Are Grains, Carbs, and Gluten Healthy?

holistic nutrition plant-based Nov 10, 2022
Are grains healthy? Are carbs healthy? Is gluten healthy? Digestive health


The world and diet industry are obsessed with the "no carb" lifestyle.

Too many diets and programs eradicate grains, demonize gluten, and fear monger about carbohydrates.

I'll admit that excess gluten, simple carbs, and filling up on grains (over protein and healthy fats) is not ideal for longevity...

... Everything in moderation though, right?

There is often some crossover and mix up around gluten, carbs, whole grains and refined grains - so, allow me to offer a new perspective.

Are carbohydrates good or bad?

Carbs have been demonized over the past few decades as “the macro that makes you fat”... which is such a shame. Carbs are awesome and they definitely don’t get the credit they deserve. Carbs are a necessary nutrient to support our health and are found exclusively in the plant kingdom.

Carbohydrates function in our bodies not only as fuel, but as communication devices, delivering messages between cells. They play a major role in our immune systems and hormone production. Carbs even help to regulate the metabolism of the other macronutrients (protein and fats).

Moreover, the balance between these three food components helps determine the robustness of our immune response, bone and tissue growth, joint fluidity, and rate of healing following injury. Needless to say, we absolutely need carbs in our diets.

That being said, not all carbs are created equal!

Carbs break down into glucose (sugar) in our blood, and sugar is sugar is sugar - no matter which way you spin it. Of course, we do need to be careful with our sugar intake.

The more complex the carb, the slower this process happens, and we want a slow process because if this breakdown happens too quickly it can lead to high blood sugar levels and irregular release of hormones like insulin and cortisol (a stress hormone). When this happens too frequently, it can lead to insulin resistance which is a precursor to diabetes. If you’ve ever experienced 'hanger' or lightheadedness if you go too long without meals, this is a good indicator that your blood sugar is not balanced.

We call this dysglycemia, or irregular blood sugar levels.

There’s no magic number of carbs to eat every day, just like with most nutrients it depends on the individual. I will say that it’s ideal to direct one’s focus to the whole food, complex carbohydrates that come from eating a wide variety of produce. This is the most sure-fire way to avoid the dangers of too much sugar.

Simple carbs look like refined flours (pastries, pasta, pizza, bagels, etc), fruit juices (where the fibre has been removed), processed and packaged foods, and all types of sugars (even the natural ones like maple and unrefined cane sugars). Fun fact, fibre is the natural antidote to sugar. This is why eating a whole food is so much better than refined - Nature has already provided you with the necessary synergy to keep a healthy, functioning body. Thanks, Nature!

The effects of having too few carbs is equally detrimental, like the ketogenic diet which has gained so much popularity in recent times. By removing carbs completely, it puts the body into a state of stress and starvation, so it begins producing ketones as fuel instead.

All of this to say, we must start looking at whole, complex carbs as a good friend who’s got our best interest in mind - not a bully who’s trying to ruin our life.

Signs of imbalance

"Imbalance" can mean too few, or too many carbs. Symptoms may include:

Lightheadedness/dizziness between meals
Extreme food cravings
Slow metabolism & weight gain
Hyperactivity followed by an energy crash
Dysglycemia (irregular [low or high] blood sugar)
Pre diabetes or diabetes type 2
Fatty liver

How to correct imbalance

Reduce simple carbs and high-sugar foods (refined and processed carbs)
Eat low glycemic foods (whole, plant-based foods)
When eating simple carbs combine with fiber, protein and/or fat-containing foods to offset
Time your carb consumption around high activity
If counting macros (fitness nutrition), calculate based on your individual constitution. I don’t teach this, specifically, though I can offer you support privately if this is interesting.

Are grains good or bad for health?

As with all whole foods, I can never tell you a blanket statement that something is or is not good for your health. Truth be told, there are so many nuances to consider. What are your preferences, intolerances, goals, nutritional requirements, and are there any potential contraindications. 

End of the day, seeking personalized nutritional advice is my advice to you. You can always reach out to me for support!

That said, here's what I've got to say about grains, generally speaking.

Grains are an excellent source of fibre, amino acids, carbohydrates and lots of minerals like iron, magnesium and calcium. Getting the right grains in is ideal. 

The highest quality grains are always whole grains (not refined), and I always encourage my clients to explore the world of ancient grains. Ancient grains are awesome because they are less mainstream, and typically aren’t as highly sprayed or sought after (meaning they can be more affordable). Because they are left alone (more so than the wheat, corn, and rice industries), they’re often more nutrient-dense. Less of their natural nutrition has been stripped due to chemical farming.

Side note: I’m a really big fan of shopping bulk for most things, especially grains. There are some bulk food stores that have organic sections, or they can be entirely organic. Check them out and support the locals.

Let’s talk briefly about gluten. There are so many haters out there, so let’s understand why that is.

Is gluten healthy?

I like to think of gluten as glue to the power of 10. Gluten is a specific protein known for its binding abilities. If you’ve ever tried gluten-free cookies and cakes, you know what I mean. They’re often quite dry and crumbly.

The “glue” component of gluten can paste down the microvilli in your intestines, which are normally there to help you absorb nutrients from the food. When these microvilli are glued down, they cannot do their job, rendering the consumer nutrient-deficient.

In addition to this, gluten can be quite inflammatory. I speculate that this is due to the nature of gluten-containing grains being more highly chemically sprayed and processed, though there are individuals who simply cannot tolerate gluten.

Intolerance comes in many degrees, the worst of them being Celiac Disease, an autoimmune disorder that makes the consumption of gluten extremely painful and unpleasant. Others may be intolerant, and some people straight up just need to take a break and strengthen their digestive fire before consuming it again, in moderation. 

Gluten itself isn’t evil or bad, however a digestive system that’s not primed to digest gluten can really struggle - this is why we’re seeing so many more sensitivities and gluten-free diets popping up.

As a general rule of thumb, I’m pro gluten-reduction and strive for conscious consumption always. Most inflammatory foods can also be addictive, which we aim to avoid always.

The good news: not all grains contain gluten. In fact, most grains don’t contain gluten!

When upgrading your pantry with grains, I suggest trying some that are new to you, maybe millet or barley or buckwheat or oats. Quinoa is another naturally gluten-free grain that’s gained popularity over the past decade, and rightfully so. It’s high in protein and so versatile!

The moral here is to (as per usual) go organic whenever possible, aim to reduce your gluten consumption to heal your digestive system, and aim for the majority of your consumption to be from whole, unrefined grains (instead of flours, pastas and pastries).