The Whole Grain Conundrum

Colleen Gray-Hewett Blog

Carbs.  Protein.  Fat.  Macronutrients.  Chances are that if you are asked which one you should try to avoid, you’ll say carbs.  Carbs.  Carbs.  Carbs.

What are the carbohydrate parameters that you’ve decided to avoid? All things bread-like? All fruits?  All vegetables?  All legumes?  Potatoes? Rice? Chips? Cookies?  Beer?  Wine?  All dessert?

Why do you think you should avoid carbs?  To lose weight?  Because you are doing some sort of paleo-type diet?  Trying to get into ketosis?  Because all you hear is that all carbs are bad?

Carbohydrate.  One of the three primary macronutrients our body needs to acquire energy and to enable optimal functioning.  Fat and protein being the other two – each having key roles and ideally working together in some proportion.  Yet somehow the diet fads and some nutritional theories of the past several decades have made the word carbohydrate synonymous with something to be avoided – predominantly for weight loss but this has carried over into everyday life for many people.

Herein lies the conundrum: “carbohydrate” is not one thing.  Just as there are bad fats and good fats and bad proteins and good proteins there are bad carbohydrates and good carbohydrates.  The good carbs will not only help you achieve weight goals, but will also fuel your life and aid your longevity.  Before getting into a discussion of whole grains, here is a quick breakdown of carbohydrates:

Simple carbohydrate: One or two sugars within the food that are quickly absorbed into the bloodstream.  For short bursts of energy, a simple sugar may be ok on a periodic basis, but these are generally the bad carbs.  This is often added sugar (added to pretty much everything that is in a package in your pantry or fridge).  These come in many different names and forms, the most common being glucose, high fructose corn syrup, fructose, agave, beet sugar, cane sugar, maltodextrin, + 50 more.  Simple carbs are generally processed carbs.  And yes, these are the bad carbs that should be avoided by all.

Complex carbohydrate: Three or more sugars within a whole food that will be absorbed more slowly into the bloodstream for longer, more sustained energy as well as providing a host of other benefits such as nutrient density, fibre, no saturated fat, no refining.  Within the complex carbohydrate spectrum is what are referred to as starches (another vilified word) such as legumes, potatoes, vegetables, fruits and whole grains. Complex carbohydrates are not added sugar but are the sugars that are within a the complete package that is a natural whole food (i.e.: the sugars within a whole apple).  This is the key.  You need to eat the whole, unprocessed food and the impact of the sugars are completely different in the body than the processed, simple stuff.

The benefits of complex carbohydrates include mental health, long-term brain health, energy for daily or athletic output, gut health (which may be key to overall health), cancer prevention or support through treatment, heart disease and other chronic disease prevention or reversal, and (surprised?) weight loss.

The key to eating whole grains as part of a whole food plant based diet is to recognize that the term “whole grain” is used all over the processed food world which is partially responsible for giving carbs a bad name.  As with all your food choices, your whole grain choices should be nutrient dense and unprocessed.  As Dr. Joel Fuhrman says in Eat to Live, “Eating fragmented, unbalanced foods causes many problems, especially for those trying to lose weight”.  To try to make this simpler – as in how to choose complex, whole grains versus simple carbs – here is a quick list of what constitutes a whole grain:

  • Seek out coarse ground and grittier whole grains; whole wheat bread is processed and finely ground – not a whole grain; definitely read your bread label as sugar is very often added to bread in addition to the over processing of the grains.  Why?  Ask that question of your bakery – there is no need for sugar in bread.  Look for rye and pumpernickel (the dense little loaves not the fluffy big ones) or seedy/grainy breads that have real texture.
  • Large flake rolled oats whole grain and an excellent foundation for weight loss, disease prevention, gut flora and endurance energy.  ANY cold cereal is more processed and likely has added sugars if only 1 or 2 grams.  You can tell because you’ll be hungry an hour later versus the oatmeal. Seek out organic, gluten free for the best results.
  • Brown, wild or black rice – preferably organic
  • Teff – I bring this one up as it is a tiny, red Ethiopian grain that is the mainstay in the Ethiopian diet, including that of the top marathoners and long-distances runners in the world.  It can be baked into homemade breads, muffins or even cooked as a hot cereal on its own or with oats for a real nutrition win.  A good brand is Bob’s Red Mill.
  • Quinoa, millet, kasha, farro – other ancient grains, preferably soaked for a few hours to overnight to increase digestive ease and nutrient density.  Soaking a grain simply involves putting the amount you plan to use in a glass jar, covering with filtered (must be filtered) water, loosely covering and putting in the fridge overnight or on the counter for a few hours.

The anti-grain bandwagon is largely responsible for making people so chronically and terminally ill as well as overweight or obese.  For some reason, those who shun all carbs (including the good ones – the fruits, vegetable, legumes, whole grains, nuts & seeds) also give all their love and dollars to the foods that are actually bringing them down – the animal proteins and fats.  Think about it.  All animal products, including that boneless, skinless chicken breast or that fillet of salmon, have saturated fat and likely are full of hormones (including estrogen), antibiotics and environmental toxins.  There is no fibre in any animal product or any fat – be that dairy, oil, meat or eggs.  We are starving our bodies of fibre and overfilling with protein, hence the fact that we are overfed and undernourished as a North American population.

So you are trying to get healthy inside and out yet you are eating all the stuff that will clog your arteries, will not feed your gut the fibre it needs to thrive, creating inflammation throughout your body with every meal that has an animal product and you are NOT eating the whole grains, fruits and vegetables that will serve you best for the short and long-term.  Your kidneys and liver and colon are yelling at your for some whole grain goodness!

Listen.  Any diet will enable you to lose weight.  It doesn’t matter if it’s all bacon or all grapefruit.  You will lose weight for a time.  But you won’t keep weight off on any ‘diet’ and you won’t be doing your internal organs, microbiome, muscles, skin, or brain any good.  You need to reconsider your plate.  If you can be plant-dominant at every meal and include 3 servings of a whole grain each day, you will find that you are full faster and for longer, have more energy for activities, find a replacement for some of the meat on your plate (a half cup of brown rice in place of half that steak), and do your long-term health a world of good.  We are a generation of protein-aholics.  The very fact that North Americans are more obese than ever before, have more cancer than ever before, and chronic disease rates are soaring SINCE the obsession with all protein/no carbs came into huge fashion in the 1980s/1990s should tell you something.  There are more pharmaceuticals and surgical procedures yet rates of all lifestyle diseases are not going down.  We are fibre deficient and this only comes from the plant kingdom of which whole, unprocessed grains are a great part of.  So simple and complex at the same time!

Now enjoy your oats!  Put a half cup (not a quarter cup) of blueberries and maybe some stewed apple with a non-dairy milk (unsweetened) on it.  Have a buddha bowl for lunch with some quinoa or brown rice or other whole grain.  Put some black rice with asparagus alongside a big leafy green salad topped with edamame – maybe don’t even have meat today.


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