Grain choices – Quinoa, millet, wheat, rice, wild rice, barley etc, etc…You hear about all these grain choices, but you are left wondering what grain to eat.
The grain that typically “comforts you”, the one that your native cuisine uses heavily, would have grown best based on climatic conditions in your hometown.
For e.g., the hot, wet regions like Southern India usually grew rice, while wheat was hardier and grew in colder regions up north. The Inca warriors ate quinoa, while the Mexicans made tortillas from corn. But now, with globalization, most people living in major cities have access to many types of grains. But that begs the question, which grain should you choose?
Instead of randomly picking and choosing grains to eat, let us use well-researched numbers as our guide.
The whole grain council* has published the amount of protein in each grain. The protein content in descending order are:
Now, let us look at the fiber content in each grain sorted in descending order.
Observe the values carefully. Wheat has more than double the protein and fiber content of rice.
It does not make a difference for a day or two, but on a daily basis those nutrients add up. Now, I don’t mean to say, we should all quit rice from our diets. That would be injustice to the wonderful recipes that can accomplished using rice. However, knowing about some of the disadvantages of rice can motivate you to try other grains more frequently.
Barley has an amazing fiber content, which you will quickly realize if you eat a bowl of barley in the morning for breakfast. It will sit in your stomach for hours together. It is said that Roman gladiators were referred as hordearii, literally meaning “barley men”.
Quinoa and wild rice can be expensive, ranging from $4-$6/lb respectively. But, if budget is a constraint, you can easily get similar protein/fiber combo from the considerably cheaper wheat or oats.
Now, let us look at the glycemic index of different grains published by Harvard Health*. If you are diabetic, or pre-diabetic, you want to eat grains that have a low glycemic index. The higher the glycemic index, the more quickly the grains get absorbed into the blood stream, causing your insulin levels to shoot up. It is not surprising that rice is on the bottom of the list, considering that glycemic index, among other factors, depend on the protein and fiber content of the grain.
The glycemic index in ascending order are (remember lower is better):
Adding fat and fiber to your meal with grains will also reduce the glycemic index of the meal. Watch this video by a Dr. Stefano Vendrame (Ph.D. Human Nutrition) to know more about glycemic index and understand how different aspects of your meal can increase/decrease the GI of the meal.
Should I go grain-free?
The popular paleo diet recommends avoiding grains due to its increased load on the pancreas and making one insulin dependent. While the science behind it, that grains act pretty much the same as complex sugars is true, substituting all your grains with meat and animal products may not be the answer for everyone. 4 billion people in this planet rely on rice, wheat or maize as their staple food*.
In a grain dependent culture, like India, it is also not practical to replace centuries of wonderful traditional recipes like idli, dosa, chappathi, kitchdi, etc with bacon and hot dogs. Getting 4 billion people to eat more meat is not sustainable for the planet on a long term basis as well. The long term impact of excessive animal products to your diet also has its own detrimental effect on health.
Eating well on a grain based diet
There are plenty of corrections we can do to our diet to help our health get back on track.
- Tinker around with these grains. Each one has its own special culinary superpower. For e.g., barley makes a great porridge, while quinoa fluffs up nicely and works great in stir-fry as a rice substitute. Bulgur is such a nutritional powerhouse, yet it cooks up super quickly making it an excellent candidate for upma’s and kichdis.
- Let us talk rice. As an Indian, it is hard for me to give up rice. But, rice scores badly when you look at fiber, protein and glycemic index levels. So, what can one do? – Eat smaller portions of rice. The Japanese eat only one small cup of white rice with every meal. However, the amount of sides in protein and vegetables far exceed the quantity of rice they consume. Adding plenty of vegetables, both raw and cooked will decrease the net glycemic load on your body for that meal.
- Root for continuous and slow and steady improvements. When I first cooked a bowl of quinoa to eat with the traditional sambhar, my mom who is very open-minded tried it without complaints. However, at the end of the meal, she quietly stated, “It is still not as satisfying or the same as eating with white rice.” A few months later, she now cooks her very own bowl of millet everywhere she goes. I am in awe of her willing to make changes to her diet based on scientific information at the age of 66. …..How about you?
Do you want to know why parboiled rice has such a low GI? And what the heck is the difference between bulgur and cracked wheat? Do these questions keep you up at night or is it just me? 🙂 …. Please post your comments and questions below or on my blog’s Facebook page.
The Atlas of FOOD Who Eats What, Where and Why by Erik Millstone, Tim Lang
This article is an updated version of my original article published on LinkedIN