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The status of grain in the modern diet is debated as if it held a place in office: should it be impeached from our dietary guidelines, should we use it to solve world hunger or should we blame it for the obesity of a nation and the degradation of worldwide environmental systems?

Some nutritional scholars believe that grains should be avoided completely, arguing that our bodies did not evolve to digest grains and they cause a downward spiral in many facets of your internal health. Ancient Eastern medicine traditions, on the other hand, hold grains as an important element of dietary balance. Recent western medicine research has popularized “whole grains” to an almost divine status; launching campaigns that assure dieters and skeptics that anything labeled whole grain is an automatic health food.

You are confused? So am I. Avoiding grains completely is difficult and may not be the best option, but popular refined forms of grain are digging a rut into the health of many. I am going to venture out on a limb and say forget it: forget the great debate, proceed with moderation and, as always, keep in mind that whole foods are always better than their processed counterparts. Somewhere in-between the “whole grain” coco puffs and the Paleolithic style no grain diets there has to be level ground:  a few whole grains from natural sources, a few indulgences and a happy and healthy body.

Figuring out how grains fit into your lifestyle and how they impact your health as an individual may be the best place to start. Pay attention to how you feel after eating a particular grain and make note of whether it was processed, whole, soaked, raw or cooked.  You may find that some grains like quinoa, whole oats and millet are easier for your body to digest and provide more prolonged balanced energy.

There is some truth behind the recent “whole grain” campaign phenomena in that whole grains contain fiber, nutrients and protein that improve the way your body digests, uses, and stores grain-based foods. Whole grains have also been shown to play a role in helping improve cognitive function and mood. However, alleged “whole grains” in your honey nut cheerios, are probably not going to do the deed. The processing and additives that go into cereals, breads, cookies, crackers and the like are more than enough to destroy the health benefits of a natural whole grain.

Proper grain preparation methods are crucial to the health benefit they impart and may alleviate the health issues that grain opponents cite. Not eating packaged and processed grain products and taking the time to prepare whole grains at home is necessary to help your body absorb the nutrients. Soaking grains overnight helps germinate the dormant energy of the seed, release nutrients and ensure proper digestion.

Breakfast is the often the best (and most delicious) time to indulge in some healthy whole grains. During sleep your body’s systems slow down and burn energy reserves for basic function so it is important to wake up the process by providing healthy fuel. Whole grains provide the energy and nutrients your body needs to get your metabolism running and to power all internal organs for full daily function. But, no matter what the health claims a cereal box says, steer clear and start experimenting with homemade whole grains instead.

Soaking old-fashioned rolled oats in almond milk with a dash of cinnamon is one of my favorite easy go-to’s.  Check back this Thursday for some easy at home and on the go healthy grain preparation tips and recipes.

Substituting for white flour in any recipe is one of the least forgiving but most important healthy changes you can make to your baked goods.  It may take some experimentation for you to get the texture and flavor adjusted when substituting whole grains but the change is definitely worth it.  Understanding the differences between refined and whole grains and how they impact your health is motivation in itself for you to make the transition.

There is a reason why most recipes call for refined white flour; it’s easy to use and makes a light textured product.  Refining removes the wheat bran and germ, and makes white flour shelf stable, but removes the majority of the vitamins, nutrients and antioxidants and leaves behind just the starch; a simple carbohydrate.  The problem with this is, in addition to the lack of nutrients, simple carbohydrates are immediately turned into sugar in your body and absorbed into your bloodstream causing your blood sugar level to spike drastically.

When your blood sugar rises your body sends out insulin to regulate, which triggers the storage of excess sugars as fat.  Since your body uses carbohydrates for energy, not for building structure or facilitating internal functions, unless you are very active after eating carbohydrates, you almost always have more sugar in your bloodstream than your body needs for energy.  Therefore, ingesting refined carbohydrates quickly and frequently results in added fat storage.

Unrefined whole grains, on the other hand, are accompanied by fiber, vitamins, minerals, fat and protein and are considered “complex carbohydrates”.  Complex carbohydrates require more time for your body to break down and absorb, which results in a slower release of sugar into the bloodstream.  This means that your body does not have to rush to do something with the sugars and you can use the prolonged release of them for sustained energy.  Your body will store less as fat because the excess is not presented all at once.

The vitamins E and B in whole grains are crucial because your body requires them for the process of carbohydrate digestion.  Fiber, protein, fat and antioxidants in whole grains are added benefits that assist in the slowed breakdown process, delay the spike in blood sugar, aid in digestion, nourish and re-build your cells and structure and help cleanse your body of harmful free radicals.

With all of this information in mind, don’t fret when confronted with a slice of baguette or piece of cake at your holiday cocktail party.  Infrequent indulgences in your favorite pastry or pasta dish are not what cause weight gain, blood sugar imbalances or nutrient deficiencies.  It is prolonged consumption of refined grains that will catch up with your health.  So, when you are at home and you have the power to decide exactly what you put in your baked goods or evening meal chose whole grains instead.

Start by substituting 1/3 to ½ of the amount of flour called for with whole wheat or other whole grains.  As I warned, it can be tricky to get the right flavor and texture at first. If your product is too dry or dense start by adding one egg or 2 tbsp of yogurt or applesauce to the batter and try again.  Banana bread, pumpkin muffins, zucchini bread, carrot cake, or other fruit/vegetable based pastries hold up to whole grain flours exceptionally well.

By all means don’t limit your substitutions to whole wheat flour, there are many other whole grains out there that are ground and sold as specialty flours or can be incorporated in their whole cooked form right into your holiday treats.  Quinoa, buckwheat, kamut, millet, spelt and teff are other great options.

Quinoa Banana Gingerbread

1 C. whole wheat flour

1 ½ C.  cooked quinoa

1 tsp baking powder

½ tsp baking soda

¾ tsp salt

1 tsp ground cinnamon

1 tsp ground ginger

½ tsp ground nutmeg

8 tbsp lard (or butter)

1/3 C. molasses

2 large eggs

3 ripe bananas

2/3 C. whole milk yogurt

1 C. pecans (optional)

Preheat oven to 350.  Mix flour, quinoa, baking powder, baking soda, salt and spices in medium bow.  In a standing mixer or with a handheld beater, beat together butter and molasses until fluffy.  Add in eggs, then bananas and beat until incorporated.  Reduce speed to low and add flour mixture, alternating with yogurt until all is incorporated.  Stir in nuts if using.  Scoop batter into a greased loaf pan and bake for 50 minutes, or until wooden tester inserted into the loaf comes out clean.  Cool bread in pan before turning it out.  Slice and serve.  Will keep well wrapped tightly for up to a week.

The month of anticipation, excitement, parties, feasts, celebrations and family is upon us!  This time of year you need all the energy you can get so you can feel your best for the festivities, but staying healthy amidst the late nights, cold weather, sweets, drinks and stress can be a difficult feat.

I hope to help you power through the month healthily and happily with a December series on kitchen substitutions.  Learning how to substitute healthy foods for the less healthy counterparts in your favorite recipe is a great way to keep your body feeling good without missing out on the treats.  This week I am starting with an introduction to baking substitutions, to be followed by more in depth tips and recipes in the following weeks.  Please leave a comment and let me know what substitutions you want to learn about or post a recipe that you would like to see transformed!

In baking, when you look for ingredients to substitute, pick out just a couple that are the highest priorities for you.  Trying to change too many variables in a recipe can lead to disaster.  For me the type of flour and amount of sugar are big ones.  Substituting whole grains and natural sugar works well and creates a product that I feel much better about putting into my body.

To get more whole grains in your baked goods, try substituting half the amount called for with whole wheat flour.  Some recipes hold up better to whole wheat and I have had great luck using all whole wheat flour in many of my banana, zucchini and pumpkin bread recipes.  Paired with the fruit or vegetable base in breads or muffins the whole wheat does not make as dense and dry a product.  You can also substitute half the amount of flour with other whole grains such as cooked quinoa, amaranth or spelt.

For sugar, I find it best to cut the amount called for almost in half.  Most recipes are designed to call out to our sweet tooth but work well and taste great with much less sugar.  If you want to completely replace the sugar, raw honey, agave nectar and brown rice syrup are good options. These substitutes are not low calorie foods, they are healthier alternatives that burn slower and provide more nutrients for your body.

Low calorie sugar alternatives are not high on my list for many reasons including their level of processing, link to life threatening diseases and detrimental impact on the body. However, because healthy sugar substitutions are liquid you will have to reduce the liquid content of your baked good by ¼ cup for every cup of the liquid sweetener that you use.  For instance, if the recipe calls for 1 cup sugar and 1 cup milk you would reduce the milk to ¾ cup.

In almost every baked good I make, I also try to include some sort of whole fruit or vegetable.  This not only adds nutrients, but also adds flavor and texture often in the place of sugar or oils.  Check back next week for lots of great information on cooking with whole fruits and vegetables.

Don’t be intimidated to start experimenting with your favorite recipes and give your body a healthy gift this holiday season. Here is one of my favorite healthy holiday breakfast bread recipes to get you started.  It also makes a great housewarming gift!

Banana Spice Bread

1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour

2 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp ginger

½ tsp nutmeg

½ tsp allspice

1 tsp baking soda

1/2 tsp salt

1 cup mashed ripe bananas

2 large eggs

1/2 cup applesauce

1/4 cup honey

1/4 cup water

2 tbsp brown sugar

Preheat oven to 350 and grease a 9x5x3 inch loaf pan.

Whisk flour sugar, spices, baking soda and salt in a medium sized mixing bowl.

In a separate bowl whisk eggs, applesauce, honey, water and brown sugar.  Mix dry and wet ingredients until just combined.  Pour into greased loaf pan and bake 50-60 minutes or until tester inserted comes out clean. Cool for 30 minutes before turning bread out of pan.  Cool completely before wrapping.