It's largely thanks to fads, such as the paleo diet, and gluten phobia that Australians are eating 29 per cent less grain-based foods than a few years ago. And it's a problem, because along with muffins and biscuits, we're giving up nutrient-dense wholegrains.
The latest data from the indepedent Grains and Legumes Nutrition Council show we're now only eating 1.8 serves of wholegrains a day, down from 2.2 in 2011. And around one in two of us don't even eat one serve.
To reduce our risk of disease and dying, the revised dietary guidelines say adults aged under 50 need four serves a day. It's not a lot – a quarter of a cup of muesli, two slices of wholemeal bread, plus half a cup of brown rice.
What's wrong with avoiding grains?
We need the nutrients in wholegrains for good health. Last year, researchers reviewed 49 studies and concluded wholegrains reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, abdominal fat, and some cancers.
According to disease researcher Professor Stephen Lillioja from the University of Wollongong, eating wholegrains (or not), "is as good as fruit and vegetable intake in predicting disease".
Another study published last year tracked 367, 000 reasonably healthy people over 14 years, and some of them died during that time. Those who ate the most wholegrains were 17 per cent less likely to die.
What makes wholegrains so great?
"Wholegrain" means all the layers from the original grain – and their nutrients – are in the final product. Refined grains (such as white bread and jasmine rice) have been stripped of nutrition. But wholegrains provide vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytonutrients.
Prof Lillioja says, "Wholegrains are as rich in antioxidants as fruit, have more vitamins, like B vitamins, than most other foods, and have as much minerals as most other foods, like magnesium and zinc." And although we call rice and bread "carbs", grains also have significant amounts of protein – wholemeal bread is 9 per cent protein).
Before the relationship turned sour, we considered grains the "staff of life" and valued our "breadwinners". We've been enjoying barley in the Middle East, rice in Asia, and corn in Central and South America for roughly 10,000 years. Some of the world's famously healthy diets, such as the Mediterranean and Nordic diets, include ample wholegrains. Today, our supermarkets stock a diverse selection or wholegrains from traditional diets.
So what should we eat?
Themis Chryssidis, dietitian and spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia, says, "We would never say to someone don't eat grains – just make the right choice."
Two of Chryssidis' favourites are freekeh and quinoa.
Freekeh is wheat that's picked early and roasted, and tastes similar to barley. It's slowly digested, has more protein and four times the fibre of brown rice.
Quinoa is a rare vegetarian food with all essential amino acids, making it a complete source of protein. Plus it contains minerals like magnesium, copper, manganese and phosphorous.
Quinoa and freekeh both cook in 15 minutes in boiling water. Chryssidis suggests stirring them through salads or roast vegetables with nuts and herbs.
But there's no need to go fancy – brown rice, rolled oats, muesli and popcorn are wholegrains, too. When buying noodles, crackers, cereal and bread, look for a high percentage of "wholemeal" or "wholegrain" flour in the ingredients.
Is gluten really OK?
Chryssidis says, "It's simply a protein which is digested normally by most people. There's a small percentage of the population [1 per cent] who don't digest it normally." Those people can eat gluten-free wholegrains, such as rice, quinoa, corn and buckwheat.
But cutting out grains helps me lose weight
As an expert on the evidence, Prof Lillioja summarises: "People who eat more wholegrains are lighter in weight."
Chryssidis explains how wholegrains fight weight gain. "They keep us full and satisfied for longer and when you're feeling full and energised, you end up eating less of the low-nutrition, high-calorie foods." When people lose weight after cutting out bread and pasta, he says it's probably because they ate more vegetables and better foods overall.
Isn't pro-grains research funded by food companies?
No, says Prof Lillioja. "The majority of studies are University-based and Government-funded and list the sources of their funds. They are not done under the influence of commercially interested groups," he explains. "Look at the websites of those who are opposing eating grains – they're making money from their propositions."
So go right ahead and enjoy your paleo eggs (sans toast) at brekky, and gluten-free bliss balls at morning tea. But if it's good health you're after, complement them with a quinoa salad at lunch, brown rice with your stir-fry, and oat-topped apple crumble for dessert.
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