Grains for Your Brain: How to Power Up with them for GOOD
Carbs, particularly grains, have gotten a bad rap, and the idea you have to avoid them—or worse, eliminate them entirely—is pretty much BS. Did I just hear your fork drop?
In this episode of my podcast, Recipes For Your Best Life, I’m dispelling the myths behind grains and how you can enjoy them healthfully for good.
We’ve heard a lot about carbs being the foundation of the evil empire. As if the mere utterance of the word is enough to make you gain five pounds and become permanently bloated. The confusion lies in the fact that carbohydrates show up in myriad forms. Carbs are also an integral component of fruit, vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, and milk and milk products. They have a really important place in your diet and can deliver a ton of nutrients, including amino acids, especially if you’re vegan or vegetarian and not eating any animal protein.
Carbs have a really important place in your diet, and can deliver a ton of nutrients, including amino acids.
Let’s break down one large category of carbs – grains. You may have heard about popular books like Grain Brain or Wheat Belly why they recommend avoiding the whole category. But I want to unpack this more because avoiding the whole grain category and saying they don’t have a place in your life is like avoiding exercise because you might pull a muscle. The benefits of squats far outweigh the risk; it’s just a matter of proportion and proper form. If you travel around the world, you’d find they play a pretty major role in the global diet.
The same goes for grains. There are a lot of considerations. What type are you eating? How much? How is it cooked? Is it soaked first? And the list goes on.
And guess what? If you’re gluten-intolerant, this episode will have you doing a happy dance, because all the choices I’m about to talk about can be on your fly list.
I want to help you undo all the preconceived notions you might have. So Off to nutrition therapy class we go!
Let’s boil it down.
There’s a huge difference between processed whole flour products (baked goods like muffins, bread, desserts, cookies and snack foods) and single ingredient, gluten-free super grains. Many of the digestive issues people feel as a result of eating these foods are actually due to the yeast. Here in the US, quick rise yeasts are rampant whereas fermented starters that are found in sourdough, for example, are digested much better. The “super” kind usually fall in the ancient grains category, and when they’re in their whole state, as close to nature as intended. they’re loaded with B vitamins, magnesium, protein, and nutrients that aid in fat burning. Plus, they’re a high source of fiber, which can lower your risk for heart disease and high cholesterol and heal your gut.
So, how do you know what to do? It comes down to this—how can they benefit your body? Here’s a brief survey to help evaluate if that grain is worth your saliva:
1) Is it minimally processed?
2) Is it in its whole form?
3) Does it have added ingredients, and if they do, do you recognize what they are?
4) Is it grown on a plant (versus manufactured in a plant)?
5) Does it taste good?
6) Does it contain detectable nutrients?
If the answer to all of these is yes, I want you to consider dropping the guilt around grains and embracing them in the life force they can be. Carbohydrates, specifically grains, can do the following:
- Help feed your brain with glucose. Seriously, your cells and organs need it!
- Offer a great source of fiber to keep you regular. Keeping toxins moving is so important to your overall health. And no one likes to feel clogged up.
- Make you feel good by encouraging the production of serotonin. The more feel-good juice coursing through your veins, the better!
- Give you a quick boost of energy. This helps keep you from crashing through the afternoon and is great for a pre-workout pick-me-up.
- Load you up with stress-reducing vitamins. These can help you manage shtuff without freaking out, ya know?
- Feed you to the core with minerals that boost metabolism and stoke the fire to burn, burn, burn fat.
SIZE DOES MATTER
Grains add texture and can help you feel fuller and more satisfied for longer. Usually the problem is in the portion sizes. That massive serving of pasta you get at most restaurants isn’t a portion, it’s a trough! Eating the Real Dish way, you don’t have to be scared of carbing out. About 25 percent of your daily intake of nutrients can be dedicated to a variety of gluten-free super grains, breakfast to dinner and snacks in between, and still turn your body into a fat-burning monster machine.
But enough about the science. What about the flavor? Putting your fork into a bowl of perfectly cooked farro risotto studded with pan-roasted multicolored cauliflower topped a little shaving of fresh pecorino cheese is the equivalent of carnal pleasure, without the STDs. Don’t deprive yourself of something that contributes to your vibrant health and knows how to satisfy you in more ways than one. The key is to bring out the grains’ best texture so they don’t dry up on you.
An electric rice cooker is one of the best ways to cook whole grains like quinoa, wheat berries and others to perfection (we’ll bite into those other grains in a bit). The best part is, you don’t need to supervise the process. You can infuse flavor into the cooking liquid, and the toppings are a way to kick things up a notch. Waking up to a bowl of warm buckwheat steeped in coconut milk topped with unsweetened shredded coconut, chopped almonds, and cinnamon is some serious motivation to take the world on like a champ. Now, move that idea to lunchtime and pour a steaming-hot bowl of miso soup over the top of that same buckwheat, and add kombu flakes, black sesame seeds, scallions, and broiled tempeh for a bowl of goodness to take you through a day of the Fast Break. Starting your weekly meal prep by cooking off two or three varieties gives you a food foundation to build on. I dive into more of that in the “Convertible Meals” in my book.
Now before I get into how to pull the best from them taste-wise, because, let’s face it, brown rice is not one of the most exciting foods on its own, I want to dive a little deeper into lectins and put your mind at ease.
This is the question that pops up continuously when I talk about including superfood grains in your everyday eating plan. Lectins are a family of proteins found in pretty much all plant foods, but mostly grains, beans, peanuts and nightshade vegetables like eggplant and tomatoes. They are part of the plant’s defenses against invaders like insects, and consequently, they have been associated with having an inflammatory and event potentially toxic effect on us humans who eat them.
But here’s the part that doesn’t get mentioned like it should. Lectins are pretty much eliminated with cooking. I don’t know about you but munching on raw kidney beans and rice is not my thing. To up the ante, soaking your grains can help even further with digestibility. You can soak beans and grains overnight, cook them thoroughly and put your mind to rest on the ability to incorporate these foods safely into your every day.
I call them GFSGs for short. Man, there are so many options, it’ll blow your mind. Go past the brown rice and explore some of the other tasty grainies listed here. Before you cook any of these options, make sure you give them a good cleaning. You can find them all online and many of them in your local grocery store.
Amaranth: This gluten-free grain was a major source of nutrition for the Aztecs and can be traced back to over eight thousand years ago. It can grow in the harshest conditions (Amaranth a survivor, I’m not gon’ give up!) and offers about 5 grams of protein and 2 grams of fat per ½ cup cooked serving. It’s got anti-inflammatory, digestion-boosting, cholesterol-lowering, and weight-loss accelerating powers up the ying-yang, but it’s especially helpful if you’re trying to build muscle because it’s rich in the amino acid lysine, which athletes often use as a protein supplement. Amaranth is also a great source of folate, so if you’re preggers or thinking about making a baby, it’s a good idea to add it to your daily rep since it helps to stimulate healthy new cells—which we could all use. Its nutty flavor makes it a great candidate for a warm or cold breakfast cereal, “rice” pudding, or use in baked goods. It also breaks down easily and can be used to thicken stews, chili, and gumbo. Now get yo’ self summa that!
Pulled pork bowl with black rice in Eat Like You Give a Fork: The Real Dish on Eating to Thrive
Black Rice: While you may be familiar with the nutrient power of brown rice, an even stronger nutritional contender is black rice, also known as Forbidden Rice. It used to be reserved only for Chinese royalty, but now it’s available everywhere. Black rice provides more fiber, iron, and protein, and it’s what I call super rich—gluten-free, and packed full of more antioxidants than any other rice, anti-inflammatory power that can prevent weight gain, and detoxifying properties. Plus, it’s got 8.5 grams of protein and 5 grams of fiber per ½ cup cooked serving! It looks gorgeous on a plate when it’s paired with colorful veggies and sauces, and adds an exotic somethin’-somethin’ to your dishes. I’ll show you how to use this delicious rice in recipes and in convertible meal compositions.
Quinoa and Kaniwa: These two ancient grains are actually seeds and are part of the same family. You know about quinoa because it’s shown up in a major way across the country over the past several years, everywhere from natural foods stores to delis to Michelin-star restaurants. But do you know about quinoa’s cute little sister, kaniwa? Kaniwa is half the size of quinoa and cooks more quickly. Both are a great source of plant protein, amino acids, and fat—plus, they’re high in iron (who says you need meat for protein and iron?). They’re gluten-free and go from breakfast to dinner and snacks in between, and are great in sweet or savory preparations. Use them to provide a fun bite and some ‘heartiness’ to your meals.
Buckwheat: Don’t let the word wheat fool you. Buckwheat is neither wheat nor grain. Just like quinoa and kaniwa, the edible part of buckwheat is a seed that’s full of trace minerals and is naturally gluten-free. I’ll introduce you to cooking with buckwheat and buckwheat flour to make delicious gluten-free dishes, including waffles that are to dish for and aren’t filled with crap like many of the white rice–based varieties of gluten-free flour. You can use buckwheat in stuffing and pilafs, and as a breakfast cereal. I grew up on buckwheat in Egypt; my mom would steep it in milk and add cinnamon, walnuts, and shredded coconut. It’s thebomb.com!
Millet: Instead of a box of chocolate for Valentine’s Day, you might want to make your sweetheart a bowl of millet. It’s one of the best grains for heart health since it’s rich in magnesium, which helps reduce blood pressure and the risk of heart attack or stroke. It’s also an awesome source of potassium, which is important for regulating blood pressure.
Sorghum: Chances are, you’re probably not as familiar with the whole form of sorghum as you are with the syrup, but lemme tell ya, you’re going to want to add this to your repertoire after you read this. Unlike some of its grainy sisters, sorghum gets to hold on to all its outer layers, so it retains a lot of nutrients, making it super rich in antioxidants. Sorghum is also linked with lowering cholesterol, inhibiting cancerous tumor growth, and helping to maintain a healthy blood sugar level. That is chew-worthy.
Chicken sausage and spelt skillet in Eat Like You Give a Fork: The Real Dish on Eating to Thrive
Teff: It might sound funny, but this grain is legit. It’s supercharged and offers a tremendous
source of energy with relatively low calories. Teff has a higher nutrient content than wheat and is more easily digested. Plus, it provides calcium, fiber, protein, and antioxidants! Why aren’t you already eating this rockin’, delicious food?
More Supercharged Grains for Your Brain
While these single-ingredient super grains aren’t gluten-free, they still make great choices for people who don’t have gluten sensitivities. If you’re not sure you fall into that category, you can get easily get tested. Many times, even people who have a gluten intolerance can break down these ancient grains.
Farro: This is one of my faves. It has one of the highest fiber contents of all its sisters, at 8 grams per ½ cup cooked serving, and packs about 40 milligrams of calcium and over ten other minerals in the same half cup. It’s easy to digest, with a great nutty, chewy flavor. It’s super sturdy, holding up to my favorite breakfast cereal dishes, steeped in coconut milk with slivered almonds and unsweetened shredded coconut, and can be used to make one of my loves, farro risotto (aka farrotto).” It’s also perfect in cold, marinated salads because it won’t easily get soft and mushy when dressed. Pasta made from farro flour is one of the best I’ve ever tasted. With all these bennies, I predict that farro will soon become your jam.
Kamut: One of the ancient grain wonders of the world, Kamut (aka Khorasan wheat) is making a comeback. It’s known for its firm texture and nutty-buttery taste, likely because it has more fat than other forms of wheat. It’s referred to as a “high-energy” super grain because of its nutritional profile, clocking in at 2 grams of fat and a whopping 11 grams of protein per ½ cup cooked serving, with high percentages of magnesium, zinc, and selenium, helping your body arm itself against colds and feeling run-down. Kamut’s amino acids profile is off the charts. Sometimes called Pharaoh’s wheat, the story behind Kamut is that Noah saved this grain on the ark. In the modern day, it adds complexity and a firm texture to dishes. While it does technically contain gluten, many people who are gluten sensitive can tolerate Kamut.
Barley: I affectionately refer to barley as the “pedestrian super grain” because it’s been around the block forever and a day, and it’s about as versatile as it gets when it comes to making an appearance on your nutritionally sound plate. With about 7 grams of protein and 10 grams of fiber in 1 cup cooked, barley lower in calories than most of its cousins yet higher in fiber. It has a clean, mild flavor that takes nicely to all your Forkin’ good options. A big benefit of the fiber in barley is beta-glucan, a substance that binds to toxins and pushes them through your system to be eliminated. Think of it as a cowboy with a lasso, herding the literal crap through your intestines and out with your stool. Now that’s what I call a clean-eating grain. (Was that TMI?)
Freekeh: This young wheat grain could be called a super freekeh for the many nutritional boosts it provides. While it’s often sold as a cracked grain to reduce the cooking time, it retains all the rich nutritional benefits of its whole form. It has a nutty flavor and appealing texture, and was a staple in my upbringing. We used it as a tasty stuffing mixed with currants, chopped walnuts, onions, and celery.
Look for super grains in the bulk aisle of your favorite grocery store. That way, you can try a variety in smaller quantities and see which ones you like best. Just keep them stored in airtight containers so you don’t get uninvited guests nesting in there.