alive logo

Traditional Foods Are Your Best Medicine


The place of whole grains in the diet, even those carefully grown without pesticides and chemical fertilizers, has been debated for many years by people interested in anthropology and nutrition

The place of whole grains in the diet, even those carefully grown without pesticides and chemical fertilizers, has been debated for many years by people interested in anthropology and nutrition. Grains became a staple in the diets of some humans beginning only about 15,000 years ago, when settlements first appeared around the edges of wild grain fields and people first learned to domesticate these plants. Many of us are descendants of ancestors who first used grains fewer than 2,000 years ago.

Anthropologists tell us that humans are biologically the same as we were 40,000 years ago. We evolved to our present biological state on a diet that did not include grains.

Among the people that researcher and dentist, Weston Price, studied in the 1930s were those in the Loetschental Valley of Switzerland and on the islands of the Outer Hebrides off the coast of Scotland. They used whole grains (rye in the Loetschental, oats in the Outer Hebrides) as an essential part of the native diet and were found to be immune from tooth decay. The people of Georgian Russia, Vilcabamba in Ecuador and Hunza in Kashmir thrived on large quantities of whole grains. Evidence however, indicated grains may play too large a role in the diets of many people in Vilcabamba and Hunza.

Most of the cultures Weston Price found to have immunity to dental and chronic disease used no grains. Grains have become a staple over the past 15,000 years in agrarian societies the world over yet Price's work also showed that hunter-fisher-gatherer societies enjoyed greater strength and immunity than their grain-eating agricultural contemporaries. So what role should grains play in our diets today?

Grains are convenient they store and travel easily and are relatively inexpensive. They are high in fibre, easily prepared and their inclusion in the daily diet works well for most people, including me. However, they are not essential for a healthy diet and their excessive use at the expense of fish, other high-quality animal-source foods and raw vegetables is detrimental.

When properly grown, and simply prepared, grains are reasonably included. The grain requiring the least cooking is toasted buckwheat, or kasha. The inedible outer hull of the buckwheat groat is removed and the raw groat lightly toasted. Indigenous to northern Russia, kasha is a hearty food, rich in a more complete protein than any other grain and is considered the most strengthening. The buckwheat plant is actually classified botanically as a grass rather than a grain.

Because the toasting process partially cooks kasha, it may be prepared in a few minutes simply mix one part kasha to one part hot or boiling water and let stand a few minutes. Kasha is convenient when traveling, is not perishable and can be prepared by simply adding hot tap water. I eat it with butter and sometimes dulse and occasionally with eggs.

Brown rice is the most commonly recommended and used whole grain and is available in both short-grain and long-grain varieties. Short grains were traditionally considered more strengthening. Mixing in a little wild rice (gathered largely in northern Minnesota and Canada, where it grows in shallow lake bottoms) adds a distinctive flavour. Brown rice is subject to oxidation at high temperatures and is best kept airtight and refrigerated or in a cool place.

Millet is a grain of Middle Eastern origin, highly nutritious and with a distinct flavour of its own. Millet, whole oats, hulled barley and whole wheat all may be cooked much as brown rice: boil water (two parts water to one part grain), add grain, return water to a boil, then simmer until done, about 30 to 45 minutes.

Oats are also available as steel-cut oats chips of whole oats that cook in about 20 minutes. Oatmeal (rolled oats) has been flattened and partially cooked; it may be quickly prepared, but is nutritionally inferior to steel-cut or whole oats. [You]

Bulgar wheat, another popular item in natural-foods cookery, is like millet of Middle Eastern origin. It is not a whole food because before being cracked, it has been boiled with considerable loss of nutrients. It too is quickly prepared, as is pearled barley. In the abrasive process used to make pearled barley, the fibre content and more than half the protein, fat and minerals of the whole barley kernel are lost. Similar losses occur in the production of couscous (semolina) from wheat. With the exception of oatmeal, these are refined foods rather than whole grains.

Whole Grains

Whole grain foods are essential in the diets of many contemporary native agricultural cultures. They were at the heart of the natural-foods movement throughout North America in the 1960s. For many people interested in natural foods, vegetables and whole grains are still a substantial part of the diet, necessitated by the move away from conventionally produced meat and dairy foods. Fish and organic lean meat are also natural candidates as dietary staples.

Excerpted with permission from Traditional Foods Are Your Best Medicine by naturopath Ronald F. Schmid (Healing Arts Press, 1997, Vermont).



Hollywood Balancing Act

Hollywood Balancing Act

Drawing on martial arts philosophy, Peter Jang finds mind-body balance in a decade-plus career

Shawn RadcliffeShawn Radcliffe