Written By: McKenna Garrison & Meg De Jong
In the third article of the ‘Getting Grounded with Grains’ Series, we’re discussing all things related to GRAINS and GUT HEALTH!
To quickly recap, the first article of this series gave an overview of grains, explaining what they are, the best ways to consume them, purchasing considerations, and SO much more!
The second article explained the connection between grains and anxiety, uncovering the many ways in which grains can support in easing anxiety levels, among things to watch out for, and delicious ways to include them in your diet!
If you haven’t already, we highly encourage you to check those out before diving into this next one!
BUT… if you have, let’s get into it!
We want to start by saying that the connection between grains and gut health is still not completely understood. In fact, there’s actually quite a bit we still don’t know about our microbiome and the complexity of how it interacts with us as a whole. Throw a food group into the mix and we’re opening a can of worms.
There is a lot of research competing with one another on whether or not grains are good for gut health or not. However, we repeatedly see that Whole Grains can serve MANY beneficial roles within the human microbiome. In fact, most of these benefits lie within ONE key component…any guesses? If not, we’ll get into it below!
In this article we:
- Break down what we currently know about the role Whole Grains play within our gut
- Outline the pros, and potential cons, to help you determine if Whole Grains are a good fit for your gut health
- Explain how to make sure you’re accessing all of the nutrients lying within the grains!
First Things First: What does Gut Health Even Mean?
When we talk about gut health, we’re largely referring to two things:
- Diversity of microbes within our gut biome (bacteria, fungi, yeast)
- The strength of our intestinal cell wall
Our GI tract is lined with 10-100 trillion microorganisms working hard to keep things moving, protect us, and boost our immune system (13) ! That being said, a happy gut is one that’s packed with a wide range of microorganisms and has a strong barrier.
When gut health is weakened (aka if you have ‘poor’ gut health):
- Gut microbes may not be as active
- They might decrease in numbers
- The gut might contain less diversity
- The intestinal lining can become more permeable- contributing to leaky gut, irritable bowel disease, IBS, allergies, and much more (9).
How Might Whole Grains be Good for our Gut Health?
Remember when we said that many of the benefits from Whole Grains lie within one key component? Well, if you guessed FIBER, you’re correct! The bran found in Whole Grains are loaded with high amounts of fiber which just so happens to be amazing for our gut health! Reminder- we’re not talking about refined grains as the bran has been removed.
Much of the fiber within Whole Grains is insoluble, meaning it can’t be digested as it passes through the GI tract.
Once fiber reaches the colon:
- It’s fermented by the microbes living there to create short-chain fatty acids (SCFA’s)
- It improves microbial diversity
- Reduces inflammation
- Helps to keep us regular (1)
We all likely know what it’s like to not get enough fiber- constipation, bloating, nausea, and fatigue are just a few of the many potential symptoms. These might seem like small inconveniences, but if we’re chronically deficient in fiber, the microbiome may begin to lack diversity, contributing to dysbiosis and potentially weakening the tight junctions that hold together the lining of our GI tract (11).
As the gut barrier begins to loosen, anything we consume can slip by and enter the bloodstream, often triggering an immune response (think substances such as: undigested food particles, pesticides, artificial ingredients, environmental toxins, medications, etc.) (5).
So What Does Whole Grain Fiber Do for Gut Health?
- The short-chain fatty acids that are produced after fiber is fermented are responsible for fuelling the cells lining the intestinal wall– giving them energy to perform all their necessary functions (digest food, absorb nutrients, keep food in the GI tract, etc.). The 3 most common SCFAs are propionate, acetate, and butyrate which have been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties and improve intestinal permeability (17)
- The SCFA acetate has been linked to a reduction of inflammation. One study demonstrated that after 6 weeks of regularly including Whole Grains with each meal, participants had fewer numbers of Enterobacteriaceae, a bacteria known to cause inflammation- likely a result of higher numbers of acetate (8).
- Another benefit to this fiber is a wider range of microorganisms living within our biome. This is important, as we mentioned above, because in part, the definition of gut health is literally ‘diversity of microorganisms!’ Many studies have reported higher numbers of SCFA-producing bacteria, along with a greater diversity of microbes after consuming fiber found in whole grains (16).
- As mentioned, one of the SCFAs produced after eating Whole Grains, is butyrate– the main source of fuel for our gut cells! It has anti-inflammatory properties, increases antioxidant levels within the body, and has been shown to be protective against colon cancer- inflicting apoptosis (destroying precancerous cells) (15). Interestingly, one study found that after 8 weeks of consuming either a low carbohydrate or high carbohydrate diet, participants following the low-carbohydrate diet had 30-60% lower levels of butyrate than those consuming more carbs. Although this speaks to carbohydrates holistically, Whole Grains are complex carbs that get fermented in our colon to create butyrate!
A Quick Recap of how Whole Grains Improve Gut Health:
They’re Loaded with fiber which…
- Increases Short-Chain Fatty Acids (SCFA’s)
- Decreases intestinal inflammation
- Increases microbial numbers/diversity
- Decreases risk of colon cancer
What’s the Deal with the Grains and Gut Debate?
There’s a lot of information out there touting grains as harmful to our health. Some of these claims suggest grains actually do the opposite of what we just listed- causing low levels of chronic inflammation, intestinal damage, gluten intolerances, and even obesity (12). Many of these statements are made on the premise that Whole Grains contain “antinutrients” that humans cannot digest, pointing blame at these for causing digestive upsets that many of us are familiar with.
If this has you worried about eating Whole Grains – recall that in our first article of the series, we briefly mentioned that these antinutrients serve as protective barriers to help plants survive and reproduce- arguably some of the smartest and resilient living creatures! Unfortunately for us, we don’t contain the enzymes needed to break these down and once consumed, they can bind to important minerals like calcium, iron, magnesium, and zinc– removing them from our bodies; hence the name “antinutrients” (5).
The Protective Barriers from Antinutrients Include (12):
- Lectins: proteins that bind to cell membranes of carbohydrates and can damage the intestinal lining when consumed frequently (ex: gluten)
- Phytic acid: the storage form of phosphorus that can bind to minerals and remove them from our body
- Protease inhibitors: these block the enzymes needed to digest proteins
Although these barriers do exist, there are steps we can take in preparing our grains to actually mitigate their effects and enrich its nutrients- creating an even more nutritious food!
- SOAK: by letting whole grains sit in warm water for 12-24 hours, it activates the enzyme phytase which helps break down phytic acid, making soaked grains easier to digest than those that are not soaked
*Begins to break down Phytic acid after 12 hours of soaking (10)
- SPROUT: after soaking, grains can be left to sprout over the course of 3-5 days. This further activates enzymes within the grain that break down starch within the endosperm and convert storage proteins to amino acids- rendering more bioavailable nutrients to the human body (2)
*Significantly reduces phytic acid, predigests lectins, increases antioxidant and fiber content (10)
- FERMENT: after grains are soaked, they may be combined with a starter culture or wild bacteria from the air to begin fermentation (3)! Bacteria is the key here, it’s responsible for the breakdown of starchy sugars- fermentation can’t happen without it.
* The best method at reducing phytic acid, one study showed that after an 8 hour fermentation of sourdough bread, phytic acid was reduced by 97% (10)
- COOKING: heating grains can help break down protease inhibitors and destroy phytic acids, allowing us to better digest them (10)
We want to point out that all plants have antinutrients to some degree, fiber itself is an antinutrient…we can’t absorb most of it, yet, it provides us with many health benefits!
This is also true for the other antinutrients found in Whole Grains- when prepared properly and not over consumed, substances like phytic acid may actually play supportive roles by possibly removing heavy metals and reducing free radicals; thus, acting as an antioxidant (12).
Whether or not these antinutrients do more harm than good, with a little extra consideration, the potential drawbacks to antinutrients found within Whole Grains can be reduced and enhance the grain’s nutrition!
Other Considerations To Make Before Consuming Whole Grains:
Now that we’ve tackled the antinutrient topic, we should look at the other ways grains may negatively impact our biome; again, many of these can be avoided to instead receive the nutrients Whole Grains provide.
- Non organic: grains are one of the most heavily contaminated crops, one of these chemicals being glyphosate. It’s been shown to stimulate the protein Zonulin which is responsible for loosening tight junctions within our GI tract- allowing particles to escape. Glyphosate, along with other chemicals, can also act as an “antibiotic”, killing beneficial bacteria and contributing to dysbiosis (7).
- Conventionally refined: as mentioned in article one, refined grains have been stripped of their nutrients, leaving behind a sugary product with little to no nutritional value. However, if these grains are processed using a stone-milling technique, many of their nutrients can be preserved. *check back to article one for an deeper explanation of these milling practices
- Eating the same grains over and over: our bodies can develop sensitivities to the foods we eat again and again. Additionally, if we’re eating the same grains, we get exposed to the same organisms, decreasing the diversity of microbes within our gut. In fact, one of the largest studies ever done on the human microbiome concluded that eating a wide variety of different types of plants was one of the single most important factors when it comes to gut health and diversity! (18)
- Eating too many: as with any food, we can over consume Whole Grains, especially if they’re not a part of a balanced meal- high quality protein, anti-inflammatory fats, and plenty of vegetables.
- Wheat allergy: this occurs when someone has an allergy to at least one of the proteins found in wheat (gliadin, globulin, albumin, gluten)- often seen in children and outgrown in adulthood (4). If you think this may be you, we recommend asking your doctor for an immunoglobulin E test (IgE) to confirm.
- Celiac/gluten sensitive: some grains such as wheat, rye, and barley contain gluten- a protein responsible for binding food together (4). There are also many grains naturally free of gluten (oats, quinoa, buckwheat, millet, etc.). Those with celiac have a genetic sensitivity to gluten while others may lack the genetic predisposition but still experience symptoms associated with gluten intolerance (14). This is a VERY complex topic that would require another article to really break down- however, if you think this could be happening to you, we again, encourage you to seek testing from your doctor.
What are Some Ways to Consume Grains for Boosting Gut Health?
Below are a few of our favourite gut love, grain containing recipes!
- Quinoa salad made with carrots, beets, parsley, chickpeas, radish, and cucumber
- Whole Grain sourdough toast with avocado, wild salomon, capers, and sprouts
- The BEST soaked chia oat pudding
- Mediterranean inspired nourish bowl with millet or whole grain couscous
- ‘Everyday Buckwheat Granola‘ by Minimalist Baker (try to use sprouted buckwheat grouts)
As you’ve hopefully been able to see, Whole Grains play an extremely supportive role in our gut health. So we’re concluding that yes – grains are good for gut health!
We of course need to rule out any sensitivities while considering a few things when purchasing and preparing them. But overall, they can greatly improve our gut health and as a result, benefit our holistic health. Who knew that fiber, is likely responsible for so many of Whole Grains AMAZING health benefits?
If you choose to add Whole Grains into your diet, we hope you can take this information and feel a bit more comfortable with the when, why, and how of incorporating grains into your meals.
Stay tuned for our LAST article where we take a deep dive into the VERY popular topic of: BREAD (yes, we think it deserves a whole article of it’s own) along with an exciting surprise announcement!