By James Collier BSc (Hons), RNutr Nutrition Consultant
The various cereals and grains get mixed reviews from bodybuilders and ‘health experts’. Indeed, starchy carbohydrates as a whole can be maligned in some diets. This is unnecessary in most cases as there are huge nutritional benefits from consuming cereals which we’ll briefly look at here. This article is not meant to be an in-depth examination of the cereals; more a brief read to serve as information as to what cereals are available, their nutritional attributes and in what form we consume them.
Cereals are derived from the seeds of domesticated members of the Graminae family and have been described as one of the most important staple foods in the human diet: their cheap price and hardiness to extreme weather conditions means they form the basis of many diets across the Developing World. Wheat and rice are the most abundant crops world wide and account of over 50% of the world’s cereal production.
Cereals and cereal products are important sources of energy, carbohydrate, protein, fibre, vitamin E, some B vitamins, sodium, magnesium, zinc and other micronutrients. Furthermore, it has been claimed that cereals and cereal products may also contain a number of other bioactive substances and phytonutrients. Moreover, there is a link to the consumption of wholegrains as a protective factor in some diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and colorectal cancer.
Their main role in human diets is as a major contributor to carbohydrate and energy intake. For this it’s important to be aware of the glycaemic index (GI). GI measures the reaction of the blood glucose levels to consuming a carb-containing food when compared with glucose, which has a GI of 100. Low GI foods are slowly digested and provide a more sustained influx of energy and high GI foods are quickly digested for a rapid influx of glucose. For full GI information please see these Glycaemic Index Tables.
Barley (Hordeum spp)
Barley has a nutlike flavour and an appealing chewy, pasta-like consistency as a result of its gluten content. It originated from Ethiopia and Southeast Asia and was introduced to the UK in the 17th Century and has been part of our diet every since.
Barley is a great source of starchy carbohydrate and it has a low GI. This infers that barley may help regulate blood glucose levels; however, it has been indicated that individuals have different post prandial responses to many carbohydrate foods.
Barley is also rich in beta glucan. Beta glucans are the type of soluble fibre linked to reducing cholesterol as well have having benefits to the digestive system. Beta glucans are fermented in the gut by our microflora and butyric acid is produced. This short chain fatty acid serves as fuel for the colonocytes (the cells of the colon) and helps to maintain a healthy colon; there’s a link between barley and colon cancer prevention.
Barley is a useful cereal for the fitness enthusiast as a source of slow releasing carbohydrate. Ideal for sustained energy throughout the day and the pre-workout meal. However, it should be avoided completely by those who are gluten intolerant.
Buckwheat is a less commonly eaten cereal, mainly only purchased from health food stores. Actually, buckwheat is not strictly a ‘cereal, more precisely a pseudocereal: broadleaf plants whose seeds can be ground into flour or flakes and used like cereals. Buckwheat is a good alternative to those who avoid gluten from wheat, rye, barley and oats and want to increase the variety of carbs in their diet.
Buckwheat is consumed as flakes which are an alternative breakfast cereal; the flour is used in recipes including pancakes as types of Japanese noodles. It’s a great starchy carb alternative and worth trying.
Maize/Corn (Zea mays)
The maize plant is the principle plant source of food in America and was relatively unknown prior to the 1490s. The younger maize plant is consumed in the West as breakfast cereals (e.g. cornflakes), popcorn and savoury snacks, or in the Developing World as a staple as meiliemeal / cornmeal which is ground dried maize. It’s also consumed in Italy as polenta. In cookery cornstarch is a popular ingredients as a thickening agent. The older plant is eaten fresh in the form of sweetcorn as a vegetable accompaniment.
Nutritionally, maize supplies a deal of good nutrition: it’s high in starchy carbohydrates, vitamin E, B-vitamins, protein (up to 9g per 100g in some varieties) and antioxidants. The GI of younger maize plant foods is lower than that of sweetcorn, so if maize is consumed for its carbohydrate qualities, consume maize products; though I do not want to discourage the consumption of sweetcorn as it’s an excellent source of nutrition, but think of it more as a vegetable rather than a starchy carb.
Millets include the grains of several species of cereals (Elucine coracana, Pennisetum typhoideum and others) cultivated in the tropics. Millet species were readily eaten in prehistoric times, but are rarely eaten now apart from as millet flour being a cookery ingredient and as an alternative staple in some less developed regions of the world. Millet grains are dehusked before being ground to flour. Millet products would not be a practical choice for bodybuilders as they are not convenient to be incorporated into meals or snacks.
Oats (Avena sativa)
Oats are one of the bodybuilding staples. They were domesticated in Europe around 3,000 years ago: their ancestors were weeds that grew within the cultivated field of various other crops. They were part of the Bronze Age diet, but then fell out of ‘fashion’ and became horse feed for 100s of years before finding their way back onto human plates.
It’s no secret that oats provide a lot nutritionally and they should be encouraged as part of any bodybuilder’s or fitness enthusiast’s diet, indeed they make a worthy contribution to the nutrition of anyone concerned about good health. A 100g serving of oats contains less than 1g of saturated fat, and it’s rich in protein, iron, B vitamins, beta glucan and has around 66g carbohydrate. They are a low GI food and are famed for their cholesterol-lowering quality which comes primarily from the beta glucan with 0.75mg per serving. Again, through their beta glucan content, oats have been show to help satiety and may help weight control. There is also evidence indicating that oats, both though beta glucans and antioxidants, exhibit anti-inflammatory, anti-proliferative and anti-itching activity as well as being immune boosting against bacteria, fungi and parasites through enhancing the immune response.
Oats are consumed as porridge (oatmeal), in muesli, flapjacks, oat biscuits (oatcakes) and in a range of recipes. Bodybuilders can also consume raw oats or milled oats in their supplement drinks as a high quality but cheap carbohydrate powder.
There are different forms of oats:
- Rolled oats: Cultivated oats are first dehusked to remove a very tough and silicified husk, and then usually rolled to split the grain. This gives us what we know as raw rolled oats, the more familiar presentation which we use in porridge or oatmeal, in muesli or as an ingredient in foods. You’ll notice instant oats in the shops which are thin pre-cooked rolled oats for instant cereals which may have been milled into smaller flakes.
- Oat groats: these are minimally processed and only the outer hull is removed. They’re very nutritious but are chewy and need to be soaked and cooked for a long time. It is from groats that rolled oats are formed.
- Steel-cut oats: these are also known as Irish or Scotch oats, and are groats which have been cut into smaller pieces and are chewier than rolled oats. They are often preferred for hot oatmeal cereals and muesli. Oats can also be milled into oat flour which in cookery is not as versatile as wheat flour, but is an alternative for some recipes.
It doesn’t really matter which types of oats you include in your diet, just make sure you include foods which are based on oats.
Pronounced kwee-nah, this cereal grain is relatively new to the UK, originating from Peru. Quinoa is a pseudocereal and is very nutritious and has significant health benefits. It is also gluten-free meaning is can be consumed by coeliacs and those who chose to exclude gluten from their diets.
Quinoa is very high in carbohydrate and is a low GI food with all the associated benefits; it is also high in antioxidants. It is an underutilised bodybuilding nutrition resource.
Rice (Oryza sativa)
Not only is rice another big bodybuilding staple, it is, in fact, one of the most important crops in the world. There are many types of rice: long, medium and short grain, basmati, Arborio, wild rice, brown rice, polished rice and flaked rice. It is also available as rice flour. Rice is the predominant staple food for 17 countries in Asia and the Pacific, 9 countries in North and South America and 8 countries in Africa, and rice provides 20% of the worlds energy supply. The largest producer is, rather unsurprisingly, China.
Nutritionally rice is perfect as a bodybuilder staple: high in starchy carbs, contains a reasonable amount of protein – with eight of the essential amino acids – next to no fat and is low sodium: perfect as a pre-contest carb loader. Rice is also gluten-free, easily digested and is suitable for people with a high susceptibility to food intolerance or allergies.
Brown or unpolished rice has five times more vitamin E, three times more magnesium and higher levels of most B vitamins than white rice, especially niacin which is all but lost in white rice.
Wild rice is the seed of aquatic grass and has twice the protein and fibre of brown rice as well as being higher in antioxidants, but less calcium and iron. However, wild rice is difficult to harvest which bumps up its price and reduces its availability.
Basmati rice originated from the foothills of the Himalayas and is a long grain rice. Basmati rice elongates when cooked staying as separate grains because of its non-glutinous nature. There are, in fact, several different commercial strains of basmati; however they are all packaged under the name of basmati, although you may find the individual type of grain listed. Be wary of packets that list ‘Super Kernel’ as a single variety. These are actually two separate varieties ‘Super’ and ‘Kernel’, and the Food Standards Agency does not permit the use of ‘super kernel’ as a variety name. Basmati rice is a great choice for cooking because of its distinct aroma and nutty taste, also because it retains its texture when cooked and doesn’t clump or go starchy like other varieties. This grainy texture gives basmati a medium to low glycaemic (GI) rating; however the greatest nutritional asset of basmati rice is that it requires so little processing before it reaches the dinner plate, meaning that it retains much of its nutritional value. Basmati rice is a particularly good source of iron, thiamine, niacin and selenium. A 200g serving comes with 205kcals made up of 4.2g of protein and 44g of carbohydrate.
The product we know as white rice is not how the rice is grown; to get white rice you have to remove the germ, bran and husk, then mill and polish the grain. The end result is the shiny white grain which is known as white or polished rice. The removed products have very little use today; at one time the husk was used to polish precious gem stones. We have evidence of rice cultivation from around 5000BC, and we have descriptions of beriberi – the disease that results from a deficiency of Vitamin B1 (thiamine) – which date from around 2500BC indicating the period when we started polishing rice. Removing the husk, germ and bran of the rice, then milling and polishing is a process that robs the rice of much of its original nutritional profile; in terms of vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and the like, white rice is a comparative nutritional desert. This is why bodybuilders tend to avoid it. White rice can be fortified to add back the nutrients lost in production; however, nothing beats the original and best version: as it grows.
Rye (Secale cereale)
Rye is a les commonly eaten cereal by bodybuilders, but is fairly popular in the Western diet. Rye grows wild in regions around Turkey and was first consumed in the Bronze Age.
Humans consume it as rye bread, rye crispbread (e.g. Ryvita), rye flour or as rolled rye (similar to that of rolled oats. Rye products are a great inclusion in the fitness diet as they are micronutrient-packed and low GI as well as being quick and convenient carbohydrate snack sources.
Sorghum (Sorghum vulgare)
Sorghum, although relatively unheard of in the West (unless you’re a beer and ale connoisseur!), is actually a staple in many parts of Africa where it is resistant to drought conditions. The grain is round and the seed coat is rich in antioxidants. It is milled to a flour and then made into simple recipes for basic foods. Sorghum wouldn’t be a logical choice for a bodybuilder.
Wheat is the most abundant cereal in the UK today and all present varieties are derived from hybrid wheat which grew in the Middle East 10,000 years ago; over 30,000 varieties are said to be in cultivation.
The wheat grain is a heterogeneous structure with many bioactive compounds: fibres, micronutrients and phytochemicals. Health benefits of wheat depend on both the variety which is consumed and how the wheat product is prepared. Often baking, including bread, destroys some of the micronutrients and the bran; however, increasing dough fermentation and baking time may actually increase the bioavailability of some of the micronutrients.
The Western diet contains is typically abundant in wheat including breakfast cereals, bread, bread products, cakes, biscuits, pasta, pizza and couscous. The different varieties of wheat give rise to different levels of hardness and this allows different types to have different culinary uses. Pasta is a popular bodybuilders’ food and is based on a variety of wheat which is very hard, i.e. durum wheat; softer varieties are used more in baking cakes and different types of bread products.
Wheat aleurone is a fairly new discovery; this wheat grain fraction ferments in the human gut and induces apoptosis in cancer cells which may protect against colon cancer. Wheat aleurone has been shown to increase blood levels of betaine and to reduce homocysteine and LDL cholesterol and may be associated with reduced heart disease risk and improved cardiovascular health.
Wheat has been a staple in the Western diet for 100s of years, yet more recently it has received negative publicity from alternative ‘health’ sectors that seemed hell-bent on giving it a bad rap. This is undue because, unless you suffer from coeliac disease, dermatitis herpetiformis or genuine wheat allergy, then wheat is an excellent source of energy and nutrition and ideal in a bodybuilding diet.