• Hana Kovac

The Problem With Grains

When you look at eating habits around the world nowadays, it might seem that we actually forgot where we came from. Consider our meals within one day. The chances are high that we eat cereals or bread for breakfast, sandwich for lunch and pasta for dinner. The sad truth is that our bodies did not evolve to eat this kind of diet at all. Let me quickly take you through a resume of human evolution: For millions of years we were dependent on hunting and gathering and only around 20,000 to 10,000 years ago we began to use cereal grains for food. Hunters and gatherers derived most of their calories from about 100-200 different species of wild animal, fruits and vegetables. But with the advent of agriculture man became dependent upon a few staple cereal foods, such as wheat, rice and corn, few domesticated meat species, and around 20 plant foods.

So what is the problem with grains?

During evolution, plants learned to produce chemicals to defend against predators, such as insects and birds. These chemical defences can act as repellents or toxins to herbivores, or reduce plant digestibility. Grains also contain phytic acid (as do nuts, beans and other seeds) that makes them difficult to break down in our digestive system. Fortunately, human innovation of cooking may have been particularly helpful in overcoming many of these defensive chemicals of plants. Many enzyme inhibitors in cereal grains, are denatured by cooking, making them digestible. Also, for thousands of years, humans used specific preparation methods to help reduce the problematic properties of grains and make them more bioavailable. Among these traditional methods are soaking, sprouting or fermenting. Since most people have weak digestive systems, eating grains without soaking them can cause symptoms of digestive upset. Especially people with autoimmune diseases should never consume unfermented grains.

But even for people with good digestive systems grains should not represent a staple in their diet. The main culprit is vitamin deficiency as diets based primarily on plant foods tend to be low or deficient in vitamin B12. This nutrient is found exclusively in animal products. Therefore it is strictly recommended to supplement with vitamin B12 if you are eating a vegetarian diet. Also, vitamin D utilization by the body can be inhibited by an excessive consumption of cereal grains. Cereal grains are poor sources of sodium and calcium as well. Moreover, they are low in fats, including the omega-3 fatty acids.

Healthy substitutes for grains

There are many substitutes for grains such as millet, quinoa, amaranth and buckwheat. These grain-like seeds are very ancient foods used by man for thousands of years. In fact, buckwheat and amaranth are thought to have been cultivated about 6000 years ago. These foods are gluten-free, high in protein and high in fiber.

  1. Amaranth - Contains B vitamins, calcium, iron and Vitamin C. Amaranth may help lower cholesterol.

  2. Buckwheat - Rich in flavonoids like rutin and a good source of magnesium, buckwheat is good for your cardiovascular system. It's a valuable food for those with diabetes, as it can be helpful for regulating blood sugar.

  3. Millet - A good source of manganese, phosphorus, and magnesium, millet is beneficial for your heart.

  4. Quinoa - A good source of manganese, magnesium, iron, copper, phosphorous, and riboflavin (B2). Quinoa may be helpful if you have migraines, diabetes or atherosclerosis.

The take home message is that we should mainly consume unprocessed real food such as abundance of seasonal vegetables, animal products from a good source (if you are a vegetarian always supplement with B12), some fruit, soaked nuts and seeds and if consuming, fermented grains. If you are looking for some recipes go to Foodie in Provence/Fermentation.

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