When it comes to Paleo, one of the few food groups that almost everyone agrees on is grains. Grains are not only nutritionally unnecessary, but even downright harmful, packed with toxic antinutrients and inflammatory proteins like gluten. For many people, they’re also problematic for their high carbohydrate content, but even advocates of safe starches generally recommend eating starchy tubers like sweet potatoes or tapioca, rather than grains.
Unfortunately, modern food culture makes avoiding grains uniquely difficult (try finding anything to eat in an airport that isn’t a sandwich or a $10 bowl of wilted lettuce leaves smothered in Ranch dressing). It’s a struggle not to feel deprived or absurd in the face of friends, coworkers, and your well-meaning Aunt Sophie whose biscuits you just have to try.
Enter the replacements: coconut flour, almond meal, cauliflower “rice” and “mashed potatoes” and even “pizza crust.” Creating Paleo-friendly imitations of forbidden foods has become an art form, and as well as working culinary magic on the humble cauliflower, enterprising Paleo cooks have sought out a whole range of non-gluten grains and pseudograins as alternatives to the harmful starches that accompany modern American meals.
These replacements are purely cultural: they aren’t necessary for health. None of them can match the nutrient content of meat and vegetables, or even other types of starch like sweet potatoes. They contain a lot of glucose, which can be problematic for people who already have insulin metabolism problems. They require long and complicated preparation methods, because they share several of the antinutrients and toxins that make grains such a problematic food group. Nevertheless, they aren’t entirely harmful: if you struggle with cravings, if you’re strapped for grocery money, or if you’re one of the few who need to get more calories in their diet, these grain replacements can be a lesser evil or even a useful tool.
Meet the Pseudograins
Pseudograins are foods that resemble grains from the perspective of the person eating them, but are not biologically members of the same group. Biologically speaking, cereal grains are the seeds of grasses, and belong to a group called monocots. In contrast, pseudograins are the seeds of broadleaf plants, and belong to a different group called dicots. The three major pseudograins (also called pseudocereals) are amaranth, buckwheat, and quinoa.
Amaranth and quinoa have been cultivated as staple crops in the Americas since well before the first European explorers arrived on the continent. Spanish conquistadors prohibited the cultivation of these pseudograins due to their role in pagan religious ceremonies, but this ban didn’t last beyond the colonial era. First cultivated in central Asia, buckwheat faced no such challenge from religious enemies: it spread to Europe unopposed, but then decreased in agricultural importance as farmers concentrated on other cereal grains. Although none of them are as common as cereal grains like wheat and corn, pseudograins have become increasingly popular in recent years as more people become aware of gluten intolerance and celiac disease as serious problems.
Pseudograins appear to be superior to cereal grains in several ways. First, they contain no gluten, one of the main problems with wheat and rye. They also have more than carbs: quinoa is one of the few vegetarian foods that contains a complete protein (all the essential amino acids), and amaranth and buckwheat also contain significant amounts of protein. They contain significant levels of other nutrients (especially B vitamins and iron), even though they don’t come close to the nutritional content of meat and vegetables. And because they’re less prevalent and less subsidized, they haven’t been hybridized as much as staple crops like corn and wheat – the quinoa you buy at the supermarket is closer to its natural form than the wheat. This doesn’t make them ideal, but it’s a point in their favor.
Popular grain replacements also include other seeds like hemp, flax, or chia. Like pseudograins, these seeds have some advantages – flax and chia, for example, contain most of their PUFA in the form of Omega-3 fatty acids, rather than Omega-6. High PUFA consumption is never ideal, but the ratio of O3:O6 is just as important: the higher, the better. Their PUFA profile is not as good, but hemp seeds are also more convenient, because you don’t need to soak them before consumption; they also contain magnesium. One of the major problems with these seeds is the lack of definitive studies: they may be harmful but then again, they might not.
Meet the Non-Gluten Grains
Some versions of the Paleo diet also include certain non-gluten grains as “safe starches.” The most common of these is rice (which is, for example, considered “safe” on the Perfect Health Diet). While rice does share several of the same drawbacks as other grains (especially its high carbohydrate content), many people react less poorly to it because it doesn’t contain gluten.
Much of the nutritional value of rice depends on whether the hull of the rice has been removed (white rice) or left on (brown rice). Although health food stores everywhere will advise you to buy brown rice over white, this isn’t necessarily the best option. The hull does contain all the nutrients in the rice – but also most of the potentially problematic elements, as described in the next section. Thus, brown rice requires much more time-consuming and careful preparation to make it safe to eat. White rice, on the other hand, is essentially nothing but carbohydrate, glucose with neither nutrients nor toxins. If you have the time and energy to prepare brown rice properly (as detailed below), it does contain more nutrients, but white rice is a better option for anyone too busy to go through extensive preparation methods. Just make sure that the rice isn’t creating a nutrient deficiency in your diet by displacing too many nutrient-dense foods.
Wild rice, while not the same species, is also a grain, although it does have a significant amount of protein and a slightly better nutritional profile. Like brown rice, however, wild rice contains antinutrients that can diminish its nutritional benefit.
Although often served as a vegetable, corn is another non-gluten grain, less commonly regarded as a “safe starch.” A New World crop, corn was a staple food in the Americas long before the arrival of European colonists, and has been enthusiastically adapted by the modern food industry as an ingredient in almost everything. As well as the basis for popcorn and chips, corn sneaks its way into most processed foods as high fructose corn syrup, a sweetener that provokes a metabolic response largely similar to sugar. In its naturally occurring form, corn does contain some protein, and significant amounts of iron and B vitamins. High fructose corn syrup, however, has none of these benefits. Another serious point of concern with corn is genetic modification – scientists have modified most corn grown in the United States to be hardier and more resistant to pests, but this process is not universally accepted as safe either for human consumers or for the environment. Corn, like wheat, has been changed so much that even if we were designed to digest its original form, the corn found on supermarket shelves today might still cause problems. In short, corn is far and away the worst of the “less bad” options: avoid it if at all possible.
Grains vs. Pseudograins
“Gluten-free” has become a synonym for “health food” on grocery store shelves, but gluten is far from the only reason for avoiding grains. Pseudograins and non-gluten cereal grains like corn and rice do still contain several other chemical compounds that can cause serious digestive and immune problems.
Three of these compounds – lectins, saponins, and protease inhibitors – are designed specifically to stop you from eating seeds. Plants are under just as much evolutionary pressure for survival as every other type of organism, but unlike animals, they can’t run away or otherwise actively defend themselves when threatened. Instead, their seeds contain chemical defenses, which cause digestive irritation to the animal eating them in hopes that the animal will remember the bellyache and not come back for more.
Lectins are special proteins that exist in many types of foods. Only certain types of lectins are toxic – unfortunately, the lectins in grains and pseudograins fall into this group. Gluten is the best-known lectin, but far from the only one: non-gluten grains contain other lectins that many people react poorly to. Lectins disrupt your digestive process, and contribute to leaky gut syndrome, because your gut doesn’t realize that they aren’t simple sugars. This prompts the cells in your gut to pass the lectins through your intestinal wall into your bloodstream, which causes inflammation and can also provoke your body into an autoimmune response.
Saponins are another problematic element of pseudograins and seeds – like lectins, these compounds are designed to protect the seed so it can survive to pass on the plant’s genetic line. Like lectins, saponins also contribute to leaky gut syndrome by damaging the enterocytes, the cells that line your gut and control what passes in and out of it. Many foods contain saponins, and some might even be helpful (small amounts of saponins in fruits and vegetables may help you absorb the nutrients), but pseudograins contain too high a dose of saponins for your gut to handle.
Protease inhibitors are the seed’s last line of defense: even if it does get swallowed, these compounds will prevent your digestive enzymes from properly breaking down the proteins in the seed. Unfortunately, they also prevent you from breaking down the proteins from everything else in your gut at the time. Protease inhibitors are especially damaging to the pancreas, which produces the digestive enzymes that they neutralize. Chronic consumption of protease inhibitors can cause the pancreas to swell and eventually become cancerous.
Aside from seeds’ natural defenses, another reason why pseudograins aren’t just harmless Paleo substitutes is phytic acid. Also found in nuts, phytic acid is a compound that humans can’t digest: essentially, it binds to the minerals in the food and prevents us from absorbing them. No matter how impressive a food’s Nutrition Facts panel looks, none of those nutrients will do you any good if the phytic acid in the food is preventing your body from using them. Phytic acid can also interfere with digestive enzymes and otherwise irritate your gut.
As detailed above, pseudograins certainly have their drawbacks. Nevertheless, proper preparation methods can minimize their antinutrient content. The Weston A. Price Foundation
details how to prepare grains according to traditional methods, which maximize nutritional availability while reducing the phytate/phytic acid and content by activating an enzyme called phytase. This enzyme is why cows and other ruminants have no trouble eating grains: they produce it naturally. Humans, on the other hand, have to introduce it through special preparation methods. These methods include germinating or sprouting grains, roasting them, and soaking them in an acidic medium (water with a splash of vinegar or lemon juice works well). The best solution is traditional sourdough fermentation – when done properly, this can eliminate phytates almost completely.
While soaking, sprouting and fermenting most starch sources can significantly decrease the levels of antinutrients, it’s much more difficult to reduce the phytic acid in corn by soaking, or by a similar traditional process called nixtamalization. This is another reason why corn is a worse food source than rice or pseudograins – avoid it if at all possible.
Traditional soaking and fermentation methods can also help eliminate saponins and protease inhibitors, but lectins require a slightly different strategy. Normal cooking can help to reduce lectins, but only pressure cooking can completely eliminate them. This makes complete elimination of lectins very inconvenient for everyone who doesn’t own a pressure cooker. Since lectins come in several different types, and not all people react poorly to all types of lectins, your second-best option is to determine which type(s) you are sensitive to, and then simply avoid those. The easiest way to do this is with an elimination diet. Cut out all grains and pseudograins for a week, then try introducing them one at a time and see which ones you react poorly to. It may be helpful to keep a diary of exactly how you feel during these experiments, since some symptoms of lectin intolerance might be problems like sleep disturbance, rather than typical digestive issues.
Uses of Pseudograins
Lectins, saponins, protease inhibitors, and phytates, as well as their high levels of carbohydrates, make pseudograins a less-than-ideal food. Nevertheless, they do have some uses. First is their cultural value – quinoa, buckwheat, or white rice can make a wonderful compromise if you have to feed non-Paleo relatives used to a hefty helping of starch with every meal. If rice flour pancakes mean the difference between a peaceful weekend visit and an all-out culinary war over your “extreme fad diet,” they might do more good than harm.
Pseudograins are also a less harmful way to satisfy cravings for wheat products or starchy foods in general – they might not offer much in the way of nutrition, but when prepared properly they don’t do much damage, either.
Another application for pseudograins is purely economic: they’re a cheap, universally available source of calories. If you’re struggling to find enough money just to put food on the table, eating rice is preferable to going hungry. If you’re actively trying to achieve a caloric surplus (to gain muscle mass, as part of recovery from an eating disorder, or for any other reason) pseudograins are a wonderful tool for the same qualities that make them so problematic for other people: like other carbohydrates, they’re easy to eat and don’t fill you up for long.
The place of pseudograins in your particular diet will depend largely on your reasons for avoiding grains to begin with. If you’re restricting your carb intake, pseudograins aren’t any better than actual grains. If you’re lean and active, and only worried about antinutrient content, properly prepared pseudograins might not be a harmful side dish every once in a while. But just because they aren’t as bad for you as wheat, doesn’t mean they should be a staple food unless you have no other options. Instead, save them as an occasional indulgence and focus your meals on fats, quality protein, and vegetables.