What To Eat - Part 1 - Are Grains Good or Bad?
Last month we looked at “how we eat” and this month we move on to “what to eat”. The question of “what to eat”, unfortunately has become overly complicated. There are so many diets that proclaim to be “the perfect diet”. Research studies (many that are flawed) about “superfoods”, foods that will kill us, and those that will heal us abound. There's the high protein/low-carb diet, many variations of the Paleo diet, the low-fat diet, the gluten-free diet, as well as vegan and detox diets. It's just downright confusing to try to wade through all of the hype to know what you should really be eating. With this and future articles, we are doing a deep dive into the various components of a healthy eating plan in hopes that we can help you sort it out.
The Traditional Approach Toward Food
Let's just take a step back for a minute and look at how our ancestors approached food. Over time, they figured out the ways of eating that made them healthy and those that didn't. They took into consideration what was available locally and seasonally. There were no supermarkets that brought foods from all over the world. Foods were grown without chemicals, cows ate grass, not grains, and they weren't given antibiotics and hormones. Our ancestors adjusted their diet to meet their needs based on their age, level of activity as well as the climate that they lived in. Growing youngsters, pregnant women, those whose jobs were very physical, and those who lived in cold climates needed more rich, nourishing foods. Those who were elderly, had weakened digestive systems or were recovering from illness needed to eat more light foods that could be easily transformed into nutrients that could be readily absorbed. They understood that we all have different needs and there is no single diet that is right for everyone.
Contrast that with our “modern” diet that tends to include more rich foods rather than light foods and things that aren't even “real” food. Rich foods are those that are loaded with fat, salt, sugar, and artificial flavoring. Processed foods that line our supermarket shelves can contain ingredients that our bodies don't even recognize as food like artificial (chemical) flavors and colors. Many times nutrients are damaged, removed or altered. People that consume mostly rich foods and processed foods typically have a range of health issues including being overweight, diabetes, heart problems, autoimmune issues and more. One result of the modern diet is that most people consume drastically less fiber then their ancestors did. This is one explanation for the rise in intestinal diseases and even cancer.
Balance and moderation are the key to a healthy diet. Thankfully, farmer's markets are making a big comeback and we can easily apply the logic of our ancestors to strike a balance of rich and light foods based on our individual needs, while considering foods that are in season and grown locally.
But what specifically should we eat? One of our teachers used to say “look at our own physiology to determine the ratios of what we should be eating.” One example of this is to look to how our teeth are constructed for dietary guidelines. About 60 percent of our teeth are molars (and premolars), these are the grain-grinders; 30 percent are incisors, these are the fruit and veggie eaters; 10 percent are the canines, these help with meat. Generally, if we use this as a starting point for our food selection and then listen to our body, we will be hard pressed to go far off. Factors such as age, climate, stress and physical activity all play a part what the ideal ratio will be. Just keep in mind that these ratios change over time, so we need to pay attention to the signals our body is giving.
Thus a healthy diet is a combination of proteins, carbohydrates and fat that includes meats, vegetables, grains, and other real foods. Understanding how to combine these in a way that provides your body with the balance of nutrients it needs deserves our attention. In the clinic, part of the treatment process is to raise awareness of how ones diet is affecting them. By knowing what cues our body is sending and learning to pay attention to them, we can make the adjustments necessary keep our body in balance. When we know the cues,what they mean and how to respond to them the question of what to eat becomes surprisingly, refreshingly simple. Rather than give you a cursory overview of each component of a healthy diet today, we want to provide adequate detail to each aspect and it’s importance in our health. Let's start with one that has, unfortunately, somehow become controversial – grains.
Are Grains Good or Bad --- or Both?
Most Paleo and low carb diets advocate against grains using the argument that modern grains are inferior, have been subjected to chemicals and genetic modification, are difficult to digest in their whole food form, and have become so processed that no real nutrients remain. This is all true in the majority of grain products on the market today. In fact, the prevalence of inferior, improperly prepared grain products have become so common that a great many people has actually never had high, quality properly prepared grain-based foods.
With breads and cereals, most contain over-milled “enriched” flour, even though the label may says something like “made with whole grains”. Flours that are “enriched” like white and wheat flour have been stripped of virtually all the nutrients and fiber out of a whole grain of wheat. So what you’re left with is a dead, lifeless powder with an almost indefinite shelf-life. When is the last time that you saw a Twinkie go bad? This makes it a perfect binding agent to hold together sugar, sodium, artificial colors, flavors, preservatives, additives, and other chemicals. Products made with enriched flour as one of the first ingredients are nutritionally useless, even though they have been “enriched” with certain synthetic vitamins required by the FDA. Granola is mostly just another processed breakfast cereal and while it may contain whole grains, they have been processed with a high heat that makes them even more undigestable. Sorry, granola lovers! Like it or not, there is simply no substitute for soaked gruels and porridges.
But grains are known to have lots of nutrients and fiber, and have played a central and pivotal role in our diet for millennia. This is evidenced in so many ways. In many, many languages the term for grains and food and meal are identical; in both Japanese and Filipino, for instance, the word for rice and eat are the same. Breakfast in these languages are translated literally as morning rice.
In order for grain products to be healthy, they need to meet three criteria: Whole, freshly prepared and properly processed. The secret to unlocking the goodness in grains is in the preparation. Fortunately there is a way that grains can be prepared so that you can get the good parts without the bad. For you bread lovers, this is great news. To get the nutrients in grains, you'll need to pay close attention to the ingredients in the bread and how it is prepared.
Whole Grains Are Where it's at
Most of us have gotten the message that whole grains are best, and we agree. What is missing from that message is that whole grains need to be prepared in the right way in order for them to be properly digested and therefore of benefit.
Whole grains contain essential nutrients, fiber and vitamins, remove toxins from the body and more importantly prevent their build up in the first place.
On the flip side, all grains, nuts, and seeds contain phytic acid in the outer layer or bran, an enzyme inhibitor that keeps the seed’s nutrient content stable and in storage. If this storage mechanism is not effectively turned off, the grain cannot be effectively digested. Thus we don’t get the benefit of important minerals like calcium, magnesium, zinc and others. This can lead to mineral deficiencies, bone loss and irritable bowels. Whole grains have three major components to them: Bran, Endosperm, and Germ. The bran includes insoluble fiber, B vitamins and trace minerals and phytochemicals, plus trace amounts of protein. The Endosperm contains carbohydrates, protein, and soluble fiber. And the germ holds the Vitamin E and fats, B vitamins, trace minerals, and small amounts of protein.
Just like fruits, which we will address later, grains need to be relatively intact to be healthy, the more we deviate from the original form , the more likely we are to mess it up.
Grains are essentially seeds that have been hybridized over thousands of years to be compatible with human physiology. The most important aspect of a seed is stored energy. However, it takes a conversion process to allow humans to unlock the potential of these seeds to access this powerhouse of stuff that sustains us. Traditionally, our ancestors learned to properly prepare grains by fermenting, soaking and sprouting before being made into breads, cakes or porridge. By following these traditional practices we are able to get the full nutritional value of the grain while neutralizing the negative effects of phytic acid. Proper preparation is especially important for wheat, oats, barley and rye because they contain gluten and are not easily digested without soaking or fermenting to release phytase (the enzyme that breaks down the phytic acid). Grains like rice and millet, do not contain gluten and are more easily digested, so don't require fermenting, but do benefit from slow cooking in bone broth. The exception here is brown rice which still has the bran intact making it harder to digest, so do soak it. Sprouting is the process of germination and almost any whole grain or seed can be sprouted – wheat berries, barley, dried beans, radish seeds, onion seeds, chia seeds, chick peas and almonds are examples.
There are three ways to “unlock” the seeds. Note that in the best cases, a combination of methods are usually used. Remember one characteristic of all grains is that they are difficult to digest in the human GI tract.
- Grinding and Milling: By grinding the grains, we are breaking open stored potential of the seed and dramatically increasing the surface area allowing for more efficient preparation. Traditionally some milling was used to begin to break down and remove a some of the bran which contains the insoluble fiber. This process is especially important with the hardest to digest of grains, including rice and buckwheat. We don't want to over mill the grains though where where the only thing left is the sticky glue. The heat associated with industrial or over-grinding destroys the phytase enzyme that helps break down the phytic acid.
- Soaking, Fermenting or Souring – Soaking grains in warm water allows enzymes, lactobacilli and other helpful organisms to break down and neutralize phytic acid and difficult-to-digest proteins like gluten. The simple practice of soaking cracked or rolled cereal grains overnight will greatly improve their nutritional benefits by increasing the amount of vitamins available to the body, especially B vitamins. Before the advent of yeasted breads, fermenting was the primary method of predigesting grains in many parts of the world. In some cases yogurt, kefir, or buttermilk are added during the soaking process to increase the predigestion, but the fermenting and souring occur over a longer period of time. Sourdough bread is the best example. Sourdough fermentation is by far the preferred method for reducing phytic acid in breads and bread-products.
- Sprouting – Sprouting acts to predigest grains and decompose the phytic acid and certain sugars that can cause gas. Starch is transformed into sugars and numerous enzymes that aid digestion are produced. This germination process can increase enzyme activity by as much as six times. Sprouting is typically combined with soaking to remove the maximum amount of phytic acid.
One other note: You can help mitigate phytic acid in your diet with complementary foods rich in vitamin C, vitamin D and calcium. In fact, the absorbable calcium from bone broths and raw dairy products, as well as vitamin D from certain animal fats can help to reduce the adverse effects of phytic acid.
How do do it:
Here’s a great video where Sally Fallon, author of Nourishing Traditions talks about how to best prepare grains.
Start with a quality grain, organic where possible. If you can, buy organic or biodynamic whole grains and roll or crack them yourself using a roller or grain grinder (even a vitamix will work). Grains, once ground, can become rancid quickly, so fresh ground is best. If you buy grains that have been rolled or cracked, buy them in packages rather than from a bin where they tend to get rancid. Check the dates on packaged products and look for those that have been packaged recently. After wheat has been ground, natural wheat-germ oil becomes rancid at about the same rate that milk becomes sour, so refrigeration of whole grain breads and flours is necessary. For sprouting, look for whole grains like wheat, rye, kamut, barley, and spelt berries before they have been ground. Beware that seeds that have been irradiated (like those in spices), will not sprout. To purchase whole grains, beans and seeds, check out Yesterdays Kitchen 4 Today located in Newnan on the Square or online at www.yesterdayskitchen4today.com. To find kefir and yogurt for soaking and fermenting, visit the Country Junction Farms at the Peachtree City Farmer's Market.
Soaking & Fermenting:
To soak, simply place mix 1 cup of whole grains, rolled or coarsly ground grains in 1 cup of warm water with 2 teaspoons of whey, kefir, yogurt or buttermilk, and leave it in a warm place for 7 – 24 hours. Rye may need more soaking than oats. If you have severe milk allergies, use lemon juice or apple cider vinegar instead of the whey, kefir, yogurt or buttermilk. For ground corn, use 1 cup of lime water (see recipe below) instead of the warm water mixture. Oats don't contain much phytase, so it's best to add some rye flakes or flour or spelt flour to the soak.
First you'll need a sourdough starter usually made with organic rye flour and filtered water (chlorine filtered out) or you can purchase a starter which will speed things up a little. This will take several days to get going, so plan accordingly. You'll also need a wide mouthed canister or large jar. You won't use the lid since the starter depends on bacteria from the air, but you will want to cover it with cheesecloth to keep debris out. See the recipe below for the steps involved. Within a week your starter should be ready to use for making bread, although it will be more reliable and have better flavor by the third week as the bacteria take hold. Once established, you can continue to feed the starter with your flour of choice (of course, not refined white flour) and adjust the amount of liquid.
You'll need a wide mouth quart jar and a piece of window screen cut to fit the top of the jar (replacing the solid insert). Fill it 1/3 of the way with any grain or seed. Add filtered water to the top of the jar and screw on the top with the screen insert. Let them soak overnight for only 1 night and then pour off the water. Rinse the seeds well (just add more water and pour it out keeping the lid on). Invert the jar and let it sit at an angle so air can get into the jar and it can still drain. Rinse the seeds at least 2-3 times a day and they will be ready in 1-4 days. Look for a little white sprout to know that they are ready. Shake out any excess moisture, remove the screen insert and replace the solid insert in the lid, and store them in the refrigerator.
OMG – I don't have that kind of time!
If you just aren't up to preparing grains and cooking your own breads, there are several breads on the market now that replace the commercially made breads that lack any nutritional value. First, probably the best option is to visit our Peachtree City Farmers Market and visit David at The Real Bread Company booth. His bread is freshly ground just prior to use and contains all of the parts of the grain. It's all organic and never “enriched”. You'll also find sprouted and sourdough breads at stores like Sprouts or Whole Foods. Be sure to read ingredients and look for organic grains. With sourdough breads, make sure they are actually fermented and don't just have added vinegar. Alvarado Street Bakery and Ezekial Bread are brands that you can find in stores – look in the refrigerated section.
That said, we have found that there are some things in life that simply can’t be short-cut and food is one of those items. Advance planning is the key. Many of the methods are not actually any more time-consuming, but you have to plan ahead. For instance, the pancake recipe we use is simple, but it requires that we have the grains milled and available 24 hours ahead of time so we can soak them, but the actual cooking time doesn’t take any more time. The result is a highly nutritious and easy-to-digest whole-grain food with wonderful robust flavor.
As you can see, the topic of what to eat has many nuances and details. That's why we are taking it one step at the time, providing you with key information to help you make the best food choices and not become too overwhelmed by the details. In future issues we will look at vegetables, fruits, meats and dairy among others. If there are specifics you want to learn more about, please let us know.
Soaking Ground Corn
Traditional recipes call for soaking ground corn in lime water to release the B vitamins and improve the amino acid quality.
Make limewater by placing about 1 inch of pickling lime in a 2 quart jar. Fill the jar with filtered water and shake well, cover tightly and let it sit over night. The lime will settle and the clear liquid is the limewater that you'll use to soak your grains. To soak, use 1 cup of coarsely ground corn and 1 cup of limewater instead of filtered water.
Nourishing Cook website – contains all of the recipes from Nourishing Traditions
Posted in Nutrition