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Tanya Wyatt, Happy Valley pond

Grains tend to form a very prominent part of the modern diet.  However, you may be surprised to know that grains are also potentially health-harming in a number of ways, even in their natural, unprocessed state.  They can cause fatness, blood sugar disruption and cravings for sugar, amongst other things.

What are grains?

Grains come in two states. Processed grains include foods made from refined flours, like confectionary, pies, pastas and breads (even the whole-wheat versions).  Whole grains consist of rice, millet, quinoa, amarinth, cornmeal, spelt, wild rice, barley, buckwheat, oats, rye and kamut in their natural form, as well as any of these grains that have been ground whole into flour (called stone-ground).

Traditionally, we used to soak whole grains to encourage a fermentation process.  Grains contain high levels of compounds in their bran, called phytates.  The medium they were soaked in was acidic (cultured milk, buttermilk, whey, lemon juice or vinegar), which activated the enzyme phytase.  This helped to break down phytic acid – a gut irritant. Phytic acid contributes to food intolerances, celiac disease and irritable bowel syndrome, amongst other things.  Soaking also increases the vitamin content and makes all the nutrients in grains more readily available to the body.

So, if you do eat grains, make sure you soak them for 12-24 hours in liquid whey (contact me for sources), lemon juice or vinegar … about 2 tablespoons per 2 cups of grain.  You’ll find they cook much faster than un-soaked grains and may leave you feeling satisfied, without any gut disturbances (bloating, gassiness, pain etc.)

The problem with grains

A word of warning: regular consumption of both processed and whole grains can result in high insulin.  This can lead to insulin resistance, diabetes and heart disease, as well as ‘overweight’ or obesity. By way of explanation, grains belong to the macronutrient group carbohydrates (the other macronutrients are proteins and fats).  Carbohydrates are the only foodstuffs able to alter blood sugar because they break down very quickly into sugars in the body.  Processed carbs break down more rapidly into sugar than their whole-grain counterparts, making them even more problematic.

Simplistically put, when blood sugar rises, the pancreas produces insulin. This results in a signal being given to various cells to ‘open’ to receive this excess glucose.  Usually the muscle cells will be ‘asked’ first, but they’re invariably full from your previous meal. This is unless you’ve just finished a moderate to heavy training session.  Next is the liver cells, but they too tend to be full. They are waiting to convert their own stores of glycogen back into glucose to feed to the muscle cells when they run out of fuel.  This means that the fat cells are free and eager to pick up and convert the excess glucose into fat!

If the above pattern happens frequently enough, the cells can become ‘deaf’ to the insulin signal (called insulin resistance). They therefore require more and more insulin in order to react.  Given enough time, the pancreas can fail to produce enough insulin to maintain homeostasis in the blood and so diabetes (pancreatic failure) occurs.