How to Enjoy Grains and Seeds

Whole grains and seeds have played an important role in people’s diets for thousands of years.  Today, however, there’s some legitimate concern about eating grains/seeds.  Based on the information coming to light within the growing field of nutrition, grains and seeds should probably only compose a small part of a varied diet, and some people might need to abstain completely.

On the positive side, whole grains and seeds contain many important and healthy nutrients such as fiber, glucose (the body’s preferred type of sugar-based energy), B-vitamins, protein, Co-Q10, fiber, and hundreds of other phytonutrients (depending on the type of grain or seed), healthy fats, and antioxidants.  Research has shown that diets that include whole grains and seeds are associated with lower rates of heart disease, lower incidence of various cancers, healthy body weight, decreased likelihood of metabolic syndrome, and good gastrointestinal health.

One of the main reasons grains to minimize or abstain from grains is their gluten content.  In a small percentage of the population, gluten consumption can cause major health problems.  Some people have severe reactions (about 1%), while others have smaller reactions that can still interfere with optimum health (as many as 20-30% of the population might have some type of negative reaction to gluten).  This doesn’t mean, however, that grains are off limits for everyone.  The best way to see if your body reacts negatively to gluten is to stop eating it for a month and see how you feel.  Those who are gluten-intolerant may be interested in an ancient wheat called Einkorn — it’s often tolerated by those who are allergic.  As a side note, it’s interesting that that this ancient grain, unaffected by thousands of years of domestication, contains a potentially healthier form of gluten. To read more about Einkorn visit Einkorn.com.  There are also many grains and seeds that don’t contain any gluten at all (such as quinoa and rice).

Another potential problem with grains and seeds is their phytic acid content, often termed an “anti-nutrient.”  Phytic acid is thought to protect grains and seeds from being consumed by pests.  In the human digestive tract, however, phytic acid can bind to important minerals and prevent some of them from being absorbed by the body.  The impact on absorption depends on what type and how much of particular grain or seed is eaten.  While this is something to be concerned about, there are many other important nutrients in grains/seeds besides minerals, and some of the minerals are still absorbed.  (Read further to find out how to neutralize phytic acid content)

The third concern with seeds and grains is the amount of carbohydrates they contain.  It’s true, most grains contain a lot of carbohydrates, and too many carbohydrates can lead to weight gain, but the story is a bit different when it come to whole grains and seeds.  Diets that consist of only whole grains and seeds, rather than refined grains, white flour, or processed seeds, tend towards weight loss and healthy metabolism.  Thanks to their fiber content and higher nutrient density, whole foods are more satisfying than processed foods – resulting in the consumption of fewer calories.  When it comes to food, quality and variety tend to be more important than quantity.  When you eat high-quality, whole-foods, your body’s natural ability to regulate consumption and metabolism functions properly.

Keys to Enjoying Grains and Seeds:

  • If you choose to eat grains and seeds, be sure to only eat whole-grains/seeds that are minimally processed.
  • Grains and seeds grown using mass agricultural practices are sprayed with pesticides and grown with fertilizers.  Many grains are also genetically modified (GMO).  Genetic modification can negatively affect small farmers, the environment, and human health.  Therefore, purchase organic and non-GMO grains and seeds whenever possible.
  • Make grains and seeds one (small) part of a balanced diet that’s high in vegetables/fruit, proteins, and healthy fats.
  • Avoid baked goods that are loaded with added sweeteners (they’re often hidden, so look out).
  • There are several ways to minimize the phytic acid content in grains and seeds, thereby improving their digestibility and effective nutrient density.  These methods have been used for thousands of years and have only recently fell out of use (thanks to modern baking, cooking, and processing practices):
  • The easiest way to lower the phytic acid content of seeds (like quinoa and millet), beans, and whole grains (except for oatmeal), is by soaking them in water for approximately 8 hours.  Soaking can remove to up to 70% of the phytic acid content by activating the enzyme contained in many seeds called phytase.  Phytase can only be activated in uncooked seeds.  Once activated, phytase breaks down the phytic acid trough hydrolysis.  After soaking your grains, drain, rinse, then prepare as usual.
  • Another way to further reduce the phytic acid content is by sprouting the grains/seeds.  This usually takes several days, and the water must be changed each day to keep it fresh.  This method typically only decreases the phytic acid content by a small amount over soaking (so it might not be worth the extra effort).  Various seeds have differing sprouting times and it’s not necessary to actually see the sprout to know that it’s germinated.  The germination times for various grains and seeds can be easily found using an online search.  There are also several baked-good companies that offer ready-to-eat sprouted grains breads.  Trader Joe’s offers several sprouted grain breads at decent prices.  Other good brands include Ezekiel Bread and Alvarado Street Bakery.  If you have a favorite brand, I’d love to hear about it in the comment section below.
  • The final way to lower phytic acid content is through fermentation (aka sourdough).  Before industrially produced yeast was introduced during the late 19th century, fermentation was the only way to make bread rise.  Thus, for centuries most people who ate bread ate grains that were low in phytic acid content.  The fermentation required of the sourdough process can lower the phytic acid content in grains/seeds by up to 98%!  If you can find or make your own whole-grain/seed sour dough bread, you’ve got a delicious, healthy, and guilt-free loaf to go with your next meal!

As with so many other things in life, balance and moderation are key.  Unfortunately, through the processes of domestication and genetic isolation over time, some people can’t eat grains, but most can eat gluten-free seeds like quinoa or millet.  Health and nutrition information isn’t supposed to be burdening or over-restrictive, rather it should empower you to make informed decisions that become part of a healthy lifestyle.

Originally posted 2011-10-12 18:17:00.

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