Commonsense eating: grains of energy.

loaf.JPGThere’s nothing so controversial these days as a loaf of bread.

Is it the staff of life?

The harbinger of fat?

A miracle of fermentation?

A veritable gluten-laced poison?

Are grains even fit for human consumption? How can we untangle this mess?

Humans are omnivores. We eat all kinds of food. We eat animals, we eat plants. And we eat the seeds of plants.

Something like 10,000 years ago, humans in various parts of the world developed an intimate relationship with grass plants. We began to cultivate them (or they began to cultivate us) for the sake of their energy-rich seeds.* In Mexico, the grass was corn (maize). In Turkey, wheat and barley. In China and India, rice.

Elaborate food cultures grew up around these grass seeds. In South India, rice is ground and fermented to make dosas and idlis. In Mexico, corn is soaked and simmered with lime or wood ash to make nixtamal for tortillas. Traditional Turkish flatbread is made with a long-fermented sourdough. Each culture revered its central grain, often as a goddess. Think of Ceres/Demeter in the Mediterranean, the Aztec Chicomecoatl. In South India, Lakshmi is associated with rice.

Sounds perfectly lovely, doesn’t it? So why are people worried about grains?

Well, first of all, we don’t seem to revere grains much these days. We used to grind them between two stones; now it’s high temperature, high speed steel roller mills (goodbye enzymes and vitamins). We used to eat whole or roughly polished grains; now our industrial machinery can remove every “extraneous” bit of fiber and color. We used to soak and ferment our grains; now we don’t have time for that sort of thing.

Complex traditional recipes have been supplanted by industrial processes. There’s a serious difference between packaged “sourdough” bread (whipped up in a matter of minutes with rapid rise yeast and a dash of vinegar) and the real thing, which needs a full day or two of fermentation before baking. There’s a serious difference between a bag of “tortilla” chips (ground up corn fried in vegetable oil) and tortillas made from real nixtamal, fried in natural lard.

Those old slow recipes weren’t backwards technology. The old processes make the food more digestible, the nutrients more accessible. (Oh, and they make the food taste better too.)

So, we eat all our grains the old-fashioned way and we’ll be fine, right?

Not quite so fast.

Grains are a high-energy (carbohydrate) food, but they don’t give us too much in the way of protein, fats, minerals and vitamins. Most of us use a lot less energy than our ancestors did. (How many of your ancestors sat around staring at an inanimate object all day?)

A diet too heavy on grains can leave us swimming in energy, but still hungry for the nutrients we’re missing. That doesn’t work out so well. Eat a high-energy, low-nutrient diet for long enough, and you’ll end up depleted and insulin-resistant. Trust me, you don’t want that.

So what’s to be done?

First, remember what I said before: The food that’s good for one person isn’t necessarily good for another person. Any “advice” I give is to be taken with your own personal salt shaker.**

That said, here’s my take on the grain situation:

1. Always eat grains with more nutrient-dense foods. (Butter your bread!)

2. If you don’t lead an active life, don’t eat too much grain.

3. Respect your ancestors — eat traditionally prepared grain foods.

4. Avoid highly processed grain-based “food products” (fat-free / low-fat crackers and chips are the worst).


Feel like baking some lovely old-fashioned bread now? Jim Lahey’s recipe (as told by Mark Bittman) is the best place to start. It’s exceedingly simple, you don’t have to knead anything, and it makes incredible, crusty, flavorful bread. All you need is a heavy, oven-safe pot. (The recipe uses white flour, but you can use whole-grain. I’d start with a mix of half and half, though, at least until you get the hang of it.)

Don’t forget the butter!

* Here’s a summary of the various theories about how and why humans started farming. The latest (and my favorite) suggests co-evolution of humans and plants, each adapting to the needs of the other. (And yes, I know, grains are technically fruits rather than seeds. I just like to call them seeds — it’s more poetic, somehow.)

** In my work as an herbalist, I’ve come across people who are so sensitive to carbohydrates that they can’t eat any grain at all, even old-fashioned grain. These people find that even a small serving of grain puts them on a blood sugar roller-coaster that leads to weight gain and all sorts of health problems. How do you know if you’re one of these people? Try it out. Stop eating grains (and sweets) for a while. See how you feel.

(Geeky aside: I have noticed that many of these highly carbohydrate-sensitive people were bottle-fed babies. I think there might be a connection. Here’s a bit of rat-research food for thought.)


  1. El said,

    January 23, 2008 @ 11:49 am

    I’m glad you agree home-baked whole-grain bread is just as great as life can be; that, and a huge pat of butter! I’ve been making a variation of this recipe 2x a week for over a year now…but then, Lahey was a client of ours so I kind of knew what he was up to.

    There’s a very approachable book out there about the rise of human culture (and the harnessing of plants and animals along the way) by Jared Diamond called Guns, Germs and Steel. Granted, it’s a bit dire, but it is fascinating to understand why the wild ass was tamed but the zebra was not; how wheat was cultivated from a fluky bit of grass, etc. I’m not sure if you know the book or not but…I go down the geek path too is all!

  2. Persephone said,

    January 23, 2008 @ 12:28 pm

    Just to be difficult ;), I’ll let you know that I was breastfed til I was two, when my mother says I self weaned- she started solids on the recommended schedule for 1982 though, so… who knows? (And I was never supplemented- my mother tells me I refused bottles and pacifiers) And I’m without a doubt insulin resistant- which you know from reading my posts/blog. *sigh* I hope it doesn’t come down to grain free- I love making homemade bread, and was really looking forward to experimenting with sourdoughs.

  3. jim mcdonald said,

    January 23, 2008 @ 12:38 pm

    jim bows low and humbly ackowledges a nice piece of writing that both offers a beautifully presented insight into grains and thickens the plot as to what to think about them.

  4. crabappleherbs said,

    January 23, 2008 @ 1:31 pm

    El — I haven’t read Guns, Germs and Steel, though I’ve heard a lot about it. And the Lahey recipe — it makes me so happy that it’s made good bread available to so many people!

    Persephone — You’re not being difficult! I definitely don’t think that all insulin resistance is related to formula-feeding. It’s much too common and complicated for that. It’s just a geeky thought I’ve been having, and that bit of research was intriguing (though, of course, since it was rat research, it’s only vaguely suggestive of what might be going on with humans).

    jim — Rebecca bows low and humbly acknowledges that this compliment comes from someone who knows what’s what.

  5. Kiva Rose said,

    January 23, 2008 @ 1:34 pm

    Nicely said Rebecca….

    though I too was a completely breast fed baby, and ended up about as insulin resistant as one can get… meaning I can’t eat any bread, not any, without having all kind of problems and instant weight gain… and I live with the woman who is possibly the world’s best baker, such a shame 🙁

    But I can drink cream by the quart and not gain a pound… it seems like the strangest thing… I’m almost finished with Good Calories Bad Calories, and I’ll be posting a similar (but completely different) kind of post on the subject soon….

    Who knew grains could become such celebrities? LOL

  6. Whitney said,

    January 23, 2008 @ 2:51 pm

    Hello! I really enjoy your blog and have taken advantage of some of your wonderful teas lately as we’ve been sick with a nasty virus.

    I have two questions:
    – my chicken stock hasn’t gelled lately, but then when I made it into soup with veggies sauteed in coconut oil and chicken meat the leftovers did gel…any idea what’s up with that?
    – what kind of pot did you use for that beautiful loaf? I use the same recipe, but since it rises in the pot while cooking the sides are stiff.


  7. crabappleherbs said,

    January 23, 2008 @ 3:12 pm

    Kiva — I’m glad you’re reading Gary Taubes’s book. I’m going to post on fats soon, too, and I’ll be talking about it then. Insulin resistance is such an interesting (and terribly relevant!) topic… I’m really looking forward to your post! (I probably shouldn’t have posted my formula-feeding idea, but I have a hard time resisting geeky speculation sometimes.)

    Whitney — I’d guess that the chicken stock in your soup cooked down a bit, so the gelatin was more concentrated. As for the bread, I actually don’t bake mine in a pot — I put it directly on the pizza stone in my oven and cover it with a big heavy stoneware lid for the first half hour of baking. (The lid is the bell-shaped top half of a baking “cloche” — the bottom half broke a while ago.)

  8. Kiva Rose said,

    January 23, 2008 @ 3:50 pm

    I think the geeky speculation is great, as it’s often what leads us to finding patterns…

    Yep, the insulin resistance is changing the entire way we practice, and think, and live… so bears a lot of talking about… I’m glad you’ve tackled so much of it too, as you’re so clear and practical about it all.

  9. crabappleherbs said,

    January 23, 2008 @ 7:06 pm

    Thanks, Kiva. There are many so posts on the subject that I’d love to write. One thing at a time…

  10. Kiva Rose said,

    January 24, 2008 @ 5:04 pm

    So, a question…. in your post you recommend that people eat nutrient dense foods with carbs, which i understand, but you specifically say butter with bread. and it was my understanding from reading taubes that obesity is worst when there is a high fat/high carb diet… and that this is even how traditional peoples sometimes makes themselves incredibly fat. he seemed to infer that adding sugar like products to milk products was the most common way of doing this, but in other cases just any high carb/high fat ratio would do.

    What’s your thought on that? It SEEMS like butter with bread would be more satiating and certainly more nutritious, but could it lead to further obesity or insulin resistance?

  11. kate said,

    January 24, 2008 @ 5:45 pm

    I have a question too then. There seems to be less differentiation now between whole grains and refined carbs, at least in insulin resistance or obesity conversations. Does ‘high carb’ now mean any grain? Would wholegrain bread and butter be considered high carb/high fat? Oatmeal and butter or cream?

    Thinking about that though, I do experience a big difference between bread and cooked whole grains. I put on weight if I eat cheese and commercial wholegrain bread but I don’t if I eat oatmeal and butter. My bread eating is pretty sporadic (not a staple), whereas I eat porridge most days. I don’t know if it’s something about the commercial process involved in the bread (although it’s from a small bakery), or the fact that it’s made from flour. Probably both but I wonder if grinding grain to flour makes it higher carb even when it’s wholemeal?

    I often don’t feel satiated if I don’t eat grain eg if I have beans, fat and veges I need rice or corn as well. I’m not sure yet if that is because I’m habituated to carbs or really need them.

  12. crabappleherbs said,

    January 24, 2008 @ 7:00 pm

    Kiva — I think “high carb” is the key word (phrase?) in your question. I don’t suggest people eat a high-carbohydrate diet. I think traditional-style grains in moderation, balanced by other nutritious foods, are not going to contribute to the development of insulin resistance in someone who is not already on that path. (Remember, the folks that Gary Taubes talks about in that section were overfeeding on purpose to try to get as fat as possible.) I definitely don’t recommend a high-carbohydrate, low-fat diet — that’s a recipe for disaster, as I (and I’m sure you too) have seen in many clients. I suppose your question boils down to whether all grains cause insulin resistance. It’s possible that may be the case for certain (genetically?) susceptible people, but I certainly don’t think it’s true for everyone.

    Kate — The difference between whole / traditional grains and refined carbohydrates has been lost because both score high on the glycemic index. I specifically did not mention the glycemic index in this post because it’s notoriously inconsistent. The GI values you see on charts are averages. The very same food, fed to two different people, can have a completely different glycemic effect. So I think people really have to figure it out for themselves, for their own bodies. It seems like you’re working on that, with your understanding that bread and oats affect you differently. I don’t know enough about your bread to say, but most commercial bread, even from small bakeries, is not long-fermented — it’s basically baked flour, and it does tend to have a very sharp effect on blood sugar.

  13. Persephone said,

    January 24, 2008 @ 7:14 pm

    Oh, PLEASE don’t stop posting geeky speculations! 🙂

  14. crabappleherbs said,

    January 24, 2008 @ 7:24 pm

    Thanks, Persephone!

  15. Kiva Rose said,

    January 24, 2008 @ 7:25 pm

    I meant high-carb foods (like grains) rather than a high carb diet as a whole.

    I guess that yes, it does boil down to whether or not carbs of any kind cause negative side effects in ALL people regardless of whether they are obese and show symptoms of insulin resistance. But I also just wondered if eating a high carb food (bread) with a high fat food (butter) would lead to weight gain or health problems in a normal person?

    Yes, the indigenous people in that example were certainly making themselves obese on purpose, but Taubes seemed to cite that combo as a deadly mix for many people, inferring that it made it easier to eat more, period.

  16. crabappleherbs said,

    January 24, 2008 @ 7:41 pm

    I certainly don’t think it’s a good idea to eat high-carbohydrate foods on their own — that can cause serious blood sugar swings. Blood sugar swings cause insulin spikes and insulin spikes cause blood sugar crashes and blood sugar crashes cause desperate hunger and desperate hunger causes carbohydrate eating etc. etc. etc. I think that’s true for most (all?) people. Eating butter on the bread blunts the blood sugar effect and prevents the cycle from starting. (Unless, of course, the person in question is highly carbohydrate-sensitive.)

    So your question is really whether grains are bad for everyone. I don’t think so. Almost everyone in our culture eats grains. Not everyone is insulin resistant. Not everyone has trouble with their weight.

    I’ll have to go back to that section of the Taubes book to see what he was saying. I do remember thinking he was going off into some very speculative territory in a couple of places, but I can’t remember if that was one.

  17. crabappleherbs said,

    January 24, 2008 @ 8:06 pm

    I’ve started a thread on insulin resistance on the herbwifery forum. Maybe we can bring all sorts of people into the discussion there.

  18. jim mcdonald said,

    January 25, 2008 @ 9:50 am

    I’d rather banter about geeky speculation than fact any day of the week. Not that facts aren’t very important, but talking about facts rarely leads to the revelations that geeky speculation does…

  19. jim mcdonald said,

    January 25, 2008 @ 9:54 am

    Oh… and the relationship between facts and truth is far overstated anyway. There’s certainly more truth in myth than history. I’ve found in teaching that I can better help people understand by telling stories, using analogies and metaphors, and asking open ended questiosn without answers than i could dream of by yacking about factual details.

    When we seek to understand music and its effect, are we well served by assessing the mathematics of the vibrations created? By the physical structure of the instruments? Or by the response evoked?

    Hmm… maybe I should revamp referring to what I do as “speculative herbalism”…

  20. Jan S. said,

    January 25, 2008 @ 10:31 am

    Wow. Great post, great discussion and is that a beautiful looking loaf or what? From my own experience with grains, all I know is when I am doing lots of running and buring lots of calories my appetite for granola and good breads takes off. When my activitly level is lower I tend not to crave carbs nearly as much. Perhaps my body knows what its doing- back to that theme of “paying attention” and trusting one’s appetite.

    Thanks for all the info. and a great discussion. You folks are all amazing.

  21. Kiva Rose said,

    January 25, 2008 @ 10:45 am

    And let’s not forget that it’s not just carbs that the body uses as energy (as is commonly though) but also fat and protein.

  22. Jan S. said,

    January 25, 2008 @ 2:07 pm

    Exactly, but my guess is that as to the balance of how much of each any of us need under different conditions varies a lot from person to person and also varies based on what we are doing. In otherwords, its not so much of question of “bad foods” vs. “good foods” as much a finding a balance. Sometimes I think we live in a world that wants to label everything good or bad and misses the concept of balance.

  23. crabappleherbs said,

    January 25, 2008 @ 5:33 pm

    jim — I love it! I think you should found the “Institute for Speculative Herbalism.” We can all come and sit around the fire and speculate together… it would be spectacular!

    Kiva — Yes, bodies are incredibly adaptable. And also different — some people are better at using certain foods for energy than other people. (Do I sound like a broken record yet?)

    Jan — And the funny thing about all that good and bad labeling is that (aside from some really egregious examples — I think I named a lot of them a post on “bad food” a while ago) “good” and “bad” are really individual terms. And contextual. Is it good for your body in general? Is it good for your body today? That’s why I have such a hard time making sweeping pronouncements about nutrition.

  24. Jan S. said,

    January 26, 2008 @ 8:21 am

    I will, of course, agree with you that chemicals, processing and how food is treated can destory it’s nutritional value and in some cases render it toxic, – so from that standpoint one can have “bad” food, but I would argue (and this may be semantics) when you do that to “food” it ceases to be “food”. Perhaps call it IBMHC – an industrial byproduct marketed for human consumption (Crisco comes to mind from one of your previous posts). I suppose you could call Crisco a “bad food” but I would prefer not to call it food at all. Lard on the other hand, to use a counter example, has been labeled a “bad food” but (now that you have educated me about it) I understand that if you get pure lard from heathly animals its just another animal fat with a place in a balanced diet. What I get here is that my “balanced diet” may not be yours or anyone elses’. I think there is a wonderful kind of freedom in that- about respecting how different we can be and how different our needs can be.

  25. crabappleherbs said,

    January 26, 2008 @ 3:38 pm

    Hmmm, yes, it might be more clear just to talk about “food” and “not food” rather than “good food” and “bad food.”

  26. Sally said,

    January 27, 2008 @ 9:20 am

    Came here through Tammy’s Food on the Food – glad I did! Been reading through some of your posts. I like! BTW – Joe Pastry (over at has been discussing leavenings lately. I think you might find him interesting. I’ll be back 🙂

  27. Persephone said,

    January 27, 2008 @ 11:23 am

    Ok, but I have a hard time imagining a CAFO chicken as NOT food simply because of how it was grown, as opposed to a pastured chicken.I mean, it’s clearly not the ideal choice, but not food at all? And what about foods that work for one person, but not another? If I have Celiac, and wheat could make me extremely ill, it’s clearly not food for me- but wheat nourishes people the world over.

  28. Jan S. said,

    January 28, 2008 @ 11:03 am

    You make a good point Persephone. From an individual needs perspective, what is good for one person can be toxic to another (such as wheat or nuts or lots of other stuff) so to not call it “food” perhaps does not make sense. And then there is quality: the same type of food can be very nourishing or not so much depending on all sorts of things like how it is grown, how fresh it is and how it is processed. So perhaps my “food/non-food” dichotomy is not really very helpful. Perhaps it is more accurate to see it as spectrum of quality? Sometimes I like to try ideas out on folks which is what I love about this blog. It seems a safe place to do that.

    My this is a long string . . . I guess a loaf of bread can be controversial!

  29. Melissa said,

    January 28, 2008 @ 12:44 pm

    Thank so much for access to a fool-proof bread recipe! I can’t wait to try it, I am off to the store now 🙂

  30. crabappleherbs said,

    January 28, 2008 @ 7:19 pm

    Sally — Thanks! I’ll have to check out the posts on leavening… I’m such a geek about that sort of thing.

    Jan & Persephone — You see how complicated it is! And yes, it does seem that a loaf of bread is controversial. I’m glad we’re talking about it here, though. It’s important for sure.

    Melissa — You’re welcome! Let us know how it goes.

  31. Henriette said,

    January 29, 2008 @ 5:15 am

    Lovely, that no-knead recipe. I made barley bread … yum!

  32. crabappleherbs said,

    January 29, 2008 @ 8:31 am

    Cool, Henriette! How much barley vs. wheat did you use? (I remember when I was little my mother made something called “Tibetan Barley Bread” that was almost more like stiff pudding than bread…)

  33. Henriette said,

    January 29, 2008 @ 8:45 am

    Barley needs more water than wheat, so this is what I used:

    6 dl barley flour
    3 dl coarse whole wheat flour
    1 dl fine whole wheat flour
    6.5 dl water
    2 teaspoons salt
    2 teaspoons fresh yeast
    Mix, let sit for 18 hours, pour onto working surface, fold a few times, let sit for 15 minutes, make a ball, pour that onto a floured towel, cover with the rest of the towel, let sit for 90 minutes, pour into pre-heated form in the oven, shake about a bit, add lid, let sit in 235 deg. oven for 30 minutes, remove lid, let bake for another 15-20 minutes, shake out of form and use something extremely sharp to slice it.
    Works a treat.

  34. Katrina said,

    February 2, 2008 @ 1:17 am

    I was served this bread a year ago but didn’t try making it until reading your blog. And now reading it again you answered my question about using wheat flour. This bread is art. And it’s delicious too. Many thanks.

  35. Caitlin said,

    February 9, 2008 @ 8:04 am

    Hey, 34 comments, wow, and most of them quite erudite…

    So for my contribution:
    I made this loaf twice, added a little more flour the second time and it was just amazing. So easy and incredibly delicious, texture like I’ve never gotten in a home-baked loaf. This will be a regular at our house!

    Love your blog, of course.

  36. Peter said,

    February 9, 2008 @ 11:59 am

    Rebecca, great article on bread. What do you have on coffee cake?

  37. crabappleherbs said,

    February 11, 2008 @ 6:58 pm

    Henriette — Thanks! I’ll have to try it with barley. How fine is your barley flour?

    Katrina — Thanks! I’m glad you tried it.

    Caitlin — I’m so glad it will be a regular in your house! I can’t wait to taste yours…

    Peter — Hmmm, now you’ve got me thinking about coffee cake. There was an apple-based cake that we made earlier in the fall — I’ll have to dig out my notes. (Put another post in the queue…)

  38. Peter said,

    February 13, 2008 @ 2:08 pm

    In anticipation of delicious coffe cake information I chant the sacred Sanscrit syllable from the Upanishads: Yummmm…Yummmm…Yummmm.

  39. crabappleherbs said,

    February 14, 2008 @ 11:03 am

    Classic, Peter. Classic.

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