Eating a balanced diet that includes plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grains, protein and healthy fats is important for our overall health and wellbeing…or is it? In certain health conditions, specific food groups are thought to have a ‘bad reputation’ as they are perceived to contribute to unwanted symptoms and further inflammation, such as grains.
Grains are the world’s single biggest source of food energy. Some think they are an essential component of a healthy diet, while others think they can cause adverse health effects, especially in inflammatory joint conditions.
Do you know if grains should remain part of a balanced diet, even in inflammatory joint conditions? Have you read or heard about a term called ‘lectins’ and their supposed impact on joint health? This blog discusses the role that whole grains and lectins play on our health and wellbeing, joints and all!
Grains have been part of our diets for thousands of years and their consumption is linked with many health benefits, including supporting digestive system health and heart health. They are the seeds of grass-like plants called cereals. In their whole, unrefined state, they are rich in fibre, B group vitamins and trace minerals like zinc and magnesium.
Grains are the seeds of grass-like plants called cereals. Some of the most common grains are wheat, rice and barley.
Whole grains are made up of three parts:
- Bran: the hard, outer shell containing fibre and minerals
- Endosperm: the middle layer that is mostly made up of carbohydrates
- Germ: the inner layer that is full of vitamins, minerals and protein
Whole grains can become unfavourable when they are overly processed or refined i.e. when they aren’t considered ‘whole’ any longer. Processing and refining grains means to remove their nutrient-dense bran and germ layers, leaving just the middle endosperm layer. Some examples of refined grains include white flour and white bread. Refined grains have been stripped of their naturally occurring nutrients like fibre, vitamins and minerals. A diet made up of only refined grains means you’re missing out on most of these beneficial nutrients.
In addition, due to their simple structure, the carbohydrate content of refined grains breaks down rapidly in the body. Our bodies are able to turn refined grains into sugar much more quickly than whole grains, which can contribute to inflammation.
Lectins are abundant in whole grains and in legumes, too. They are a diverse family of carbohydrate-binding proteins found in these foods that bind to the walls of our cells, aka our cell membranes. In plants, they act as a defence against microorganisms and insects and in humans, they are resistant to digestion. Because we don’t digest them, our body’s response to them is to produce antibodies (proteins that help to neutralise pathogens). Some research suggests that lectins bind to carbohydrate-specific receptors on immune cells called lymphocytes which can then trigger an inflammatory response. Due to this reaction, many people are quick to remove lectin-containing foods out of their diets as they are afraid they may affect their health and contribute to further inflammation.
Some people try sprouting their grains and legumes in an attempt to reduce their overall lectin content. Lectins are mainly in the coat of grains and legumes so as the germination process begins, the coat is metabolised and therefore reduces the total lectin content.
So…should we avoid grains and lectins?
According to the Arthritis Foundation, research has not confirmed the connection between whole grains, lectins and inflammation and there are plenty of good reasons to keep them in our diet. Whole grains are rich in antioxidants that protect our cells from free radical damage and B vitamins too. They are also rich in fibre which supports out digestive system health – fibre feeds the beneficial bacteria in our gut which supports a healthy microbiome, resulting in a healthier tummy, a stronger immune system and decreased inflammation.
Here are some examples of nutritious, whole grains that the Arthritis Foundation recommend looking out for when you are shopping next:
- Barley – ideal to add in soups, stews and risottos, loaded with 6mg of fibre per cup
- Brown rice – brown rice hasn’t been stripped of its bran or germ so it is nutrient-rich. Just remember to adjust cooking time and amount of required water
- Buckwheat – rich in protein, try using buckwheat flour in your baking and pancakes
- Quinoa – high in both protein and fibre, can be used as a savoury side dish or sweetened to make porridge
- Oats – avoid the microwaveable/instant oat options, instead opt for whole rolled or steel cut oats and enjoy them in smoothies, as porridge or in baked goods
- Whole wheat – swapping whole wheat flour for white flour in your recipes allows you to increase your nutrient intake. You can also add cracked whole wheat to salads and tabbouli
Some people have diagnosed health conditions which restrict their dietary choices. Those diagnosed with coeliac disease for example are unable to eat any foods that contain gluten, including whole grains such as wheat and barley. And of course, if you know you have a food allergy or food sensitivity to any grains or legumes, you should avoid them.
- Andrews, R. (2020), All About Lectins: Here’s what you need to know, Precision Nutrition, cited on 3.4.2020, accessed <https://www.precisionnutrition.com/all-about-lectins>
- Gunnars, K. (2017), Grains: Are They Good For You, Or Bad? HealthLine, cited on 30.3.2020, accessed <https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/grains-good-or-bad>
- Jennings, K-A. (2019), 9 Health Benefits of Eating Whole Grains, HealthLine, cited on 30.3.2020, accessed <https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/9-benefits-of-whole-grains>