As a nutrition professional, I think it's important to talk to other nutrition professionals and understand their views on things, as they often differ from mine. Sometimes you learn something new from considering someone else's perspective.
I can remember one situation when I was doing my counseling internship at Student Health Services at UConn. I was shadowing a dietitian there, and a client that day mentioned that she didn't eat bread; she had heard we didn't need it in our diets to be healthy. Being the intern, I kept my mouth shut and let the counselor handle it. Of course, her advice was that we DO need bread, as it provides important vitamins and minerals. She may have had a point; refined flour products like white bread are enriched and fortified with B-vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin, and niacin), folic acid, and sometimes iron. For people who haven't eaten vegetables or red meat in six months, maybe refined grain products actually serve a purpose.
So I started thinking... I wonder what it takes to get enough of these nutrients without grains?
This section will be short. If you're eating enough calories, it's pretty difficult to be deficient in any of these vitamins. In fact, the only realistic way we would see a deficiency is if we're getting most of our calories from refined grains that were not enriched; all of the refined grains in America are enriched. B-vitamins are found in meat, eggs, potatoes, sweet potatoes, veggies, fruits, nuts... pretty much all whole foods. I mean you'd have to really be eating straight sugar or butter all day to not get enough of these. They're a non-issue. Next!
I say folate, not folic acid, because folate is the natural form found in food. Folic acid is the form added to foods (like grains) and used in supplements. This folate stuff is pretty darn important... it's needed for several reactions involving DNA, which is the foundation for every cell in the body. It's also been found to be extra important in pregnancy; adequate folic acid levels can prevent the birth defect spina bifida.
Most of the food sources of folate are plant foods, with liver being the exception. Too bad liver is disgusting. I wish I could choke it down, I really do! Anyway, some of the best sources are greens and beans. Nice, that rhymed.
What does a full day of folate look like for a non-pregnant person? Glad you asked, here are a few examples:
- 1/2 cup steamed spinach, 1/2 cup steamed collard greens, 1/2 cup kidney beans, 1/2 cup green peas
- 1/2 cup lentils, 1 cup raw spinach, 1/2 cup asparagus, 1 small orange
- 1/2 cup black beans, 1 cup steamed broccoli, 1 cup romaine lettuce, 1/2 cup Brussels sprouts
- 6 oz. beef liver (Yuck.)
Some folate may be lost in cooking as well, depending on how long it's cooked, so there's that to worry about too.
You can get to the RDA for folate, sure. But is your average schmo doing this? No. Good thing those cheap grains are fortified with folic acid. And this doesn't even take into account a pregnant woman's requirements, which are 50% higher. :-o
The best sources of iron are animal foods. Clams, oysters, and liver are your most iron-rich foods. Red meat and poultry are second. And then we've got some random plant foods like pumpkin seeds, white beans, and lentils that sport nice iron profiles. Plant iron is less bioavailable than the animal type though, so the hard numbers are a little misleading.
The following are realistic ways to get 18 mg of iron in your day:
- 2 cups kale, 1 cup steamed broccoli, 1 oz cashews, 1 cup edamame, 1/2 cup lentils, 1 medium baked potato, 4 oz boneless chicken breast, and 6 oz ground beef
- 1/2 cup steamed spinach, 1/2 cup white beans, 1 oz pumpkin seeds, 1 1/2 cups roasted red potatoes, 5 oz chicken thighs, 3 oz shrimp
- 1 cup roasted Brussels sprouts, 1/2 cup steamed Swiss chard, 1/2 cup prunes, 1/2 cup olives, 3 fried eggs, 1 oz canned clams, 6 oz sirloin steak
- 10 oz beef liver (Okay, not realistic. Yuck.)
That's kind of a lot of food, no?? You women have a tough life! Sure, a determined, health conscious woman would have no problem with this kind of intake, but your average American? Hell naw. Probably a good thing those junk breakfast cereals are fortified with iron.
Okay. Obviously we don't need grains in our diet. There's nothing special in grains that we can't get elsewhere. But for the average person who doesn't give a crap about his or her diet, eats Hot Pockets and McDonalds all the time, and hasn't touched spinach since the 90s... they're pretty important. Folic acid and iron are vital, especially for certain populations... pregnant women in the case of folate, young women in general in the case of iron.
If it's nutrient density and optimal health you're after, there's no reason for you to eat grains in any significant amount. But most people aren't you. If you're an average American, I say you need them. Call me crazy.