Ask a Nutritionist: Why Eat Ancient Grains?

Wooden spoons filled with assorted grains
Wooden spoons filled with assorted grains

By now, you’ve likely heard of the importance of consuming whole grains. Dietary guidelines recommend about 3 ounce-equivalents daily. In moderation, foods like brown rice, popcorn, whole-wheat bread, and oatmeal raise good cholesterol levels while lowering bad cholesterol and triglycerides, a type of fat in your blood.

Within this family are ancient grains, including quinoa, amaranth, sorghum, and chia. They are called “ancient” because they’ve been grown the same way for several hundred years, according to the Whole Grains Council. Unlike some modern wheat products, they haven’t been genetically modified or “bred.”

Why eat them? They pack a nutritional punch, providing more protein, fiber, and vitamins than modern grains, says Helen Mullen, a clinical nutritionist with NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center.

Here, Mullen talks about the benefits of incorporating more exotic grains into your diet and offers suggestions for how to add them to everyday meals.

What should we know about ancient grains?
An ancient grain hasn’t been refined like white rice, white bread, or white flour. Thus, they tend to be higher in protein, omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins, and zinc because they haven’t been stripped. They’re also a good source of fiber. Other than the usual suspects — quinoa, chia, amaranth, sorghum — a few additional examples are farro, millet, black barley, and red rice.

Why are they good for you?
Like other whole grains, they’re absorbed into the body more slowly because of their fiber content, which helps regulate spikes in blood sugar. This is particularly important for those with diabetes or other chronic conditions. These types of grains also aid in digestion and the production of certain fatty-acid binding proteins. Millet in particular is rich in magnesium, which strengthens bones, and sorghum helps to lower cholesterol and promote heart health.

What are some ways to incorporate ancient grains?
Quinoa is a very hearty grain, so you can use it instead of meat in a vegetarian chili. Like many of the ancient grains, it’s also a great base for salads. Farro, with its chewy texture, can be used to make risotto. Chia is an interesting one because it absorbs water and becomes somewhat gelatinous. You can put it in smoothies, yogurt, or tea. It can also be used as a binder in certain baked goods. Lots of Mediterranean and Indian dishes incorporate ancient grains, too.

What should you be mindful of when consuming ancient grains?
It’s important to remember that, although good for you, whole grains, including ancient grains, are still carbohydrates, so they should only make up about a quarter of your meal. As a general rule of thumb, if you’re looking at your plate, half of it should be vegetables, a quarter should be lean protein, and a quarter should be starch, which include grains, beans and legumes, and starchy vegetables like potatoes, zucchini, and squash.

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