The Health Benefits Of 11 Ancient Grains & How To Eat Them
Ancient grains are a group of grains and seed-like grains, called pseudocereals. The crops have been staples in countries around the globe for thousands of years and are still minimally processed.
Compared to modern grains, like rice and pasta, ancient grains tend to have greater health benefits. This is likely because they still contain their nutrient-rich kernel, functional medicine doctor and registered dietitian Elizabeth Boham, M.D., M.S., R.D., explains. "The kernel contains the bran, endosperm, and germ," she says. "These germ and bran are rich in the fiber, minerals, vitamins, and phytochemicals."
One type of phytochemical (phytosterol) helps prevent cholesterol from being absorbed in the gut, Boham say. One study even shows ancient grains may improve cardiovascular health by lowering bad cholesterol.
"The fiber in whole grains also works to slow down the absorption of your food and as a result decreases your blood sugar and insulin spike after a meal," Boham says. "These grains have a lower glycemic load when eaten in their whole form."
In fact, incorporating ancient grains into a modern diet may reduce the risk of overall chronic illness, including type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
High in vitamins, minerals, fiber, and protein, these 11 ancient grains are a healthy way to consume carbohydrates:
Teff is an ancient grain native to North Africa, primarily Ethiopia. It is gluten-free, high in minerals like calcium, and high in fiber, registered dietitian nutritionist Mascha Davis, MPH, RDN, says. "It has a decent amount of protein as well."
Teff works well in porridges, rice pilafs, and gluten-free baked goods, like these sweet teff pancakes.
Freekeh is fun to say and easy to enjoy, according to registered dietitian Carlene Thomas, R.D. The ancient grain has a nutty flavor and cooks quickly (about 15 minutes).
"It is rich in fiber, protein, and minerals," Boham says. In fact, it has more fiber than brown rice and quinoa. "This fiber helps us feel full and satiated," Boham adds.
Thomas particularly likes Bob's Red Mill cracked freekeh, which has about 7 grams of protein per serving. "Batch cook it and add to soups and salads for the addition of fiber and magnesium," she says.
Millet is a cereal grain that resembles a seed. In fact, it's oftentimes used in birdfeed, but that doesn't make it any less nutritious for humans.
According to Boham, millet has 6 grams of protein per serving and is rich in copper, folate, magnesium, and B-complex vitamins, including vitamin B1 (thiamin) and vitamin B3 (niacin).
Millet is slightly sweet in flavor, Thomas says, and it works well in salads or mixed into a whole grain medley with sauteed vegetables.
"Despite having the word wheat in its name, buckwheat is a completely different plant and is 100% gluten-free," registered dietitian Nour Zibdeh, M.S., RDN, tells mindbodygreen. The ancient grain is one of the healthiest carbs you can eat, according to Zibdeh.
"It's not only nutrient-dense but also high in compounds called flavonoids," Davis explains, "which have been shown to reduce inflammation."
Quinoa is a well-known ancient grain that's packed with protein and easy to cook. "It has more protein and fiber than most other grains," Davis says. "Plus it boasts a low glycemic index," making it an especially good choice if you're monitoring your blood sugar levels.
Sorghum is another ancient cereal grain similar to quinoa and is a great option if you're intolerant or allergic to gluten. Boham tells us it's rich in vitamin B1 (thiamin), vitamin B3 (niacin), iron, calcium, and fiber.
"You can actually pop it like popcorn," Thomas says, "or cook it and add to salads and mixed dishes (think grilled summer veggies with a dressing)."
"Amaranth is a good source of the two amino acids methionine and lysine," Zibdeh says. "It has three times more fiber than wheat and is a good source of plant-based iron, phosphorus, and calcium."
Since it's low in FODMAPs, amaranth is easy to digest. It can be ground into a gluten-free flour and used in baked goods.
Rye is an ancient grain native to the Middle East. One cup of rye grains contains more than 25 grams of fiber and more than 17 grams of protein, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
While it's not gluten-free, for people who can tolerate it, rye bread may have positive benefits on the gut microbiome and may help lower insulin levels. This is due to the high levels of lactic acid bacteria in rye bread.
Bulgur is a type of wheat, meaning it's not gluten-free. Registered dietitian nutritionist Frances Largeman-Roth, R.D., tells us, "bulgur is a high-fiber whole grain that's great for heart health and digestion."
Spelt is a type of grain, similar to wheat. "It is rich in minerals including iron, magnesium, and zinc," Largeman-Roth says. One cup of cooked spelt, according to the USDA, contains 10 grams of protein.
Spelt flour can be used in place of wheat flour in most recipes, she tells us. If you sprout the grain, it may be easier to digest and can be used to make these honey-crusted spelt bagels.
Kamut, also called Khorasan wheat, is a high-fiber and high-protein ancient grain, native to Egypt. According to Largeman-Roth, it's high in fiber and protein. It's also rich in amino acids, selenium, zinc, and magnesium.
One small study shows that kamut may have health benefits spanning from metabolic, lipid, antioxidant, and inflammatory impacts.
Kamut is a large grain and can make a filling, nutrient-dense addition to salads, or a hearty base for a grain bowl.
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Abby Moore is an editorial operations manager at mindbodygreen. She earned a B.A. in Journalism from The University of Texas at Austin and has previously written for Tribeza magazine. She has covered topics ranging from regenerative agriculture to celebrity entrepreneurship. Moore worked on the copywriting and marketing team at Siete Family Foods before moving to New York.