Staying Whole in a Processed World: Whole Grains
What’s this series all about? Check out the intro post here: Staying Whole in a Processed World: Introduction
Thank you so much for all of your wonderful comments on the fruits & vegetable post! I feel like I’m preaching to the choir, really. If you know anyone else who might benefit from this series, pass it on!
Today I’ll be tackling one of those tricky topics for which it’s often hard to get a straight answer: grains. The government tells us to eat lots of them, the primal/paleos run far away from them, and the traditional foodies only eat them under certain conditions.
So where does that leave the average Wonder-bread-eating person who just wants to make some positive changes?
Obviously making the jump from eating Wonder bread to homemade sourdough (or giving up bread entirely) is a huge lifestyle change, so may I offer a solution?
Using Whole Grains as a Transition
As far as grains are concerned, we as a family hover toward the paleo end of the spectrum, but not too strictly. We try to keep our meals vegetable-centered instead of grain-centered because that makes us feel our best. I’ve used whole grains as a transition step to wean ourselves from refined grains (white flour, white pasta, white rice). I don’t know if we’ll cut grains out entirely, but it seems we’ve found a good balance right now.
So yes… transitioning. For now we’ll just talk about replacing refined grains with whole and leave the whole grains controversy at the door. I think we can all agree that refined grains, or the “whites”, aren’t good for us, right? I included some links in the Resources section if you’d like to learn more about why grains are getting a bad rap.
The easiest way to start is to gradually (if you do it all at once there might be a mutiny) replacing your white bread, white pasta, white rice, and breakfast cereals with their whole-grain counterparts. Remember to make the changes comfortable and easy. If it stresses you out, it won’t stick.
Pasta and rice…
are pretty easy to swap out. Whole wheat, rice, and even quinoa pasta is becoming more common (especially because Celiac disease is becoming the diagnosis of choice these days). Brown and wild rice are great replacements for white. After eating brown rice for so long, I actually prefer its nutty bite to plain white rice.
can be tricky if you only eat store-bought bread. It’s hard to find store-bought bread that isn’t made with some sort of refined flour and isn’t full of sugar, preservatives, and other chemicals. Learn to bake your own bread, if you can. If not, buy whole grain bread at a local bakery where it’s less likely to contain preservatives.
If you already make your own bread, gradually add more whole grain flours until your bread is 100% whole grain. (More about baking a bit later.)
may be a beast to replace, especially if it’s a household staple. Even the most “healthy” looking breakfast cereals are still nothing more than over-processed, cheap grains that are sprayed with synthetic vitamins to give an aura of healthfulness. Try eating more hot cereals like steel-cut oats or making your own granola. The granola route worked with us, but we weren’t big boxed cereal eaters to begin with. Making a big canister of granola every couple of weeks has completely replaced our boxed cereal. I haven’t bought boxed breakfast cereal in almost two years.
If the cereal issue really stresses you (or your family) out, leave it and focus on other things you’re comfortable with changing. You can always go back and try again later.
There are so many more interesting (and more nutritious) grains than wheat, corn, and rice.
Have you tried quinoa? (Pictured right.) Cook it up with some chicken or vegetable broth, and it’s great as a rice replacement. It also has a higher protein content than any other grain. (Technically it’s a seed, but it cooks and acts like a grain.) Quinoa is becoming mainstream, and can be found more easily in regular grocery stores.
I hear millet, amaranth, and teff are great alternative grains, and they’re far less likely to be genetically modified (like wheat, corn, & soy). When I try them out, I’ll let you know what I think.
Whole Grain Baking
In desserts, I tend to leave most, if not all, of the white flour & white sugar in tact. Why? Because I try only to bake for special occasions. I’d much rather have a real dessert once a month or so than incessant “healthified” mediocre-tasting treats. That’s my compromise to appease my killer sweet tooth. Let’s not talk about what it’s like when I’m pregnant.
So, in this section I’m not talking about desserts. I’m talking about more frequent baking, like yeast breads and things like muffins, pancakes, waffles, etc. — things we tend to bake more often.
After playing with a few (easy to find) types of whole grain flour, this is what I’ve found…
Whole Wheat Flour – I think we’ve all tinkered with this, haven’t we? It’s good in some recipes (see Recipe section below!), but it tends to turn the fluffiest piece of bread into a piece of cardboard and pancakes into hockey pucks. If I use regular whole wheat flour, I’ll usually go halvsies with something lighter.
White Whole Wheat Flour – This is a whole grain flour, lighter in color, and won’t make your baked goods quite as dense. It’s got enough gluten to stand on its own while making bread, too. A lot of people really like this type of flour, but I’m not a big fan. I think it has a weird chemical taste to it. Maybe it’s just me.
Whole Wheat Pastry Flour – One of my favorites to use as a replacement for white flour, it’s great in quick breads that use baking powder or soda as a leavening (muffins, pancakes, waffles, etc.). It has a lower gluten content, so it wouldn’t be wise to make a loaf of bread with this type of flour only. I said before that I don’t replace the flour in desserts…. well… I do use this kind for pie crusts and brownies (and you can barely tell the difference). I find this flour in the bulk section of my grocery store (Winco) as well as bagged in the baking aisle (Bob’s Red Mill brand).
Spelt Flour – Another favorite of mine! Spelt is an ancient form of wheat — what wheat used to be before it was genetically modified to death. It has a much lower gluten content and higher protein content than regular wheat flour and is also lighter in baked goods. There are recipes out there for spelt bread, so I know you can make bread only using this type of flour, and it will hold together. Another reason why I like spelt flour is that it doesn’t make me feel as heavy as whole wheat flour does, and those who have issues with wheat may have an easier time digesting spelt. (It’s NOT gluten-free, though.) I find spelt flour in the bulk section of my grocery store (Winco). They also sell it at Whole Foods, and you can get it online. I’ve yet to see it bagged in the baking aisle though, at least around here.
Buckwheat Flour – Buckwheat flour is a different animal. Technically it’s not wheat or even a grain, but a seed. It’s also gluten-free and won’t weigh your baked goods down. Because it’s gluten-free, you won’t be able to substitute all of your flour for buckwheat (especially in yeast recipes). It has a distinct nutty flavor (which I like). I love using it for crepes and pancakes. (See Recipe section below!)
Making the Transition: A Story About Pancakes
Transitioning to everyday whole grain baking (or baking from scratch) doesn’t have to be painful. One of the first things I did was simply make my own pancake mix.
Once upon a time I was a girl in love with Bisquick and Mrs. Butterworth. Deeply smitten. As I learned more about processed food and started reading ingredient labels, I realized Bisquick wasn’t just flour, salt & leavening, but included a lot of things I didn’t want in my body (like hydrogenated oils — ick.). Enter: Alton Brown.
Make it from scratch
The first pancake mix recipe I tried out was Alton’s. I used all white flour (baby steps!) and was completely fine without my precious Bisquick.
Gradually switch out the “whites”
I started making Alton’s recipe with half white, half wheat and we were still OK. Then I tinkered with buckwheat flour (after finding this recipe) and decided I really liked that. Even more of the white flour was removed.
Make the jump to whole grain
At this point, it had been a few years since I had bought Bisquick, so making the jump to using all whole-grains in my pancake mix was an easy one. A friend gave me a recipe for Whole Grain Oatmeal Pancake Mix, and I gradually replaced all of the wheat flour with spelt, almond meal, and dried coconut. And I still love my pancakes.
What about Mrs. B.? We’ll talk about her in a few weeks.
Your Tastes Will Change!
If you would have told me five years ago that I would prefer brown rice over white, homemade granola over Chocolate Chex, and I’d be eating pancakes from a whole-grain mix, and that I would actually love it, I’d have slapped you silly. The most amazing thing about this transition (as well as other whole-food transitions) is that I don’t feel like I’m depriving myself. I’m still surprised at how my tastes have changed, and how much better real food tastes! (Not to mention how much better it makes me feel!)
Whatever direction (and how far) you want to take this is entirely up to you. With grains, you really need to listen to your body. I would suggest going a week or two without grains, then introducing them one at a time to see if you have any adverse reactions. Reactions may not come until the foods are out of your system and reintroduced. And, of course, talk to your family chiropractor or medical doctor to (hopefully) get some good advice if you do have an allergy.
If you’re interested in transitioning out of grains entirely, I’d be more than happy to write a post about our experiences. We’re not all the way there yet, but we’ve removed quite a bit of it (especially wheat) out of our diet. Let me know if that’s something you’d like to read!
1. Replace something that you usually eat with its whole grain counterpart. Try brown rice this week. Or buying whole wheat bread.
2. Try out a new grain! Quinoa’s a great one to start with if you’ve never tried it, but it does need a lot of flavor. Cook it with broth or try out one of the recipes in the Resources section!
My Favorite Whole Grain Recipes
Breads & Pizza
Replacing White Flour with Whole Grains in Four Simple Steps – Weston A. Price Foundation Website
The How-To of Using Alternative Grains – Keeper of the Home
If you’re interested in why the paleo/primals run from grains (and why we’re transitioning away from them), here are few places to start…
Eating This Can “Tear Holes” in Your Gut – Mercola.com
Reduce Grains and Sugar to Lose Weight and Improve Health – Mercola.com
Why Grains are Unhealthy – Mark’s Daily Apple
The Dark Side of Wheat: New Perspectives on Celiac Disease and Wheat Intolerance by Sayer Ji (more scientific)
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Other posts in this series: (links will be added as posts are published)
Photo Credits: Shutterstock, Perry’s Plate (bread & pancakes)