If it looks like a grain, grows like a grain and tastes like a grain, it may be a seed. Seed grains (also called pseudograins) may be combined with traditional grains to supply high quality protein. Seeds commonly used as grains include quinoa, millet, amaranth, teff, Job’s tears (coix) and buckwheat. Seed grains are dense, vitamin and mineral rich, low in allergens and have applications for therapeutic diets. They cook quickly, are more alkaline and often contain amino acids that are complementary to those found in true grains like wheat, rye, barley and oats. See previous post, “Ancient Grains.”
Some grains have a sweet flavor and harmonizing digestive effects. The power of the sweet taste is warming, strengthening, relaxing, and moistening. Healthy sweet helps to build energy and spleen qi. With its moistening effect, sweet foods nourish body fluids, relieve inner tension and stabilizes the ‘center’. Seed grains can help support the health and functions of the Earth Element (stomach and spleen/pancreas) Grains especially recommended in the “Longevity Diet” for Earth are millet, sweet brown rice, mochi, and quinoa.
Quinoa is most grown in Bolivia. The quinoa plant itself is similar to beetroots and spinach. People can eat both the seeds and leaves of this versatile, nutritious plant. Farmers grow 120 different types of quinoa, the most common are white, red or black. They have different characteristics and uses. If we follow the ancient law of similars, white quinoa affects the Metal Element, lungs, red affects Fire the heart and circulation, and black impacts kidney and bladder.
Quinoa is an excellent food for vegans and vegetarians. It contains easily digested high protein, fiber, iron, magnesium, antioxidants, folate, among others. In general quinoa contains more calcium than milk, helps clear lungs of phlegm, and contains manganese which improves liver/gallbladder function. Quinoa contains the plant compounds quercetin and kaempferol, antioxidants that protect against a range of chronic conditions. For example, according to some research, kaempferol may help protect against infection, heart disease, diabetes and several cancers, including those of the skin and liver. Quercetin may also help boost the body’s defenses against infection and Inflammation. Quinoa is naturally gluten free; one cup of cooked quinoa provides 222 calories with 8.14 grams of protein.
Although quinoa is a highly nutritious carbohydrate option, there are other pseudograins that provide similar health benefits. Buckwheat, teff, and amaranth are nutrient dense seed grains that people can use as substitutes for quinoa in recipes. Not only are they filling and delicious, but each of them offers a number of impressive health benefits.
Buckwheat is packed with nutrients including magnesium and manganese, and its consumption may boost heart health and promote blood sugar control. The easiest way to cook it is buckwheat noodles easily found in Chinese and Japanese groceries. They cook in a minute and offer a smooth, satisfying taste. After cooking I add chopped scallion and a little black seed oil Nigella sativa, a rich, dark, smoky oil that’s loved throughout the Middle East and India. It is anti-inflammatory and full of antioxidants. The prophet Mohammed said that black seed oil (AKA black cumin oil) cures everything but death.
Buckwheat is also kasha when the kernels are toasted prior to cooking. Enjoyed in Eastern Europe and Asia, it thrives in cold weather. You can find Kasha Varnishkas in Ukrainian restaurants in New York’s lower East side. It combines kasha with bow tie pasta, onions and mushroom gravy, a hardy cold weather dish that feels grounding as a cold night in Moscow. Kasha varnishkes, part of Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine, is widely popular in and beyond the American Jewish community. The name varnishkes is a Yiddish corruption of the Russian varenichki (stuffed dumplings). Traditionally, a whole egg or egg white is stirred into the kasha to coat the grains so they remain separate instead of cooking into a mush. As a grain alternative, buckwheat contains plenty of carbs: 34 grams in 1 cup of cooked buckwheat groats. Buckwheat flour contains around 44 grams in 1/2 cup. Buckwheat does not contain sugar; instead, its carbs come in the form of healthy fiber.
Buckwheat, according to traditional sources, is neither a grain nor seed but a plant related to rhubarb and sorrel. It tonifies the kidneys and bladder functions and “imparts great strength and vitality.” I was happy to hear Roger Green say that buckwheat’s hard shell, (famously bitter and normally washed off by manufacturers.) that hard shell helps the plant and buckwheat eaters to live a long time. A tough grain for tough survivors.
Buckwheat is very effective when it comes to the health of our brain and mind. It is calming, relaxing and has been shown to boost mood. It also helps SAD (Seasonal affective disorder) and it may help reduce the symptoms of schizophrenia, psychosis, mental disturbances, stress, moodiness and anxiety. This is because buckwheat is an excellent source of tryptophan which helps us to release serotonin. Serotonin is that feel good chemical that makes us feel happy and relaxed.
However, in all things: Balance. Chinese doctors warn against eating too much buckwheat if you have an underlying “heat” (inflammatory) condition exhibited by fever, a red dry tongue or headache because it can exacerbate the TCM condition known as “wind.” Oriental medicine describes “wind” as dizziness and moving pains. “Wind” energy starts in the liver and moves upward. In other words, those discomforts may be symptoms of liver inflammation and nerve irritation. So avoid over-indulging with vodka. Balance with a cooling dish like cucumber salad or a dab of sour cream.
One last important word about buckwheat: It is a rich source of rutin, a blood vessel strengthening bioflavonoid. One of rutin’s common uses is to ease arthritis pain. A study found that it aided in suppressing oxidative stress in people with arthritis. This may be due to rutin’s strong anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. There’s also evidence that rutin improves knee function in some who have arthritis. According to Roger Green, rutin protects against the effects of radiation. Buckwheat helps to reduce radiative stress from too much time in front of the computer, in airplanes, near the microwave or too much cell phone use. This is because of the antioxidant, rutin which is found in abundance in buckwheat. One medical source reports, “In studies, rutin has been shown to protect against radiation by reversing DNA cell damage. Rutin is also effective at stimulating new bone marrow, reducing the oxidation of cholesterol and fighting off cancers.”
Teff is a tiny seed smaller than a mustard seed, an excellent source of plant-based protein, providing almost 10 grams per cooked cup. It is also rich in fiber, making it a particularly satiating carbohydrate source.. Although some teff is grown in Idaho, teff is native to Ethiopia which is famous for its long-distance runners. It is high quality endurance food. Teff is also a good source of dietary fiber including resistant starch which is a class of fiber that helps us manage blood sugar, weight, and, colon health. Teff is gluten free, contains magnesium, vitamin B6, zinc, calcium and vitamin C. Teff leads all grains in calcium content and contains all eight vital amino acids. It’s high in iron and protein. It’s low in sodium, bad fat, and cholesterol. Calcium supports bones and muscle strength for everyone not only runners. We lose more calcium in long bones during winter months when the sun does not shine. Teff and vitamin D3 can help prevent weak bones and blue days. Teff is often ground into flour to make Ethiopian flatbread injera, but can also be enjoyed cooked like oatmeal.
Amaranth is another protein-packed ancient pseudograin known for its concentration of powerful antioxidants. Antioxidants present in amaranth may help promote health in many ways, such as by protecting cells against free radical damage and reducing the risk of oxidative stress-related diseases. It is rich in protein and calcium, lysine, according to TCM dries dampness. What is dampness? It feels like heaviness, humidity, soggy energy in the body, water retention, swollen joints, swollen abdomen, slow labored digestion, and cloudy thinking. Dampness dampens vitality. Often Chinese herbal formulas that “drain dampness” contain diuretic and diaphoretic (increase sweating) herbs. For example cinnamon, cardamom, ginger.
If you feel heavy, overweight in the middle, if your tongue is swollen, scalloped around the edges showing water retention, if your ankles are swollen or face puffy, if bags are under your eyes, add foods that drain dampness. Dampness is a sign that the spleen is challenged by sweet, congesting foods, sugar, ice cream and other foods that weaken digestion.
Millet is more common than teff or amaranth seed grains. It provides magnesium, silica, B vitamins, is useful for diabetes, stomach/spleen and reduces sluggish digestion leading to phlegm and water retention problems. Add delicious spices clove, cinnamon, cardamom and a little honey and nuts. The high nutritional value and drying effects of seed grains (pseudograins) can tonify (increase the Qi) of digestive organs, especially the spleen. A person can try using one of these pseudograins, if they simply want to add more healthful carbohydrate options to their diet.
Don’t forget other Earth Element supportive foods: Carrots, pumpkin, sweet corn, onion, mushrooms, green peas, beans, zucchini, sweet potato, cauliflower, leeks and celery and all the summer vegetables,
apples, grapes and vine fruits, small berries, peas, fennel, potatoes, soybeans, dates, apples, papaya, caraway seeds, honey, anise seed, dried fig, and oats.
“Dampness” and worry or obsession are said to damage the Earth Element especially the spleen. Is there a season of the spleen? Yes and No. The lazy pleasant days after summer, called by some “Indian Summer,” is a period associated with Earth. It is the period following the activity and socializing in summer and before autumn harvest, a time to digest what is good and reduce what is negative in our lives. People who have “weak spleen” may find that hard to do. They may reach for rich foods and drinks to ease depression. They need to lighten up, dry their tears, reduce edema and enjoy the benefits of feeling centered, strong, and vital with the Longevity Diet’s “school of stomach and spleen.”