If you feel that grains are a benefit to your diet (and we have found that to be the case in our family), it’s obviously important to ensure that the grains we choose to eat are those that will feed and nourish our bodies. Otherwise, we are simply filling up with lots of starch that will actually deplete our bodies of nutrients in order to process them. That completely defeats the purpose of a real food diet!
Most of us know that whole grains are the better choice when compared to refined grains. But why? And how do you know if the grains you are choosing are whole? Equally important is knowing the best ways to prepare those grains to fully enjoy their nutritional benefit.
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Healthy Grain Options
Whole grains are exactly what it seems they’d be: they are whole. That means that once the grain kernel is removed from it’s husk, the outer layer (called the bran), the large starchy portion (called the endosperm), and the smaller oily part (called the germ) are all left intact.
As you can see from the illustration to the left, many important nutrients are found in the bran and the germ. However, these two parts of the grain are removed to make refined, or white, flour. This is why whole grain flour is a healthier choice and white. It has a much greater amount of nutrients.
All sorts of grains can be eaten whole. We tend to think mostly of wheat, but let’s not forget yummy oats, earthy rye, rich buckwheat, trendy quinoa (yes, technically a seed, but treated as a grain), nutty wild rice, and old-fashioned corn.
Varying the kinds of whole grains we eat is a great way to vary the nutrients our body is receiving, as well as mix up our family meals. Try experimenting with unfamiliar whole grain options, and you might find a new family favorite! We tried a black rice recently (not wild rice), and we all really liked the color and flavor it added to our meal.
Healthy Ways to Prepare Grains
When grains aren’t prepared properly, they can cause some digestion issues. Some people theorize that the reason so many individuals seem to have trouble eating grains (wheat in particular), it may be from consuming ill-prepared grain foods for an extended period of time.
Thankfully, a few simple techniques help to render grains much more digestible!
The goal is to break down a substance called phytic acid, which is an antinutrient found in the bran of the grain. Basically, phytic acid robs the body of the nutritional benefit of a food. You can read a bit more about the following techniques in this study.
Soaking is a term used to describe the process of mixing a grain product (like rolled oats or whole wheat flour) in water, usually along with an acid medium (like cultured dairy or apple cider vinegar). Cereal porridges, like oatmeal, are often made through soaking, as well as breads, cakes, and muffins.
Cornmeal is soaked in lime water (lime as in the mineral, not the fruit) and not an acid medium. This process is called nixtamalization and also increases the nutrient availability of the grain.
When grains are sprouted, they are first soaked in water overnight, then drained and kept clean and moist until they sprout. That sprout is the start of a new plant. The grains are then dehydrated and can be cracked or ground into flour.
Sprouted flour is often used in recipes that don’t lend themselves well to soaking or the sourdough process, like for cookies.
The sourdough process is my very favorite way to eat grain foods! A sourdough starter is made with flour, water, and naturally occurring yeasts and bacterias. These microorganism then leaven bread when mixed into the dough, giving it a unique texture and taste that most people love.
According to Jessie Hawkins, author of The Vintage Remedies Guide to Bread and founder of Vintage Remedies (where I’m currently studying), the sourdough process lowers gluten and phytic acid in the finished loaf while also increasing the nutrient availability. Plus, as far as the Smith family is concerned, the taste can’t be beat!
It should also be mentioned that there is a real benefit to freshly grinding your own grain if you are going to eat whole grain flours. I will quickly admit that I didn’t start doing this until very recently, though we’ve been eating whole wheat flour for at least seven years.
The germ in the grain contains oils that go rancid quickly after grinding. Once they are rancid, they aren’t very helpful to the body. A home grain mill is an easy solution, but a bit of an investment depending on your family’s budget. We have a WonderMill grain mill, and it is a great blessing, but I don’t regret using whole wheat flour purchased from the store, either.
My personal advice would be to buy whole grain flour in small packages, then save up for a grain mill.
Healthy Amounts of Grains
Finally, it can be helpful to consider how much of our diet is based on grains.
I think that all to often we rely on the familiar pastas, rice, crackers, and other grain-based foods rather than introduce a wider variety of fruits and vegetables into our meals. It’s not that grains need to be avoided, but rather kept in proper balance with other foods.
What is a healthy amount of grains for you may differ substantially from another person, or maybe even someone in your own home! For example, my husband tends to feel best when he eats fewer grain-based foods. However, when I once tried to reduce them, I never felt satisfied after a meal. All it took was a slice of sourdough bread (and-ah little bit-ah butt-ah, of course!) to feel like I had eaten enough. I’ve found that grains are a vital part of my diet.