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.

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.

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.

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!

The Grain Controversy

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