What types of grain products are you tossing in your shopping cart? For most of us, our carts are overly heavy with highly refined ready-to-eat cereals, crackers, breads, pasta, and maybe a cookie or two. The latest data tells us that vast majority of Americans fall well short of consuming enough whole grains for optimal health: while the USDA recommendation is to “make at least half your grains whole” (which for the Average American would mean about 3 whole grain servings a day), most of us get a scant <1 serving of whole grain daily. More rigorous plans, such as the Harvard School of Public Health's Healthy Eating Plate say the evidence is even stronger that we should choose “not just any grains”, but make whole grains an absolute eating must. I happen to agree.
The challenge is, the abundance of what I call “low quality” carbohydrates most of us are eating is proving to be one of the biggest drivers of chronic disease and sluggish energy: decades of research tells us that eating too many refined and highly processed grain products can spike blood glucose levels, promote inflammation, drive metabolic changes that lead to type 2 diabetes and heart disease, and can cause wide swings in your hunger and energy levels, making it hard to lose weight. Making it more confusing for us all, many of these foods try to position themselves as healthy, proclaiming things like “Made with whole grain” or “good source of fiber” on the label. Unfortunately, this serves to confuse, rather than clarify, for the consumer.
But it can actually be made quite simple. To help you clean up your carbs and shift your metabolism in favor of lasting leanness and deep health, there’s a whole new crop of ancient grains that have gone mainstream, making it easier–and affordable–than ever to find them at your local grocery store. Boasting a superior nutrition package (read on to see how), I think they are a perfect fix for modern lives–and modern grocery carts.
I had a great time sharing some of my favorite “super whole grains” with Katie Couric on today’s show. Cultivated by humans for thousands of years, these 5 ancient grains provide some of the highest quality carbohydrates on the planet. They are cleaner and more sustainable to produce than all of those refined and ultra-processed grains that make up most of Americans carbohydrate consumption. And bite for bite they deliver more nutrients than conventional wheat – including more fiber, protein, B vitamins, minerals like iron, zinc, selenium and magnesium, and antioxidants. In short – they provide the highest quality information that your cells need to thrive. And because they are intact whole grains, they have a lower glycemic load – meaning they don’t raise your blood sugar nearly as quickly as many of the refined grain products (even some that contain whole grain) you see in your grocery store.
Best of all? They couldn't be simpler to prepare. With summer here, I simply make 1 large batch, then draw from it to make sweet or savory dishes as I want for the next several days.
(Tip: by soaking them the night before, you can cut the cooking time in about half, and may find that they are easier to digest).
1. Bulgur Mentioned as a food staple in the Bible, bulgur is a quick cooking form of whole wheat well known throughout the Mediterranean. Because it has already been parboiled, all you need to do is simply soak for one hour (use 2 parts water for 1 part bulgur) – and it’s ready to go. Try in savory salads like tabouleh, or go with a sweet breakfast option with nuts and fried fruit. In addition to being low in calories and high in fiber (a 1/2 cup serving cooked has 75 calories and 4 grams of fiber), whole grains like bulgur are a rich source of prebiotics – the food the friendly bacteria in your gut needs to thrive. Try this summer tossed in a tabouleh salad – with cucumbers, tomatoes, red onion, chickpeas and fresh mint.
2. Teff Look for this ultra-nutritious – and tiny – grain to hit Superfood lists in 2015. At about 1/150th the size of a kernel of wheat, this Ethiopian supergrain looks like poppy seeds – but don’t be fooled by their small size: they are a rich source of protein, fiber, zinc, iron, manganese, calcium and even vitamin C. And it’s sweet, molasses like color and flavor make it ideal for baking. Try it as a delicious swap for your regular hot breakfast cereal or polenta – you can also swap teff for some of the regular flour called for in ginger snaps – using teff can pump up the nutrition considerably.
3. Farro This chewy, nutty whole wheat grain is what fueled the Roman legions – and was even used as a form of currency in ancient Rome. With its low glycemic index, farro helps keep your blood sugar more stable, reducing your risk of metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes. Plus, its high fiber-protein punch help you stay satisfied and energized long after you leave the table. Check out my Fall Farro Salad.
4. Kamut™ Sometimes called “King Tut’s Wheat”, many people think Kamut™ hails from Egypt, but in reality it is likely from the Fertile Crescent. Containing 20-40% more protein than regular modern wheat, Kamut™ is also rich in fiber, zinc and magnesium, a study last year in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition found swapping Kamut™ products for traditional “modern wheat” varieties helped improve metabolic health and cardiovascular risk factors, and even increased serum potassium and magnesium. Try this delicious looking recipe just in time for 4th of July: Grilled Corn Slaw with Kamut™ Wheat Berries.
5. Freekeh Have you heard of Freekeh? In Arabic Freekeh literally means “to rub” –and refers to how it is made: it is young, green cracked wheat that adds a hearty, chewy flavor to salads, soups and side dishes. Here is perhaps the biggest reason you should add it to your shopping list: it is chock full of fiber. One of the secrets to having a healthy waist-to-hip ratio and slimming down while still feeling satisfied is to pack your meals and snacks with fiber: one serving of Freekeh has more than twice the fiber (and double the protein) of brown rice. You can find Freekeh at many mainstream grocery stores – simply follow the directions on the package and swap in any meals where you currently use couscous or rice.
Which ancient grains have you tried lately? And how are you using them for summer? I'd love to hear from you!