01.03.2015 Nutrition

In Defence of Grains

Sahaja Coventry suggests Paleo and Macrobiotic diets both gain from eliminating processed and refined foods

I recently came across an online article in The Observer pitting the Macrobiotic diet against the currently popular Paleo diet. The article's subheading was "Diet Wars" and I sighed. I pondered the issue of food choices, fads and trends and how baffling it is for many people these days. I wondered how much our belief in what we eat influences whether it heals or harms. Belief or no belief, when we experience unpleasant or serious physical symptoms, the whole concept of "correct diet" becomes abstract and we desperately seek the right foods, the right practitioners and the right practices to help us feel better.

I understand this very well from my own experience of serious illness after contracting dengue fever in India 20 plus years ago. When I didn't recover, I was lumped into the Chronic Fatigue Syndrome basket and all Western medicine could offer was bed rest. I began to explore what I could do to get my life back.

Intuitively guided, I pulled out some old macrobiotic books. Macrobiotics literally translates to "great life" and was the foundation of the plant-based whole foods, organic movement in the 1960s. It maintains the reputation of the diet for serious health recovery. My mind made the switch that food would now become medicine.

I also resonated with the concepts of finding a path aligned with the Tao, harmony with nature, seasonal eating and balance of yin and yang. This began a journey of self healing with foods and consequently teaching wholefoods since 1995.

A couple of years ago I was sitting in a café in South Fremantle and saw a young student who had spent a few months studying with me. She looked radiant and slim. She was never overweight, just a little excess pudge. Well pudge no more - in waltzed a hottie who I barely recognised. I hadn't seen her for two years and I was surprised. She came over, almost apologetically, to let me know that she discovered the Paleo diet and had dropped all grains from her diet. The weight melted away and she felt great. She had discovered men in this time and had her first boyfriend so, in the spirit of the big picture, I can't exclude that.

Still, it threw me. My beliefs were being challenged. Soon Paleo became the next hot topic in the diet world. Books and teachers came out purporting the harmful effect of grains. At the same time, in my humble kitchen/classroom, I witnessed many of my students going through a four week healing diet, weight falling off them, as well as migraines clearing, digestion healed, body humming in balance. This healing diet excluded all processed foods and refined grain products, maintaining whole grains and vegetables as primary foods. I concluded that we are all unique, no one shoe fits all and in different phases of our lives we are drawn to the diet that can provide the energies needed at the time.

In defense of the grain, which has received such a bad rap lately and yet continues to be a staple food for most of the world, I have my own theories. I remembered my experience of letting go of refined flour products in my early healing diet days and learned to cook and eat whole grains. What a transformation!

The whole grain is a cereal grain that contains the germ, endosperm and bran, in contrast to a refined grain that contains only the endosperm and, through refinement and processing, is turned into flour, cracked, steamed or rolled. The complex sugars take time to break down creating a balanced blood sugar and a calm steady energy, unlike simple carbohydrates or flour products that create blood sugar spikes, tiredness and acidic conditions in the body.

The argument against grains does not seem to make a distinction between a whole grain and the many processed byproducts. This could include breads, biscuits, crackers, cakes, pasta and more. I challenge the people who struggle with grains to experience 30 days off all refined flour products and simple sugars and maintain a daily intake of a whole grain like organic brown rice, millet, quinoa or buckwheat to observe what happens with their energy.

Also important to be aware of is that for thousands of years agricultural societies have cultivated grains from grasses growing abundantly. We have had hundreds of generations to prime our digestion for grains.

The popularity of the Paleo diet, which eliminates all grains from the diet and maintains animal protein and vegetables as the principal foods, is similar to the Macrobiotic diet in that both are advocating a large quantity of vegetables in the daily diet. They both also promote eliminating processed and refined foods, instead eating whole foods as close as possible to how they appear in nature.

For most people making this step, the immediate effects would be huge whether they continue to eat meat or whole grains. The elimination of processed foods is the gift that both diets offer to promote good health.

I like to see the common helpful thread between these diets rather than opposing them and creating war. Lord knows we have enough conflict on our planet at this time. There's no need to project any inner violence onto our daily fare as a way to have something to uphold or fight about.

Regarding a high animal protein consumption, there are two things to consider: one is the high acidity ash that remains after eating proteins. As acid/alkaline information has become so widespread, we all know it is an overly acidic condition in the body that creates aches and pains and degenerative conditions, as well as a negative state of mind. To balance this, it is important to have a high vegetable component, especially daily greens.

The second factor is that high meat consumption can contribute to an imbalance in the environment as entire rain forests are destroyed to grow GMO crops to feed and keep cattle. It's simply not possible to have such a high animal protein consumption and not affect the environment. An important theory behind whole grains is that they are sustainable for feeding our heavily populated planet. Plant a single grain and 10,000 grains result, and with this we can feed the world.

Back to my young friend in the café - I could not deny that she looked and felt fab and if eating meat and vegetables is the reason then who can argue with that? Ultimately, nobody can deny their own experience. If there were one teaching I would shout from the rooftops it's by George Ohsawa, granddaddy of Macrobiotics, "Find out for yourself, don't believe anybody!"

So many things to consider when deciding what diet is right for us! I love the possibility that we can become so in tune with our own body that we simply know. Are we better off without dairy? Do we need more animal protein in our diet to feel grounded and have energy? Do complex carbs give us balance and a calm, steady energy each day?

Another helpful teaching to consider is that what we consume on a daily basis has the most impact on our health, not the occasional treats or a night out with friends. Our daily food has the most power to influence our health one way or the other.

I would love to lose the labels and simply help people find their way back to being natural, being whole. It can be hard to intuitively choose our food until our body has been through a certain amount of detoxification. But when that time comes, hallelujah! We simply know day by day when something needs to be added, something needs to be minimised or avoided for a period of time. Always remembering when it comes to food choices, like life, change is the only constant. Being present in the moment, tuned in to the body signals, one can know when change is required.

Ultimately there is no right and wrong with food - it is all energy. And certain energies are more useful to us than others. I say to my students, let your body/mind become a laboratory and stay aware, experiment and observe. Understanding the balance of yin (expansion) and yang (contraction) with food energetics can be helpful no matter what you eat. Education can also be helpful.

Some people say, "What you do with money you do with your life." I like to expand on that by saying, "What you do with food, you do with your life." If eating is chaotic, life reflects that one way or another. As your being comes into balance and harmony, your choices of food will reflect that. As you move towards fulfilling your own dreams and goals, you will find the best source of fuel to energise those dreams.

Having passed through periods of being "macroneurotic" and swinging to times of "throwing caution to the wind", I have come to one conclusion: self love, self care and a bit of balance and flexibility in our approach is the most important thing. Not to take ourselves too seriously on one hand, but also to address with love and awareness the physical and emotional issues we are facing. Trusting our intuition, trusting ourselves, asking for help when needed, being humble, walking in nature are all things I value. I wish you all a great life.

Enjoy this summer favourite Quinoa Salad & Roasted Veggies

Sahaja Coventry

Sahaja Coventry has been teaching wholefoods/macrobiotics for 23 years and delights in sharing the tools and knowledge that have transformed her life.