One of the big claims of conventional nutrition advice is that whole grains are "superfoods" incredibly high in various nutrients - just look at all the fiber and B vitamins and antioxidants! But it’s easy to come up with Paleo meals that are even better than grain-based meals - without the antinutrients and other bad stuff found in grains.
To prove it, here's a look at 5 sample meals: an easy workday dinner, a hearty salad, an office lunch, a soup recipe, and a breakfast. For each meal, there’s a whole-grain-heavy alternative, plus a Paleo option with equal or better...
- Total B vitamins (B1/Thiamin, B2/Riboflavin, B3/Niacin, B5/Pantothenic Acid, B6/Pyridoxine, and B9/Folate.). B12 isn't included because this is about beating whole grain and B12 isn't found in whole grains, only in animal foods.
Technical notes, for the curious (skip this part if you just want the numbers):
- B vitamins are measured in RDA percentages because they make it easy to see roughly whether a food is high or low in a given nutrient, not because it’s essential to get exactly 100% of everything every day.
- There are so many different antioxidants in plants that a direct comparison of each specific one would take way too long, and that would be silly anyway since micromanaging specific antioxidants isn't a great use of your time. Instead, we just list antioxidant-rich foods in each meal.
- Only nutrients relevant to whole grains are considered. For example, nobody is touting whole-wheat pasta as a great source of calcium, so calcium isn’t measured in the nutritional comparisons (but if you’re worried about that, you can look up 5 dairy-free meals with more calcium than a yogurt).
- Nutrition information taken from the USDA nutrient database
1. Easy Workday Dinner
Need something quick for dinner? A big pile of brown rice with some protein and vegetables is a super healthy choice...until you put it next to a Paleo dinner! Take a look:
- Whole-grain meal: 1.5 cups of cooked brown rice, 1 pork chop, and 1 cup of cooked spinach
- Paleo meal: Salmon (5 oz) with fried spinach and onions (1 cup spinach + 1 medium onion) and and 1 baked potato (yes, white potatoes are OK on Paleo)
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Antioxidant explanation: salmon is rich in the antioxidant mineral selenium; spinach and onions are rich in antioxidants like carotenoids and quercetin.
Unless you’re seriously deficient in thiamin, the Paleo meal is clearly the more nutritious choice.
2. Hearty Salad
If you ask most recipe sites, “grain salad” is apparently a legitimate category of recipe, even though some of them don’t even seem to include anything green. So how do they stack up to a salad made of actual vegetables?
For a comprehensive comparison, there are two whole-grain meals here. One is a traditional pasta salad that you might see at any potluck; the other is a healthified organic quinoa salad that wouldn't be out of place at a vegan health food convention:
- Whole-grain meal 1: Pasta salad (Pasta salad recipes obviously vary, but for calculating this nutritional info, 1 cup of salad = .5 cup of cooked whole-wheat pasta + .25 cup cherry tomatoes + .25 cup red pepper slices)
- Whole-grain meal 2: Quinoa salad (1 cup of salad = .5 cups cooked quinoa, .25 cups raw cucumber, and .25 cups tomato chunks)
- Paleo meal: Roasted Vegetable Salad (1 cup of salad = .2 cups beets + 0.2 cups butternut squash + 0.4 cups Brussels sprouts + 0.15 cups sweet potato + a sprinkling of pecans)
Here are the nutrition facts for 1 cup of each salad:
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Antioxidant explanation: Beets, butternut squash, and sweet potatoes are all rich in antioxidants. For example, beets get their color from betalains, which are highly anti-inflammatory.
No matter whether you’re looking at the classic pasta option or the trendier quinoa take on “grain salad,” making a hearty Paleo salad out of root vegetables still nets you a more nutritious meal.
3. Office Lunch
Need to grab something fast for lunch? The classic office lunch by conventional standards is a sandwich, but Paleo leftovers blow that out of the water for nutrient content. Compare…
- Whole-grain meal: Sliced roast beef (2 deli slices) sandwich on whole-grain bread with pickles (3 dill slices), mustard (1 tbsp), mayo (1 tbsp), and cheese (2 slices provolone)
- Paleo meal: Leftover Rosemary and onion roast chicken (1 thigh with a few of the onions) and leftover broccoli and mushrooms (¼ of the recipe)
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Antioxidant explanation: Broccoli is rich in all kinds of antioxidants, including flavonoids and vitamin C.
And when it comes to ease of packing, leftovers from dinner might also beat making a sandwich from scratch. Pretty much a win for the Paleo team here.
4. Hearty Comforting Soup
If you’ve ever tried to buy canned soup at a grocery store, you know how many soups put rice and barley and noodles in their recipes. Supposedly, all those “heart-healthy whole grains” make them more nutritious, but compare that to a Paleo choice:
- Whole-grain meal: Vegetable barley soup (1.5 cups, based on the USDA database entry for a generic/typical recipe)
- Paleo meal: Slow-Cooker Butternut Squash and Apple Soup (¼ recipe)
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Antioxidant explanation: Among other antioxidants, the rich orange color of this soup comes from carotenoids in the squash and the sweet potato.
The fall vegetables in the Paleo soup pack a serious nutritional punch; nutritionally speaking, this soup is probably a better choice than the vegetable barley.
The first meal of the day comes last on the list, featuring a whole-grain English muffin vs. a tasty omelet:
- Whole-grain meal: whole-grain English muffin with honey (1 tbsp) and peanut butter (2 tbsp)
- Paleo meal: Omelet (3 eggs, ½ onion, ½ red pepper, ¼ cup of ham) with half an avocado
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Antioxidant explanation: avocado is incredibly rich in antioxidants, but did you know that eggs also have significant antioxidant activity? It’s all in the yolk: antioxidants are the same chemicals that give the yolk its golden-yellow color.
Whole Grains Aren't Necessary for a Balanced Diet!
Whole grains do have some nutritional content - this isn’t Wonderbread we’re talking about here. But it’s very simple to put together Paleo meals that match or beat grain-based meals in fiber, B vitamin, and antioxidant content. So now you have proof with specific numbers and even some recipes to go with them: nobody needs grains to get all the nutrition they need.