Before we dive into the different types of grains and their benefits, let’s first define WHY our bodies need grains. Well first because whole grains are one of the best sources of carbohydrates out there. Carbohydrates are crucial components necessary for energy production and energy distribution to some of the most vital organs in our bodies. Most notably, the brain. Glucose (a carb) is the brain’s most efficient source of energy. To understand any additional benefits of grains, we must first understand the difference between whole grains vs. processed grains.
Whole Grains vs. Processed Grains
Whole grains: the natural form of the plant. When the grain is unaltered and includes all of the plant’s original layers. Every whole grain has three layers: 1) the germ 2) the bran 3) the endosperm. Processed grains remove the germ and bran layer and only consist of the endosperm (inner most) layer in order to increase shelf life and appeal to taste.
The bran layer is the most outer layer of the grain, and also the fibrous layer of the grain. Fiber is crucial in regulating blood sugar levels, lowering cholesterol, and aiding in digestive health. When you remove this bran/fibrous layer from the grain, you are also ridding the body from using the grain as a gradual release of energy. This is why processed grains such as white flour and white sugar will eventually lead to a sugar crash.
The Sugar Crash Cycle
When you consume a processed grain, you’ll feel a nice burst of energy to begin with, but then after this initial feeling, you’ll feel a wave of sluggishness and crave more sugary carbs. This is because the body has not efficiently used the grain as energy overtime, and instead, all those carbs have entered the blood stream and have in turn upped your blood sugar levels. When your blood sugar levels are peaked, your essential organs and muscles have not received the energy they required, and so your body will feel a natural pull to be fueled. Think of it as an unbreakable cycle. You eat sugary, processed carbs, you fall into a sugar crash, your body craves energy, and so you eat more sugary processed carbs. This will continue and continue, and what results overtime, is a mass amount of fat storage. Why? Because with the feeling of “no fuel” the body will want to hang on to every piece of food you provide it with out of sheer deprivation. This “clinging” is done through storing carbs as fat. This is why carbs are known to be tummy bloaters. But this is actually ONLY true when referring to processed carbs. You can avoid this terrible cycle of sugar crashing and craving by simply swapping your grains from processed to whole. Interestingly, people who have a diet rich in whole grains have been shown to have less belly fat.
The Benefits of Whole Grains
Aside from being a blood sugar stabilizer, whole grains have a mass amount of nutrients that the body requires. With the 2 outer layers of the grain in tact, you are providing the body with vitamins, iron, copper, zinc, magnesium, fiber, phytochemicals and much more. All of these have actually been linked to lowering the risk of many diseases and illnesses such as heart disease and cancer. And just think about all the supplements you don’t have to be taking because whole grains are providing these crucial nutrients! Whole grains can actually be even more beneficial in sprouted form. If you’re interested to know more about this, go check out my article on The Benefits of Sprouted Everything.
Another important term to get acquainted with before moving onto a list of whole grains: enriched grains. This is one of the most deceiving terms in the food industry, because you would think that “enrichment” was a completely positive thing. In some twisted way it is better than un-enriched grains, but it also means that the grains HAVE BEEN PROCESSED and have therefore lost some of their essential nutrients. The enrichment process aims to restore some of those lost nutrients. But why fix something that should have never been broken?! The actual plant, the way God grew it is perfect. This is what our bodies need and recognize. Enriched grains mean a) they have been stripped of their natural wonders and then b) are being pumped with things. Granted these things could be beneficial components like vitamins and minerals, and if fiber is added back in, this can also help with blood sugar regulation. So it’s not all bad, and enriched grains are definitely better than purely refined grains. But always best to just stick with the whole grain if you can. If I had to say a word about enriched grains, however, I’d say that specific types have to be assessed depending on how they have been enriched and how that enrichment can be specifically beneficial for your needs.
The Grain Bible
So without further ado, here are some whole grains, and their benefits:
Rice: theres is a crazy amount of rice out there on the shelves. First let’s cover white vs. brown. The white rice is a refined grain ie, not whole. Therefore it is obviously better to choose a brown rice if you can. Some of the benefits lacking in white rice, that is present in brown rice include:
- Manganese: used as an antioxidant and also as a source of energy
- Selenium: a great source of thyroid hormone production (TSH)
- Magnesium: responsible for bone development, muscle contraction, and cell function
However, it is important to note that a lot of white rice is actually enriched with folate, a vital nutrient for DNA and genetic material synthesis, and an extremely important nutrient for females in their reproductive years (even when not pregnant or breastfeeding). Folate is naturally missing from the whole grain version of rice. Thus, if you are in need of folic acid, white rice, and other folate enriched grains can actually be quite beneficial. Another important note is that white rice is a lower-“ish” glycemic index grain, meaning the body will not process it as quickly as say white flour. So it will not cause as great of a rise in blood sugar, and is definitely a better choice than white bread or pasta.
Red or wild rice, is also considered a whole grain. The key is to look at the ingredient list and make sure it says “whole wild rice.” Often times wild rice is combined in a mix of white and brown rice, in which case it would not be considered a whole grain. However, some of these mixes can be beneficial due to the range of minerals coming from each type of rice individually. Some benefits of wild/red rice include
- significantly more amounts of protein than brown rice
- high amounts of fiber
- more zinc and potassium than brown rice
The only benefit that wild rice is lacking is magnesium, which is found in high levels in brown rice. Magnesium is essential for bone synthesis and vital for metabolic function. Thus it’s a good idea to always include a variety of rice types into your diet to ensure you are benefiting from all the nutrients.
Wheat: No better way to say this. If you are choosing between whole wheat and white flour, whole wheat is always the way to go. This day and age has made whole wheat flour so readily available and affordable. Really no need to be buying white flour. Now if your concern is the density of the flour in baking and such, I have a great solution for you. SPELT…read on.
Spelt: spelt is a grain similar to wheat. The body actually metabolizes spelt better than wheat, and it has a naturally lower glycemic index (GI) than wheat, meaning that even in its white and processed form, the body will not spike blood sugar levels as high as it would with white wheat flour. Whole spelt flour will obviously be the best choice, but if you need white flour for taste/recipe purposes, then always choose white spelt flour over regular white flour. It can be interchanged 1:1 and i guarantee you will not notice a difference. I have not had regular flour in my home in over 10 years and no has ever known the difference.
Some noteworthy benefits of spelt include:
- high in vitamins E and B
- an excellent source of plant based protein. Yes, you heard correctly, PROTEIN! Spelt contains 8 out of 9 essential amino acids! And because spelt is rich in vitamin B2, the body can use the amino acids extremely optimally
- contains a bunch of essential fatty acids, which aid in brain function (think ketone bodies, but if you have no idea what I’m saying, just take my word for it 😉
- high fiber ie helps in blood sugar regulation (which is why its low GI) and aids in digestive health
Basically if you were to ask me my favorite grain, I’d say spelt hands down. Just an FYI spelt comes in groat form, not just in flour form. Makes a great addition to salad, and you can even make your Shabbat chulent out of it! Give it a try!
Buckwheat: is actually not officially a grain, but because of its benefits, it is treated as a grain. The nice thing about buckwheat is that it’s gluten free, and makes a great sub for flour. A nice option to use in granola along with oats. Same thing goes with quinoa. Not a grain officially, but considered a pseudo-grain due to its similar benefits. Both are a nice source of plant based protein, if you are looking for more ways to incorporate protein. And both have nice amounts of iron. So definitely have these two wonder seeds on hand to change things up.
Oats: there are a few types floating around on the shelves, so let’s define them all.
- The healthiest, whole grain version are referred to as steel cut oats. This is the version that has has zero manipulation performed and contains all of the grain layers. Thus, this is the version of oats with all of the benefits intact, including a mass amount of heart healthy fiber and soluble iron. They also have a nice amount of protein for a grain. That’s why oatmeal is known to be a wonderful breakfast: complex, whole grain carb that gradually releases energy throughout the day, while also packing in some protein and iron.
- Next we have rolled oats, also known as old fashioned oats. As long as the label here says “whole” old fashioned/rolled oats, you should be good to go here too. The only difference here is that these oats have been pre-rolled and steamed to allow for faster cooking time. The grain itself should still be in tact and contain all the same benefits as the steel cute version.
- Quick oats are the “refined” process of oats, which has the outer layers removed ie the nutritious layers have been removed. These are the oats you’ll generally find in the packet of oatmeal or sold in bulk at the supermarket. Less ideal, and probably not the greatest way to start your day. Definitely try to find one of the other two types mentioned above.
Well folks, we covered loads here. And yes, there are loads and loads more grains to speak about. Perhaps a Grain Guidebook Part II should be in the works? As always, I am here to answer any questions. Hope this was helpful. Happy whole eating fresh sabras 🙂