Many people are considering the affect of grains and particularly gluten on their diet. This is causing some to reduce or remove grains and/or gluten from their diet. Some for health reasons, some purely because it makes them feel better and some because it is the latest diet that they want to try. In this last week of 'be kind to your body', I am going to explore the variety of grains, their role in the diet, their affect on our body with particular reference to gluten and whether a gluten/grain free diet is a fad or is there a real need to eliminate grains and gluten from the diet?
Grains have been eaten for centuries by many civilisations. Currently wheat is the most cultivated and consumed grain followed by rice and corn. For the majority of people they form a staple part of the diet and may feature in breakfast, lunch and dinner. However, the way grains were cultivated by our ancestors is very different to today where breeding modifications have been made to increase the yield, reliability and availability of crops. Use of fertilisers, pesticides and other chemicals all have an impact on the grain and the soil in which it's grown and then there's genetically modified crops. In addition, lack of crop rotation means the soil used for growing doesn't get a chance to be replenished with vitamins and minerals, one of the reasons our food lacks the nutrients we need.
So, what nutritional benefit can we receive from grains? Well they can provide a good source of B vitamins, vitamin E and minerals, especially magnesium, zinc, potassium and iron. They are also a good source of complex carbohydrate in the form of starch which helps to provide a slow release of sugar therefore sustaining and stabilising our energy levels instead of spiking our blood sugar which leads to the sugar high and quick sugar drop. They provide approximately 30% of energy, 25% protein and 50% of the available carbohydrate in the UK diet.
Grains are structured into 3 parts: The germ which is the centre of the grain and is a rich source of oils, protein, vitamins B1, B2 and B3, magnesium, zinc, potassium and iron. The endosperm which is 70% starch and 12% protein forms 80 - 85% of the grain. The bran outer coating which provides predominantly fibre but also fat, starch, vitamins and minerals. All parts of the grain are required for full nutritional value.
Milling grains to produce refined white flour removes the fibrous coating and the central germ leaving the starch and protein but very little vitamins, minerals and fibre. In fact an article written by the American Dr Mercola states that:
'It’s generally understood that refining food destroys nutrients. With the most nutritious part of the grain removed, white flour essentially becomes a form of sugar. Consider what gets lost in the refining process:
Half of the beneficial unsaturated fatty acids
Virtually all of the vitamin E
Fifty percent of the calcium
Seventy percent of the phosphorus
Eighty percent of the iron
Ninety eight percent of the magnesium
Fifty to 80 percent of the B vitamins
And many more nutrients are destroyed -- simply too many to list.'
Some vitamins and minerals are replaced e.g. calcium, iron, B1 and B3, but not usually in the form that they occured in naturally and so the body may not recognise and therefore absorb and process them as easily as if they were in their natural form. Nutrient levels are generally lower in grains than they used to be as the soil is so depleted and thus there is less uptake of vitamins and minerals by the plant which means less available for us.
In addition to the nutrient loss, refined white flour also contains additives in the form of bleaching and oxidising agents which are potentially toxic to the body. Wheat flour is also an incomplete protein (doesn't provide all the essential amino acids) so is generally eaten with foods to help remedy this e.g. animal foods or beans. Rice is also an incomplete protein but eaten with legumes or beans gives us the full range of essential amino acids (the building blocks of protein). Grains are a low fat food but fat is added during the baking process. Grains left intact are rich in oils. The lack of fibre in refined grains can make them easier to digest. It also causes people to top up their fibre uptake with pure bran flakes, normally at breakfast. Fibre can be difficult for some to digest when eaten as part of the wholegrain but can be much more challenging eaten on its own. Another reason why grains should be eaten whole and once again the body recognises it much more in its original structure. Other breads such as brown bread, granary, wheatmeal, bran loaves are based on refined white flour with a variety of additions be it a colouring, a flavouring, a little bran or germ added back in. Wholemeal breads which say they are made from 100% whole-wheat should be the best you can buy in that it hopefully retains its full nutritional value but do check the labelling as you may find that this is not the case.
Other things to consider include the addition of yeast which can prove to be problematic for some people and the amount of salt and fat added to bread also reduces any nutritional value. Other products using refined white flour such as pastry, cakes and biscuits are high in fat and sugar and so their role in our diet should be limited indeed should they play a part at all! Pasta is made from durum high wheat protein and isn't processed in the same way as wheat.
Gluten is the protein in wheat and other grains. It provides wheat with its elastcity. Flour added to water creates that sticky like dough. Imagine that sticky dough travelling down your intestine lining. It struggles to move, especially if there is no fibre to help it along its way and ends up sticking to the gut walls. Any gluten that hasn't been digested coats the walls of the bowel disturbing the gut bacteria, the acid/alkaline balance and preventing absorption of nutrients. This can cause many symptoms including constipation, diarrhoea, indigestion, wind, pain, bloating, inflammation but also tiredness, irritability, depression. It can also contribute to many other health issues including arthritis, psoarasis, eczema and candida, an overgrowth of unfriendly bacteria which can ultimately puncture the gut wall allowing large undigested molecules of food to pass into the bloodstream stimulating an immune response. This creates a scenario often referred to as 'leaky gut syndrome' where the gut becomes a toxic factory allowing undesirable substances to enter the body and encouraging the spread of candida throughout the body.
Gluten is actually formed of two proteins, glutenin and gliadin and it's the gliadin that seems to cause the problem in gluten sensitive people causing either an allergy or an intolerance. Undigested or unrecognisable proteins absorbed through the gut lining cause the immune system to respond by producing antibodies to fight these foreign invaders causing either an allergic reaction (often an immediate response) or an intolerance (a response that can take several hours or days to appear). A healthy gut lining and a proliferation of friendly bacteria can help to control what does and doesn't pass into the bloodstream and therefore help to eliminate sensitivity issues.
Coeliac disease is a severe allergy to gluten but more and more people are struggling to process wheat and other glutenous grains due to their refined nature, the way in which grains are produced, the lack of vitality in the body including an already challenged digestive system and how we cook our grains, more on that later.
Before we move onto other types of grain, it is essential to point out that wheat is contained in many other products including ready meals, processed foods, sauces, sausages, soy sauce (tamari sauce is a good gluten free alternative), mustards etc. It is therefore worth checking labels on pre-prepared foods if you are trying to avoid it in your diet.
There are many other grains that contain gluten. Wheat contains the most gluten and therefore is the most challenging on the body's system. Spelt also contains gluten but it is the ancient grain of wheat, its ancestor if you like, and so hasn't been modified structurally meaning it can be more tolerable for some people. So in order of challenge to the system, Rye comes next followed by Oats, Barley, Rice and then Millet. In fact rice and millet are gluten free grains and are much more suitable for those challenged by gluten. Of course with any of the grains, one must bear in mind how it has been processed and if it is in its wholegrain form. For instance, white rice has been stripped of all its vitamins and minerals. Short grain brown rice absorbs more water when it's cooked and is therefore a good hydrator for the colon. It also has a scouring affect on the gut wall so helps to clean the lining of any residues. The Chinese regard short grain brown rice as 'the food of the colon' because it's hydrating as long as th eperson can digest it. Oats contain gluten because of how they are processed but gluten free oats are now readily available in supermarkets or health food shops. Remember that oat flakes have had the bran removed so again they have lost some of their nutritional value.
Whilst on the subject of gluten free products, a word of caution. Most supermarkets now have a 'free from' section which stock a range of wheat, gluten, dairy free etc products. If you are trying to avoid these foods in your diet it might be very tempting to stock up from this area but these products do tend to contain more sugars, salt, fats and additives in order to retain the consistency, texture and flavour of the original product. In the end, this may have a more detrimental affect on the body than the food you are trying to avoid. My advice would be to always aim for foods that are fresh, locally produced as much as possible, in their natural state and organic. Cooking from scratch, preferably with seasonal foods, also avoids eating the heavily processed products and ready made meals.
As well as causing digestive problems, grains can create a 'yoyoing' blood sugar in sensitive people resulting in the sugar high and sugar crash. They can also challenge the insulin response in the body leading to insulin resistance. This can occur when cells fail to respond to the normal actions of the hormone insulin. The body produces insulin in response to a rise in blood sugar, but the cells in the body become resistant to insulin and are unable to use it as effectively, leading to hyperglycemia or high blood sugar. The pancreas increases its production of insulin so it becomes a vicious circle. In some cases this can lead to type 2 diabetes.
Grains are generally slightly acid forming in the body so it is always a good idea to combine them with lots of green leafy vegetables which generally have an alkalising effect. This helps to create a balanced meal. Including some protein animal or vegetarian based, will also help to reduce the blood sugar challenge.
So if we choose to include grains in our diet, how can we make it easier to digest and absorb them? Well one way is by soaking the grains prior to cooking them. It helps to soften and breakdown the hard to digest gluten protein. Soaking also helps to reduce or remove the phytic acid on the surface of grains which can block the absorption of minerals in the digestive tract therefore increasing the availability of nutrients. It also neutralises enzyme inhibitors which if ingested can prevent the numerous enzymes in our body from working and finally it may make the grain more alkaline after cooking. The cooking process itself also helps to reduce the phytic acid levels but soaking can improve the digestibility and nutrient content of the grain.
Some good alternatives to grains include 'Quinoa' pronounced 'Keenwa' and Buckwheat. Both are actually seeds not grains, free from gluten and are therefore less challenging on the system. Quinoa is very rich in protein and contains the full range of essential amino acids. It can be used as an alternative to cous cous and makes a lovely porridge for breakfast.
So yet again, there is a lot of information to 'absorb' and as always it comes down to you as an individual. What's right for one person might not be right for another but if you experience digestive issues of any kind, it might be worth eliminating wheat or gluten based grains and see how your body responds. Some people may need to avoid grains altogether or it may just be for a short while. Listen to your body and it will let you know.
Soaked Short Grain Brown Rice:
1 cup of short grain brown rice
Cover with filtered water
Some recommend adding 1tbsp of an acidic medium e.g. lemon juice or apple cider vinegar to help discourage unfriendly bacteria when soaking for a long period and to help reduce the levels of phytic acid on the surface.
Leave the rice for 7 hours or overnight. Get rid of soaking water and cook rice in fresh filtered water for 30 - 45 minutes. Use alongside homemade curries, stews, or breakfast pudding rice see below:
Brown rice breakfast pudding:
1/2 cup of soaked and cooked short grain brown rice.
Place in a saucepan over a low heat with either almond or coconut milk to cover, 1 tbsp of ground almonds to thicken, 1tsp cinnamon or mixed spice. Stir until warm and serve.
Choose to sprinkle with berries, pumpkin, sunflower, sesame seeds etc and add a little more milk if required. Yum!