a healthy, well-balanced diet, but they should not be the focus of your diet.

Grains and Weight Loss

Can a grain-free diet help you lose weight? It depends. I know that’s not the answer you were hoping for, but something we need to realize is that the answers to our nutrition questions are rarely black and white- and that’s because each and every one of us is different.  What works for one person may not work for another. With that being said, eating fewer grains (and carbohydrates in general) has been proven to be one of the best ways to lose weight. Several studies have shown that individuals who follow a grain-free or low-carb diet experience weight loss, reduced belly fat and see a significant improvement in their health.

Take Away Message: Everyone should reduce or eliminate their consumption of refined grains. If you choose to eat grains, reach for whole grains or sprouted whole grains instead. If you like whole grains and feel good eating them then there is no reason to avoid them. If you don’t like grains or do not tolerate them for one reason or another, there is also nothing wrong with skipping them altogether. While we need fruits, vegetables and meats for certain essential nutrients, a diet doesn’t need to include grains to be healthy. If you’re someone who is looking to lose weight, have insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome or diabetes, following a grain-free diet could be beneficial to you. The bottom line is: grains are good for some people and not for others; health can exist with or without them. Figure out what works best for you and eat accordingly. If you’re still confused as to whether or not you should be eating grains or would like to know how to follow a grain-free diet, talk to a dietitian.

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