Whole grains

Whole grains

Dale Pinnock
0 recipes
Published by
Quadrille Publishing
Issy Croker

Whole grains are an absolute staple ingredient in a healthy diet, for very good reason. Many of you may know that I am not a huge advocate of eating large amounts of carbohydrates, and would always advise that we ditch refined carbohydrates for a lifetime. But adding some key whole grains into your diet can certainly offer some real benefit.

Whole grains are often rich in a vast array of vitamins and minerals, have a high fibre content, are a great slowrelease energy source, and deliver some interesting health benefits. Among the reported health benefits, there are a few that have been researched extensively, and that we have great understanding of, so it is let’s explore these a little further here.

Digestive health

One of the greatest woes that the modern Western diet brings with it is a rather broad cross-section of digestive maladies. Bloating, gas, cramping, IBS, constipation… the list seems endless. Some of these are directly related to diet, and others can be managed partly by diet. The modern diet that many of us follow in the West is sadly heavily laden with processed convenience foods – ready meals and pre-packaged foods.

White bread, white rice, white pasta: these all play havoc with digestive health. One of the main reasons for this is the lack of fibre in processed foods. Fibre is vital for digestive health for two main reasons. First, it physically works as a bulking agent. It bulks out digestive content and in doing so it helps with digestive transit. Fibre absorbs water, several times its own weight in water, in fact, and when it does this it swells up. This makes the stool enlarge and begin to stretch the walls of the digestive tract. Within the walls of the gut are stretch receptors. Once they detect the stretching that swelling fibre instigates, they then stimulate the rhythmical contraction of the gut known as peristalsis. This undulating contraction is what allows the contents of the gut to move through and be removed with ease.

The second way in which fibre benefits digestive health is by influencing gut flora. “Gut flora” refers to the colony of bacteria that live in our digestive tract – not problematic bacteria, but actually a friendly, beneficial army that is 100-trillion strong! Dietary fibre can help to keep this massive colony healthy. Some of the more dense and complex fibres will actually get fermented and broken down by the gut flora, and when the bacteria ferment these compounds, two things happen: they actually cause the bacteria to multiply and increase in number, and the bacteria can release by-products during the fermentation of this fibre. These by-products include compounds like butyric acid, which actually instigates repair mechanisms within the large intestine, helping to keep it healthy.

Cardiovascular health

Whole grains have a very longstanding reputation as a food that benefits cardiovascular health, and have been the subject of many trials in this context. So, how exactly could a whole grain benefit the health of the heart? Well, it comes down to their impact on cholesterol. Whole grains can lower it, by a rather interesting mechanism all to do with the soluble fibre that is found within them. Our body produces cholesterol naturally; it is a vital and necessary substance. We produce it every single day in the liver. When it is produced, a very large percentage of it is indeed actually used in digestion. It is used to make bile acids, which are substances released from the gall bladder that help to break down fat globules into smaller particles that can be more easily absorbed in the digestive tract. When the bile acids have done their job, the cholesterol within is then liberated and absorbed further down in the digestive tract, where it enters circulation. This is an ongoing loop.

Now, the soluble fibre in whole grains, particularly fibres such as the betaglucan found in oats, actually forms a gel-like substance in the digestive tract. This substance will bind to cholesterol that has been recycled from bile acids and prevent it from being absorbed as it normally would. Because there is less cholesterol being re-absorbed, and because it plays such an important part in the manufacture of bile acids, the body will mobilize cholesterol that is in circulation for use in bile acid formation. The end result is that our blood cholesterol levels go down.

Glycaemic response

As I have stated many times, I don’t necessarily advise people to eat large amounts of carbohydrates – think of them as an accompaniment rather than as the base of a dish. As well as reducing carbohydrate portion sizes, the type of carbohydrates that we consume are the real key. This is why whole grains are the best choice. Because they are so high in fibre, they take much longer to digest than their white, refined alter-egos (think brown rice over white). This is of vital importance to our long-term health, due to the impact that this has on blood sugar.

White refined carbohydrates contain virtually no fibre at all. This means that they take very little digestive effort and are digested rapidly. Because of this rapid digestion, they can release their glucose content into the blood stream quickly, which floods and overwhelms it. In the long term, consuming high levels of refined carbohydrates that flood blood sugar can cause a significant number of health issues, from Type-2 diabetes to contributing to cardiovascular disease. (This is covered in greater depth in my book The Power of Three.)

Whole grains, on the other hand, are digested much more slowly due to their fibre content, and as a result they drip feed the blood sugar. This places very little burden on the insulin system, and bypasses many of the problems that come with flooding blood sugar and over-taxing the insulin system.

There are now huge amounts of whole grains commercially available, with more and more coming to market all the time. However, I have a few favourites that I feel are the absolute best of the bunch, that have been well researched and documented, and are great staples of all manner of international cuisines.

Brown rice

This was one of the original health food staples from long ago. It always conjured up images of vegetarian restaurants and old health-food stores. How times have changed. Now it is everywhere and so widely used. From a nutritional point of view, it is, in my opinion, one of the best.

Key nutrients:

B vitamins: energy production, regulating nerve function, stress Manganese: helps with the formation of connective tissue, clotting factors, and the metabolism of protein and carbohydrates Selenium: supports thyroid and immune functions, helps produce the body’s own in-built antioxidants Gamma-oryzanol: an antioxidant that helps lower cholesterol Fibre: helps increase digestive transit and lower cholesterol

How to prepare:

I like to rinse rice a few times before covering with water and simmering for about 20–25 minutes.

Bulgur wheat

Bulgur wheat is that wonderful grain that forms the base of the classic tabbouleh. Slightly sweet, and nutty, it is one of my absolute go-to ingredients.

Key nutrients:

B vitamins: heart health, energy production, nerve function Betaine: lowers homocysteine Very high fibre: satiety, blood sugar management, improved digestive transit, reduces cholesterol


This wonderful grain is slightly less common, but you can buy it in any health-food store. It has a lovely nutty flavour, and is in fact very versatile – it can even be made into a mash. I have included millet here as it has a very broad nutritional profile.

Key nutrients:

Copper: helps make red blood cells, supports immune and neurological health, involved in collagen formation Phosphorous: the second most abundant mineral in the body; involved in maintaining bones and teeth Magnesium: involved in more than 1,000 chemical reactions in the body daily, as well as in regulating muscle function and supporting neurological health

How to prepare:

This is a super-easy grain to prepare. Cook it for about 15 minutes at a constant simmer.


Oats are one of the real staples. I am appalled at the array of hideous breakfast cereals that are marketed as being some kind of healthy option for us, especially the rubbish marketed to children. Oats really do come to the rescue. When they are not covered in sugar and overly processed, oats are a fantastic, nutrient-rich, slow-release energy source, so for those of you who like a cereal at breakfast time, oats are the number-one choice.

Key nutrients:

B vitamins: convert food into energy and support a healthy nervous system Beta-glucan: soluble fibre that has been clinically proven to lower cholesterol Manganese: formation of connective tissue and clotting factors Avenathramide: cardio-protective antioxidant

How to prepare:

I generally do about 1½ –2:1 ratio of liquid to oats when making porridge. Oats are also fantastic for baking and for topping dishes, and they cook very quickly.

Pearl barley

Pearl barley is another one of my favourite grains. I use it as an alternative to rice when I make risotto. As a grain, it is a super-slow burner compared to white risotto rice, and has a delicious nutty flavour. It is great cold in a salad, too.

Key nutrients:

Molybdenum: involved in everything from energy production to stimulating our body to produce its own inherent antioxidant substances, looking after our cells Chromium: a trace mineral involved in the production of Glucose Tolerance Factor, for regulating blood sugar levels Also B vitamins and magnesium

How to prepare:

This is a tougher grain than others and takes a lot longer to cook for this reason. I personally prefer to soak it for about an hour beforehand to give it a bit of a head start before simmering for about 40 minutes.

You could even soak it overnight/all day if you wanted a shorter cooking time, of 20 minutes or so.


Quinoa, which used to be a strange, mystical ingredient that nobody could pronounce, has become massively popular in recent years; it is literally everywhere. You’ll find it in ready meals, food-to-go outlets and every supermarket. This is one “trendy” food that I believe really does live up to its hype. For a grain, it has an extremely high protein content and high fibre content, which means that it takes much longer to digest than many grains, so it won’t raise blood sugar levels rapidly. It is also exceptionally nutrient dense.

Key nutrients:

Iron: carries oxygen to tissues Zinc: involved in regulating white blood cell function, regulates sebaceous secretions Folate: regulates cell division, involved in DNA production Copper: collagen formation, immunological support, healthy nervous system, red blood cell manufacture

How to prepare:

This is a super-easy grain to prepare and cooks in simmering water for 15– 20 minutes. You know it is done when the grain enlarges, turns a clearer colour, and a small tail-like projection forms on the outside.

The recipes here should give you a few ideas of how to use grains in diverse and delicious ways, whether it is whipping up a breakfast, making a tasty side, or using them as a base for other dishes, such as salads.


Brown rice salad

Savoury vegetable quinoa

Courgette-topped baked pilaf

Aubergine stuffed with tomato and spinach quinoa

Wild mushroom and rosemary barley risotto

Classic tabbouleh

Barley and roasted squash salad with blue cheese and walnuts

Minted quinoa and feta burgers

Asian-style coconut rice

Pear and tahini porridge

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