Should I Eat This? Part 7: Grains

By Jane Mountain | November 3, 2012

We food-obsessed Westerners have spent much of the past decade freaking out about grains.

Remember Atkins? There was a guy in my office who ate huge plates of bacon and sausage every morning, but would shudder in disgust at the sight of toast. South Beachers also said “no” to grains, but were at least a little more sensible about the whole fatty proteins thing. The Paleo diet is one for history buffs. Eat like a caveman – if only cavemen had access to cows, chickens, and other domesticated animals.

We also have the anti-nutrient bunch, who believe every whole grain you eat destroys your intestines just a little more.

The gluten-free folks come in two camps. Those with a serious gluten allergy, and those who just love to be in on the latest diet trend.

Most doctors and nutritionists sit on the other side of the fence. They recommend healthy doses of whole grains to combat heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. But, doctors and nutritionists have been wrong about plenty in the past, so who knows?

Yup. There are at least 35 sides to the grain story.

So, Are Grains Bad For Me, Or Not?

White Bread = Bad
Among all the dissenting voices, there’s one thing on which we all (almost) agree. Skipping sugary processed grains in the form of white bread, hamburger buns, cookies, cakes, and beer (yes, beer) is a great road to better health.

To different extents, these types of grain-based foods contribute to weight gain, heart conditions, sugar addiction, and other nasties.

While you’re at it, stay away from anything that is enriched, fortified, or glorified. The only reason a grain needs to be enriched is if the original nutrients have been stripped away by over-processing.

If you can avoid these kinds of foods in your diet most of the time, you’re doing very well indeed.

Should I Be Gluten-Free?

In my opinion (and yes, it’s just my unscientific opinion) this whole gluten-free thing has gone way too far.

I do know some people who’ve been diagnosed with gluten sensitivity or celiac disease. Still others have found that avoiding gluten makes them feel healthier and more energetic. While some of these folks probably are sensitive to gluten, a lot of the “feel-better” benefits can be attributed to giving up all that processed white-flour crap we discussed earlier.

If you don’t know your gluten from your glue gun, here’s a handy list of what contains gluten.

Most people (I think) can chow down on whole grain pastas, breads, and cereals with no apparent negative effects. Unless, of course, it happens to be invisibly tearing up your digestive tract, which is certainly possible.

I’m More Confused Than Ever

Here’s my take on it. The non-grain crowd seems to align quite closely with the fitness and diet guru crowd. Just about every website I read telling you that grains will kill you (or make you fat) is also selling an expensive diet, nutrition, or fitness programme.

Alarm bells!

After testing out non-wheat and non-gluten eating for a while and finding no difference in the way I feel, I decided to stop wigging out over a seemingly benign (and nutrition packed) group of foods.

In addition, a diet high in whole grains has been shown (with actual scientific peer-reviewed studies) to reduce instances of just about every major disease we suffer today, including heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.

This combination of evidence (anecdotal though some of it may be) indicates to me that most of us need to eat more whole grain, not less.

You may not agree, and I’m totally cool with that.

Are Grains Bad for the Environment?

All agriculture is bad for nature. When a field is cleared and planted with wheat or quinoa, countless animals lose their habitats and are killed. This is true. It makes me sad.

It doesn’t make me nearly as sad as clearing that field for cows. Then clearing lots of other fields to grow the corn and soy that feeds the cows. And then killing the cows.

My point here is that however destructive growing plants is, it is much less destructive to eat those plants directly than it is to feed them to animals that you will then eat. It is also a more efficient use of our resources, which is a concern when 7 billion people need to eat every day.

Anyhoo, I digress.

If you want to eat grains that are lighter on environmental destruction:

  1. Run screaming from GMOs
  2. Go organic
  3. Eat whole grains (from the bulk section)
  4. Say no to processed crap

Coincidentally, these choices are also the healthiest options around.

What Can I Eat Instead?

In addition to the obvious grains, like brown rice and whole wheat bread, try a few wacky grains like amaranth, quinoa, millet, barley, oats, bulgur, and black rice. And don’t overdo it. Make the bulk of your diet fruits and veggies, with a little grain thrown in on the side.

If you have digestive problems, allergies, sinus problems, or other inexplicable health problems, consider giving up wheat or all gluten for a few months and see how you feel.

Just make sure you have a plan. How are you going to replace those nutrients? Where will you make up the calories? If you forgo a whole-wheat sandwich in favor of a bag of chips for lunch, I will punch you in the mouth (lovingly).

Finally, if you think all whole grains are toxic, you probably need to read a different blog.

Sources and Resources

The Beginner’s Guide To The Paleo Diet
Zen Habits On Soy
Americans Spend $4.2 Billion a Year On Gluten Free Products

Photo by jaynandd


Should I Eat This? The Complete Series


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Hi, I’m Jane, founder and chief blogger on My Five Acres. I’ve lived in six countries and have camped, biked, trekked, kayaked, and explored in 50! At My Five Acres, our mission is to inspire you to live your most adventurous life and help you to travel more and more mindfully.


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