Afraid of the big, bad grain? Don't be. While low-carb diets and carb cycling might still be all the rage, ancient whole grains like black rice and quinoa are coming into their own. Yet along with the surging popularity comes a long list of myths surrounding these staples of ancient cultures. Gluten has become a dirty word, and some aspects of eating grains are still getting an undeserved bum rap for causing weight gain.
Here are 10 of the most common myths about whole grains and why you might want to change your mind about theses kernels of nutrition.
1. Grains will make you fat.
There's a big difference between what you're getting in a whole versus a refined grain. A Tufts University study found that eating whole grains, as opposed to refined grains (the ones that have been stripped of their germ and bran, such as white rice or pearled barley) can lower belly fat.
Studies consistently point out that eating whole grain instead of refined grain results in lower body mass. Results outside of the U.S. show similar conclusions — that simply switching to whole grains and not changing the other things you eat creates weight reduction over time.
2. Whole grains are all the same.
Not so fast — every whole grain has its own flavor and benefits. High-protein quinoa is touted to possess anti-inflammatory properties, which researchers believe are related to weight loss and improved brain cell activity. Then there's teff, which contains 20 to 40 percent resistant starches, which is another way for a grain to make you slimmer after giving you great-tasting meals.
According to traditional Chinese medicine, millet is the only alkalizing grain. Plus, its sweet taste is supportive for the spleen and pancreas, which can also calm your sugar cravings. (Try eating millet to let go of your ice-cream habit.) The more you explore the world of whole grains, the more variety you find.
3. Eating grain is like eating sugar.
If you only look at grams of sugar on a label, then many foods might look like they act the same when you digest them. But think of it this way: Sugarcane is pressed to extract the juice, which is boiled down to release the water and leave the sweet crystals. It takes approximately three feet of sugarcane to make one teaspoon of sugar, resulting in an easily dissolved product that will immediately spike your blood sugar when you eat it.
Whole grains, on the other hand, take a longer time to break down and have a slower, steadier impact on blood sugar that gives you the fuel you need (brains live on glucose), without the detrimental affects. Alison Massy, M.S., RD, CDE, who works at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore agrees, saying that "we always stress eating more complex carbs like whole grains because the higher nutritional value and the fiber makes whole grains smart carbs that won't spike glucose levels in the blood."
4. Wheat is addictive.
Certainly people can develop allergies and reactions to all types of things (for all types of reasons), but generally the idea that wheat is addictive might have more to do with the fact that someone thought they could make a few dollars with their theory — one that is getting sensationalized into factoid.
The concept states that peptides produced from wheat during simulated digestion in a test tube can attach to opioid receptors. However, that isn't to say they will produce an opioid response in a human digestive system. Spinach and lettuce along with many other foods also will attach to opioid receptors, and no one is worried about a salad addiction.
5. Whole grains are bland and boring.
Taste is a personal issue, but when you are used to highly seasoned food and then head into a health-food restaurant and are given a lump of grain in a bowl, it can seem pretty plain. The incredible thing about whole grains is their versatility as a food source.
You can add almost anything to them while cooking to create endless combinations. "Most people think of eating the same thing all the time," Massy says, "There are lesser-known grains, such as bulgur or teff, that might be called ancient grains, to widen the choices." Mix a few different grains together; flavor with sauces like pesto or tahini; season with your favorite herbs and spices. Think of whole grains as your neutral base that can pair with any other flavors.
6. You have to skip the grains if you are going gluten-free.
Amaranth, quinoa, millet, rice and teff are all gluten-free grains, perfect to consume on a gluten-free diet. When avoiding gluten, the biggest section to skip are all of the names for wheat, such as semolina, malt, bulgur, couscous, faro, matzo meal, panko, udon or durum. Rye and barley also contain gluten and need to be avoided.
Going gluten-free is all about knowing what to select along with all of the options out there for you to enjoy. Jeanne Hendricks, RD, recommends "utilizing the whole grains themselves and letting go of looking to gluten-free products to get a better nutrient profile overall."
7. Grains can deplete you of minerals because they contain phytates.
Phytic acid, or inositol hexaphosphate (IP-6), is a small component in grains and beans. The old theory was that if you consumed too many phytates, they would block mineral absorption and you could be at risk for things like osteoporosis. New York Times best-selling author Dr. Michael Greger writes on NutritionFacts.org that "recent studies demonstrate that this so called 'antinutrient' effect can be manifested only when large quantities of phytates are consumed in combination with a nutrient-poor diet."
Current research shows that phytates are actually beneficial antioxidants and can help to prevent disease.
Read more: 21 Foods That Sound Healthy, But Are Not!
8. Refined grains are the same as any whole grain.
Whole grains are seeds that you can plant and they will grow. They have abundant nutrition in them that includes protein, B vitamins, iron, calcium and other minerals — not to mention the fiber, which helps slow the breakdown of the grain into sugar.
Refining the grain strips it of between 25 and 90 percent of its nutrients. As soon as grains are broken down, oxidation and nutrient loss begins. Refining grains into flour means that they are absorbed more rapidly and then act more like sugar than when they are consumed in their original form.
9. Grains cause inflammation.
Sugar is known to create inflammation, and inflammation is known to be an underlying factor in a wide range of diseases. Because whole grains eventually turn to a form of sugar (glucose) when eaten, the conclusion that they cause inflammation is overblown.
Certainly when you refine grains enough to make syrup or flour, they are no longer the seed they once were. Yet numerous studies, such as one at Harvard University, show that eating whole grains can reduce inflammation instead of create it.
10. Eating too much grain will give you high blood pressure.
Hypertension is often labeled "the silent killer" because there are no signs of having this condition that can be a precursor to heart disease or stroke. Since many processed food items made with grain contain salt or sugar, the misconception is sometimes made that grains themselves should be avoided.
"We should be differentiating between processed and whole, not lump all carbs together," says Hendricks. "Unprocessed whole grains will definitely not contribute to high blood pressure." Here's the clincher: Eating whole grains can lead to consuming less overall and help lower blood pressure significantly.
What Do YOU Think?
What's your favorite whole grain and way to prepare it? Tell us about your recipe in the comments below!
- Whole Grains May Help Control Blood Pressure, Anonymous. Tufts University Health & Nutrition Letter 27.11 (Jan 2010): 1-2.
- Harvard University; Diabetic women on whole grain/low-glycemic index diet may have lower systemic inflammation, Medicine & Law Weekly (Apr 7, 2006): 180.
- Whole Grains and Health: from Theory to Practice-Highlights of the Grains for Health Foundation's Whole Grains Summit 2012(1,2) McKeown, Nicola M; Jacques, Paul F; Seal, Chris J; de Vries, Jan; Jonnalagadda, Satya S; et al. The Journal of Nutrition 143.5 (May 2013): 744S-758S.
- Consumption of whole grains in French children, adolescents and adults, Bellisle, France; Hébel, Pascale; Colin, Justine; Reyé, Béatrice; Hopkins, Sinead. The British Journal of Nutrition 112.10 (Nov 28, 2014): 1674-84.