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In Defense of Grains

If you’re reading this, you’ve likely been tuned into the integrative/functional health community for some time. And if you’ve suffered from an autoimmune condition, perhaps you’ve tried a Paleo (aka ancestral) or AIP (autoimmune protocol) diet, both of which eschew grains (and other whole foods).

Years before the popularity of these diets peaked, we’d been hit hard with the “low carb” craze. Carbohydrates come in many forms (grains, legumes, fruits, vegetables), but grains have gotten a particularly bad rap, primarily because a diet heavy in processed grains (flour-based products like conventional bread, crackers, muffins, etc.) can be kryptonite for blood sugar and inflammation management.

Indeed, for some, grains can cause brain fog, bloating, and digestive upset. I get it. But my feeling is that for many, the preexisting digestive imbalance is the reason for the intolerance, not the other way around. Until digestive function is optimized, many foods—not just whole grains—can cause issues.

I agree that, for some people, going grain-free can be helpful for managing autoimmunity. But I don’t believe that whole, gluten-free grains are categorically bad for everyone—even those looking to reverse their autoimmune condition.

Speaking of gluten, I do believe that it should be avoided, especially during a healing/immune modulatory phase. Gluten-containing grains include wheat (einkorn, durum, faro, graham, kamut, semolina, spelt), barley, rye, and triticale. Gluten-free grains include quinoa, amaranth, millet, teff, buckwheat, and various types of rice.

The case against grains is that they contain the anti-nutrients phytic acid and lectin, along with enzyme-inhibitors that inhibit mineral absorption. Yet these “anti-nutrients” are also found in vegetables like beets and dark leafy greens. Should we avoid these nutrient-rich foods too?

Grains are naturally high in vitamins and minerals (B vitamins, iron, manganese, magnesium, and zinc, to name a few) and the key is to properly prepare them to release these nutrients. See below for more information.

It’s only in the past century or so that we’ve largely stepped away from the traditional practices of leavening/fermentation, soaking, and sprouting (germinating), which “pre-digests” grains. Additionally, Vitamin A inhibits the potentially negative effects of phytic acid.

When traditionally prepared, grains are much easier to digest, we’re able to absorb their nutrition, and they help us produce serotonin, a neurotransmitter that brings about a sense of comfort and calm, which in itself is enough to consider whether grains should be avoided. In my work with “low carb refugees,” once these clients begin adding some complex carbs from whole grains (and other foods, especially starchy vegetables) back into their diets, the overall feedback is that they feel so much calmer and more grounded and centered. And they start sleeping better.

Dr. Susan Blum mentions quinoa, amaranth, millet, teff, buckwheat, various types of rice, and legumes in her book, The Immune System Recovery Plan, and incorporates these foods in several of her recipes. She calls them “foods to include.”

While being grain-free may be part and parcel of some of the popular diets today, it doesn’t mean it’s helpful or warranted for everyone. Moderate grain intake simply offers too many benefits—vitamins, minerals, and fiber and…calm and comfort in the form of serotonin production. So next time you’re inclined to take a “chill pill,” maybe reach for some millet instead.

The guide below was written by Lisa Markley, MS, RDN, and co-author of The Essential Thyroid Cookbook.

Purchasing
When purchasing whole grains, select intact gluten-free grains, such as brown rice, quinoa, certified gluten-free whole oat groats, steel cut or rolled oats, buckwheat, millet, and amaranth. When possible, opt for these grains in their sprouted form; your store may carry some sprouted whole grain options such as brown rice, oats, and quinoa in the aisle where you’d find other packaged grains. According to the Whole Grains Council, sprouting increases the grain’s antioxidant activity as well as many of the grains’ key nutrients, such as B vitamins, Vitamin C, folate, fiber, and essential amino acids, such as lysine. You can cook dried sprouted grains the same way you would regular grains, but follow the package for specific instructions, as cooking time may be less in some instances.

Rinsing
Certain grains should be rinsed before cooking to remove dust or other debris and to yield the best flavor. These include millet, quinoa, and rice. Quinoa has a bitter coating on the outside called saponin that will negatively impact flavor if not rinsed. Rinse the grains by placing in a fine mesh strainer and rinsing with warm water.

Soaking
If you’re unable to purchase sprouted grains, it’s generally recommended to pre-soak grains to enhance digestibility and break down phytic acid.  With the exception of quick-cooking grains like quinoa, millet, amaranth and teff, soak in their measured amount of water in a glass measuring cup for 12-24 hours on your kitchen counter. Add 1 tablespoon of raw apple cider vinegar or lemon juice per 1 cup of liquid, if desired. When ready to cook, note the water level of the soaked grain, drain off the soaking water, add fresh water to the measure you noted, and simmer on stove with a pinch of salt for recommended cooking time (see “Cooking” below). Note that soaking some grains reduces their overall cooking time by a few minutes, but the cooking time for pre-soaked steel cut or rolled oats is reduced by about half.

Sprouting
If you’d like to try your hand at sprouting your own grains, it’s fairly simple:

  1. Measure approximately ½ cup of an intact, unmilled whole grain such as brown rice, forbidden black rice, quinoa, millet, or certified gluten-free oat groats, place in a bowl, and cover with water. Soak the grains for 8-12 hours.
  2. Drain and rinse thoroughly, then place soaked grains in the bottom of a quart-sized mason jar. Cover jar with cheesecloth and hold in place with a rubber band or the metal ring from a screw lid. They also sell special sprouting lids/screens that are handy for this.
  3. Invert jar over a bowl and keep at room temperature, but out of direct sun.
  4. Rinse and strain grains thoroughly twice daily, then re-invert over bowl.
  5. Repeat step 6 every day for 1 to 5 days. You’ll know the grains have sprouted once a tail appears. You can continue sprouting/germination until tail is the length of the original grain.
  6. Enjoy them fresh, sprinkled on salads. Store the sprouted grains in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. Discard them if they begin to smell off or become slimy.
  7. The sprouted grains can also be dried by spreading evenly on a sheet pan and placing in at oven set to 150-200 for 8-12 hours. Or use a dehydrator, if you have one. Once the grains are dried thoroughly, you can store or cook as you would normal dried grains. They can also be ground into flour and used in baking.

Cooking
Place measured grain with water or stock and a pinch of sea salt in a pot, cover with a tight fitting lid, and bring to a boil. A 1-quart pot is best for cooking 1 cup of grain, a 2-quart pot for 2 cups of grain, and so on. Reduce heat and simmer for suggested cooking time, which will vary depending on grain. (See “Soaking” above about the reduction in cooking time for soaked grains.) Refrain from stirring the pot while the grains are cooking; this will disrupt the steam pockets that allow the top layer to cook as evenly as the bottom and cause some not to fully cook. To check if all of the water has been absorbed, simply tilt the pot to the side to see if there’s still water pooling at the bottom; if water is still present, continue to cook for a few additional minutes until it has all been absorbed.

Jill Grunewald, HNC, FMCHC, is the founder of Healthful Elements, an alopecia expert, and best selling author of The Essential Thyroid Cookbook.

One thought on “In Defense of Grains

  1. Great article! Thank you, Jill. May I ask why grains like unsprouted quinoa and millet do not need to be soaked? My Trader Joe’s recently stopped carrying sprouted organic quinoa and I was so bummed to no longer have a “quick” option. I was assuming I should soak overnight.

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