Food corporations have big media compaigns promoting their whole grain cereals. But putting aside the fact that many are loaded with sugar and few are 100% whole grain, are these foods good for you?
Unfortunately, these products aren’t doing your body much good and could actually be harming you. This is because grains, nuts and legumes, being seeds, are not ready to eat. The fiber from untreated whole grains is very harsh and can actually increase digestive difficulties, especially in those who persist in eating the standard American diet. This can lead to irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease and inflammatory bowel disease, as well as increased constipation, diverticulitis and many more disorders of the gastro-intestinal tract.
The first problem with grains is gluten, which applies only to grains. (Other anti-nutrients which apply to grains, nuts, seeds and legumes are discussed below.)
Grains fall into two general categories
1) Grains that contain gluten, such as oats, rye, barley and especially wheat. These grains should not be consumed unless they have been soaked, sprouted or fermented.
2) Buckwheat, rice, quinoa and millet do not contain gluten and are, on the whole, more easily digested. These grains however, still contain other anti-nutrients which should be neutralized.
Gluten along with other proteins in grain is very difficult to digest. A diet high in unsoaked or unfermented whole grains, particularly wheat, puts an enormous strain on the whole digestive system. Eventually, the GI system breaks down and you end up with allergies, Celiac disease, mental illness, chronic indigestion and Candida albicans overgrowth to name just a few. Symptoms of candidiasis and gluten intolerance overlap significantly because undigested sugars promote overgrowth of Candida albicans. There is now evidence of a link between gluten intolerance and multiple sclerosis. During the process of soaking and fermenting, gluten and other difficult-to-digest proteins are partially broken down into simpler components that are more readily available for absorption.
Approximately 1 in 200 people around the world have Celiac disease, an auto-immune disease where the body’s immune system attacks itself when exposed to gluten. However, a conservative estimate places gluten intolerance as affecting 1 in 7 people. Some studies indicate 1 in 3 or 4.
Gluten intolerance is poorly understood, and rarely diagnosed by physicians
When you complain of symptoms that are actually from gluten intolerance, you are most likely to be told you have reflux, irritable bowel or that you are depressed. These symptoms are not linked to gluten because gluten intolerance is so poorly understood and the symptoms vary widely, affecting every part of your body. Some of these symptoms include: diarrhea, flatulence, bloating and generalized gastro-intestinal discomfort. Other symptoms often reported are headaches, mouth ulcers, weight gain or weight loss, a poor immune system, and chronic skin problems like dermatitis and eczema. Anemia is often also present.
Because it is highly unlikely you will get the correct diagnosis from your physician unless you actually have Celiac disease, you can test yourself through an elimination diet. You will have to be extremely conscientious because wheat/gluten is hidden in most processed foods, medications and even supplements.
If you have determined you are gluten-intolerant or have been diagnosed with Celiac disease, complete abstinence from gluten is imperative to healing. Gluten intolerance is known to lead to other food sensitivities. Some people with gluten intolerance (not Celiac) may be able to introduce sprouted grains back into their diet after at least a year of strict abstinence.
More About Anti-Nutrients
The other problem with grains (and nuts, seeds and most legumes included) is that they contain substances called anti-nutrients. In other words, they contain substances which block or inhibit your ability to attain nutrition from them. The main anti-nutrient is phytic acid (or phytate). Phytic acid is the principal storage form of phosphorus in plant tissues. Phytic acid is known to inhibit the absorption of essential minerals such as calcium, magnesium, iron and zinc. Because phytic acid binds to these minerals in the GI tract, they are eliminated instead of absorbed.
Phytic acid contributes to mineral deficiencies
Deficiencies of vital minerals are most likely to occur in vegans, infants and children, the elderly and in people of developing countries who rely on grains for most of their nutrition, especially if little or no animal protein is consumed. Along with mineral deficiencies, these people are especially vulnerable to developing a niacin deficiency leading to pellagra. Pellagra is characterized by diarrhea, dermatitis, dementia, and death.
Besides phytic acid, unsoaked or unfermented grains contain other anti-nutrients such as enzyme inhibitors which can inhibit digestion and put stress on the pancreas. They also contain tannins which irritate the digestive tract; complex sugars which the body cannot break down; and gluten and related proteins which humans have difficulty digesting. Anti-nutrients are present because they prevent germination until conditions are right for growth and survival. Plants need moisture, warmth, time and slight acidity in order to sprout. Soaking grains and legumes or slow sour dough fermentation imitates nature.
All of these substances can be neutralized by several methods, however the whole grain products you find at the grocery store, and even most at the local health food store have not been treated. Cooking grains only slightly decreases the amount of phytic acid. Soaking grains/nuts/legumes in an acidic medium for 12 to 24 hours will effectively neutralize phytic acid as does sprouting which is more involved and actually entails sprouting the grain or legume. Fermenting, as in preparing a true sourdough, will also neutralize anti-nutrients.
Sally Fallon, author of the book Nourishing Traditions and follower of the teachings of Dr. Weston A. Price’s, is a huge advocate of soaking and goes into great detail about it in her book. Dr. Price was a dentist who studied “native” nutrition as it affected the teeth of various cultures. He was the first person to warn of the dangers of consuming large amounts of either refined or improperly prepared grains.
According to Dr. Price, “Soaking allows enzymes, lactobacilli and other helpful organisms to break down and neutralize phytic acid. As little as seven hours of soaking in warm acidulated water will neutralize a large portion of phytic acid in grains. The simple practice of soaking cracked or rolled cereal grains overnight will vastly improve their nutritional benefits… Soaking in warm water also neutralizes enzyme inhibitors, present in all seeds, and encourages the production of numerous beneficial enzymes. The action of these enzymes also increases the amounts of many vitamins, especially B vitamins.”
Humans only have one stomach and much shorter intestines than animals that subsist on plant matter
These animals have as many as four stomachs and an extremely long (by comparison) intestinal tract. Human anatomy allows us to eliminate animal products before they putrefy in the gut but leave us poorly adapted to a diet high in grains. When grains are properly prepared through soaking, sprouting or fermenting, the friendly bacteria of the microscopic world begin the process of digestion for us in a bowl. These are the same lactobacilli that do their work in the first and second stomachs of the herbivores and found in the intestines of healthy people.
We can survive quite well without grains, and giving up grains altogether is an option that will not only aid digestion, but help heal insulin resistance and other problems. I realize this is an option few people are willing to choose, so here is how to make grains as healthy as possible.
Learning How to Prepare Grains
Changing the way you eat grains requires advance planning, but only a few extra minutes of actual preparation time. For non-gluten containing grains, simply put the whole grain in a bowl with enough water to cover. Add a tablespoonful of whey, lemon juice or vinegar and leave covered at room temperature for at least 6 to 12 hours. You can get whey simply by draining yogurt (or kefir) through a tightly woven cloth. The clear liquid that drains is whey.
Drain, add your cooking liquid and cook as usual. This will take you less than 5 minutes and the grain will be ready for cooking when you get home from work or get up the next morning.
Gluten containing grains require more preparation
Grains need to be soaked and sprouted, a process which takes 2 to 4 days. After germination, they are ready to cook with no further soaking, or they can be dried and ground into flour. The process sounds difficult and daunting, but really isn’t.
In today’s modern and busy world there are many alternatives. If you make your own bread with purchased whole grain flours, simply start a day early. Substitute buttermilk, kefir or yogurt for part of the liquid. Make your dough as usual, put in a covered bowl and allow it to rest for 24 hours. Experiment to find what works for you. The acid in the above foods is needed to break down gluten and phytates while the live bacteria in the above cultures actually begin the digestion process for you.
The easiest option is to buy your grain products already made from sprouted grains. Ezekial bread is available in almost all health food stores and even some grocery stores including Trader Joe’s. More brands are appearing frequently, suggesting that many people are learning about grains and demanding sprouted products.
Many people can now get bread, hamburger buns and even tortillas that are made with sprouted grains. You can also buy flour that has been made from sprouted grains. Here are a few sources: Creating Heaven, Building Health and Essential Eating, to name a few. You can even find these flours on Amazon and eBay.