Whole grains deliver fiber, healthy fats, vitamins, minerals, plant enzymes and hundreds of phytochemicals. For those seeking a dense source of carbohydrate energy, they can be a healthy choice — but only if they are unrefined and minimally processed.
Here are a few steps toward upgrading your own grain options.
1. Choose whole-kernel grains when possible. Whole-kernel grains, such as wild rice, quinoa, millet, buckwheat groats, hulled barley and whole-wheat berries, are what Ludwig refers to as "unbroken grains." Unbroken grains have heartier, more complex structures than pulverized and processed ones, making them slower to digest, less disruptive of blood sugar and better at satisfying hunger for an extended period of time. Minimally processed grains, such as steel-cut oats, are another good option.
2. Try sprouted grains. Sprouting activates beneficial enzymes, which transform grains from static seeds to living foods. Sprouting changes the seed's starch, converting it into maltose. Ordinarily, this conversion happens during the first stage of digestion. So, sprouting is a form of predigestion. For that reason, foods made with sprouted grains are thought to be easier to digest and, therefore, their nutrients more easily absorbed than foods made with conventional grains. Sprouted grains also tend to be higher in protein, which can help regulate the rate at which the grains' sugars are metabolized.
3. When you bake, replace part of the flour with nut or seed meals. Meals made from ground nuts and seeds, such as almonds, cashews, coconut and flax, can often stand in for flour in baking recipes as well as breadings on meats or seafood. Compared with many flours, nut and seed meals are higher in protein and lower in carbohydrates. "Nut and seed meals are an easy way to upgrade the nutritional profile of your favorite flour-based foods," says nutritionist Kathie Swift, MS, RD.
4. Stick with truly whole-grain flours. To be labeled "whole grain," the entire contents of the original kernel must be present, meaning the bran, germ and endosperm. The downside is that they are still processed. The glycemic index of whole-grain flour is roughly the same as white flour. The upside is that it is nutritionally superior because it retains the kernel's original nutrients, including at least some of the antioxidants, which can combat the inflammatory stress of eating the flour, says David Ludwig, MD, PhD. When buying products made with whole-grain flours, prioritize those with a variety of grains (say barley, buckwheat and oats) to get a wider variety of nutrients.
5. Don't overdose on gluten-free foods. In response to a growing market for gluten free products, food companies are marketing alternatives to wheat flour. unfortunately, many of the options they choose, such as potato flour, rice flour and tapioca starch, digest even faster than wheat flour and, therefore, may exacerbate many of the health issues they promise to quell. Many gluten-free goods lack fiber and deliver a megadose of sugar, says Swift. "I caution my clients to tread lightly when it comes to gluten-free products."
6. Try going flour-free. Ditch all flour-based foods for a week and see how your body responds. Swift has many of her clients start going flour-free for five days. Avoiding flour, even for this short time, can help restore balance in the body by stabilizing blood sugars, soothing inflammation and increasing gut motility, she says. "I see amazing results when people give up flour."
7. Consider a grain sabbatical. Not everyone agrees that grains are essential, or even beneficial, for health. Ludwig points out that humans rarely ate grains before the advent of agriculture. "The human requirement for grain is zero," he says. William Davis, MD, agrees: "The promotion of 'healthy whole grains' in the diet by the government, dietitians and physicians will go down as the biggest nutritional blunder ever made." One benefit of avoiding grains or even just dialing back your intake of them is that it gives you room and reason to include a rich variety of other, more nutritious whole foods, like dark leafy greens, squash, sweet potatoes, nets, seeds and legumes. And for that, your body will thank you.
6 September 2012