As winter arrives and the cold weather sets in there’s only one type of food that helps to warm our bellies – carbohydrates. Today I want to talk about a group of carbohydrates known as 'grains'.
Grains are any food made from wheat, rice, oats, cornmeal, barley or another cereal. Bread, pasta, oatmeal, breakfast cereals, tortillas, and grits are all examples of grain products.
Grains can be divided into 2 groups:
- Whole Grains - Whole grains are untouched and contain the entire grain kernel ― the bran, germ, and endosperm. Examples include wholewheat flour, bulgar wheat, oats and brown rice.
- Refined Grains - Refined grains are grains that have been milled, a process that removes the bran and germ. This is done to give grains a finer texture and improve their shelf life, removing a lot of the dietary fiber, iron, and some B vitamins. Examples are white flour, white bread, and white rice.
Most grains have been given a bad rap over the last few years with some ‘experts’ claiming that consuming them causes weight gain, abdominal bloating, cardiovascular disease and even cancer. Eating any foods in excess will inevitably cause weight gain and sometimes bloating, but to say grains are a danger to one’s health is completely absurd and certainly not true! If anything, I can only see grains being beneficial to health as they’re useful sources of minerals, antioxidants and fibre, which should all feature as part of a healthy diet, alongside lean proteins and healthy fats. So, to reap the benefits, I've made a guide to some great grains:
Amaranth is usually rich in magnesium, which is required for muscle relaxation and helping the body to manage stress; calcium, which helps to maintain bone density; iron which carries oxygen round the body, and lysine (some evidence suggests it helps counter the effects of cold sores but more importantly it helps to reduce calcium loss and therefore good for bone health).
Tip: It is in the same family as quinoa and beetroot and contains no gluten. In fact it’s technically not a grain at all but cooks like rice or can be used as a substitute to popcorn.
The high fibre content of barley means it can help to prevent colon cancer, help produce energy, reduce appetite (because it helps stabilize blood sugar management), reduce cholesterol, and aid muscle relaxation, as it’s high in magnesium.
When combined with protein it’s effective in reducing appetite and maintaining energy levels. It is superior to pearl barley because the latter is more processed, with reduced nutrient content.
Tip: Works well with stock and herbs and added to soups and casseroles.
Buckwheat has a number of powerful health benefits. It’s high rutin levels mean it can reduce the likelihood of stoke, heart attack and thrombosis. Due to it’s high angiotensin, zinc, and copper content it can lower blood pressure, boost immune health, and reduce the risk of neurological disorders. The high fibre content means it’ll also aid digestion and help with satiety levels.
Tip: Can be used as an alternative to rice but don’t rinse before cooking or it will become mushy.
Packed with fibre, bulgur is great for digestion. The fibre also offers some protection against colon cancer and high levels of LDL (the ‘bad’ cholesterol) and can reduce high blood pressure. It is derived from wheat so is not suitable for coeliacs.
Tip: Make sure to rinse several times before cooking to reduce the starch, and then cook it like rice. Works well in soups and salads.
Freekeh is a high protein Middle Eastern grain that is also high in fibre, making it good for digestive health and relieving constipation. It can also help protect the eyes against macular degeneration because it is rich in lutein, which has been shown to support vision and eye health.
Tip: It’s made from young green wheat and contains gluten so can be used in place of wheat for puddings, stuffing, soups, or the bread; it makes a less dry loaf than regular wheat.
Similar to wheat, expect it contains no gluten and has a higher nutritional value. Millet can help regulate blood pressure and heartbeat due to a high potassium content.
Tip: For those who suffer from thyroid problems I would not advise eating it more than twice per week, because it can hinder iodine absorption, which is required for proper thyroid health.
Oats are a concentrated source of minerals and are good at reducing appetite because they have a favorable balance of protein and carbohydrates. They are also great at reducing cholesterol as they contain beta-glucan. Just 3g daily (about 3 oat cakes) can reduce total cholesterol by as much as 10 per cent in three months.
Tip: Oats are naturally high in beta-glucans. An intake of at least 3 g of β-glucan per day has been shown to decreased saturated fats and reduced the risk of heart disease. Have it as porridge to get your started in a morning.
Technically a seed, quinoa is a rare grain-based complete protein, which means that it can be used as a building block for muscle and tissue, and will also reduce appetite. It can also reduce inflammation, contains small amounts of oleic acid that are found in olive oil, and is gluten free so is prefect for people with coeliac disease.
Tip: Can be used in place of rice and cereals or used in risotto.
Rye is a wholegrain so it’s more dense and fibrous than wheat, and will keep you fuller for longer, helping to control appetite. It can also help to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and breast cancer in post-menopausal women because it is a rich source of lignans.
Tip: You can add it to soups and stews. When buying bread look for 100 per cent rye, as some rye breads contain a mix of rye and wheat.
Spelt is high in protein and can improve circulation and reduce cholesterol due to its niacin (vitamin B2) content. It’s in the same family as rye and wheat, but has a slightly different protein profile so can be easier to digest for those who have a sensitivity to regular wheat.
Tip: Spelt can replace wheat in baking, though it does taste slightly sweeter.
Teff grains are tiny, yet very concentrated. Originally from Ethiopia, Teff is high in vitamin C (not normally found in grains) and is good at maintaining bone density because of its high lysine content, which helps the body to absorb calcium. It looks like a brown poppy seed and because it’s so small it’s hard to refine so is generally found in its natural state.
Tip: Can be used in porridge or to make flatbread and pancakes.
Wheat has received a bad reputation recently but can be a great addition to the diet. It is a good source of fibre, which can reduce the risk of colon cancer and high cholesterol. Try to eat it in its unprocessed form if possible. Unbleached wholewheat has more nutritional benefits than processed, bleached white flour. The problem associated with wheat is that it’s a simple carbohydrate that can spike blood sugar levels making you hungry and tried quickly.
Tip: Try to buy unprocessed wheat if possible for additional fibre content.
Wild rice has twice the amount of protein than brown or white rice, which is essential for maintaining muscle tone and reducing appetite. It can help better regulate blood sugar and reduce blood pressure because of its high potassium content. It’s very high in antioxidants.
Tip: Rinse well and place in cold water for 10 minutes to remove unwanted particles before cooking.
So there you have it! Now winter has arrived you really have no excuses not to add any one of these great grains as an ingredient to your winter warmer dish!