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The whole-grain diet

(article, Sheri Reed)

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I always have the best intentions, I swear. My goal of eating more whole grains was no different. 

Expert opinions unsettle me. Taunt me. Goad me. And then there’s the voice in my head telling me I'm probably making poor decisions. Dangerous decisions about food and everything else. No matter how laidback, nonchalant, and moderate I try to pretend my parenting philosophy is, the endless lecturing voices always find a way to push me off track. 

It had gotten so bad that I actually decided not to read any pregnancy or baby books when I was pregnant with my second son. (Four years after the birth of my first son, I was still trying to get that one paragraph out of my head, the one in the attachment-parenting book by the doctor who warned that even taking a little time away from baby could easily turn into weeklong Bahamas vacations on which one could virtually lose track of one’s own motherhood.)

When I saw the whole-grain experts on Oprah, I knew I was already late to the party. As her two guest doctors discussed ways to improve your diet, a voice inside screamed, "We must act now!" I honed in on their urgings against ingredients that are "enriched," "bleached," or "refined." 

We had always eaten whole-grain breads, but this more specific list of "no-no" ingredients gave me the ammunition I needed to easily rule out some of the less-than-whole-wheat items on the market. I madly wrote them down on my hand (no paper was available). By the time one of the doctors was saying that the only white items we should have in our fridges are egg whites, cauliflower, and fish, I was already halfway to the kitchen to toss out anything remotely whitish in color. 

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Like any good mama armed with all the right answers, I bombarded my family with a tirade on the nutritional facts about whole grains. That was probably a mistake. Instead of being the sensible, logical, moderate mother I longed to be, I blasted off on a mission to instantly improve the way we eat. (Of course, it wasn't just our health on the line — once again, it all came down to the integrity of my mamahood.) 

I put an end to all pale grains at once. It would be whole grains or no grains immediately. Research for the integration of other grains was already underway. Books and cookbooks were ordered. Google searches were firing off right and left. We would buy everything whole-grain, no matter what. Nobody could stop us — I mean, me.

Looking back, I think the most absurd part about this whole-grain anxiety attack was that, as a family, we were already well on our way to living the whole-grain lifestyle. The baby apart, we were all fairly open to trying new whole grains. We had always eaten and actually preferred whole-wheat sandwich bread. We often dabbled in dark rye, wheatberry, and seven-grain breads, tossed in a bit of whole-wheat flour over white, and bought a variety of other whole-grain items like pita, frozen waffles, granola bars, buns, English muffins, breakfast cereals, and bagels. 

Still, as I’ve said, I'm not always rational when it comes to my mama cred.

My husband rolled his eyes that night when I pulled out whole-wheat tortillas for our taco dinner. It's not that he's not open to healthier eating. He wouldn't mind giving up his favorite white-flour tortillas in the name of our family's health if that was, in truth, why we were eating them. 

The fact of the matter, though, is that he could see the wild fire in my eyes as I proudly plopped the brown tortillas into the center of the table. He knew how far gone I was. Again. I saw his jaw clench when I said, "Look what we have here. I've been looking out for you all. Isn't that wonderful?"

I charged ahead. I bought ground flaxseeds and plopped a heaping spoonful into the brownie mix. "Healthy brownies, everyone! Come and get them," I yodeled as I swept them out of the oven.

We were on a roll. And then my enthusiasm waned. It may have been my son’s doing.

"I like Daddy's pancakes better than yours," he said one day, after a bite of my heavy, beautiful whole-grain ones, which were slathered in real maple syrup, bananas, and walnuts.

"Really? Why?" I said, visualizing my husband's lighter, fluffier, more airy version topped with the fake-o syrup. My husband is definitely the better cook, but he simply can't touch my talent with a pancake.

"Because," he said, "they're just better."

In the end, my heart went out of it. My anxiety was in it, my anxiety over being the best parent I could be. But that wasn’t enough. My attempt to force-feed whole-grain goodness into their hearts, minds, and bellies backfired. 

My reasons for making these foods suddenly critical were so twisted up and confused it's no wonder my family wasn't ready to climb on board.


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You probably might even believe me when I say I think we’ve reached equilibrium in the whole-grains department. On top of our whole-grain staples, we now dabble, on occasion, in whole-grain pastas, brown rice, and, to my husband's well-controlled dismay, the frozen pizza with whole-wheat crust. We try to remember to read labels in order to rule out the "no-no" ingredients when we can, but I work very hard not to obsess about it when we eat out or at other people's houses or we get it wrong at home. 

Per Heidi Swanson's book Super Natural Cooking, I swapped out our all-purpose white flour in favor  of white whole-wheat flour. In our pantry sits a bag containing a mix of Israeli-style couscous, orzo, baby garbanzo beans, and red quinoa we hope to try soon. I even asked my husband, very calmly, if he would bake us some whole-grain breads in the future. But I think I'll be OK if he never does.

More than anything, though, I'm proud that new words like farro, kasha, amaranth, bulgur wheat, and millet have made my vocabulary a little more delicious — even if they haven't yet made it to the family table. 

I honestly believe that we’re making steps in the right direction. And I’ve recovered a whole grain of sanity, too.

p(bio). Sheri Reed is a freelance writer and the co-editor of She currently writes a column and blogs for Edible Sacramento and blogs at happinest. She lives with her husband and two boys in northern California, where they maintain a moderate effort toward eating with awareness and without anxiety.

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