The world of diet and nutrition is filled with constant change and limitless phases where something becomes the star and eventually becomes forgotten again. I refer of course to the world of dietary fads, yet am also cautious to use the word fad everytime. A fad is defined as “an intense and widely shared enthusiasm for something, especially one that is short-lived; a craze.” It does not mean it is not something genuine, but where it becomes risky is when a food replaces all other food during this time.
Millets were very much a part of our ancestral tradition in India, but because they were so easily available, they lost their charm and lost their place in society for a very long time. The first time I bought myself a bag of millets, my cook laughed at me, saying this was a staple in her grandfather’s time! Few years forward, every nutritionist is advocating for miller, every food blog will feature something with millet and even the government is working towards spreading the craze of millet, albeit of course with the best of intentions and to help the local farmer. This is wonderful, for it allows a long forgotten food to once again come into the limelight!
India has a plethora of millets such as foxtail millet, kodo millet, little millet and finger millet. There are many brands dedicated exclusively to creating millet based products. All of this is wonderful, especially given that millet is a gluten free grain, and a great alternative to many other grains. Is millet the best option to replace everything? It definitely has benefits which are profound, and I’ll go into this in a bit, yet, I will also go through where you might need to have caution.
Millets are actually in the category of seeds, and therefore referred to as seed like grains. They are not technically a grain. It falls into the category of seed like grains along with amaranth, buckwheat and quinoa. It’s referred to as a grain, because it is used in the same way a grain is used, and also prepared in similar ways. It has numerous benefits, which are listed below.
Benefits of Millets:
- Millets are gluten free, and hence a good option for those with celiac disease, non celiac gluten sensitivity or for those who need to be on a gluten free diet because of their health condition.
- Millets are rich in fibre and can be very useful for those struggling with high cholesterol or gallstones, and are overall beneficial to digestion and elimination. Yet, if someone is low in digestive enzymes, has liver congestion or some form of microbial gut dysbiosis, fibre can actually irritate their system even more. It’s important to start low and see how you respond to it. The same goes when you introduce millet as well.
- Millets can be great to stabilise blood sugar balance, as they have a low glycemic index. This is the reason that many nutritionists recommend millets to diabetics, as an option to white rice. There is a lot of positive research on millets to support diabetic rehabilitation and management. This is also the reason that it can be a great food to support anyone with blood sugar imbalance, which is most women today. But, like anything else, if a millet is processed, it can lose these benefits and have the same impact as what it is trying to replace. Most of these benefits are connected to eating millets unprocessed and as a whole food.
- Millet have many amino acids, and so they can combine with lentils to form a complete source of vegetarian or vegan protein.
- Millets have multiple minerals, which provide your body with support for a range of functions. They are high in Magnesium. Magnesium is required for hundreds of functions in your body, and especially important for coronary health. Magnesium also supports women with premenstrual syndrome and reproductive health. It is also rich in Manganese, Phosphorus and Copper. For more information on what each vitamin or mineral does in your body, download my free ebook Vibrant Vitamins Mighty Minerals here!
- Millets contains Tryptophan, which converts to Serotonin, which converts to Melatonin. In this conversion pathway, it is sleep supportive.
Well of course millets are great! They have so many benefits that it’s not surprising why everyone is getting back to this forgotten seed! Are there areas of caution required? One of the first things to keep in mind is the quantity that you eat. If you replace huge amounts of rice with millet, without balance on your plate coming from vegetables and proteins and fats, then it can be a problem. There is a saying that anything which is not in moderation is a poison and the same goes for millet as well. Another thing to keep in mind is how processed your millet is. If it has moved away from it’s original whole food structure drastically, and is packaged, then that can be a problem as well, for it can have all the problems associated with any processed and packaged food. Beyond that, there are more crucial areas which can cause problems, to some people.
Caution with Millets:
- Millets are goitrogenic. This means that they interfere with your body’s production of thyroid hormone, upset iodine absorption as well as iodine use by your thyroid gland. This means that if you have thyroid disease, then you need to consume it with caution. Further, if you have large amounts of millet, where you are replacing everything with millets, then you can create some imbalance in your thyroid function. Also iodine is not required just for thyroid function, but also for cognitive development in children and neurological health in adults. This doesn’t mean it’s bad for you, but just that you need to have caution with how much you consume.
- Millets have phytates. Phytates are a type of anti nutrient found in beans, grains and lentils as well, which impair digestion and prevent the absorption from minerals such as calcium, iron and zinc. So even if a food does contain these nutrients, phytates can prevent your body from being able to make use of them. It can also be a problem for your gut, if you have gut permability or any chronic health challenge.
- Some millets have protease enzyme inhibitors. When a food contains inhibitors of enzymes, your pancreas will release more protease enzymes like trypsin and chymotrypsin in order to help you break down the food. This elevated secretion can increase gut permeability and gut inflammation.
- Millets are high in oxalates. Oxalates are an anti nutrient that can affect mitochondrial function. Oxalates are a molecule found in plants and can be made by the body. When oxalates are high in the body, they bind to calcium forming crystals and can cause pain. When they are not bound to calcium, they can impair mitochondrial function and disrupt mineral absorption. If someone does have problems with mitochondrial function, then energy levels might just crash. To get an idea, autistic children have three times the oxalates as anyone else. This should give you an idea of why high oxalates can be an anti nutrient.
- Millets can be difficult to digest. If you have low stomach acid, poor enzyme secretion, gallstones or liver congestion, and if overall digestion is impaired, then suddenly switching to just millets can be a problem for sure. It can trigger you to reject the food as diarrhoea. Like anything, else, always stay in moderation.
None of this means that you should stop all millets. Remember to fill your plate with colourful vegetables, clean proteins, healthy fats, and have a little millet just as you would have a little rice or anything else. Also avoid eating only millet on a day to day basis, whatever you might read about millet being a wonder food. Do rotate between different foods. If you’ve never eaten it all your life, and suddenly eat large amounts on a daily basis, you could cause some problems. Caution is required, especially when a food is suddenly so popular that it is almost a fad.
Another way to make millets much safer for you in every way is with fermentation, soaking and sprouting. Fermenting a grain helps bowel movement, allows you to utilize vitamins and minerals better, converts protein to amino acids, helps breakdown oxalates, supports your immune system and balances your intestine pH. Soaking and sprouting increases your ability to digest it, helps lower inflammation, breaks down phytates and oxalates and activates enzymes. Get back to ancestral ways of preparation in your home. Millets can be wonderful, provided it is not processed, it’s traditionally prepared and you take caution in how much you consume, while being aware of your body and how it’s responding to a newly introduced food!