Are Ancient Grains Better For You? | The Paleo Diet®
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Are Ancient Grains Paleo?

By Bill Manci
March 4, 2021
Georgie Murray/ Shutterstock.com
Georgie Murray/ Shutterstock.com

In the same way that the term “natural” has blossomed from the minds of marketers without a clear, codified definition, “ancient grains” is used to loosely describe grains that, supposedly, have been minimally changed by selective breeding. [1]

The term has been applied even to varieties of common wheat, such as bulgur and freekeh.

The list goes on. Along with bulgur and freekeh, wheat variants spelt, Khorasan wheat or Kamut, farro, einkorn, and emmer (all in the genus Triticum), and other grains such as millet, barley, teff, oats, sorghum, quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat, and chia all fall to one degree or another into the category of ancient grains, as it is loosely defined.

Wheat variants, of course, have been with us for a long time. Evidence for them goes back as far as 6,500 BC in places such as Iran. [1] Today, the most widely grown and most modified varieties are Hard Red Winter, Hard Red Spring, Soft Red Winter, Soft White, Hard White, and Durum.

Grains are often considered “survival food.” They have been dubbed this because grains can be stored for relatively long periods of time, and they provide calories and some nutrients in the absence of other food choices. [2,3] While this is reassuring, should we really depend on grains for nutrition under less critical circumstances? Probably not.

Many grains contain gluten. Some ancient grains are gluten-free, including amaranth, quinoa, buckwheat, millet, and teff. However, oats, spelt, einkorn, and Khorasan wheat are not gluten-free.

People with moderate or severe sensitivities to gluten should take this into account as they decide which foods and ingredients to consume. That said, in general, everyone should avoid gluten regardless of any overt reactions to it for myriad reasons. [4,5]

Regardless of how grains are categorized—and with few exceptions—they are notoriously devoid of a more complete compliment of vitamins and minerals as compared to many fruits and vegetables.

Nutritional ingredients per 100 g (USDA Nutrient Database6)

PlantGlutenFiber (g)Vitamin C (mg)Calcium (mg)Protein (g)
Whole wheatYes3.80.01768.6
OatsYes10.10.05213.1
CornYes2.06.823.2
RiceNo0.50.066.6
BarleyYes4.00.212510.6
AmaranthNo11.44.027714.2
ChiaNo27.30.625518.2
QuinoaNo2.80.0174.3
BuckwheatNo2.70.073.3
SorghumNo7.10.0014.3
BroccoliNo2.689.2472.8
CarrotNo2.85.9330.9
SpinachNo2.228.1992.8
AppleNo2.44.660.2
Navel orangeNo2.059.1430.9

The table above is not an exhaustive examination of nutritional differences between ancient and modern grains. Nor is it, in a more general sense, a comprehensive comparison between grains and fruits and vegetables. But it does suggest some nutritional pitfalls that might be in store for people who rely too heavily on grains for their nutrition.

Why grains should be avoided

Trying to “survive” solely on grains, without supplementing with other foods, is a losing proposition. Many breakfast cereals, for example, are fortified with vitamins and minerals. Why? Because the grains are conspicuously devoid of these nutrients. With very few exceptions, grain-based cereals contain a laundry list of added vitamins and minerals—an effort to create a product that more closely satisfies our needs.[7]

Additionally, people who consume foods that are inflammatory—those with imbalanced levels of fats (i.e., saturated, monounsaturated, omega-6, and omega-3 fats) as we see in grains, or high levels of simple sugars as we might see in grains—are subject to so-called “leaky gut syndrome.” [8]

With gluten-containing grains, you get a one-two punch of inflammatory agents and gluten, which can induce autoimmune diseases such as Crohn’s, rheumatoid and osteo arthritis, inflammatory bowel syndrome (IBS), lupus, multiple sclerosis (MS), and others, as gluten proteins pass through a leaky gut into the bloodstream and raise havoc with our immune systems. [4,5]

So, the question of whether ancient grains are truly Paleo can boil down to a matter of definition. Strictly speaking, all grains are off the Paleo menu. Grains—even ancient grains—did not emerge until about 10,000 years ago at the dawn of the Agricultural and Neolithic Revolution. [1] The Paleolithic Period predates this revolution.

In a genetic sense, and in our ability to genetically adapt to changes in diet, 10,000 years is a blink of an eye, and not nearly enough time for our genes to compensate for this dramatic shift in diet. [4,5] Given this fact, our slow-moving genomes tell us we must be strict in our food preferences and choices if we want to optimize our health.

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Where grains can occasionally fit in

For strict practitioners and true devotees of the Paleo lifestyle, all grains should be avoided. However, The Paleo Diet includes so-called “open meals.” [5] Of the 21 to 30 meals and snacks a person would typically consume in a week, one or maybe two can include food items and ingredients that are off limits—not only in terms of grains, but other food items as well.

This approach helps to satisfy cravings and facilitates long-term adoption of The Paleo Diet plan—a so-called 85:15 rule, with no more than 15 percent of your calories from non-Paleo foods.

In this way, The Paleo Diet makes room for the realities of the modern world in which nutritional discipline over longs periods of time can be challenging or even impossible, particularly in the absence of ingredient labels.

In recognition of this fact, infrequent indulgences of several types are allowed. Some Paleo followers use the open meal to include and indulge in gluten-free ancient grains. That is their prerogative under the open-meal plan. Others choose to splurge by eating a cheese and pepperoni pizza on a whole-wheat crust. Maybe they have an ice cream cone for dessert. However, open meals must always be followed by strict adherence to Paleo Diet principles.

If you choose to consume ancient grains or any non-Paleo foods, do so with the understanding that our human ancestors 50,000 to 100,000 years ago did not consume modern, highly processed foods or ancient grains. They were strict hunter-gatherers.

Yes, they were opportunists who also took advantage of fare such as honey or other seasonal extravagances. But for most of the year, they ate natural meats and seafood, fruits and berries, seeds, and some rooted plants, all minimally processed or cooked. So, choose your Paleo path wisely and thoughtfully.

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References

  1. Anonymous. 2020. Ancient grains. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/...,amaranth%2C%20buckwheat%2C%20and%20chia
  2. Anonymous. 2021. Which grain deserves a spot in your survival stockpile?https://www.tactical.com/grain...;
  3. Hoover, C. 2020. Survival skills: long term food storage of grains. https://skyaboveus.com/wildern...;
  4. Cordain L. et al. 2005. Origin and evolution of Western diet: health implications for the 21st century. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 81:341–54. https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/...;
  5. Cordain, L. 2011. The paleo diet: lose weight and get healthy by eating the foods you were designed to eat. John Wiley and Sons, New York. 266pp.
  6. USDA. 2020. Nutrient Database: FoodData Central. https://fdc.nal.usda.gov//&nbs...;
  7. Sobel, A. 2019. What is fortified cereal and is it healthy? https://www.healthline.com/nut...;
  8. McMillen, M. Undated. Leaky gut syndrome: what is it? https://www.webmd.com/digestiv...;

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