This column was written by Giovanni Campanile, MD, Integrative Medicine and Nutrition, and Director of Cardiac Rehabilitation at Morristown Medical Center/ Atlantic Health System. He also has an office in Caldwell on Smull Avenue.
Over 2,000 years ago the father of healing, Hippocrates, stated, “Let food be your medicine and let medicine be your food."
Hippocrates also described “coarse” bread, referring to whole grains. The idea to remove the bran and germ from the grain is a relatively recent development and results in the creation of empty calories in the form of refined foods. In fact in the early part of the 19th century, it was considered a sign of wealth to have white bread instead of the darker whole grain breads that was common among the peasants and the poor.
Before the advent of the commercial milling, only the rich could afford the “better” refined grains. Milling results in the refined grains that last longer and are more easily transported and therefore the common form of grains throughout the world is now the refined version which lacks the most nutritious components — namely the bran and the germ.
The types of whole grains we have today are:
There is scientific data that shows the consumption of whole grains is associated with reduction of cholesterol, reduction of the risk of diabetes, reduction of blood pressure and the reduction of the overall risk of heart disease.
In addition, there is good evidence that the consumption of whole grains is associated with weight reduction and the maintenance of optimal body weight.
Colon cancer is also reduced by the consumption of whole grains, most probably due to the higher fiber content of these foods. There is growing data regarding the importance of our biotome (the six pounds of friendly bacteria that reside in our gut) and whole grains are fundamentally important for the health and variety of our biotome.
These friendly bacteria are vitally important for our health in that they allow for us to absorb essential nutrients, are involved in hormone production, are necessary for optimal immunity and are very important for our mental and spiritual balance.
Spelt is an ancient grain which fortunately dates back long before wheat hybrids were developed. Native to Iran and southeastern Europe, Spelt dates back over 7,000 years, it is one of the first grains utilized to make bread and is even mentioned in the Bible.
During the Middle Ages the famous healer, Hildegard von Bingen used Spelt for many illnesses. Spelt is more difficult to cultivate than traditional wheat and lost favor in the U.S. because it was not “convenient” for farmers, especially industrial farmers, to grow and harvest. It contains a significantly higher concentration of nutrients as compared to its inbred cousins in the modern (Triticum) wheat family. It can be substituted for wheat as we do at PAZZI in pasta making and it does not seem to cause the sensitivities that occur in many people intolerant of wheat.
Spelt has a high content of important phytonutrients, protein, minerals and vitamins. Specifically, spelt is rich in plant lignans, manganese, fiber, phosphorus, vitamin B3, magnesium, protein and copper. It has been shown to reduce the bad (LDL) cholesterol, reduce heart disease, reduce heart failure, reduce heart disease in postmenopausal women as published in the American Heart Journal, can help the development of gallstones as published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology, protects against breast cancer (Cade JE, Burley VJ, et al., International Journal of Epidemiology), and helps protect children against asthma.
The high concentration of the plant lignans in spelt is a phytonutrient that is converted by the friendly bacteria in our gut to enterolactone which protects us against breast and other hormone-dependent cancers as well as heart disease.
It is not clear where and when Kamut originated, what is clear is that it is one of our most ancient of grains. Kamut has been found in the tombs of the pharaohs in Egypt. Also known as khorasan wheat or camel’s tooth, invading armies from Rome brought this grain back from Egypt. It was also a well known grain in Byzantine Empire. Legend has it the this is the grain that Noah stored on the ark.
Kamut is dense with phytonutrients, especially, fiber, manganese, niacin, selenium, zinc and magnesium — conferring to it a very high antioxidant effect. A 1-cup serving of khorasan wheat contains about 5 milligrams of niacin which is 30 percent of the RDA for an adult, and can help naturally reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes, osteoarthritis and high blood pressure.
As with spelt, many people who are intolerant of wheat can easily digest and enjoy Kamut. There are numerous studies attesting to the health benefits of this wonderful grain.
Bulgar wheat is a fundamental part of the Mediterranean Diet. The use of Bulgar wheat dates back over 4,000 years. Around 2,800 B.C. the Chinese Emperor, Shen Nung, declared bulgar wheat as one of the five sacred crops along with rice, millet, barley and soybean.
There are references to this grain in the Bible and was it widely utilized in ancient Rome. The Romans called this grain cerealis and the Israelites called it dagan — in the Bible it is referred to as arisah. The grain is high in fiber, rich in B vitamins, iron, phosphorus and manganese. Many studies have underlined this grains health benefits in preventing degenerative diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke, cancer and obesity.
Quinoa is an ancient plant dating back possibly 5,000 years BC, and originated in the area surrounding Lake Titicaca in Peru and Bolivia. Quinoa may be the first grain to have been cultivated by humans. It has been called Inca rice and was a staple food of the Incas.
Quinoa is considered a “pseudocereal” like buckwheat and amaranth because it is not a grass. The nutritional quality has been compared to that of dried whole milk in that it has a high protein and amino acid content — in fact it contain all nine essential amino acids. It has more fiber than most grains, which helps in lowering cholesterol, makes you feel fuller and helps prevent obesity. It has a high content of iron which is good for our red blood cells, contains lysine which is good for tissue repair, is rich in magnesium, riboflavin (vitamin B2) and manganese. All these phytonutrients are essential for natural detoxification, energy production and as an antioxidant to protect our cells from free radical damage.
Recently the PERDIMED trial from Spain, which was nutritional interventional trial of almost 7,000 people, showed that a Mediterranean style diet, rich in whole grains, resulted in an astonishing 70-percent reduction in heart disease as compared to a standard Western diet!
There is no drug known to mankind that has this dramatic effect — a true testament to Hippocrates in letting “food be thy medicine." In fact, food is more powerful than any medicine, is safe and is delicious.
Nutritional research centers have tried to identify which part of the whole grain results in these positive health outcomes. However, when the whole grain components are given separately they do not have the same health benefits. There is something special about the entire grain consumed as a whole, and there may be components, phytonutrients, bioactive compounds and co-factors we are not aware of that work synergistically to confer healthful outcomes. A reductionist approach to nutrition has never resulted in positive health outcomes.
Based on the numerous studies showing the wonderful health benefits of whole grains, the USDA through the 2010 U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans and MyPlate, recommend that Americans consume six servings of whole grain-based foods per day. It is unfortunate that less than 1 percent of the U.S. population consumes less than three servings of whole grains per day.
Incorporating whole grains into one’s diet significantly improves the quality of the diet by increasing the very beneficial phytonutrients, thiamin, riboflavin, vitamin A, and many other vitamins and minerals. Whole grains have a naturally high potassium/sodium ratio which is very important for the maintenance of normal blood pressures.