The Benefits of Whole Grain Food

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Photo by the MOTHER EARTH NEWS staff
Learn about the benefits of whole grain food in your diet. Thoughtful consumption of wholesome whole grain food can improve your health.

The benefits of whole grain food are too many to name, these tips will help you choose your healthy grains wisely.

Healthy Homemade Bread

MOTHER EARTH NEWS Whole Grain Bread Recipe

The Benefits of Whole Grain Food

As much as we’d like to see it happen, we’re aware that not all of the MOTHER EARTH NEWS readers will be able to swing a visit to our Ecovillage research center here in the wooded hills of western North Carolina. And unfortunately, those who can’t come will miss the many on-site working presentations of doing-more-with-less knowledge . . . and our daily Show-Hows, which are “live” demonstration classes. These seminars cover a wide variety of subjects, ranging from garden preparation to wood-gas fuel generation, and are taught by staffers whose expertise has been acquired in the tough school of hands-on experience.

So, for those of you who haven’t yet been able to make a personal visit, here are a few of the highlights (and only the highlights, since space doesn’t permit us to repeat all of the information that’s presented in the 90-minute-long classes!) from the whole grain food Show-How . . . with the MOTHER EARTH NEWS favorite whole grain bread recipe, taken from the breadmaking class. It’s our hope that this brace of how-to’s will whet your appetite to cook with whole grains and to visit the Ecovillage, should you someday find yourself in this beautiful neck of the woods.

Wholesome Whole Grain Food

Let’s begin with an assertion: The frequent consumption of a variety of unrefined whole grains, in thoughtful combination with nutritionally complementary foods, will provide you with a source of protein and other nutrients that is more healthful, economical, and interesting than a diet based heavily on meat and refined foods.

Now we’re not saying that everyone should give up meat and refined foods completely . . .only that most of us could afford — in more ways than one — to cut down on our consumption of such products and to substantially increase out intake of natural whole grains. Barley, corn, millet, oats, rice, rye, sorghum, and triticale (a high-protein hybrid of durum wheat and rye), when combined with foods such as beans, nuts, peas, and dairy products that furnish the complementary amino acids needed to form complete protein, provide the health- and economy-conscious gourmet with dishes that are equal or superior in protein content to meat. But then again, protein isn’t the whole story: Natural grains offer ample vitamins, minerals, and all-important fiber roughage, as well.

Refining Goes Against the Grain

As you probably know, refined grains — ubiquitous in commercially prepared foods — consist of little more than the starch that’s left after the whole grain is processed, with artificial vitamins added to “enrich” the otherwise all-but-impotent product. In refining, you see, the outer hull, or bran, and the endosperm — the two most nutritious, fibrous, and generally beneficial parts of grain — are stripped away in order to produce an even-textured, spoilage-resistant shelf product. Then, to render it attractively white, the flour is bleached.

And, you may ask, just how long has this nutrition-robbing refining been used against the public health? Well, for most folks, refined flour has only been accessible since the industrial revolution, when machinery was developed with which to perform the refining chores economically. Before that — because the grain had to be hand processed at considerable expense — only the rich and privileged were “blessed” with the pretty white flour that rises so nicely and keeps so well.

On the other hand, for thousands of years the staple foods of humankind have been derived from natural, whole grains. Consequently, a number of healthful dietary combinations of whole grains and their nutritional complements have been developed. For example, Europeans have long enjoyed eating rye bread with cheeses, while Africans mix sorghum or millet with peanuts or beans. In Mexico and the American Southwest, a favorite meal is based on corn tortillas and beans, and the Algonquian natives of the eastern North American woods used the same ingredients — corn and beans — to “invent” succotash. In fact, the staple crops of almost all agrarian Indians of the Americas have always been the “three sisters” — corn, beans, and squash — sometimes with the addition of sunflowers, which were raised for their seeds. And, of course, folks in the Orient are partial to rice, soybeans, and millet.

Whole Grains: The Grist of It

Finding whole grains shouldn’t be difficult, no matter where you live . . . though chances are slim that you’ll see them on the shelves of your neighborhood supermarket. Food co-ops, health food stores, and feed-and-grain outlets can all be counted on to carry a variety of them. And if you’re really interested in saving money, you might even buy your grains in bulk quantities and grind them yourself. (For most grain-cooking applications that don’t require flour, a regular blender is all the “mill” that you’ll need.) Whole grains stored in a cool, dry place usually keep for about a year. But as soon as they’re refined — ground to make flour, for example — the oils and endosperm are exposed to oxygen, and the processes of decay begin . . . so it’s best to grind whole grains only as they’re needed.

Cooking With Whole Grains

So how do you use whole grains? Well, you’re certainly not limited to making breads! Remember that — while to cook with whole grains may be a totally new experience for you — humans have been consuming these healthful crunchies longer than any other food except, perhaps, meat (and even that’s debatable). Cookbooks abound with taste-tempting recipes employing natural grist, and once you master the basics, you’ll find hundreds of ways to combine grains with vegetables, beans, dairy products, and spices. The healthful seeds may be boiled, toasted, baked, sprouted, or simply soaked in water.

Although we mentioned it briefly before, it’s worth elaborating on the importance of fiber roughage in your diet. In fact, the value of fiber to the human body has been demonstrated in clinical research and field observations . . . both showing that where natural whole grains are consumed as a dietary staple, there are measurably lower rates — sometimes three times lower — of such gastrointestinal problems as diverticulitis, diverticulosis, constipation, hemorrhoids, cancer, and even gallstones than are seen in locales where meat and refined foods are the norm.

And bran — the prime source of fiber roughage in whole grains — is absorbent, too, virtually sucking toxins from our bodies as it scours its way through the intestines. (Nutritional experts, and the more enlightened medical doctors, recommend about 30 grams — a couple of tablespoonfuls — of bran per day as the optimum for health.) Of course, if more of our commercially — available cereals and breads contained the natural bran of whole grains, we wouldn’t need to make a point of buying and eating bran separately!

So, to cap off this nutritional preachment, we suggest that you consider making natural grains a regular (no pun intended) part of your diet: They’ll save you money, provide superior nutrition, expand your menu, and most certainly improve your health.

Books About Cooking With Natural Grains

Handbook of the Nutrition Contents of Foods

Cooking What Comes Naturally: A Month’s Worth of Practical Vegetarian Menus

The Moosewood Cookbook: Recipes from Moosewood Restaurant, Ithaca, New York

The Raw Foods Diet: The Vital Gift of Enzymes

The Whole Grain Bake Book

The Complete Sourdough Cookbook