17 Oct Grains for Brain
Great performances require focus as well as footwork.
I’m Confused. I Thought Starch Was Bad
Keto, Whole30, and Paleo. These are popular diets/lifestyles that you’ve probably heard about or even tried. A common thread that runs through each of them is the limited (or prohibited) use of grains. I’m not for or against any of these approaches, they all have components that can be helpful therapeutically or when used for a short duration as part of a bigger nutrition plan. But if you are an athlete, you need high-quality carbs on regular.
Unless you have an allergy or intolerance to a food or whole food group, cutting them out can lead to some unexpected shortfalls including nutrient deficiencies or inadequacies, as well as enabling disordered eating. Now, I’m not talking about limiting processed, refined, fortified, and enriched food-like items that come in packages that have a shelf-life longer than Spandex. I’m completely on-board with that. I’m talking about cutting out entire groups of whole, real foods. Black and white, all or nothing approaches, are appealing, and may even have some short-term benefits. Unfortunately, those benefits may be short-lived, especially for athletes who require complex carbs and B vitamins for physical energy and mental health.
Gluten Can Be a Real Problem
If you have Chrohn’s disease, Celiac disease, or any allergy to a gluten-containing food, it’s imperative that you avoid gluten all the time, no exceptions. But did you know that even people without known gluten allergies can have adverse reactions to gluten? It may show up as headaches, joint pain, or inflammation of the skin or acne. It’s often dose-dependent, meaning that a little now and then isn’t a problem, but big doses (eating bread by the loaf rather than the slice) or eating it frequently (bagel for breakfast, sandwich for lunch, muffin for a snack, pasta for dinner) can lead to problems. Gluten is just part of the grain game, for many people the bigger issue comes from how wheat is processed.
Fortification May Be Your Foe
Foods that are made from conventional wheat flour are fortified with folic acid, a synthetic form of the B vitamin folate. This is a US government mandate intended to prevent birth defects. Fortification is the process of adding in nutrients to a food that weren’t there to begin with.
Many people have a genetic variant called a SNP, which leaves them unable to metabolize synthetic folic acid. This can lead to brain fog, fatigue, and disrupted mood. We can test to see if you have one of the genetic variants, but avoiding synthetic folic acid (which means avoiding refined flour) usually does the trick. For this reason, I recommend my clients avoid foods made with conventionally grown wheat and/or choose organic when available. Unlike conventional wheat flour, the US government doesn’t require organic flour to be enriched with folic acid. Still, read the label to see what’s been put in the food you put into your amazing body.
B Vitamins Are Essential for Brain Health
Eating a diet that includes a variety of grains can be health supportive and good for your mental health. The nutritional benefits of grains may have on mood comes in part from the B vitamins they offer, including thiamin, riboflavin, and niacin. B vitamins are necessary for energy production and production of neurotransmitters. Foods high in vitamin B6 include cereal grains, such as rice, corn, and buckwheat. A deficiency of B6 has been linked to depression.
Cereal grains such as wheat, barley, and rye contain gluten, which we know can be harmful to some people. What you may not have heard is that gluten can be degraded to substances called gluten exorphins, which have opioid effects. It’s been suggested that in it may actually mask the pain in the GI lining in those who suffer from gluten intolerance. Interesting, huh? It may just explain why starchy foods like pasta, pizza, and bread are all considered comfort foods.
Whole grains offer fiber, which not only keep things moving along as they should but offer a food source to the microorganisms that make up what we call the microbiome. Feeding what we call “good” bacteria of the gut with fibers from whole foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, supports cognitive function and mood. There’s actually two-way communication that happens between the gut and the brain, thanks to the vagus nerve. This gut-brain axis is part of why your “gut instinct” is a real thing.
In addition to the standards of fiber, B vitamins, complex carbs, and protein, each variety of whole grain offers a unique nutritional profile that can help you perform at your best.
Avoiding Gluten Doesn’t Mean Avoiding Carbs
I find that many people do better without gluten in their diets, but that doesn’t mean we have to remove all grains. Grains are a great source of carbohydrates and B vitamins, which are essential for physical performance. They are also inexpensive, readily available, and easy to prepare. If that’s not enough, research suggests they can support your mood. Here are a few options.
Don’t Pass (on the) Buck(wheat)
Buckwheat isn’t actually wheat, but a grain-like seed. It’s rich in the antioxidants rutin and quercetin. Quercetin has been shown to reduce inflammation and oxidative stress. One cup of buckwheat offers 17 grams of fiber, which supports gut health. It offers 23 g protein, including 410 mg of tyrosine. Tyrosine is an amino acid required to produce the neurotransmitter serotonin, which is known for its contribution to feelings of calm and well-being. If that weren’t enough, it’s an excellent source of iron, magnesium, manganese, and B vitamins, all which are crucial for mood support.
Buckwheat can be ground into a flour and used in pancakes or waffles. It gives an earthy, nutty flavor to baked goods. Soba noodles, also made with buckwheat, can be enjoyed in a soup, as part of a stir fry, eaten hot or cold. Also known as kasha, buckwheat can be cooked and served as a breakfast cereal or porridge.
Cheap, Easy, Readily Available: Oats
Oat are another grain that can be added to your meal plan. If you are avoiding gluten, be sure your oats are certified gluten free to avoid cross-contamination that can happen during processing. Old-fashioned oats can be used to make homemade granola, ground into a flour for muffins, or used to make overnight oats, for easy breakfast options. Check out this delicious gluten-free waffle recipe featuring oat flour. Be sure to read the recipe all the way through before you start and let the batter rest as directed. Looking for a way to add whole grains to busy weekday mornings? You can add oats to a smoothies, like this Mango Oat Smoothie.
Try Something New
Choosing a new grain and cooking it up to serve in place of rice or one of your other go-to sides is easy. Many grocers offer whole grains in the bulk bins, where you may find grains not offered in packages. Other gluten-free options include sorghum, teff, and quinoa. Most grains can be cooked on the stovetop using a ratio of 1 part grain to 2-3 parts liquid in under 30 minutes. I like to cook my grains in bone broth for extra flavor and added nutritional benefits. If you have leftovers, toss cooled grains with fresh herbs, chopped red onion, and a bit of cucumber and serve as a salad.
Be sure to sign up for my newsletter to get articles and recipes like these, along with promo codes and specials sent right to your inbox.