Pity the poor grain. Between low-carb diets, the anti-gluten trend, and best-selling books with titles like Grain Brain and Wheat Belly, the past few decades have not been kind to this food source that was literally the staff of life for most of human history.
Whole vs. Refined Grains
Its bad reputation is perhaps partially deserved, given that 95% of all grains consumed today are refined—white flour producing white bread, sugary cereals, cookies, and cakes. These foods are bad for our waistlines, our hearts, and our prospects for healthy aging. Refined grains have been through a process called “roller milling,” which removes the healthy parts of the grain (the bran and germ) leaving only the starchy carbohydrate endosperm to be ground into all-purpose, bread, or cake flour.
The healthy counterpart is whole grains. They can be cracked, crushed, rolled, extruded, and/or cooked whole, but the key is that all of the parts of the kernel remain. Wheat may be the first whole grain we think of, but there are many others including corn, (brown) rice, barley, oats, quinoa, buckwheat, amaranth, teff, wild rice, millet, and other varieties of wheat, such as spelt, emmer, farro, einkorn, and kamut.
The Benefits of Whole Grains
Besides carbohydrates, protein, and good fats, whole grains contribute vitamins, minerals, and fiber to a healthy diet. Several B vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and folate) and minerals (iron, magnesium, and selenium) occur naturally in whole grains. Plus, whole grains are high in fiber, which reduces unhealthy blood lipids and increases insulin sensitivity, which helps control sugar metabolism.
Whole grains are central to the diets of long-lived cultures, such as the Mediterranean diet, the new Nordic diet, the Okinawan diet, and the Loma Linda diet. The U.S. Department of Agriculture placed whole grains both at the base of the food pyramid, and in a place of prominence in the MyPlate graphic. Until recently, whole grains have been an undisputed star of the nutrition field, backed both by epidemiologic observations (population studies) and a wide variety of scientific studies.
The Iowa Women’s Health Study reported that women who ate two or more servings of whole grains a day were 30% less likely to die from an inflammatory related condition. A Harvard Public Health study released in early 2015 showed that whole grains extended the life spans by 10% for 110,000 men and women followed over two decades.
In 2016, researchers pooled the results of 14 long-term studies of whole grain intake and risk of death that involved 786,076 people, including 97,867 who died during the studies (almost 24,000 died of cardiovascular disease, and more than 37,000 of cancer). Ten studies took place in the United States, three is Scandinavia, and one in the United Kingdom. In aggregate, the results showed that the people who ate the most whole grains were about 16% less likely to die of any cause during the study than those who ate the least, almost 20% less likely to die of cardiovascular disease, and 10% less likely to die of cancer. Further, for every additional serving of 16 grams of whole grains, cardiovascular disease declined by 9% and cancer death by 5%. As senior study author, Qi Sun of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston put it: “There is a pretty linear relationship between whole grain intake and mortality.”
But What About Gluten?
The elephant in the room during any discussion about grains these days is gluten. According to a 2013 NDP Dietary Trends study, 30% of Americans are trying to avoid gluten, which is a protein made of two other proteins—gliadin and glutenin—that is responsible for the elasticity of dough and bread rising. While rising bread dough sounds like a good thing, it really isn’t for the approximately 1% of the population that must strictly avoid gluten because they have celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder. An even smaller number of people (0.2-0.4%) are actually allergic to wheat. There is a third category—referred to as non-celiac gluten sensitivity—that is currently estimated to be anywhere from 0.5-6% of the population. Some research indicates that what is affecting this group may be sensitivity to certain carbohydrates in wheat products that a FODMAP diet may more appropriately address. Beyond these three groups making up less than 7 percent of the population, there is absolutely no reason why the rest of us can’t enjoy the entire spectrum of grains, including those with gluten. There is currently no peer-reviewed scientific evidence that gluten is bad for those of us who are not sensitive to it, and there are even recent study results showing that avoiding grains and gluten may be associated with a higher risk of type 2 diabetes and obesity.
Even if you are still not convinced that you can safely go back to eating regular bread again you can take comfort in knowing that there are several grains that contain no gluten. These include amaranth, buckwheat, corn, millet, oats, quinoa, brown rice, teff, and wild rice.
How Much Whole Grain Should I Eat for Healthy Aging?
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, published every five years by the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services, recommends three or more servings of whole grains per day. One serving equals 16 grams, which is about an ounce of food made with whole grains. For example—
- ½ cup cooked brown rice or other cooked grain
- ½ cup cooked 100% whole grain pasta
- ½ cup cooked hot cereal, such as oatmeal
- 1 ounce uncooked whole grain pasta, brown rice, or other grain
- 1 slice 100% whole grain bread
- 1 cup 100% whole grain ready-to-eat cereal
Fortunately, today there is an even better tool for evaluating how much whole grain goodness is in your food. The Oldways Whole Grains Council, a nonproﬁt consumer advocacy group, has developed the Whole Grain Stamp to show you at a glance how much of a product is made with whole grain flour, and how many grams of whole grains are in each serving. As of September 2017, more than 11,000 products in 58 countries and seven languages displayed the Whole Grain Stamp.
There are three varieties of the Whole Grain Stamp: the 100% Stamp, the 50%+ Stamp, and the Basic Stamp.
- If a product bears the 100% Stamp (left image), then all its grain ingredients are whole grain. For products using this stamp, the minimum requirement of whole grain per labeled serving is 16 grams—a whole serving.
- If a product bears the 50%+ Stamp (middle image), then at least half of its grain ingredients are whole grain. For products using this stamp, the minimum requirement of whole grain per labeled serving is 8 grams—a half serving.
- If a product bears the Basic Stamp (right image), it contains at least 8 grams—a half serving—of whole grain, but more than 50% of all grain is refined grain.
Each stamp also shows how many grams of whole grain ingredients are in a serving of the product.
How Can I Include More Whole Grains In My Diet?
Once you commit to adding more whole grains to your diet, you will find that it is relatively easy to hit the target of three servings a day. Start by making substitutions for products with refined flour (use whole grain bread, for example). And, add more whole grains to your pantry for quick additions while preparing a meal. Here are some ideas that might help:
- Oatmeal (see recipe below for Easy Overnight Oatmeal)
- Whole wheat toast
- Whole grain waffles
- Whole grain muffins
- Sandwich on whole grain bread
- Burrito or taco on a corn or whole wheat tortilla
- Salad with farro
- Whole grain pasta
- Whole grain pizza
- Warm grain salad with vegetables (recipe below)
- Brown rice, quinoa, or pearled barley as a side dish
Flexible Whole Grain Recipes
The concept behind the two recipes below is to provide you with more of a flexible framework (with lots of options) than strict recipes. This way you can adjust the recipes yourself depending on your taste preferences, and what ingredients you have on hand.
Easy Overnight Oatmeal
No time in the morning? No problem! Make this the night before and let the refrigerator do all the work while you sleep.
Makes 1 serving
- ½ cup rolled oats (also works with steel cut oats)
- ½ cup milk, soymilk, almond milk, or water
ADD-INS, IF DESIRED:
- 2 tablespoons plain or vanilla yogurt
- 1/4 teaspoon spices, such as cinnamon, nutmeg, or cardamom
- 1 teaspoon sweetener, such as honey, agave, or maple syrup
- Fruit, such as sliced strawberries, bananas, blueberries, raspberries, melon, peaches
- 1-3 teaspoons crunchies, such as granola, chia seeds, chopped nuts, or sunflower seeds
Add oats to your container of choice and pour in milk. Add any desired add-ins in layers on top. Place in the fridge and enjoy in the morning.
Farro With Roasted Squash, Feta and Mint
Makes 4-6 servings, 45 minutes
This recipe is by Melissa Clark and was published in The New York Times on December 30, 2016. It’s a perfect example of the type of hearty and delicious grain salad that can be served either as a vegetarian entree, or as a side dish accompaniment to a meat, chicken, or fish main course. I also like that it lends itself well to a flexible framework for grain salads. Think of these salads in four steps:
- Cook the grain (brown rice, farro, buckwheat, barley, etc.)
- Add vegetables (roasted squash, broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, carrots)
- Flavor it with an oil-based vinaigrette
- Garnish with herbs, chopped nuts, or grated cheese.
Voila! You have your own, personalized warm grain salad!
FOR THE SQUASH:
- 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 teaspoons sugar
- ¾ teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ¾ teaspoon fine sea salt, more as needed
- ¼ teaspoon black pepper
- ⅛ teaspoon cayenne, or to taste
- 3 pounds winter squash, such as kabocha, carnival, or butternut, seeded and cut into 1/2-inch thick slices (leave the peels on or remove as desired)
FOR THE FARRO:
- 1 ½ cups apple cider
- 2 cups water
- 2 ½ teaspoons kosher salt, more to taste
- 1 ½ cups farro
- 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar, more to taste
- 2 garlic cloves, grated on a Microplane or minced
- ½ teaspoon black pepper
- 7 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, more as needed
- 3 ounces feta cheese, crumbled (about 3/4 cup)
- Fresh mint or arugula leaves, or both
Heat oven to 450 degrees. Prepare the squash: In a large bowl, mix together olive oil, sugar, cinnamon, salt, pepper, and cayenne. Add squash and toss well to coat with the spiced oil. Lay the squash pieces out flat on one or two rimmed baking sheets.
Roast squash until the bottoms are golden, 10 to 15 minutes. Carefully turn the pieces over and continue to roast until tender, another 10 to 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, make the farro: In a medium pot, bring the apple cider, water, and salt to a simmer. Add farro and simmer until water is absorbed and the farro is tender, 20 to 30 minutes. If the liquid evaporates before the farro is done, add a little more water. Or, if there’s still liquid in the pot when the farro is done, drain it.
In a large bowl, whisk together vinegar, garlic, and pepper. Whisk in olive oil. Add farro and toss well, adding more oil or salt, or both, if needed.
To serve, spoon the farro on a platter and top with the squash, feta, mint, or arugula, or both, and a drizzle of olive oil.
:: References ::
“A Grain of Truth: Why Eating Wheat Can Improve Your Health,” by Stephen Yafa
“Whole Grain Intake Tied to Longer, Healthier Life,” by Kathryn Doyle, Reuters, June 13, 2016
“Does wheat make us fat and sick?” ScienceDirect
“This is your brain on Gluten” The Atlantic
Nutrients. 2017 Feb 18;9(2). pii: E157. (Fayet-Moore F et al.)