should grains be part of a healthy diet?

should grains be part of a healthy diet?

Common wisdom says grains are good for you. Think about it - what comes to mind when you hear about a "whole grain muffin" or "7 grain bread"? You know they're healthy; you just hope they taste good too, right?

Internet wisdom says otherwise. (while there are plenty of crackpots out there on the interwebs, it's also the place where forward-thinkers have a forum, and it pays to watch trends develop before they become mainstream..)

There are multiple websites out there dedicated to a life without grains. Nerd Fitness and Marks Daily Apple are two of my favorites. Read these, and you'll read terrific websites authored by smart people, with a boatload of good information.

Last week I read a series of articles, written by Cade over at Know My Body, which made me take a 2nd look at grains. A long, hard, careful look at why I eat them and what's their place in my diet.

Are grains healthy?

Here's a better question - can you eat grains and be healthy?

Let's define healthy.

My short answer is yes, depending on how you define healthy. I define healthy as being at the right weight for your frame, which allows your body to function efficiently, and to have your blood pressure, cholesterol, and resting heart rate within "healthy" ranges.

I know multiple people who have lost weight and moved their blood test results into "good" numbers, while still eating grains of all types - wheat, rice, corn..

Moderation is Key

You won't make it to healthy if you can't stick to your plan, and you won't stick to your plan if it calls for excessive behavior.

Our bodies are designed to use the fuel we eat and dispose of any toxins. Unfortunately, most people eat so many extra calories, and so many toxins, that their bodies are constantly in overdrive and can't keep up. Scale back the calories, and the rest will follow. Maybe some foods are better for you than others? Doesn't matter - your body will process them all if you give it some space to work with.

Know YOUR Body

Some people are highly sensitive to wheat. Others can't tolerate dairy. My oldest son can eat a little bit of corn (chips, tortillas, cereal), but too much corn gives him problems.

Each grain is different, and your body may work better with some grains than others. Heck, maybe 20 years of eating poorly has broken down some of your body's resistance to various compounds - now it's time to remove those compounds.

Calories Rule

Ultimately, calories rule. Eat fewer than you need, and your body will release fat to be used for energy. Eat too many, and your body will store the excess as fat. (the science can get a lot more complicated, but this is 90% of the discussion, which should be enough to get us to healthy.)

The funny thing about calories is that, once you start paying attention to them, you'll find your body likes the healthy calories better. 1,600 calories of Cheetos and Coke will leave you feeling run down and starving, while the same amount of calories from meats, nuts, grains, fruits and vegetables will be plenty to get you through the day.

Efficiency Comes with a Cost

Maybe it would be more healthy to eliminate grains completely. Maybe. But that extra health comes with a cost - your willingness to completely re-shape your diet. For many people, that cost can be the difference between success and failure.

If success is the end goal, I'd rather get there than not, even if it takes me a little longer than somebody else.

Biking a Mountain

Let's say you're at the bottom of a long, steep mountain road. Your goal lies at the top of that mountain, and all you've got to work with is your bicycle.

photo of Long's Peak in Estes Park, Colorado

I would pull my trusty Schwinn Ranger out of the garage and start pedaling. This is the off-the-rack mountain bike I bought at Target a few years ago, and it's what I use to ride all over the neighborhood with my kids. It has 18 gears, the lowest being so low I pedal one cycle and only go about a foot forward.

I could make it up that mountain, but it'll take me all day long - a full day of brutal effort.

image courtesy of

What would happen if I upgraded to a top-of-the-line road bike? This Trek Speed Concept 9.9 might be the fastest thing on the road these days. It weighs about a third of my Schwinn, and is built from the ground up with efficiency in mind. I bet I could cut my riding time in half on this bad boy.

image courtesy of

Now suppose I only had access to an old beach cruiser..? I don't think there's any way possible to get to the top of that mountain on that bike - simply not gonna happen.

beach cruiser as seen on

Wrapping Up

The top of the mountain symbolizes health & weight loss, which can seem like an uphill battle sometimes.

My Schwinn mountain bike represents one possible means to get to the top. Might not be the fastest, or the easiest. But once I'm up there, none of that matters. Same thing with health - being healthy and maintaining your weight is a long-term process; 5 years from now you won't care whether it took 3 months or 6 months to lose your initial 20 pounds - you'll be at the same point either way.

The Trek represents an all out lifestyle change. It costs almost $10,000 - a significant price. This is similar to the time and mental energy cost of committing to a hard-core workout plan or ultra-restrictive diet. Sure I can get to the top of the mountain faster, but for many people the $10 grand isn't worth it.

Beach Cruiser symbolizes the Standard American Diet (SAD) and Exercise Program. Simply put, it's impossible to get to the top of the mountain without a willingness to make some modest changes.

In the end, there are lots of different ways to summit your health and weight loss mountain. Personally, I look for the most efficient, biggest bang for the buck road to travel. Moderate exercise and sensible calories is enough to make it to the top, without having to turn my life upside-down.

I'm sure there are people willing to exercise more and eat less, but the view from the top is the same either way!

-Chris Butterworth