Aren’t grains just the best? They’re so versatile and so healthy (I’m thinking specifically of the low-GI energy you get from the wholewheat ones) that it’s no wonder they’re supposed to make up just over a quarter of our diets (according to the FDA).
But people are terrified of grains these days. Grains are considered morally reprehensible. They’re like zombies – scary and repulsive at the same time. Or tartrazine – something we all consumed in the past without knowing how bad it was for us.
So although I wanted this post to be all about grains and the delicious, I feel I can’t go ahead without prefacing it with my thoughts on diets that demonise grains.
<rant> Proponents of low-carb diets like the sports scientist Tim Noakes tell us that the worst thing we can do for our bodies is put evil carbs in them – and that includes pretty much all vegetables except leaves, all fruit except tomato and avocado, and even whole grains.
I know people who have completely cut out carbohydrates from their diets, and, yes, they’ve lost weight. But that’s mostly because of losing water (especially initially) and the fact that they’re cutting down on calories. It’s basic maths – eat less, you’ll lose weight.
And don’t just take my word for it – check out this study in the New England Journal of Medicine and this one in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition – both found that people on any calorie-restricted diet lost weight – no matter whether they were cutting out carbohydrates, protein or fat.
The thing about carb-free diets, that encourage snacking on things like gammon instead of an apple, and having coconut butter whisked with grains of coffee for breakfast, is that your calorie intake is further restricted because of how ill they make you feel. After a few days or weeks, the food you’re eating is so unappetising that you don’t feel like eating at all.
So you’re basically starving yourself – and it’s common sense that starving your body is just not sustainable. If you want to live a normal life, you will be putting things like peas, sweet potatoes and oats in your mouth at some point in the future, never mind bread and pasta. And if you don’t eat any carbohydrates ever again – well, I wish you luck. There’s hardly any evidence of what this kind of diet does to one’s body in the long term.
Never mind the fact that cutting down on vegetables and fruits is the last thing that most of us need in terms of vitamins and nutrients.
But, as I said, I know people who have been on these diets, and (albeit fewer) people who have been on them for a while. They swear by them. As Ben Goldacre says, though, anecdotes do not equal evidence, so I shall remain sceptical until enough randomised controlled trials have been done over the long term to prove that low-carb/no-carb diets are so good for you that people who have been on them for years and years are healthier than people who have not. </rant>
Now we’ve got that out the way, I can talk some grain-loving. There’s absolutely no doubt that wholegrains trump white/processed grains (“on the basis of health only” my long-suffering, white-bread-loving, undoubtedly-healthier-thanks-to-me husband would say), and I’ve more or less eradicated the latter out of our home completely (barring the odd weekend-morning croissant from the neighbourhood French bakery) by making changes like:
- Using barley instead of arborio rice for risottos (this recipe from Bon Appetit magazine was the first one I tried)
- Using stoneground wholewheat instead of cake/white flour to make bechamel sauce – it tastes identical, honestly
- Eating rolled oats instead of instant oats for breakfast
- Choosing brown rice cakes (Vital does a nice range of seasoned ones if you want added flavour) instead of pretzels (my vice)
- Serving brown rice with lentil dhal or bean chilli instead of poppadums/naan or nachos respectively (plus, a legume+a grain = a complete protein, so this change is doubly healthy – and as a family that hardly eats any meat, we eat a lot of legumes)
None of these changes made even a ripple on the surface of my grocery bill or the yum factor of our food. There are loads of other no-brainer substitutions, like replacing normal bread with rye bread and normal pasta with wholewheat, which I do when I’m making a hearty pasta sauce. Wholewheat pasta is much too robust to have with a thin, tomato-based sauce, I find, so I’d rather buy imported durum wheat pasta for those suppers.
But back to the drool-worthy dish that got me thinking about grains today: a recipe for rice pudding. Nigel Slater‘s, to be exact. He uses arborio rice, mascarpone and blueberries to make his dessert risotto, and even though I’ve never had rice pudding in my life, nor a desire to make it, I can’t wait to try this one. I love the idea of using arborio rice, which I’ve started thinking of as a treat, in a lovely summery pud like this. Join me in fantasising over the picture and the recipe.