A MAJOR new study has found that even small daily servings of wholegrains can help you live longer. The Harvard meta analysis (overview) of research involving almost 800,000 people found that regular consumption lowered the risk of death from any cause by 20%, of cardiovascular deaths by 25%, and cancer deaths by 14%.
Of course wholegrains are a rich source of fibre, vitamins, minerals, nutrients such as antioxidants and phytoestrogens, and even some protein, which are all vital for optimum wellbeing. A 2011 survey found that over 80% of Irish adults are not getting enough fibre, which is central to digestive and heart health, the prevention of obesity and diabetes, constipation and colon cancer, and a crucial source of ‘food’ for the good gut bacteria that underpins almost every area of physical and mental health.
And of course we know that we need to avoid anything refined or white (pasta, rice, bread, wraps etc) which are all processed in the body as the sugars that lead directly to inflammation, obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular issues among many others, but there is ongoing debate about whether we actually need to or should include grains in our diets at all. The anti lobby points out that the outcome of these studies is to be expected in that people who eat wholegrains tend to be people who lead healthier lifestyles anyway; that humans weren’t designed to eat grains; that even non-coeliacs have multiple potential issues with the gluten found in wheat, barley and rye; and that there is nothing in grains that can’t be found in other plant foods like vegetables and pulses.
It’s true that there is in some cases more available fibre in those other plant foods than in grains. And it’s true that the latter have a more acidic and inflammatory effect on the body, and a greater GI effect on blood sugar and so insulin levels, the end result of which is weight gain and the problems with insulin that lead eventually to diabetes and other inflammatory conditions like heart disease and cancer. Hence the popularity of high protein/low carb weight-loss regimes, which while effective are restrictive, and will run health risks if enough vegetables aren’t included.
Studies have shown benefits even with small amounts of wholegrains and the answer, in my view, is as always variety, and moderation. Especially if you’re trying to lose weight, stick to one handful serving a day, at the evening meal to help you sleep, and go for the more nutritionally dense grains. Oats, for instance, score highly in several of these studies. They are fairly low on the glycaemic index (GI), releasing their energy slowly especially if paired with a protein like nuts or yoghurt. They’re packed with the kind of fibre that decreases the insulin response (which can lead to obesity and diabetes), and with nutrients that lower cholesterol quite significantly as well as the risk of heart disease and cancer.
Brown rice is gluten free and bursting with B vitamins, for emotional and physical wellbeing, as well as good amounts of essential minerals, though it’s relatively low on protein and high GI (causing the spikes in blood sugar levels that lead to problems with weight and insulin resistance). Combine with lentils or beans to make up a complete protein. Eat brown rice after a bout of diarrhoea or constipation—it normalises bowel function, and binds with toxins to remove them. The grain that really does earn the title of superfood (along with oats in my opinion) is gluten free quinoa, which is one of the few plant sources of complete protein. Quinoa contains vitamins B and E and minerals zinc, magnesium, manganese, potassium, phosphorous, iron, and compounds that address allergies.
Its high fibre content keeps the digestive and coronary systems in order without giving too much of a carb load. Cook it as a side/base like rice, for no more than twelve minutes having first rinsed it well. An excellent choice for fussy eaters, or for vegetarians who need to boost their protein, iron and other mineral levels.
Barley is much underused these days, but it has the same high fibre and cholesterol lowering properties that oats do (and scores as well in those studies), with loads of B vitamins and minerals, and can really stretch a soup or stew. It also scores quite low on the GI. Traditionally it was used for all sorts of ailments of the urinary and digestive tracts.
Another less fashionable choice would be millet, but it’s gluten free and boasts impressive array of nutrients—vitamins B, E and K, protein, zinc, iron, calcium, magnesium, potassium and so on-- and is unique amongst the grains in being alkaline forming, and so anti-inflammatory (good for issues like arthritis) and easy to digest. Rinse millet and boil gently for about forty five minutes (avoid or minimise of you suffer from low thyroid function).
An added bonus is that it’s rich in silica, which helps to form healthy skin, bone, hair and nail tissue. Amaranth and buckwheat are also nutritional powerhouses and gluten free; the first is one of those rare plant sources of complete protein and contains more iron than most grains, while the second is rich in rutin for circulation, and also helps to block the allergic response. Buckwheat flour is traditionally used to make pancakes, and you can grind other grains such as oats to make more nutritionally powerful flours.