By now most of us know that whole grains are important sources of nutrients and soluble fiber, but did you also know that so-called “ancient” grains—grains that have been cultivated for over 3,000 years, are also inexpensive, easy to prepare, and many are gluten-free? Grains like wheat, corn, oats, and rice are the most popular on the market, but ancient grains are making a comeback. Now available in many specialty health food stores like Wegmans and Whole Foods, these delicious grains offer more of a variety of tastes, textures, and nutrients.
In addition, many ancient grains such as quinoa are high in protein, and when paired with beans (another inexpensive food) they form a complete protein. Throw some water or broth, your choice of grain, and some beans into a pan, rice-cooker, or Crock Pot and you can prepare several nutrient-rich meals without spending nearly as much as you would for meat or greasy takeout food.
The following are just a few of the ancient grains that are easy to find in packages at most grocery stores and in bulk foods sections of health food stores:
Found in the Andes Mountains of Bolivia, Chile, and Peru, quinoa means "mother grain" in Inca. Quinoa is a complete protein, meaning it has all nine essential amino acids, which have been shown to improve muscle quality and regulate hormone production. It's also a great source of high-quality protein (8 g per serving), fiber, and riboflavin, thiamin, and niacin, potassium, and phosphorous. A versatile, delicious grain, quinoa can easily substitute for rice and couscous in recipes, or serve it with fresh veggies
Barley is a rich, bulky grain originally from Ethiopia and Southwest Asia. A nutrient dense food, barley is high in fiber, B vitamins, iron, copper, manganese, and selenium. Barley is also low in calories and not as starchy as pasta and rice. Before cooking, always rinse barley thoroughly and use 3 cups of water for every cup of barley.
Millet is a small, whole grain food that is a staple grain in many Asian and African countries. A cup of millet has just 207 calories, 6 g of protein, and 2 g of fiber. It's also cholesterol-free and only has 3 mg of sodium per serving. Millet is also gluten-free. Quick to brown in a frying pan or pot, millet can be mixed with seasoned veggies and/or beans.
Buckwheat groats, also called kasha, are hulled grains from the buckwheat plant often found in Eastern Europe and Russia. Buckwheat is low in fat and contains niacin, vitamin B6, riboflavin thiamin, magnesium, copper, phosphorous, iron, and zinc. It also contains all essential amino acids, making it a complete protein which helps with muscle-building. Add cooked buckwheat to salads, use it as a side dish, or add fruit and honey for a healthy oatmeal alternative.
A great alternative to rice or couscous and often used in soups and salads, bulgur is a grain often used in Middle Eastern cuisine. It's made from hard red wheat and sometimes softer, white wheat. Bulgur is high in fiber (18.3 g per serving) and manganese. It also contains niacin, iron, and vitamin B6. Quick and easy to cool, bulgur can blend easily with toasted nuts (walnuts, pine nuts, pecans), berries, or veggies to make a healthy side dish.
One of the world's oldest grains, amaranth is a South American grain that can be used in place of rice. Gluten- and wheat-free, amaranth is high in protein (9 g per cup) and amino acids like lysine, cysteine, and methionine, which aren't found in as high concentrations in other grains. A single serving of amaranth has vitamin C, iron, and calcium. Cook amaranth in water or chicken stock with vegetables for dinner. It's nutty, malty taste also makes it a perfect choice for breakfast when blended with nuts, dried fruit, and milk.
Finally, some other ancient grains worth experimenting with are: farro, spelt, wheat berries, kamut, teff, and polenta. In this recessionary era of increasing food prices, these ancient botanical miracles deserve to be RE-recognized as inexpensive, unprocessed, nutrient-rich, AND delicious ways to stay lean and healthy!
Guest Blogger and Fitness Enthusiast