Green and golden wheat stalks against the background of field, blurred green trees and light blue sky
Home » Be Well » Wellness Guides » The Pros and Cons of Grains in Your Diet

The Pros and Cons of Grains in Your Diet

layered waves graphic

These days, any conversation about the pros and cons of grains in a healthy diet can rapidly become complicated, and even controversial. 

To bring some clarity to things, this article discusses grains from the perspectives of both Western Medicine and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).

Inclusion of whole grains in the diet is beneficial for many people. However, for some people, some grains can cause problems. We will get into that later in the article.

But first, what plants are classified as grains, and what are their common characteristics, including nutritional value? 

About Grains

Grains are defined as the harvested seeds of grasses such as wheat, oats, rice, and corn, and have been a staple food in the human diet for thousands of years. Other important grains include sorghum, millet, rye, and barley. Quinoa, although technically a seed, is classified as a whole grain. Grains have been an important part of human diets for thousands of years. (1) (2)

Each grain, or kernel, consists of 3 parts:

  • Bran – the hard outer coating of the kernel. It has most of the kernel’s fiber, plus some vitamins and minerals.
  • Germ the part that sprouts into a new plant. It has many vitamins, healthy fats and other natural plant nutrients.
  • Endosperm – the energy supply for the seed. It mostly contains starches, along with small amounts of proteins and vitamins. It has very little fiber.

The bran from any kind of whole grain is a good source of fiber. Nutrients in whole grains vary. They may include the following nutrients as well as others: Vitamin A; Vitamin B-1, also called thiamin; Vitamin B-2, also called riboflavin; Vitamin B-3, also called niacin; Vitamin B-6, also called pyridoxine; Vitamin B-9, also called folate; Vitamin E; Iron; Magnesium; Phosphorus; and Selenium. (1)

Whole grains versus processed grains

Processed grains (also called “refined”) are missing both the bran and the germ, which means they lack not only the fiber, but also most of the important nutrients found in the whole grain.

Many breads, pastas, and cereals made from processed grains are “fortified” – some nutrients are added to compensate for, or even exceed, those lost when the bran and germ were removed.

Examples of whole grains and whole-grain foods (1):

  • Barley
  • Bulgur, also called cracked wheat
  • Farro
  • Millet
  • Quinoa
  • Black rice
  • Brown rice
  • Red rice
  • Wild rice
  • Oatmeal
  • Popcorn
  • Whole-wheat flour
  • Whole-grain breakfast cereals
  • Whole-wheat bread, pasta or crackers

Health benefits of whole grains according to Western Medicine

According to the Mayo Clinic (1):

 The high fiber content of whole grains may help with:

  • Lowering bad cholesterol levels (LDL)
  • Raising good cholesterol levels (HDL)
  • Lowering insulin levels
  • Lowering blood pressure
  • Creating a feeling of fullness that can help with weight loss or control

Studies show high-fiber diets lower the risk of:

  • Heart and blood vessel diseases
  • Stroke
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Cancer of the large intestine and rectum, also called colorectal cancer

Whole grains contain more complex carbohydrates than processed grains. The digestion of carbohydrates involves breaking them down into their simpler parts, called monosaccharides (or “simple sugars”). Monosaccharides, such as glucose, are then absorbed into the bloodstream and provide a necessary energy source for the body. (3)

Processed grains, with fewer complex carbohydrates than whole grains, take a shorter time to be digested, which can result in a sugar “rush” followed by a “crash.” Whole grains take longer to digest, releasing monosaccharides into the bloodstream more slowly, which helps moderate insulin levels. For a deeper dive into the science behind the health benefits of whole grains versus refined grains, see (4).

Health Benefits of Whole Grains According to TCM

Grains are not bad! When whole grains are combined with a good variety of other unrefined plant foods they can offer an abundance of nutritional value. It is believed that when prepared and consumed in a way that meets an individual’s unique needs they can satisfy hunger, provide energy and endurance, calm nerves, and encourage deep sleep. They also promote eliminations, quick reflexes, long memory, and clear thinking. The problem is that most individuals do not consume grains in a way that is helpful for their underlying conditions. 

Within TCM, every food item is associated with a temperature, taste, organ, and function. Grains are considered to be mostly sweet and affect the Spleen/Pancreas and Stomach (the primary organ systems for digestion). Their thermal temperature varies between warm, neutral, or cool, depending on the grain.

Oats or buckwheat are a wonderful choice during the cold season, following a vegetarian diet because of its warming nature. Adding herbs like cinnamon, ginger, garlic, and fennel help to increase the warming nature and aid in digestion.

Grains are used to address different diagnostic patterns within TCM. There may be a presence of one or more of the following patterns, where certain grains may be recommended as part of treatment. (5)

Excess (aka repletion)

Symptoms:
Strong person, loud, powerful voice, choleric features, extroverted, red tongue with occasional thick coat.

Recommended grains:
Wheat, rice, barley

Deficiency (aka vacuity)

Symptoms:
Weak person, quiet voice, frequently tired and exhausted, pale swollen tongue, weak pulse.

Recommended grains:
Oats, rice, spelt (a species of wheat), corn, millet

Heat

Symptoms:
Red tongue, rapid pulse, red face, red eyes, nervousness.

Recommended grains:
Wheat, barley, amaranth

Cold

Symptoms:
Pale, swollen tongue; weak slow pulse, shivering, aversion to cold, worsening of condition and pain with cold.

Recommended grains:
Oats, rice, corn

Dampness

Symptoms:
Swelling, edema; chronic phlegm disorders (e.g. sinusitis, bronchitis).

Recommended grains:
Millet, rye, buckwheat, barley

Dryness

Symptoms:
Dry mouth, lips, and skin; constipation.

Recommended grains:
Wheat, spelt

Concerns and reasons for concern about grains

Celiac Disease

Celiac disease only happens in people who have the genes that cause it, although people with those genes may not experience symptoms at all, or only later in life. (6) Current research into celiac disease suggests that there may also be other factors that cause those with the genes to develop symptoms. (7)

Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS)

There is also a condition known as Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS), which occurs in people who do not have celiac disease and who are not allergic to wheat. Our understanding of NCGS is evolving as ongoing research continues to provide insights into how it is triggered and what the best treatment options are. (8)

The most common form of treatment for celiac disease and NCGS is avoidance of gluten-containing foods. However, many individuals have found relief through alternative therapies such as NAET Allergy Elimination.

A good source for information about glutinous vs. non-glutinous grains, as well as the grains, starches and flours that can be part of a gluten-free diet is the Mayo Clinic. (9)

Other grain-related health impacts

While the inclusion of whole grains in the diet can have many health benefits for many people, for some people, certain grains can cause or contribute to symptoms such as inflammation and pain.

NAET Allergy Elimination, and other Applied Kinesiology Modalities (such as Lebowitz Protocol), maintain the point of view that anything can cause anything. How many of your symptoms are actually due to sensitivities?  Perhaps those sensitivities developed because of lifestyle, the constant bombardment of chemicals, radiation, and stress causing your immune system or gut biome to falter and allow sensitivities to arise. What caused what? 

Modern practices for preparing whole grains for consumption can affect nutritional value.

There are some who believe that consumption of whole grains in ancient times was healthier than it is now. The modern ways of processing grains and manufacturing foods containing grains can reduce their nutritional value and contribute to various health problems. Certainly the growing prevalence in modern diets of food products containing processed grains with “empty calories” (i.e. low nutritional value) is one example. A return to preparing whole grains using traditional methods involving soaking, fermentation, and/or longer cooking times does make foods containing grains both easier to digest and more nutritious.

Modern non-organic farming practices can lead to unhealthy levels of pesticides and other chemicals used in non-organic farming.

The use of synthetic pesticides started around 1930, but became more widespread in the 1950s. Large-scale non-organic farming employs the use of chemicals, notably herbicides containing glyphosate (Glyphosate-Based-Herbicides, or GBH). Grains and other foods produced this way can contain residues of those chemicals at levels which may cause health problems. 

Reasons for concerns about Glyphosate-Based Herbicides (GBH).

The use of GBH in the non-organic cultivation of grains such as wheat has increased dramatically across the world since the first GBH was patented in 1971. Concerns about the impact of glyphosate on the environment and on humans whose food and/or water may contain residues of glyphosate have grown dramatically as well. (10)

In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans.” (11) This raised the alarm that there is an urgent need for more data collection and research to better document the extent of exposure to glyphosate residues and understand their impact on human health and the environment. Examples of subsequent research on glyphosates can be found in references (12), (13), (14)

A growing global movement is underway to strengthen regulation of GBH use and to restrict, if not ban its use altogether. Currently very few places ban GBH use completely, but many are restricting its use in various ways. (15)

Clinically, we have found many patients to be reactive to glyphosate. 

Experiment to see how YOU feel consuming organic grains vs non-organic, or how you feel by removing grains completely. 

  1. Whole grains: Hearty options for a healthy diet – Mayo Clinic
  2. Grain – National Geographic Encyclopedia entry
  3. How Cells Obtain Energy from Food – Molecular Biology of the Cell. 4th edition, available online at National LIbrary of Medicine (NIH) – Book excerpt
  4. Health benefits of whole grain: effects on dietary carbohydrate quality, the gut microbiome, and consequences of processing – Scientific literature review (2021)
  5. Chinese Nutritional Therapy, Dietetics in TCM – Book
  6. Celiac Disease – Johns Hopkins Medicine
  7. The Role of Environmental Factors in the Development of Celiac Disease: What Is New? – Research article (2015)
  8. Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity: An Update – Research article (2021)
  9. Gluten-free diet – Mayo Clinic
  10. Concerns over use of glyphosate-based herbicides and risks associated with exposures: a consensus statement – Statement of researchers and organic farming advocates (2016)
  11. International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) Monograph on Glyphosate (2015)
  12. Separating the Empirical Wheat From the Pseudoscientific Chaff: A Critical Review of the Literature Surrounding Glyphosate, Dysbiosis and Wheat-Sensitivity – Scientific literature review (2020)
  13. Glyphosate Use, Toxicity and Occurrence in Food – Research article (2021)
  14. Exposure-Response Observed for Urine Glyphosate Concentrations, Markers of Oxidative Stress – Research article (2023)
  15. Glyphosate: where is it banned or restricted? – News article (2023)

About the author

Teri Calandra

Teri Calandra Dipl.Acu, MSTOM, L.Ac., LMT, RMT

Teri began her studies in energy medicine as part of her own personal development journey, and continues to to learn and integrate that knowledge into her practice. Teri is the founding practitioner of Calandra Center for Health & Wellness in Schaumburg, Illinois. She is licensed by the State of Illinois in acupuncture (L.Ac.), and board certified through the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM).

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Receive our monthly newsletter, plus occasional announcements of clinic news, upcoming classes, and events. 

Miss a newsletter or interested to know more before subscribing? View our email newsletter archive.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.