Saturday, June 14, 2008

Back to Basics - Grains

In my last post, I rambled on about the fact that there's really no secret to health, just basic science - just science that we've either forgotten, don't know about or is no longer taught as a basic fact. Whether it be our parents, grandparents or those of the generation that truly ate from the land (can you say "whole foods"), worked the land (can you say "exercise"), and watched far less television, generations before us knew "the secret" and were generally healthier. They were more active and ate more nutritious foods. Their "secret" was merely a way of life. And had they had our society's current drug profile available for treating diseases that were previously untreatable, they would have most likely lived far longer than our generation is currently expected to (and I'm referring to those born between 1960 and 1980 when I say "our generation").

I continue to refer to the government's MyPyramid tool ( as a good starting point for anyone searching for "the secret" or information on eating right and being active. I thought I'd summarize each of the Pyramid's "color bands" in efforts to show just how easy it really is! Let's start with Grains, the orange band, and the largest of all the bands.

Grains are the seeds of food plants (by definition) - they are truly the seeds from which other plants grow. Just imagine the powerhouse of nutrients in grains! They must pack enough vitamins, minerals and nutrients to grow another whole plant from each seed! Wheat, rice, oats, corn, barley and millet are common grains. Bread, pasta, oatmeal, breakfast cereals, tortillas, and grits are also examples of grain "products", meaning that the whole grain is typically processed and / or refined to create the product. The less processed or refined a grain is, the better it is for you. Why? Because the whole grain, which includes the bran, the germ and the endosperm, contains more nutrients than a grain that has been processed or refined - which typically entails stripping some or most of the basic nutrients from the grain, specifically stripping the germ and bran.
  • The bran is the outer layers of the grain and contains fiber, B vitamins and trace minerals (which are minerals needed by the body in small amounts).
  • The germ is the part of the grain that provides nutrients to the grain itself. It provides us with antioxidants, B vitamins, trace minerals, essential fats and vitamin E. This is the part of the grain that really packs a whollop! The germ is the part of the grain that sprouts, germinating a new plant. Can you see why it's so rich in all the good stuff? It's like an egg - developing life from it's core!
  • The endosperm is the inner part, or "body", of the grain and provides us with carbohydrates (energy), protein, and small amounts of vitamins and minerals. White flour is ground from the endosperm of grains after the bran and germ are stripped away.
Most of us need between five (5) and eight (8) ounces of grains per day, depending on our age, gender and how many calories we require (find this information on the MyPyramid site). How much is that? One ounce equivalent of a grain/grain product is:
  • one (1) ounce is about one regular slice of bread, OR
  • three-quarters to one cup of breakfast cereal, OR
  • one-half cup of cooked rice, grain or pasta

Adding whole grains to your diet might be something totally new if you're currently living on packaged and boxed foods, but it's really not that hard. Get used to looking at the ingredients list. When someone tells me about a favorite "health" food, I always ask: "What's in it?" And I don't mean "less fat", or "high protein". I mean what are the actual ingredients, beginning with the first ingredient, which is the one that the product contains the most of by weight. The second ingredient is the most plentiful, and so on. The first ingredient should be the name of the whole grain, such as: brown rice, bulgur wheat, whole oats or oatmeal, whole-grain corn or wild rice. Non-specific terms such as multi-grain, stone-ground, seven-grain and 100% wheat (missing the "whole") are usually not whole-grain products. Try to imagine a "multi-grain" or a "seven-grain" plant growing in a field...versus a corn field, a wheat field or a rice bog. Get it? And when in doubt: ask, Google, search!!! When you take the initiative to find the answer and understand it, you'll be that much smarter next time!

Also, just to note, one of the best and most economical places to search for and learn about whole grains is your local health food store. They sell grains in bulk as well as pre-packaged, but when you buy in bulk, you save some serious money! If you've followed my blogs, you'll remember the day I realized I could get the same 12-16 ounces of steel cut oats from the health food store for under a dollar that I pay almost six dollars for at my regular grocery store! And it's fun! I love trying new things, and the folks at most of the health food stores are eager to recommend how to cook with their products.

So, let's talk real examples of how to incorporate whole grains into your everyday diet:

Breakfast. Breakfast is a great time to incorporate whole grains into your diet. Steel cut oats, oatmeal or whole wheat toast are great traditional breakfast grains, and an excellent part of a complete breakfast. Other, more non-traditional, options may be rice, quinoa, kasha and barley. Don't forget, however, that grains are only a PART of a good breakfast. Breakfast is a great opportunity to incorporate fruits, lean proteins and the dairy group as well.

Lunch. Lunch screams "GRAINS!" in traditional sandwiches (whole wheat bread/buns) and non-traditional wraps (whole grain tortillas and wraps). Grains such as rice, quinoa, bulgur and barley are great additions to salads to soups as well.

Dinner. I personally prefer to stack my grains in the early and middle part of the day, as those are my most active times (and hence I use more energy or carbohydrate earlier in the day), but all the grains listed above are excellent additions to dinner as well.

Snacks. Grains can also play a good role in snacking. Popcorn and some whole grain cereals are great finger foods. I can't recall the brand, but there is one shredded wheat (squares) breakfast cereal on the market that has one ingredient: whole wheat. Also, I believe that Back to Nature produces a Harvest Wheat Cracker that has two ingredients: whole wheat and salt. Excellent!!!

Talking about grains is sometimes hard for me, because I can be a closet carb-o-phobe. Though reducing carbohydrates in my diet, personally, reduces water retention and makes me "feel" a bit slimmer, I physically "feel" better and perform better mentally when I get good sources of natural whole grains in my diet. Go to MyPyramid and read the health benefits of whole grains. Eat to live better, don't live to eat just "whatever". Feed your body quality fuel and your body will return the favor via enhanced performance. It's science...not a secret.

No comments: