The Grain Controversy: Should We Eat Them or Not?

Wheat grains edit

Written by Kate Tietje, Contributing Writer

Are you working to ditch processed foods and put more real food on the table? This month we’re running a series called Real Food Made Simple: A Beginner’s Guide to Eating Better. Our goal is to answer the questions you might have and make the transition a whole lot easier!

When Stephanie told us that we were doing a series all about “basics” in January, I jumped at the chance to talk about the grain controversy.

For those of you who’ve been around the idea of “traditional foods” or “real foods” for awhile, you may be all too aware of the issue — and have strong opinions of your own. For those who are newer to real food, you may wonder why in the world grains would be controversial. I’m hoping to shed light on the issue.

The reason I was excited to talk about this is because I’ve run the gamut of “grain opinions” and practices myself.  When we first moved to real food, I was baking bread 1 to 2 times per week, and it was a huge staple in our diet. I didn’t want anything to do with giving it up!

But then we learned my daughter (not quite 2 at the time) had issues with gluten plus a bunch of other food allergies.  Grains went out of our home, and for a while I was a champion of the “we really don’t need grains” line of thinking.

Ultimately we reintroduced grains, choosing to prepare them in a traditional manner, and we take a balanced approach to them today.

I know some of you who do have strong opinions will probably disagree with some of what I say — those who believe soaking isn’t necessary, or no one should be eating grains at all — and that’s okay. I’m not intending to tell anyone what “the answer” is, because it will look a bit different for every family.  Hopefully if you’re not sure what to think, you’ll have a better idea of at least where to start when we’re done!  Let’s dive in.

rice

Image by Cookbookman17

Why Some Don’t Eat Grains

It was a surprise to me to learn just how controversial grains really are.  Most of us are aware of the vegan vs. omnivores debate, i.e. “Should we be eating animal products?”  Well, the “should we be eating grains” is just as controversial in some circles.

There are people who will say that grains, especially the gluten found within them (a protein) is poison and nobody should ever eat it for any reason.

There are some real issues with grains, such as:

  • Grains contain more gluten today than they used to because of hybridization (which is not the same as genetically modifying).
  • Gluten intolerance is soaring — nearly 5 times as many people have gluten intolerance or celiac disease (an autoimmune condition where the person can’t digest gluten) than they did in the 1950s (source).
  • Refined grains, which is the bulk of what most people consume, have been linked to obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and lots more.
  • Grains don’t contain any specific nutrient — macro (fat, carb, protein) or micro (vitamins and minerals) that cannot be found anywhere else.

So, grains aren’t all that awesome. More people really do have an issue with them. More people are starting to notice when they go grain-free or at least gluten-free that they feel better…and when they feel better and they read facts like these, it’s easy to think grains are bad for us.

Plus, since grains aren’t an amazing source of any nutrient and all nutrients found in grains can be found elsewhere, many people end up on the side of “we just shouldn’t eat them.”  It’s understandable.

oatmeal cookies

Image by jugglerpm

Why Do Some People Eat Grains?

With all of that…why do some people still eat grains?

There are a lot of very legitimate reasons why, actually. And they vary for each family, but here are a few:

  • They are cheap — a lot of families are on a budget and realistically can’t be 100% grain-free.
  • They contain some important vitamins and minerals — like B vitamins and magnesium, which is a bit hard to get from other sources.*
  • Some people actually feel worse off grains because their bodies need a higher carb diet than others do — and there’s little evidence that a high unrefined carb diet leads to the same problems that refined grains do.
  • If properly prepared, gluten and phytic acid (two of the components that make grains potentially harmful) are sharply reduced, and vitamin and mineral content is increased.
  • Some people point to their strong belief in Biblical food — the Bible calls bread “the staff of life.”

*Nuts, especially walnuts, are a good source of magnesium, and beans are as well. Nuts, however, are often high in omega-6 fatty acids (the bad ones) and should be limited.  Many families who go grain-free rely heavily on nut-based flours, and this can lead to imbalances too. Beans have the same phytic acid issue as grains.

Basically, when we cut out an entire food group, it’s hard to stay with a diet that is balanced in all the important stuff — omega-3 vs. omega-6, protein vs. fat vs. carbs, and so on.  In general, I believe — and believe the Bible says — that we should be eating an omnivorous diet and not cut out any major food group.

bread

Image by CeresB

Do Some People Need to Avoid Grains?

There are some people who do, for some reason, need to avoid grains — either temporarily or permanently.  Those who have severe celiac disease may do better off all grains. Others find they have more energy and just feel better.  Still others have gut issues or systemic yeast, and the grains are feeding those issues and making them worse.

We have been grain-free to try to fix gut issues and a couple family members still do better on a low-grain diet (and what we do consume we try to make sure is whole grains and that they are soaked or sprouted).

Some people can handle — even thrive on — a diet fairly high in properly-prepared whole grains. Others need eat only a few grains and focus mostly on other foods. Everyone’s exact diet is going to look at a bit different.

I will say that with our experiences, we do believe strongly in the necessity of soaking or sprouting grains before consuming them. Our family all react very poorly to unsoaked whole grains (as well as unsoaked or improperly soaked nuts and beans) due to the phytic acid. This isn’t a how-to post, so I won’t get into the details here, but read more on soaking and sprouting — both why we do it, and how we do it, if you’re curious.

The bottom line? The exact answer’s going to be different for everyone, and no one should be making sweeping generalizations like “we should eat a lot of grains” or “no one should eat grains ever.” We all eat in the way that feels best to us, and what matters is that we’re eating real food and not processed, packaged options!

Other posts in the series:

Real Food Made Simple: A Beginner’s Guide to Eating Better

First Steps to Real Food

What Is Real Food?

Cutting Your Kitchen Prep Time in Half — Or More!

Confessions of a Formerly Picky Eater

How to Read Food Labels

Second Steps Towards Eating Real Foods: Switching Your Food Sources

Sweeteners: How They Affect You, Which Ones are Best, and How to Use Them

Simple Steps to Begin Cooking Homemade: Pantry Staples

5 Strategies to Help Your Husband and Kids Transition to Real Food 

7 Foods to Avoid

Finding Real Food in the Grocery Store

20 Easy Real Food Switches and Substitutions {with Free Printable Chart}

First Steps to Eating for Fertility

Keeping Costs Down in a Real Food Kitchen

Raising Kids on Real Food

5 Ways to Get More Fruits & Veggies into your Diet

Food Is Not Cheap: 4 Steps to Budgeting in Real Food

Simple Steps to Begin Cooking Homemade: Baked Goods

Simple Roast Chicken (And Fabulous Side Dish Recipes!)

17 Homemade Spice Mixes {with Recipes & Why You Should Use Them!}

5 Ways Green Living and Real Food are Connected

Simple Steps to Begin Cooking Homemade: Soups, Sauces, and Simple Dinners

How do you handle grains in your home?

Top image by Dag Endresen

About Kate Tietje

Kate is a work-at-home mom to (almost) 4 kids -- Bekah, age 4.5; Daniel, age 3; Jacob, 1; and baby #4, due mid-March 2013. She is married to Ben, a wonderfully supportive husband! She blogs at Modern Alternative Mama, where she writes about natural health, real food, parenting, and all things “green.” She also recently launched Modern Alternative Kitchen, a site about traditional cooking, and is about to launch Modern Alternative Pregnancy. In her “free” time, she enjoys sewing, crafting, cooking, and playing with her children. Follow her on Facebook!

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Comments

  1. Hi! I echo the thoughts about the thoughtful post! I thought you might be interested in this interview that I did last weekend on this topic! http://youtu.be/khVSJB4iuY0 Blessings on your wonderful site! Hope

  2. I love your attitude that we should go with what works for us personally, I find I go we’ll with wholemeal pasta but quinoa doesn’t agree with me at all :)

    • trajayjay says:

      I agree, I feel that diet is never one size fits all. And I would like to comment on “there’s nothing in grains that isn’t in anything else” you could say that about any food. There is no unique source of any vitamin or mineral, so technically, you could say that you don’t need veggies, because vitamins and fiber are also found in fruits and nuts

  3. Thank you for this balanced post I can’t help but feel like “grain-free” is a new diet catch-phrase that will soon go the way of “fat-free” and “low-carb” when the next big healthy eating trend sweeps in. I don’t believe that any one food group is inherently “bad.” I am learning more about traditional foods and preparing grains in that manner, but whole grains have always been a part of our diet. (Other than a brief elimination diet I went on that did nothing for me.) Honestly, I could not afford to go completely grain-free or legume-free. But I can afford a balanced diet of mostly organic foods by including them in moderation.

    I feel you should eat the highest quality food you can afford and do what makes you feel best! (And don’t assume that if a food doesn’t agree with you then it is bad for everyone else as well.) Humans have survived and thrived on various different diets throughout history.

    Also, I wonder what our individual genetics have to do with our tolerance/intolerances to certain foods. For example, indigenous people in the Americans traditionally consumed corn while rice is associated with Asia. Perhaps there is something to our ancestry and genetics effecting what diet makes us feel best.

  4. I have been having gut issues and brain fog for years! I watched a documentary called, “Forks over Knives” a little over a year ago and it changed my world! I had been battling sinus issues and within 24 hours if giving up dairy, my sinus issues were completely gone! I have been eating a vegan diet for over a year, but recently started having increased brain fog. I tried eliminating gluten and that seems to be the culprit. My concerns are not only that these issues also may be affecting my children, but the new learning curve seems so overwhelming. I really appreciate this post and am looking forward to reading more from your links!

    • Hi Kelly,
      Me too. And giving up store-bought dairy had an immediate positive effect on my sinuses as well. I get dry red eyes and a stuffy nose whenever I have some. Raw dairy, though, I found to be a completely different story! Not only doesn’t bother me but makes me feel great! If you are interested or really miss dairy products, check out http://www.realmilk.com for more info! A lot of mothers swear by raw milk for their kids, too.

  5. I have Celiac disease (as does my mother and brother), so I avoid any grain with gluten. My husband doesn’t eat GF. I’m slowly trying to convert our eating habits to a more healthy, organic diet. I’d like to quit buy my husband’s bread and make it at home with whole, organic grains. I can’t see us going grain-free, but as time passes buy I would like for us to head in the direction of organic whole grains.

  6. Fantastic post! Thanks!

  7. This is great! I’ve been wondering about all the controversy and have friends firmly on both sides of it, but haven’t had the time to really look into it. Thanks for all the information, very helpful!

  8. Thank you for the informative, balanced approach to this controversial subject. The strong feelings associated with the subject make me want to run and hide sometimes; so thanks for being a logical voice who recognizes that different things will be right for different situations.

    I use grain a lot in our diet because none of us have trouble with gluten. My main reason may seem strange for its philosophical nature, but I do so to try to wisely use the world’s limited resources. Jesus came to the poor and told us to remember them. For me, it helps to remember the poor by cooking a diet that involves elements of their food. Our budget doesn’t allow the removal of grain and most of the world’s population has even less chance at it than I do. By keeping grocery costs down through getting complete proteins from sources other than meat and dairy, I hope to keep resources free to give.

    That said, I definitely recognize that my situation is different than others and that each must do what is best for her family; also that Jesus calls us to different ways of living out His words.

    Thanks again for your thoughts.

  9. I love this balanced perspective. I believe that it is a mature approach to nutrition in general. When someone finds help with a certain nutritional approach, they often think that everyone needs to adopt the same eating plan. As you shared, one approach does not fit all, though certain principles always apply.

  10. Katie, thanks so much for such an informative, balanced post! I started my journey to a diet of “real food” about a year ago and have often been confused/overwhelmed by all of the conflicting information out there about grains (and other stuff). I have soaked, but currently am not…but was just thinking this morning that I probably should again. Thanks for the nudge :)

  11. Best post I’ve read by you…very well-articulated and objective! Thank you!

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