Do Grains Really Make You Fat?, That Depends….

I was in Whole Foods Market yesterday, and even they are on the Paleo wagon as I noticed a new Paleo Diet magazine in the checkout aisle. Not that the store, or company, believe in this diet, afterall most natural food advocates are on the side of a primarily plant-based diet.  But this magazine has never been there before, so it reminded me that I (we) must brace ourselves for yet another fad diet that will be around for a while (like Atkins).

“Good Carb vs. Bad Carb”

The reason for it’s popularity makes sense, though.  Give up breads, grains, milk, pasta, beans, etc… and you’ll lose weight (all of these are forbidden in Paleo).  That’s common sense.  Give up meat and dairy or meats and pasta, and you’ll also lose weight.  Giving up any food group (or three in the Paleo world), will cause weight loss.  That’s a no-brainer.

However, one of the other reasons people see success with this diet is that when you give up grains, you give up refined carbohydrates and all that added sugar in the typical Western diet.  This is a good thing.   And many of us will agree, there is certainly a co-relation between the increased amount of refined carbohydrates in our diets and weight gain.  If you give up the garbage making everyone obese, you’ll lose weight.

Vegetarian Quinoa Salad

In addition, most supposed “grains” people are eating, aren’t really grains, they’re processed and refined remnants of grains.  In my practice, when I look at clients’ diets, I see mostly bread, cereal, and pasta, all white.  I almost never see true grains like barley, spelt, or bulgur wheat.  Westerners usually don’t know what these are, let alone where to buy them or how to cook them.

The problem with Paleo is that the philosophy is “throwing the baby out with the bath water”, (I think that’s the expression).  Refined carbohydrates are bad for us, no question, and giving them up to lose weight is a great idea.  But avoiding healthy, true whole grains, serves no real purpose.  They are not full of empty calories.  Some are more calorie dense than others (bread can be calorie dense), based on water content (I’ll get to that in a minute), but the healthy grains may be packed with good nutrition.  So consuming them in smaller quantities with high nutrient dense, low calorie foods like fruits and vegetables is a good idea.

Notice I mention smaller quantities.  If we go with the idea of calories in, calories out, grains may be very dense in calories.  This is due to their low water content compared to fruits and vegetables.  For example, a bagel is dense in calories because the percentage of water in it is much lower than grapes of the same measurement (not weight, however, as all carbohydrates give 4 calories per gram).  Fruits and vegetables are considered to be nutrient dense because they offer a lot of nutrition but with very few calories because of their high water content.  This can be seen in the following example:

1 cup of bread crumbs = 425 calories

1 bagel = ~ 300 calories

1 cup of penne pasta = 220 calories

1 cup of grapes = 110 calories

Water Content Varies Between Foods, Causing Large Calorie Differences

Clearly, consuming the same amount of pasta has twice the calories of grapes and a bagel is nearly three times as many calories. Herein lies why people think grains, breads, cereals, etc… are making people gain weight.  They may be doing this, not because grains are fattening, but because they may be calorie dense.  But this is no reason to avoid them completely.  We need all of the nutritional value they offer, much like healthy fats.  We need essential fatty acids (omega-3′s and omega-6′s), but fat is the most calorie dense of all food types.  We don’t avoid it, we consume it in smaller quantities than we would carrots.

The bottom line is, if you need to lose weight it is a good idea to reduce bread, cereal, pasta consumption and replace some of it with fruits and vegetables. Also, removing refined carbohydrates from your diet and replacing them with whole grains is also recommended.  I will admit, I’m not, nor have I ever been, a fan of the traditional food pyramid.  I do not think most of our food should come from grains.  We should be getting a lot more fruits and vegetables in our diets, and less grains.   But having a primarily plant-based diet, including those yummy legumes I can’t imagine not having in my life, should be the focus to avoid a variety of diseases brought on by consuming too much meat.  (Not to mention the impact on the environment).

For good sources, try foods like taboulleh, oats, brown rice, couscous, quinoa (pronounced “keen-wah”), and barley.  Need to know how to cook them or where to find them?  You should find plenty of easy recipes online, in addition , foods like taboulleh are often pre-made and sold near the deli section of your local grocery store (found where you would find items like hummus and fresh salsa).

About Kimberly Dawson, M.S.

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