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Grains aren't (always) the devil foods you think they are

Charlotte Hilton Andersen is the author of the book The Great Fitness Experiment: One Year of Trying Everything and runs the popular health and fitness website of the same name, where she tries out a new workout every month, specializing...

What's healthy and what's hype when it comes to grains

Pop quiz: Someone gives you a plate with a perfectly toasted piece of whole wheat bread slathered in butter. Now, which is the health food — the bread or the butter? No pressure or anything but your answer will affect your entire life, or at least the part of it that revolves around food.

If you've been anywhere in America and not in a coma for the past 10 years, then you'll know that grains, once considered the main staple of the human diet, are now smothered in controversy more often than gravy. Some people seem to eat nothing but grain products while other people dream wistfully of someday maybe having one piece of bread. Whole diets have sprung up around the idea of embracing them or avoiding them. So what are grains — food of the devil or devil's food (cake)? Delicious sustenance or health menace?

One reason for the confusion may be that there isn't one right answer, says Jill Grunewald, a holistic nutritionist. "Because we’re all individuals," she says, "and as I learned in school, nutrition is the only science where opposing theories can be proven right."

First the good: Whole grains like rice, oats, barley, amaranth, millet, teff and wheat have been in the human diet, if not forever, then at least for several thousand years. And because of this, we have a pretty good record of how they affect us. Decades of research have linked eating whole grains with a long list of health benefits, including a stronger immune system, lower weight, less depression, lower risk of cardiovascular disease, less risk of certain cancers, shiny hair, strong nails, glowing skin and even a longer life overall — just to name a few. They're full of B vitamins, fiber, essential minerals and good starch, as well as being a cost-effective and widely available food source.

More: 8 Ways to make whole grains taste great

Now for the bad: Admit it, when you eat grains, how often are you tucking into a bowl of boiled wheat berries or steamed brown rice? Most of the grains we eat are from processed sources that strip all the good stuff out and leave us with the base — sugars. And yes, that includes breads and pastas, even whole grain ones. These simplified grains do the exact opposite of whole grains, causing diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Worse, most of us are eating mainly processed wheat products and those are almost all from the same strain of wheat (which arguably isn't the healthiest variety out there).

Nutritionists and health professionals almost universally agree that processed foods like refined flour and boxed cereals are one of the greatest causes of illness in Western society. For this reason, many people do see marked improvements in their health when giving up grains or carbs. And this is becoming an increasingly popular choice: One-third of Americans now say they are avoiding gluten.

While true wheat allergies and Celiac disease remain relatively rare, gluten is one of the top five most common food sensitivities people have, says Grunewald. A grain sensitivity can manifest as brain fog, irritability, bad mood, skin problems, rashes and fatigue, she explains, adding that many of her clients will feel better after completely removing grains for a time. But there's a catch. Often the issue isn't the food intolerance itself. Rather the intolerance to grains is often a symptom of a deeper, chronic health issue like an autoimmune problem, thyroid dysfunction or leaky gut syndrome, she says. Resolve the underlying issues and you may find that foods that used to trigger a violent response no longer bother you.

More: Science confirms very few people actually suffer from gluten sensitivity

"It's a good healthy practice to be cautious about what you eat," agrees William Katkov, M.D., a gastroenterologist at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica. Diet is so individual and what may be fine for someone else to eat may tie you up in knots. Fortunately he has a simple solution for that: "Stop eating it if it hurts," he says.

But beyond the physical benefits or problems there is the other, perhaps much larger, issue of the psychology of the food. Grains are (forgive me) ingrained in our society on the deepest levels. Bread is used as a metaphor for everything from Jesus Christ to money. Cake is the ultimate celebration food. Pasta is a tried-and-true comfort food. Understandably, people often develop significant emotional attachments to grain products — and for many a life without bread, cake and pasta is not a life worth living.

"Eliminating a whole food group is mentally very tough on people," says Tori Cohen, R.D., the director of Food and Nutrition Services at Los Robles Hospital in Thousand Oaks, California. "And it can lead to a vicious cycle of bingeing and restricting."

Ultimately the "Bread Question" comes down to evaluating your own personal physical and emotional relationship to grains and deciding what makes you feel your best, inside and out.

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