Dr. Fuhrman Dr. Fuhrman

Grains: health food or cause of all disease?


Many governmental nutrition organizations put grains at the bottom of the food pyramid. On the other hand, some low carb afficionados and rawfooders say grains are poison and the cause of all disease. Finally there are the nutritionists who choose the middle road: whole grains are good, but refined grains are bad. In this article, I look at some arguments from the grain nay-sayers.

Grains do not contain that many nutrients

Grains are touted as great sources of iron, magnesium, fiber and b-vitamins. They do indeed contain reasonable amounts of those nutrients, but if you compare the amount of nutrients in grains with the amount of nutrients in fruit, vegetables or beans, grains lose big time.

This is true, and a reason to not eat a grain based diet. However, you can only eat so much vegetables. Grains still have more nutrients per calorie than milk and eggs. See William Harris' article Less Grains, More Greens.

Grains contain phytic acid: an antinutrient

This is a big argument from anti-vegetarians. The phytic acid in plant foods (grains, nuts, beans etc.) binds with minerals (notably iron and zinc), so that the body cannot absorb these nutrients as well. This means that even though 100% whole wheat bread has more iron than white bread, your body actually gets more iron from white bread than from whole wheat bread, if eaten in isolation. This is a problem in third world countries where people do not have access to fruits and vegetables and have to get most of their nutrients from grains. In developed countries, phytic acid has never been shown to cause a problem in populations. Even vegans who eat lots of whole grains have high enough levels of iron and zinc.

It is well known that excess iron causes disease, so the fact that phytic acid prevents some of the iron absorption may actually be a good thing. Phytic acid is also an antioxidant (like vitamin C). It is thought to be one of the reasons why a high fiber diet is healthy. According to N. Rukma Reddy, author of Food Phytates, phytate has the potential ability to lower blood glucose, reduce cholesterol and triacylglycerols, and reduce the risks of cancer and heart disease.

Absorption of minerals can be enhanced by soaking grains, leavening them (such as in normal breads) fermenting them (such as in sourdough bread -- fermenting is more effective than leavening with yeast), sprouting them (such as in traditional Northern European rye bread and in sprouted wheat bread) and by eating vitamin C rich products at the same time. If you are healthy and eat a balanced diet full of vegetables, you do not have to worry about mineral absorption.

Grains raise your blood sugar rapidly

Grains have a relatively high glycemic index, especially when ground into flour. This means that they'll raise your blood sugar. Blood sugar rises are associated with diabetes and heart disease. It is interesting though, that in countries where people get the majority of their calories from whole grains, such as rural China, people do not get heart disease and diabetes. It does not seem to be something intrinsic to those countries, since dr. Mc Dougall has great success reversing diabetes with a vegan diet high in whole grains.

Grains are acid forming

This is a complicated subject on which you can find lots of quackery information on the internet. I'll discuss it in more detail in a future article, but in summary: foods are either acid or alkaline. In general, we need more alkaline foods. Fruits and vegetables are alkaline. Grains are among the most acid forming foods there are. One exception is quinoa: it is neutral.

So what should you eat?

I agree with the grain nay-sayers that grains are not ideal food. However, they can be part of a healthy diet. Here are some tips so make the most out of the grains in your diet:

  • Choose whole grains over refined grains: Refined grains lose many nutrients and raise your blood sugar even more rapidly than whole grains. Eat your grains with a source of vitamin c (cauliflower, bell peppers, spinach, berries, grapefruit etc.) to maximize absorption of nutrients. Do not eat just the bran: it is exceptionally rich in phytic acid. If you eat a healthy diet you get plenty of fiber, there is no need for extracted bran
  • Chose intact grains over flour products: If you grind grain into a flour, it can raise your blood sugar even more rapidly. The more intact a grain, the slower it is absorbed. Choose oatmeal over oat flour, and choose steel cut oats over oatmeal. It is best to soak the grains overnight in water. If you have to use flour products I believe pasta is a better choice than bread. Pasta, when cooked al dente, has a relatively low glycemic index and because it is cooked rather than baked, it does not form potential carcinogens. Breads are high in salt and often have added fat as well.
  • Chose more nutritious grains over less nutritious grains: Not all grains are created equal. See the table below for a comparison between popular grains. As you can see, quinoa and amaranth have much more iron per portion than for example rice. Oats are great for protein and barley and rye are very high in fiber.
  • Chose a wide variety of grains: despite the tip above, I do not recommend you only eat one or two kinds of grains. Variety is an important part of a healthy diet. All natural foods have some health promoting components and there is much more to health than vitamins, minerals and macronutrients.

Nutrient values in grains

Here are some nutrients in different grains in a 200 calorie portion. This is about 60 grams (2 ounces) dry grains. Click on a nutrient title to sort by that nutrient.

description grams protein carbs fiber iron magnesium manganese
Oats 51 8.68 34.07 5.45 2.43 91.00 2.52
Rye 60 8.81 41.65 8.72 1.59 72.24 1.60
Spaghetti, whole-wheat, dry 57 8.41 43.12   2.09 82.18 1.75
Amaranth 53 7.73 35.39 4.97 4.06 142.25 1.21
Buckwheat 58 7.73 41.69 5.83 1.28 134.69 0.76
Quinoa 53 7.01 36.84 3.16 4.95 112.30 1.21
Wheat, hard red winter 61 7.71 43.54 7.46 1.95 77.06 2.43
Barley 56 7.05 41.51 9.77 2.03 75.14 1.10
Millet, raw 53 5.83 38.54 4.50 1.59 60.32 0.86
Rice, brown, long-grain, raw 54 4.29 41.75 1.89 0.79 77.30 2.02

May 11, 2006