A large premise of the Paleo diet is that grains should be avoided and their consumption is the root of poor health and chronic disease. This would lead many to believe that if they eat any grains they will become fat and sick. Fortunately, for most healthy people, this isn’t true and sometimes including a few well-chosen and prepared true whole grains may actually make it easier to accomplish your health goals.
Grains And Disease
Grains contain high levels of phytates and lectins. These anti-nutrient compounds bind to minerals including calcium, iron, zinc and magnesium preventing optimal absorption from the food you eat. Lectins and phytates can also be damaging to your GI tract, and could potentially exacerbate a compromised or leaky gut or autoimmune condition.
Many modern grains also contain gluten proteins. The Paleo diet has emphasized how this problematic protein can cause issues for people beyond just those with celiac disease. Eating gluten causes the secretion of a protein called zonulin, which regulates the tight junctions of your intestinal lining. When these tight junctions are open, bacteria, toxins, and food particles can slip through the gut barrier. These intruding particles trigger your immune system, which can, in turn lead to a systemic inflammatory response.
This is one of the reasons why those struggling with autoimmune problems feel significantly better when gluten is eliminated from the diet. Removing the trigger helps calm down the inflammatory immune process in the gut.
Grains were not widely consumed (if at all) by Paleolithic man, but these health concerns add to the reasons that the Paleo diet recommends eliminating all grains from in particular gluten containing grains like wheat, barley, and rye, from the diet.
The question of whether it is necessary to remove all grains from the diet permanently is one often asked. Are there any grains that are safe to moderately consume without them becoming a detriment to your health?
Grains As Part Of A Healthy Diet
A well formulated Paleo diet that is free of grains can certainly meet all the nutritional needs to live a long and healthy life.
While some may need to avoid all grains to maximize their health and manage their illness or conditions, most people can incorporate some amount of grains into a diverse whole food, Paleo-based diet.
The 6-11 servings a day recommendation by the USDA is clearly not necessary or ideal. For most people there is an area of consumption that will fall between complete avoidance and multiple servings of whole grains at each meal. Finding the grains that work best for your body can require some experimentation. Certain grains seem to be better tolerated than others. A few ancient grains, organically grown and properly prepared can offer an occasional indulgence and add a little extra diversity and creativity to your Paleo plan.
We have chosen a few of our favorite ancient grains you might consider including:
Rice has become one of the more ‘acceptable’ grains in the Paleo community. here are more than 100,000 varieties of rice grown throughout the world, and many of them are red, black, purple, mahogany, even greenish. Rice is gluten-free, and white rice contains little to no anti-nutrients.
Most conventional nutrition sources promote brown rice over white rice as the better option due to a lower on the glycemic index and higher fiber and nutrient content. However, brown rice has high amounts of the anti-nutrients phytates and lectins, which the digestion and absorption of these extra nutrients. Furthermore, the fiber in brown rice is insoluble which fails to feed the beneficial bacteria in your gut. Brown rice also may contain significant amounts of arsenic, meaning it may not be an ideal choice as a dietary staple.
Properly prepared rice (including the ancient, heirloom and darkly colored varieties) is it is low in phytates and lectins. When cooked and cooled (then re-heated), rice develops resistant starch which can feed your gut bacteria. Rice is also one of the easiest grains to digest, and many individuals tolerate it better than other grains.
Those struggling with blood sugar imbalances, digestive tract infections, or autoimmunity may not tolerate a large amount of rice. However, for many, rice provides a good way to get safe and easy-to-digest carbs in your diet to support your activity levels and health goals. Adding a little rice can also open up a huge amount of variety into the diet, particularly when trying a few of the less-common types.
Quinoa, Buckwheat And Amaranth
Quinoa, buckwheat and amaranth are popular, ancient, gluten-free “pseudo-grains” that many people seem to tolerate well.
Quinoa contains soluble fiber and are higher in protein than most grains. It also boasts a good amount of phytonutrients and flavonoids that have the potential to reduce the risk of certain chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
Amaranth is a lesser known pseudo-grain that is often found in gluten-free products. Amaranth consumption may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, hypertension and cancer.
Buckwheat is technically a fruit, despite having the word “wheat” in it. Buckwheat is relatively well tolerated and easy to digest for many people, making it a great way to increase carbohydrate intake when and if necessary.
Millet is another gluten-free ancient grain that many use as an alternative to wheat. As with rice, there are many different varieties including foxtail, finger, fonio and pearl millet. All types of millet are thought to have high antioxidant activity and can be a source of magnesium
Millet is also highly goitrogenic. Goitrogens are compounds in foods that inhibit thyroid hormone production. This means that consuming millet could potentially induce hypothyroidism or even a goiter if enough was eaten on a regular basis, especially if iodine intake was low.
When consumed in reasonable quantities, goitrogens pose little issue for healthy individuals. Individuals struggling with hypothyroidism may want to avoid millet for the most part. If you do not have thyroid concerns, including some millet in moderation may be appropriate for you
Preparing Ancient Grains
Properly preparing grains eliminate most of the problematic phytates and lectins and makes them much easier to digest.
Sprouting, soaking and fermenting grains before consumption can drastically reduce toxins in grains increasing their digestibility and nutrient availability. The Weston A. Price Foundation provides numerous resources on how to properly prepare grains.
With many of the anti-nutrient compounds reduced through the soaking and sprouting process, you might choose to add these foods to your Paleo diet on occasion as long as you can tolerate them without issue.
There are certain people that may need to avoid grains entirely.
Some individuals with autoimmunity or severe digestive system imbalances may need to remain grain-free or gluten-free permanently to feel their best, while others can thrive on a more diverse, grain inclusive diet.
If choosing to experiment with adding some ancient grains to your diet, it is probably best to begin with rice or buckwheat as they have the lowest toxicity and the greatest tolerance. If these are tolerated, you may want to try a few additional gluten-free grains or pseudo-grains
It is crucial to try each grain one at a time, so you can detect how your body is tolerating each one. You may discover that you tolerate some grains better than others.
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When prepared properly and eaten in moderation, including small amounts ancient grains can be included in a Paleo diet as long as you tolerate them without difficulty and they are not replacing more nutrient-dense foods.
If you are able to eat small amounts of properly prepared whole, ancient grains without any difficulty or worsening of your symptoms, in the context of a nutrient-dense Paleo diet, you have a broader and more diverse diet and fewer limitations. If you have autoimmune disease or gut issues, you may need to be more mindful with these foods and determine if you have a tolerance for any of them.