Athletes with an interest in nutrition have probably encountered an array of conflicting information about grains. Should you go grain-free? Carb-load? Experiment with paleo? Be choosy—the right daily food decisions can serve to nourish your body while reducing chronic inflammation and disease and promoting overall health. Here are five factors to consider when choosing the best grain—if any—for you.
1. You don't really need grains. That's right—if you don't want to eat grains for any reason, you can still have a very healthy diet without them. Most nutrients found in grains can be obtained from other sources, and many athletes experience weight loss when they go grain-free. Just make sure you're eating well enough to maintain training, and not substituting other refined carbohydrates in their place.
2. If you suspect you are intolerant of any grains, or component of grains like gluten, it doesn't hurt to try omitting them. When experimenting like this, it's important to try to control your variables as much as possible. Start by taking all grains out of your diet for two weeks (look to starchy vegetables, whole fruits, beans and legumes, and other carbohydrates to keep your meals balanced in the meantime). Then, try adding back non-gluten-containing grains for two weeks to determine if it was gluten specifically that caused your intolerance symptoms. Examples of gluten-free grains include rice, gluten-free oats (stated on the package) and quinoa. Lastly, if you are still symptom-free with the addition of gluten-free grains, you can add back gluten-containing grains as a test. If symptoms reappear at any time during this process, you should be able to narrow down the culprit.
3. If you want to include grains in your diet, make the best choice within the food group. There is a significant nutritional difference between refined grains, whole grains and intact grains. Intact grains, followed by sprouted and fermented grain products, are the healthiest choices.
Intact grains are those in which you can see the whole grain, intact. Wild or brown rice, oats, quinoa (sometimes considered a seed), sprouted grains and some ancient grains are eaten intact. Oats and quinoa specifically are very nourishing foods.
Two special categories of grains, sprouted and fermented, are also good choices. Fermented grains, like other fermented food products, are made using a healthy bacteria, lactobacillus (the same bacteria found in yogurt). These bacteria ferment the grains, changing the starches and proteins to a healthier form that is more digestible and bioavailable. In fact, the starch itself does not impact the body the same way as it does in non-fermented breads; it has a lessened effect on blood sugars and a lower glycemic index.
Sprouted grains are grains that have been pre-soaked and allowed to start germinating. The germ begins to grow and the seed straddles the line between grain and new plant. When used in baked products, these seed/plants are more easily digested than they were when they were just seeds. Their nutrients are more absorbable, and more natural enzymes are present in the food product.
4. Grains should not be the foundation of the diet. They simply do not stack up to many other foods that provide similar amounts of carbohydrates. For example, whole yams and beans offer more antioxidants and fiber and are less inflammatory than most available grain products. Whole fresh fruits can also make up some of an athlete's quicker-energy carbohydrates needs.
5. Consider your own weight or fat loss goals. Among wild species in the animal kingdom, grains are not a food source, and most are very lean. Cattle who graze on grass are much leaner than their grain-fed counterparts, and most are put on a grain-based diet to fatten up before being sold. Quite simply, many people can lose fat by reducing total carbohydrates and total grains. If you have weight loss goals, you'll want to only use the carbohydrates that have the most to offer.
More: 30-Day Paleo Challenge
Want to include grains in your diet? Be choosy. Avoid highly processed grain products, keep portions small and stick to intact, sprouted or fermented products. Eat starchy vegetables like yams, beans or legumes and whole fruits for high-antioxidant, high-phytochemical carbohydrate sources. All these foods can be a delicious and wonderful part of an athlete's diet.
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