Most of us have probably tried eyeing our empty bread basket at a restaurant, thinking: Should I feel bad for eating this entire thing before the first appetizers have been served?
And it’s not surprising; grains and starches have been out of fashion in the health world for quite some time now, even though they have been a nutritional staple of many civilizations for thousands of years. In this article, we’ll be taking a closer look at what the pro’s and con’s of grains are, both for our own health and for the environment.
So, why aren’t grains evil?
We risk losing a lot of nuances when we pigeonhole entire food groups as being either good or bad - there are just too many different types of grains and ways of processing them. So let’s start by breaking down the anatomy of grains, the seeds taken from grain crops such as wheat, barley, rye and rice.
A whole, unprocessed grain kernel consists of three parts:
Refined grains have the bran and germ removed making them nutrient-poor but high in calories, which is why they are sometimes referred to ‘’empty calories’’. Since refined grains aren’t accompanied by the same amount of fibre found whole grains, they cause rapid spikes in your blood sugar which can lead to hunger pangs and hard-to-control cravings. Examples of refined grains are white flour and white rice, and you can find refined grains in most of the baked goods and other processed treats most of us like to indulge in from time to time.
Whole grains, on the other hand, retain 100% per cent of the original kernel. The bran and germ considerably boost the nutritional profile of grain, providing about 25% more protein and 50-75% more nutrients than their refined counterparts. Carbohydrates, one of the three main macronutrients, can be found in abundance in whole (and refined) grains. Though you can safely choose to eat very few carbohydrates and get your energy from other macronutrients, healthy carbohydrates are a valuable source of energy for those who don’t react badly to them.
What makes the carbohydrate content interesting in whole grains, is that they are far richer in fibre than their refined counterparts. Due to the fibre content, they contain less digestible carbohydrate, making digestion less rapid. This contributes to a lower and more gradual rise in blood sugar, keeping you full for longer and potentially reducing your chances of developing diabetes and cardiac disease.
Here are some example of whole grains and some ideas on how to incorporate them into your diet:
- Buckwheat, Barley, Spelt, Amaranth, Bulgur: These grains are great as a carbohydrate side dish or a filler in salads, and can also be used in porridges
- Rolled Oats: An easy breakfast food that can be used in muesli, oatmeal and baked goods
- Whole grain/wheat flours: You can use flours made from many different types of whole grains to make bread or other baked goods packed with lots of nutrients and fibre
Based on their respective nutritional profiles it can seem like a no brainer to ditch all refined grains and only eat barley and oats forever, but a less drastic approach can be easier to sustain. Thinking of whole grains as your staple, everyday foods and choosing to indulge refined grains when meaningful occasions arise ensures that you get all the benefits of whole grains while maintaining your sanity and not over restricting in a way that has a negative impact on your social life and happiness.
Gluten, a protein found in many grains has been in the spotlight in the last decade. If you are among the 1% of people who suffer from celiac disease, gluten causes an immune reaction that triggers inflammation and damages your intestines and other parts of the body. The only way to avoid the immune reaction is to completely cut out gluten.
Some people are not quite celiac, but ‘’gluten-sensitive’’, which means their tests come back negative for celiac disease, but they experience many of the same symptoms. If you don’t fall under the categories celiac or gluten sensitive, there is no solid evidence indicating that gluten-free diets are better for you, and you risk missing out on some tasty and nutritious types of grains. Luckily, for those who find they don't feel quite right when they consume gluten, there are plenty of naturally gluten-free grains, such as rice, oats, quinoa, maize and buckwheat.
Before we get into the environmental impact of grains, let’s talk about the benefits of eating fermented grains. Sourdough bread is leavened with lactobacillus bacteria and naturally occurring yeasts. During fermentation the bacteria and yeast digest starches in the dough, producing lactic acid and carbon dioxide. The lactic acid serves as a probiotic in your digestive system, helping ‘’good bacteria’’ thrive: these good bacteria need all the support they can get, as they help your immune system fend off inflammation and infections. Basically, if you ferment your grains before you eat them, you further boost the nutritional profile of whole grains; and sourdough bread tastes pretty fantastic too!
Sounds good, but what about the earth though?
Meat-centric diets such as paleo and keto have many dedicated fans, but letting more grains into your diet affords our farming land and water supply some much-needed breathing room. A 2012 dutch study found that a single calorie of beef required almost 20 more gallons of water to produce than a single grain calorie. Apart from that, most grains have a host of other qualities that make them a seriously good staple food if you want to eat with the environment in mind:
- Grains are more resilient to weather conditions than most other crops
- Most grains are quite nutritionally dense compared to the resources need to grow them
- After they are harvested, grains can be stored for long periods of time, leading to less food waste
But like almost everything else, the environmental viability of grain consumption isn’t black and white.
Rice is a good example of this; it provides more calories to the global population than any other food, but the production, unfortunately, isn't great for the environment. Apart from requiring massive amounts of water to grow, rice production emits significant amounts of methane and nitrous oxide, both not only greenhouse gases but ozone layer destroyers. On a hopeful note, since it is such a staple food in many parts of the world, rice-producing nations in Asia are investing in finding ways to mitigate water use and climate pollution.
Quinoa is another crop that illustrates of the complexity of sustainable eating, because though it is supremely nutritious and it would be great if we could eat it ad libitum, it is a crop that relies on a non-colonial type of farming: grown in the Andean region of Bolivia, the best fertilizer for it comes from grazing llama’s. Because western demand has skyrocketed, the fertilizer from llamas is slowly being replaced by less effective commercial fertilizers in an attempt to free more land for quinoa production, leaving soil continuously more depleted. The extreme demand from the outside world has made quinoa, a staple of the Andean diet, a commodity that local farmers no longer feel they can afford to indulge into the same degree.
This situation is not decidedly bad, as it has a positive effect on the Bolivian economy, but it is a reminder that everything we eat is woven into a complicated tapestry of social and environmental factors, and we should calibrate our consumption of the foods we eat with the consequences that follow.
Barley in tomato
Big juicy barley kernels saturated with tomato. Almost risotto-like in texture. What is not to like? Tuck in!
Enough to provide the carbohydrate component in several meals for 2 over the next few days.
24 hours, but it only takes you 2 minutes mix the barley and tomato and then 15-20 minutes to boil the barley
Leftovers keep for 3-4 days refrigerated
How to use
The same way you could use rice, pasta, potatoes or sweet potatoes as the carbohydrate component of a meal. Cold leftovers are brilliant stirfried with plenty of vegetables or mixed into salads. Other whole grains – whole oat kernels, brown rice, red rice, whole wheat kernels etc. – can be prepared in the same way.
4 dl or 1 ¾ cup whole barley kernels
¾ L/0.8 quart water
¾ L/0.8 quart canned tomatoes
High-quality cold-pressed vegetable oil, such as extra virgin olive oil
How to prepareSoak the barley kernels in all the water and all the tomato overnight.
Add the barley kernels and the water and tomatoes they’ve soaked into a pot and bring to a boil.
Turn down the heat and simmer for 15-20 minutes under a lid until the barley is tender and has soaked up all the tomato sauce. Stir every 3-4 minutes to prevent the bottom from burning.
Stir in a small amount of high-quality oil, once the barley is cooked and enjoy hot or cold.