Grains and Lentils
Man has been in existence for approximately 100,000 years. For over 90,000 years, he followed a "paleolithic lifestyle" also known as hunter-gatherer. That means he subsisted on primarily fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, fish and whatever little meat he could hunt on. Only in the last 10,000 years or so did man settle down and begin agriculture and start harvesting grains. So grains are a relatively new addition to our diet. However, gradually grains like rice and wheat have now become the staple in our diet. This probably has commercial reasons also since grains can be cultivated in bulk, stored for long periods, transported and traded worldwide. Fruits and vegetables are bulky, spoil quickly and easily and are not as amenable to commerce as grains. So gradually we have learned to have more of these foods in our diet. But are they really suitable for humans. The following factors seem to indicate otherwise
Inedible when raw
A food edible in raw form by a particular species indicates its physiological suitability for that species. Grains of course are inedible and indigestible when raw. Compare this on the other hand with graminivorous creatures like birds. They have a very powerful digestive system called a gizzard that enables them to grind up and digest grains. In the late 1700s, scientists found that a tube of sheet iron that could normally only be dented by a load of 36 kilograms (about 79 lbs.) was flattened and partly rolled up after being in a turkey stomach for 24 hours! A chap named Spallanzani found that a turkey stomach could grind to pieces 12 steel needles in 36 hours and 16 surgical lancets in 16 hours.
No wonder birds can handle grain well while we can't!
Whole meal cereals and other seeds have in their shells phytic acid which strongly binds to minerals like calcium, iron, zinc and magnesium to form insoluble salts, phytates. It is well known that whole meal cereals by this mechanism decrease the absorption of such minerals. There is apparently no adaptation to a habitual high intake of phytic acid which is an important contributing cause of iron deficiency in third world countries and possibly in the western world. It is also an important cause of mineral deficiency in vegetarians. A large percentage of Indian women are deficient in iron and this is probably due to the predominance of grains in our diet. The most commonly studied minerals are bound to phytic acid possibly in the following decreasing order: calcium > iron > zinc > magnesium. Not even rats seem to be fully adapted to graminivorous diets since phytate adversely affects mineral absorption in them as well .
So much for grains in general, lets look at wheat in particular. The gluten in wheat is causes serious problems to several people - celiacs in particular (people who suffer from gluten intolerance) approximately 30% of the population. Even others have serious and multifarous problems with gluten - visit http://www.gluten-free.org/hoggan/ or
http://www.panix.com/~donwiss/reichelt.html to see for yourself the effects of gluten.
Some people even say that wheat is a cause for autism and austistic children do well on a gluten-free diet. Further reading regarding wheat and gluten problems are in the links section alongside.
Sensory and Gustatory appeal
A food suitable for a particular species will have appeal to the senses of the creature. Animals too instinctively know what food is good for them and they find it tasty in its raw form. Grains fail this test as nobody can find raw grains palatable. Even after cooking them we find that they do not cater to our taste buds, sense of smell etc. A wide variety of vegetables, condiments, spices and sauces need to be added to make us able to eat and enjoy cooked grain.
Grains are difficult to digest
Birds can handle grains easily we can't. Even after cooking, the complex carbohydrates need to be broken down substantially before they become simple sugars that can be absorbed by the body. Humans unfortunately have only one relatively weak starch splitting enzyme, pytalin or amylase, whereas other herbivores have five to six of them. Grains take upto 4 hours or more in the stomach to be digested. Fruits on the other hand take less than 30 minutes.
Grains are not efficiently digested
Grains are typically washed down our throats with liquids and sauces. Any liquid with the grain results in the suspension of secretion of salivary amylase. So starch digestion in the mouth is hindered leaving the job entirely to the stomach.
There too there are problems caused by the combinations in which grain is eaten. Chicken curry with rice, rice with dal, bread with cheese etc are commonly consumed foods. These protein /starch combinations present peculiar problems to the digestive system since proteins require an acidic medium to digest and starches and carbohydrates require an alkaline medium. When both are eaten togeth
As a result, less than 50% of the caloric value of the grains is available to the body , after deducting the expenditure of energy required to digest it. On the other hand, fruits for example yield over 90% of their fuel values, net-net.
Grains are Acidic
Since the human body has to maintain it's alkalinity to survive, it thrives best on alkaline foods. Grains (with the exception of millet) are acidic in reaction. On the other hand, fruits and veggies are alkaline
Refined grains are not Vitamin sufficient
Whole grain (whole wheat, unpolished rice) do have a fair complement of vitamins, but very few people eat whole grains. The majority have refined industrially processed grains (white polished rice, white flour or maida). Almost all the vitamins are lost in this process when the grain is stripped of its vitamin-rich coverings/bran.
Whatever vitamins are left are likely to be destroyed/leached away by cooking especially if the cooking water is thrown away. Most vitamins are heat sensitive anyway
All of the above points apply in general to lentils too except for the gluten problems.
Action Points What we can do:
Grains are not an ideal food for humans and should form a small part of your dietary, if at all. We are not suggesting eliminating grains from the diet entirely. Rather,
- Try to reduce the quantity of grain in your diet. Go for smaller portions or rice or bread and larger portions of vegetables
- Have a large raw salad as the first part of your meal. Then have some rice or bread with lots cooked vegetables. This will help reduce the quantity of grains you are consuming
- Try and get organically grown grains at least you will not have to deal with pesticide problems
- Go for whole grain rather than refined brown rice rather than white, wholewheat bread rather than white bread. When a grain is refined or polished, most of the nutrients, vitamins, minerals etc are lost in the husk during the refining or polishing process. The whole grain is much more healthy to have. White rice, white bread are "empty foods" with almost nothing but carbohydrates and calories
- Jawar, Bajra (millet) and corn are better alternatives to rice and wheat. You can make breads out of these as well.