Grains are a staple part of our diet in almost every part of the world, but not all grains are created equal. Do you know which grains will benefit your body, and which cause health issues and make you gain weight? Read on to find out about the healthy grains that can help you lose those unwanted pounds and improve your health.
Carbohydrates are your body’s fuel. The Food Pyramid advocates getting most of your daily carbs from sources such as bread, pasta and rice[i]. Grains are a good source of carbohydrates, providing energy for the body to function and propelling you through your busy days, but it’s important to choose the right ones for optimum health.
Whole Grains vs Refined Grains
The way grains are processed affects their nutritional value, and their effects on your weight and wellbeing:
A whole grain kernel is constituted of the bran (the outer shell of the grain, which protects the seed and contains fiber, B vitamins and trace minerals), the endosperm (which provides nutrition in the form of carbohydrates and protein), and the germ (the heart of the seed, which contains antioxidants and essential fatty acids).
When grains are refined, both the bran and the germ are removed. Manufacturers remove the bran to create white flour, which gives baked goods a light and fluffy texture. They remove the germ, which contains essential fatty acids, to increase product shelf life[ii]. This leaves just the endosperm, which is composed mostly of carbohydrate. Refining grains removes the most nutritious elements of this staple food. Some refining practices go to the trouble of adding some nutrients back into the flour – but it’s never as good as the real thing.
On a nutritional level, whole grains are much better for your health than refined grains, as they contain essential nutrients such as B vitamins and essential fatty acids. Your body uses B vitamins to help your cells turn food into energy. Essential fatty acids are just that – essential – because your body doesn’t produce them, so you need to ensure you include them in your diet. They’re essential for maintaining healthy skin, strong bones and especially good brain function. Studies show that essential fatty acids play a key role in keeping our brains sharp, and are crucial for wellbeing[iii].
Whole grains also contain much more fiber than refined grains. Fiber keeps your digestive system healthy, and feeds the good bacteria in your gut. Research shows that a healthy gut bacteria supports a strong immune system, reducing your chances of illness[iv].
Refined grains aren’t just low in nutrients, they can harm your health too. Refined carbohydrates, in the form of refined grains, sugar and processed foods, cause a spike in blood sugar followed by a sharp drop, causing hunger and lethargy in the short term, weight gain and Type 2 diabetes in the long term.
On the other hand, whole grains like the ones mentioned above are complex carbohydrates. They contain fiber and nutrients, so are absorbed more slowly by the body, providing more constant energy.
A study published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition showed that a diet high in whole grains reduces the risk of both heart disease, and type 2 diabetes[v].
How Whole Grains Can Help You Lose Weight
Unlike refined grains, whole grains are packed full of fiber, which slows down the digestion of your food. This also helps you feel fuller for longer, so you’re less likely to snack between meals. Just a small change like swapping your white bread with whole grain bread will go a long way in helping you achieve your diet goals.
It’s important therefore to choose whole grains over refined grains, but the story doesn’t end there. Some grains are linked to digestive problems and weight gain, while others boast many health properties and can help you lose weight.
Gluten In Grains
Some grains, like wheat, barley and rye, contain gluten. Gluten comes from the latin world for glue. It’s responsible for giving dough its elasticity and helping it retain its shape, and it also gives food a chewy texture. It’s not all good however, as gluten is linked with many health issues:
It’s believed that one in every hundred people has coeliac disease, an autoimmune disease caused by intolerance to gluten. The same glue like property that sticks dough together also interferes with your food absorption, forming an undigested lump in your gut. The undigested gluten triggers the immune system to attack the stomach lining. This in turn causes many health problems, and in time the damaged stomach lining is unable to properly absorb nutrients.
Symptoms of coeliac disease include bloating, wind, constipation, diarrhoea, nausea, tiredness, hair loss, dermatitis and anaemia. Sufferers are also at higher risk of other illnesses due to the vitamin deficiencies[vi] associated with the disease.
In the last sixty years, the number of people suffering from gluten intolerance, a precursor to coeliac disease if it’s not treated early, has quadrupled[vii]! This has been directly linked with an increase in the consumption of refined grains, and especially wheat. Since the industrialisation of food, the quality of the grains we consume has changed – fiber and nutrients have been removed, leaving a product that is high in calories but low in nourishment.
Do You Have Gluten Intolerance?
It’s easy to check if you have gluten intolerance – how do you feel after you eat wheat, rye or barley? Do you feel bloated or unwell? Does your skin develop a rash? Gluten is also present in many processed foods – in ingredients such as malt, hydrogenized vegetable protein, starches and natural flavorings.
The best way to avoid gluten is to focus on natural, organic whole foods, and to prepare your meals from scratch. But you don’t have to go without pasta or bread – these days there are many great alternatives to choose from in health food shops: from buckwheat noodles to millet bread. Those diagnosed with coeliac disease have to go on a life-long gluten-free diet to avoid health complications, but even if you haven’t been diagnosed with this disease, swapping to gluten-free grains will help you feel healthier.
What Are The Healthy Grains?
The good news is that not all grains contain gluten. Here are three of the tastiest, healthiest gluten free grains that will satisfy your carb cravings and help you lose weight.
Buckwheat contains a lot of magnesium, one of the essential nutrients your body needs to function properly. Magnesium is important for energy production, and maintaining healthy muscles. A diet high in magnesium protects against the risk of heart disease and Type 2 diabetes[viii].
How To Include Buckwheat In Your Diet
Buckwheat is very versatile. Use the flour to bake breads and fruit loaves, or buckwheat noodles to accompany a vegetable stir-fry. Sprouted buckwheat is deliciously crunchy and can be added to homemade muesli for an energizing breakfast.
Millet is also high in magnesium. It’s packed full of another essential mineral, manganese[ix], which helps to stabilize blood sugar and is needed for proper brain function. Millet is a good source of protein, making it a good addition to vegetarian diets. Research indicates that including more protein as part of a healthy diet leads to weight loss[x].
How To Include Millet In Your Diet
Millet has a sweet nutty taste and can be added to your diet in numerous ways. Use it to replace couscous for a side dish with a difference. Or why not replace your bowl of cereal for a bowl of nutritious and tasty millet porridge, served with a few nuts and a bit of fruit? Check out the easy recipe at the end of this article.
Amaranth is a very complete grain. It contains high amounts of manganese, as well as iron, essential for energy production and healthy blood cells, and phosphorous, important for building muscle and metabolism function[xi].
How To Include Amaranth In Your Diet
Amaranth flour has a delicious malty flavour – try making amaranth cookies with dried fruits instead of chocolate chips. The whole grains can be used in dishes like tabouleh. It makes a great addition to salads – use it instead of pasta for a filling and healthy lunch.
Grains As Part Of A Healthy Weight Loss Diet
You don’t have to give up bread and pasta to lose weight –including gluten-free whole grains as part of a balanced diet, high in fruits and vegetables, will boost your energy, improve your health, and help you lose weight.
Why not try this healthy millet porridge recipe for breakfast and kick-start your healthy diet:
Millet Porridge Recipe
Ingredients (serves 2):
- 1 cup hulled millet
- 1 cup water
- 1 cup almond milk (or milk of your choice)
- 1 tbsp maple syrup or honey (to taste)
- 1 cup chopped strawberries
- Handful chopped pecans
- Sprinkle of cinnamon
Place the millet, water and milk into a pan, bring to the boil and stir over a medium heat for 15-20 minutes, until a porridge like consistency is attained. Depending on how you like your porridge, add more milk for a less dense texture.
Stir in the maple syrup or honey, chopped strawberries, pecans and cinnamon, and its done – a delicious, uplifting, healthy meal that’ll keep you full up till lunch. You need never be bored at breakfast - try millet porridge with other fruit and nut combinations for more ways to start your day well.
[xi] Holford, Patrick; The Optimum Nutrition Bible; GB, Piatkus Books (2009); pages 484 & 487