When searching the Anti-Inflammatory Diet, it’s not uncommon to come upon conflicting information regarding grains and if they’re ‘allowed’, as many ask, ‘Are grains inflammatory?’.
Part of this is due to some types of anti-inflammatory diets like Paleo and keto that restrict grains altogether. But the truth is there is no one-size-fits-all anti-inflammatory diet. And in that, there is also no one-size-fits-all answer for whether you should include grains in your anti-inflammatory diet.
So let’s talk about grains, their health benefits, and other factors to determine if you should exclude grains from your anti-inflammatory diet completely.
Grains vs. pseudo-grains?
Grains are one of the few dietary categories that practically everyone is familiar with. Cereals are grass-like plants that produce grains, which are tiny, rigid, and edible dry seeds. They’re a staple meal in almost every country and supply significantly more food energy than any other food category on the planet.
Grains are consumed in large quantities by humans and cattle, and they are processed into a variety of food items. Unfortunately, refined grains are rich in harmful antinutrients and some include inflammatory protein concentrations like gluten, making them potentially unhealthy.
When refined, grains have also been shown to contribute to insulin sensitivity, high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, cardiovascular disease, and increased body weight.
Pseudograins mimic grains from the perspective of the person consuming them, but they are not members of the same biological group.
Pseudograins have grown in popularity in recent years as more individuals become aware of the seriousness of gluten sensitivity and celiac disease. In numerous areas, pseudo-grains tend to be superior to cereal grains. For starters, they do not contain gluten, which is one of the primary issues with wheat, rye, and barley being considered inflammatory foods by some.
Some common pseudo-grains include:
Grains vs. legumes
Public health organizations across the globe recommend whole grains and legumes. The advice to consume legumes is based on the fact that they are high in protein, fiber, and various micronutrients such as iron and zinc. They are both recommended in an anti-inflammatory diet as well as, specifically, the Mediterranean diet.
The whole grain is recommended because of the supposed health advantages of consuming whole grain over processed grain products. Compared to refined grains, whole grain products are higher in phytochemicals and fiber and numerous micronutrients such as certain B vitamins, magnesium, and selenium.
Although there is lots of controversy around grains and legumes, they both fall into the carbohydrate macronutrient category. And as long as the comparison is whole grains vs legumes, they both contain a considerable amount of dietary fiber, which has been shown to reduce inflammation and help improve insulin sensitivity.
What is the difference between whole grains and refined grains?
According to nutritional standards, whole grains should be preferred over refined grains, but what is the difference between the two?
As cultivated by the grain plant, most of the original grain is preserved in whole grains. Grain that has been refined has had some of the outer coating or inner seed (and most of the nutrients) removed.
The original grain components include fiber and other vital nutrients that are beneficial for you but are eliminated during refining, which is why health experts recommend that individuals consume whole grains.
In contrast, whole grains provide a comprehensive set of health advantages…if in the correct form.
In whole grains, the bran, germ, and endosperm are all present in whole-grain kernels. Each part contains nutrients that promote good health.
B vitamins, iron, copper, zinc, magnesium, antioxidants, and phytochemicals are all in the bran, a fiber-rich top covering. The germ is the seed’s center, where development takes place, and it is packed with healthful fats, vitamin E, B vitamins, polyphenols, and antioxidants.
The endosperm is the inner layer that contains carbohydrates, protein, and trace amounts of B vitamins and minerals. Also, since the outer portion of the grain are intact, it contains lots of beneficial fiber.
During the refining process of grains, the bran and germ are removed during milling, leaving just the soft, easily digestible endosperm. The grain is simpler to chew without the tough bran. Although, due to the fat content of the germ, which might shorten the shelf life of processed grains products, it is removed.
The nutritional content of the highly processed grains that result is significantly reduced. Although refining grain produces fluffy flour for light, soft bread, it removes more than half of the B vitamins, almost all vitamin E and fiber. While fortification can substitute some nutrients, it cannot replace some nutrients of whole grains like phytochemicals and fiber.
Why should we not consume refined grains?
Refined grains start out as whole grains, but they have all the valuable things removed. Nothing is left but high-carb, high-calorie endosperm with many carbohydrates and little protein. Also, because fiber and minerals have been removed, processed grains are considered empty calories.
They are also a staple ingredient in many processed foods and fried foods (which usually contain corn syrup or some other sugar derivative as the sweetener)–all of which have been proven to promote inflammation.
Since the carbohydrates have been separated from the fiber and ground into flour, the body’s digestive enzymes can now readily reach them. As a result, they are quickly broken down and can cause rapid rises in blood glucose levels, which is pro-inflammatory.
When grains are consumed in whole or cracked form, they do not lead to inflammation or damage to the intestine in people who do not have celiac disease. However, when they are processed into flour, the starch becomes an ingredient that is usually made into processed foods with a high glycemic index.
This makes it quickly convert to glucose, generating fast blood sugar spikes that stimulate the creation of advanced glycation end products (AGEs), considered pro-inflammatory sugar-protein pairings.
In addition, refined grains have been associated with several metabolic illnesses. For example, they have been related to type 2 diabetes and heart disease because they can induce metabolic syndrome, cause weight gain, and are dangerous as they heavily promote inflammation and chronic disease.
That is why most anti-inflammatory diets contain moderate amounts of whole or cracked grains while avoiding flour-based products.
What does the research say regarding whole grain intake?
Researchers found the link between eating whole grains, processed grains, and inflammatory levels in a 2010 report. The researchers used diet diaries to track whole grain consumption and linked it to three known inflammatory indicators in the blood. They discovered that consuming more whole grains is proven to lower inflammation. They also found that consuming refined grains can exacerbate inflammation.
Furthermore, since this study relied only on diaries to assess whole grain consumption, it is unclear if the observed benefits are due to whole grain-rich meals, the grains themselves, or other variables.
Other research has looked into the possibility of grain foods on inflammation. In large multi-ethnic population research, eating a diet rich in whole grains was linked to reduced levels of inflammatory markers.
However, examining these extensive population studies revealed no link between whole grain consumption and inflammation, although research found some health advantages such as lowering diabetes and heart disease risks.
A few researchers have suggested that grains like wheat may be pro-inflammatory. It can directly contribute to inflammation by allergens like gluten, impairing the gut barrier’s function and triggering immunological and inflammatory responses.
Who should avoid grains?
First and foremost, everyone should avoid refined grain foods.
As far as whole grains, I recommend avoiding gluten-containing grains unless you have confirmed you don’t have any type of allergy, intolerance, or inflammatory reaction to gluten-containing grains.
I go so far as to say this because if you DO have an inflammatory condition or issue like this, leaky gut will only make your symptoms worse. And since gluten has been connected to leaky gut, the prudence lies in avoiding it until you’ve confirmed there is no reaction.
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Conditions that would warrant avoiding grains
Several conditions make it necessary to avoid grains. Some of these may be specific to a particular type of grain.
Celiac disease is a severe autoimmune condition in which your small intestine and villi are damaged, preventing you from absorbing nutrients from food due to your immune system’s reaction to gluten.
Gluten is a protein found in wheat and several other grains. Gluten causes inflammation damage to the small intestine in those with celiac disease. Celiac disease can also be triggered by rye, barley, and some oats in certain people (the oats can be contaminated by gluten-containing grains in the manufacturing process.)
The only treatment is a lifelong gluten-free diet. Even a modest quantity of this protein can induce severe intestinal damage if you have celiac disease.
Those with metabolic disorders involving blood sugar
People with insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, PCOS, or diabetes should avoid processed and ground grains. This is because of the lack of glycemic control that comes with consuming flour-based foods, even if they are whole grain.
Making choices surrounding whole grains in smaller quantities can be helpful to get in needed fiber, but only for those who are able to eat small quantities without it triggering overeating (which is common in these conditions due to being hooked on sugar and carbs for long periods of time.)
Thyroid and adrenal issues
Those with thyroid and/or adrenal issues could also benefit from avoiding gluten-containing grains. These conditions are related to hormones, but can also develop into autoimmune conditions, which would also benefit from a gluten-free diet.
IBS and IBD
Those with Inflammatory Bowel Syndrome (IBS) or Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) may be particularly sensitive to grains, especially gluten-containing ones. There is a fair amount of cross-contamination in grains, making it hard to avoid gluten in certain grains that are naturally gluten-free otherwise.
IBS and IBD tend to go hand-in-hand with leaky gut, which can cause nutrient deficiencies.
Of note, however, it has been suggested that some people may actually be sensitive to fructans, FODMAPS, or lectins, specifically, not just grains in general.
An allergy, intolerance, or non-celiac gluten sensitivity
Some people have a confirmed allergy or even non-celiac gluten sensitivity (or gluten intolerance), and removing wheat and other gluten-containing grains is a must.
Allergies are usually confirmed with a blood test or skin prick test (although there is controversy as to how valid some of these tests are), or through an elimination diet.
Inflammatory skin conditions
People who suffer from inflammatory skin conditions may benefit from avoiding grains. These may include eczema, psoriasis, and related skin conditions. This is also one where the elimination diet will tell all.
How to know if you should avoid grains on an anti-inflammatory diet
It can be hard to weed through the information and know which foods may be contributing to inflammatory symptoms. Especially when many nutrition gurus and health sites claim intake of most grain food can worsen inflammation and joint pain from conditions from rheumatoid arthritis, to ADHD, to leaky gut.
Another problem is that many people promoting an anti-inflammatory diet online give contradictory information on inflammatory foods.
Many health outlets, including The Arthritis Foundation, still maintain that whole-grain intake is better than refined grain intakes, but concur that there isn’t enough data to say whether or not grains should be avoided altogether, especially with the potential of the nutrients and phytochemicals containing anti-inflammatory properties, as well as the fiber content.
The only true way to know if grains are affecting you and causing inflammation is to perform an elimination diet by eliminating all grain intake and adding back in one at a time. This is the best way to pinpoint if any one food, or entire food group, doesn’t agree with you.
What form to eat grain in
Whether or not you decide to include gluten-containing grains, stick with the in-tact or cracked grains, avoiding flours. Many foods have labeling that is extremely confusing and will state that it contains whole wheat flour, when in fact, it contains wheat flour as well, which is refined.
Cooking the whole grain, or cracked grain, is the best way to ensure you’re getting the fiber and nutritional benefits of grains without the inflammatory glucose spike and crash.
Some examples are:
- Barley (contains gluten)
- Rice (all kinds except quick-cooking)
- Oats (steel-cut or rolled– NOT quick oats)
- Wheat berries (contain gluten) (these are also available from Einkorn wheat, which is said to not trigger some who feel sensitive to wheat, as they are the ancient variety of wheat)
- Farro/ Spelt
- Freekeh/ Farik
- Rye (contains gluten)
The link between whole grain consumption and inflammation is still a question. It’s also unclear if any anti-inflammatory benefits of whole grains are attributable to the grains themselves or other variables like the fiber content.
However, substituting whole grains for refined grain intake has a slew of additional health benefits, as does increasing your intake of anti-inflammatory foods.
Furthermore, people that aren’t negatively affected by whole-grain foods should consume grains in whole or cracked forms since ground grains (flour) comprise a high glycemic index, leading to elevated blood sugar levels and inflammation.