What Are Ancient Grains and Should You Be Eating Them? [Angelina Jolie's Birdseed Diet]

by Charlotte on April 27, 2014 · 44 comments

free-bird-seed

Do you think Angelina Jolie poops a lot? I don’t normally think of the toothy actress much but the past few days I’ve spent a lot of time wondering about her and her dietary habits, especially as I’ve been spending a lot of time on the potty thanks to her. Constipation is very rarely an issue for me and the past week it’s been really not an issue, if you know what I mean. The problem, as I’ve decided through the process of elimination (hahah!) and toilet-googling (don’t lie, you’ve done it!), is the hemp seeds. Or maybe the problem is I took food advice from a celebrity. Or maybe the problem is I took food advice from an “unnamed source close to the Jolie-Pitts” when I read a concern-trolly article about Angelina’s new-found devotion to ancient grains (aka the “birdseed diet”).

Really it all started decades ago with my many years as a vegetarian. Here’s my dirty little omnivorous secret: I don’t love meat. I mean, I don’t hate it either and I certainly eat plenty of it now as I’ve found that I need it in my diet to be healthy, happy and sane (well, sane for me). But I’ve never been a huge meat lover and I’m still not. I don’t crave steak. Hamburgers never sound good to me (unless I’m pregnant). Pork gives me the unexplained willies. And chicken wings are the one food 100% guaranteed to give me an IBS attack. My cravings are almost exclusively for popcorn and sweets (fruit and fruit-flavored candy mainly). Let’s face it: I’m a carbivore. I’m a carb-lover in a world that’s increasingly carb-hating. Have you seen the headlines on wheat lately? Serial killers get more positive press.

Yet grains have never really hurt me. (That I know of. Lots of people like to point out that gluten causes systemic inflammation which I may not even notice until it’s too late. So perhaps my insides are secretly exploding like confetti raining down on the welcome parade for mobsters C.Diff and E.Coli.) But whether it’s just from cultural osmosis or because the research on wheat is becoming quite convincing, I’ve sort-of subconsciously started avoiding it. The past couple of years have found me eating a lot of eggs for breakfast. And while I do think eggs are a great source of protein and a delicious breakfast, all things being equal I’d still rather eat muesli. (Holy crap I love that chewy-crunchy blend of raw grains, dried fruit and seeds.)

I’m really, really, really sick of eggs.

So when I read about Angelina’s “ancient grains diet” I thought maybe this was my perfect breakfast compromise: I could have my cereal and eat it too — minus the GMO-warped, gluten-laced, franken-grains that modernity has gifted us. (Also, my super-smart friend Shellie was eating them too and singing their praises and I love her so much I’d lick peanut butter off pinecones if she told me to.) Everything ancient is cool these day! Squatting to potty, oil pulling, not washing our hair, eating dirt and sunning our lady bits are not only trendy but they’re old-trendy!

Here’s a quick and dirty list of most of the foods people are talking about when they refer to “ancient grains”:

Actual Grains

1 – 4. Farro, spelt, kamut, freekeh: These are all varieties of wheat but before you freak out, they all have much better nutritional profiles than the modern, common dwarf wheat that’s been bred to be more hardy than nutritious. Obviously they all contain gluten but some people who are mildly intolerant of regular wheat find they are able to digest these better. (Note: lots of people are worried about GMO wheat but that actually doesn’t exist in the marketplace… yet. It’s still considered experimental and isn’t grown commercially. If you are worried about GMOs, corn and soy are your frenemies.)

5. Sorghum: The 5th most important crop world-wide due to drought intolerance. Yet most Americans haven’t heard of it, even though it’s the 3rd largest grain crop in the US, because we feed it to animals. It is a grain but it’s gluten-free.

6.  Millet/teff: Known as the cutest grain (christened by me, you’re welcome), these itsy bitsy widdle grains are a worldwide staple, high in calcium and magnesium. Millet is actual a subtype that includes five different types of which teff is one of the best known. Gluten-free.

7. Amaranth: A grain known for having three times the fiber and protein of modern grains like wheat and corn. Also gluten-free.

Stuff People Think Are Grains But Are Actually Seeds

8. Quinoa: Probably the trendiest of the trendy and also the most expensive, this seed is one of a few plant-sourced complete proteins.

9. Chia seeds: Not only do they grow “hair” on comical clay statues that provide equal amounts of entertainment for my kids and my cat but they’re a great source of omega-3 fatty acids.

10. Buckwheat groats: Despite their name, they are neither wheat nor buck so all you gluten- and deer- averse folk can relax. (They’re totally groat though. Um, enjoy?) This seed is known as the “ultimate cholesterol-lowering food”. Take that smug Cheerios commercials!

11. Hemp seeds: Let’s just get this out of the way first — no you can’t get high off them (the THC is in the leaves of the plant) and you can’t smoke them. You can’t make them into suburban-subversive necklaces either. (What up Middle School!) Rather, these seeds are known for have a perfect fat/fiber/protein balance and, like quinoa, are a complete protein.

12. Wild rice: This is not rice. It’s also not a grain. These seeds, taken from marsh grasses, are known for being very high in fiber and having a unique blend of antioxidants and minerals dependent on the area in which they are grown.

(Here’s a great article going into more detail about the health benefits of each grain/seed in case my sarcastic, inane commentary isn’t enough for you.)

My Birdseed Experiment

I have tried all of these grains/seeds. All. of. them. Plus a few more I didn’t include on this list because they’re not widely available and/or I thought they were vile. So after giving them all a whirl (including an ill-fated sprouting experiment that I won’t go into right now), I picked my breakfast blend based on nutritional qualities (specifically high in fats and protein), ease of preparation (I didn’t want to have to pre-cook them, sorry wild rice I love you anyhow!) and taste.

So I bought chia seeds, hemp seeds and buckwheat groats in bulk, shook them up in a large container and stuck them in my fridge. (You should refrigerate chia and hemp as the oils can break down and go rancid faster at room temp.) Every morning I’ve poured out about 1/4 cup.

IMAG0331

 It totally does look like birdseed! Aren’t they so pretty??

Then I topped them with some raw, sprouted pumpkin seeds which I impulse-bought at the store.

IMAG0334

 I’m not shilling this brand but I had to include the package because it cracked me up. “Gluten Free! Wheat free! Nut free!” — I should hope so seeing as they’re not a grain and not a nut, unless there are some pumpkins having a serious identity crisis. Also love that they’re “all hand made” – what does that even mean?? Do they not use spoons to stir them? 

I then pour a bunch of milk over them. I use unsweetened coconut milk but you can use full-fat cow’s milk, almond or whatever liquid you like. Even water works although it’s not as tasty. I know that doesn’t sound like much food but a) they’re highly caloric and b) they expand in liquid like sea monkeys! They totally fill me up.

IMAG0332That spoon almost looks like a 3D optical illusion, right? Either that or it’s way too late at night to be blogging. Either way, I can’t stop staring at it. 

 I let it sit for a few minutes to let the seeds soak up the liquid.

IMAG0333

Does it look like I’m eating cereal in bed? I would never do that! Never. That is so gross. Pay no attention to the duvet under my bowl. 

And boy do they soak it up! Do you see how thick it is? I can turn my spoon upside down and they don’t fall off! Those of you who are fans of “chia pudding” are probably laughing right now as y’all have been doing this trick for years but it’s definitely different with the other grains in there. I cannot stand chia pudding. It’s like eating chunky, slimy snot. That gets stuck in your teeth. This cereal, thanks to the hemp and groats is like CRUNCHY snot thank you very much. And it still gets stuck in your teeth. (Thanks to poor planning, I spent a whole morning running errands yelling MY KINGDOM FOR A FLOSS PICK!) But in my humble opinion they taste way better. The hemp is kind of grassy while the groats are kind of nutty. The groats are by far my fave. I can eat them straight by the handful.

And you can do any kind of combination of the above grains that you like. I think next time I’ll add some quinoa and maybe toasted millet for funzies. It’s delish!

UPDATED TO ADD: A couple of people requested the nutritional info. For one serving (1/4 c or 4 Tbsp) of my concoction: 130 calories/8g fat/4g fiber/7g protein/11g carbs/0g sugar

Although now that I’ve talked it all up I have to give you two warnings:

1. This is not sweet. At all. Most people see breakfast cereal/porridge and think sweet but unless you add sugar, stevia, syrup, dried berries or Taylor Swift then this is a savory breakfast. I personally don’t mind savory breakfasts (I used to eat my oatmeal unsweetened too) but for some people this feels like a bait-n-switch.

2. HEMP MAKES YOU HAVE MAD POOPS. Which brings me full circle to Angelina Jolie and her defecation habits. According to the articles I read (yes plural, shut it), Angelina is eating a mixture of ancient grains for three meals a day. I eat it once in the morning and it causes some serious gastric gymnastics like whoa. I can’t even imagine what it’s doing to her. It took me a while to figure out which grain was causing this effect but it’s definitely the hemp. If you are the stuck-up sort (and I don’t mean snobby) then this will be your new fave breakfast. If you’re like me, it will be a bit surprising. Either way don’t eat it and then get right on the bus for an hour-long commute. Or head straight to the gym. I learned this the hard way.

Your experiment?

Any of you eat ancient/weird grains – what’s your fave? Do you feel better about eating these types of grains than traditional wheat products or do you think this all marketing hype? What’s the last weird impulse buy you made?

*Now I’m going to blow your mind: Corn is not a vegetable. It’s a grain. It is gluten-free but it’s not considered “ancient” even though it’s been around forever — I’m guessing the GMOs got it kicked out of the club. That and poor rice.

** There is a boxed cereal called “Ancient Grains”. I’ve never tried it. It’s processed and loaded with sugar. Anyhow, note that this is NOT a review of that cereal.

{ 43 comments… read them below or add one }

Wendy Y April 28, 2014 at 1:28 am

Boy, you crack me up! I love your posts! And I love buckwheat too!

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Charlotte April 28, 2014 at 7:20 am

I know right? Where has buckwheat been all my life??

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JLVerde April 28, 2014 at 6:12 am

I keep chia seeds around. I like to mix a tablespoon with a serving of applesauce. I’m not a huge fan of fish so I need to get my Omegas from other sources (including my two daily fish oil pills). I tried adding them to protein shakes (just the powder kind) but it was B-A-D.

Maybe I could add them to the granola I just got. It’s a treat granola (totally tastes like cookies) so the chia would at least make it a tiny bit more healthy.

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Charlotte April 28, 2014 at 7:24 am

Mmmm… I love granola! I think chia works great in it. Just make sure to keep floss handy;)

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Heather C April 28, 2014 at 6:32 am

I eat a quinoa/amaranth blend for breakfast. I cook it in coconut milk, add some almond extract, cinnamon, berries and unsweetened coconut flakes. I love it. It is tasty and I do not get hungry even when lunchtime rolls around. That’s as wild as I get. I can’t imagine eating the hemp/chia seed bowl.

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Charlotte April 28, 2014 at 7:25 am

That sounds AMAZING. I’m totally adding some coconut flakes to my mix – brilliant! Cinnamon and vanilla sound good too. Thanks for the ideas!

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Kelly April 28, 2014 at 6:50 am

Okay, you’ve got me interested in trying it. A couple of questions – what is the nutritional profile of the “cereal” you show above (specifically protein/carb/fat); and when you say “gastric gymnastics”, am I going to be doubled over in gassy pain until I use the bathroom? because that is one of the reasons I’ve pretty much given standard grains the boot.

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Charlotte April 28, 2014 at 7:24 am

So here’s the nutritional info: For one serving (1/4 c or 4 Tbsp) 130 calories/8g fat/4g fiber/7g protein/11g carbs/0g sugar
I updated my post with this too – thanks for the reminder! And it doesn’t cause me any gas or pain, just a lot of pooping:) TMI but I am usually a once-a-day girl but this ups that to two. I’d say the hemp seems to make things slide through faster.
Plus, I should point out that the 3 “grains” I decided to use are all seeds and not grains or even pseudo-grains.
Let me know if you try this, I’d love to hear how it goes!!

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Cbuffy April 28, 2014 at 7:58 am

I add hemp and chia (and frozen wild blueberries and stevia and vanilla and… oh yah, apple pie spice) to my “overnight oatmeal”. It makes a GREAT breakfast – I eat it either hot or cold and love it either way. I have to hit the health food store this afternoon – might grab a bag of buckwheat… Sounds yummy!

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Charlotte April 28, 2014 at 3:40 pm

That sounds delicious! Let me know how you like the buckwheat!

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Sagan April 28, 2014 at 8:19 am

One of the (ahem, FEW ;)) things I like about living in the middle of the prairies is the abundance of ancient grains / seeds. Hemp hearts, wild rice, flax (is it ancient too?), and buckwheat all grow like crazy. It’s awesome! Mostly I like adding these things to smoothies or yogurt – I kinda like how even a spoonful can be packed full of nutrients. Mostly because it makes more room for enjoying popcorn and sweets. :D

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Charlotte April 28, 2014 at 3:41 pm

Hahahah good point! And I like your idea of adding them to smoothies/yogurt!

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Azusmom April 28, 2014 at 9:01 am

I LOVE meusli! I just cannot quit it. I eat a gluten-free, low-sugar version (Bob’s Red Mill: I love Bob’s Red Mill. I want to live near Bob’s red mill, and say hello to him every morning as I cycle past on my way to the farmer’s market).
I’m always looking for healthy, crunchy breakfast ideas. I will have to try this. Thank you!

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Charlotte April 28, 2014 at 3:42 pm

That’s my favorite Muesli!! Except mine isn’t gluten-free – I’ll have to look for that variety. So yummy.

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Sabrina April 28, 2014 at 9:48 am

I sometimes make a teff porridge, especially during Passover when we can’t have oatmeal. I dry-toast the teff in the saucepan, then add water, salt, and a pinch of ground cloves. Once it’s thick and cooked through, I add in chopped dates and a little honey, then serve with a drizzle of cream and some chopped toasted pecans or walnuts. Yum.

But, yeah, the bathroom situation after that… A little unsettling.

I once tried making an amaranth porridge, but it tasted oddly like beets. Now, I like beets, but not in my breakfast porridge. I didn’t try it again.

On another note about amaranth, I believe that it, like quinoa, is a pseudo-grain, as it is the seed of a leafy, flowering plant (one can eat amaranth greens, too). Amaranth and quinoa are actually related plants, and both of them are related to beets and spinach, which is why my amaranth porridge tasted like beets.

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Charlotte April 28, 2014 at 3:44 pm

So interesting about the beet connection! One of the sites I read also mentioned it being related to rhubarb. The plant world is a weird, weird, place.

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Katherine April 28, 2014 at 6:59 pm

Yesssss to the amaranth thing! I get irrationally irritated when people call things that AREN’T grains, grain. Grass seeds=grains. I guess ridiculous irritation happens when people say mistaken things about the stuff you studied.

Anyways, Charlotte, you are the best! Seriously. I’m just picky about grass stuff.

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Jill April 28, 2014 at 9:50 am

I’ve eaten eggs every day for breakfast for 3+ years and somehow I never get sick of them. I’d like to give some grains other than wheat/oats a try. Where do you buy these seeds/grains? I live in the middle of nowhere and get to the city about once a month so I don’t want to go all over looking for them. Thanks!

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Charlotte April 28, 2014 at 3:45 pm

They sell them in most grocery stores here but I actually bought mine off the Internet (Amazon!) as they’re cheaper that way.

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crabby mcslacker April 28, 2014 at 10:23 am

First off, you totally crack me up, there were so many great lines in there, just tossed off, that had me laughing and I am totally in awe, as usual, of your writing.

And hmm, this is coming at an interesting time for me, because having gone pretty low carb and sort of primal-y for a while I’m not sure it’s the healthiest strategy for me and am starting to reconsider adding a few more grains to my diet. But wheat and corn both seem problematic. (The whole IBS thing that I am kind of in denial about).

So thanks for the info, this may be the push I need to get brave the bulk grains aisle at whole foods, though given what you said, I think I’ll pass on the hemp!

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Charlotte April 28, 2014 at 3:48 pm

Aw thank you! Glad to know it came out funny – sometimes I’m hilarious late and night and sometimes I’m just really typo prone;) But why are you reconsidering your stance on grains? I think if primal is working for you it’s great. So sorry about your IBS though – I know how bad that sucks:/

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MELANIE April 28, 2014 at 11:05 am

I bought hemp seeds and they were way too earthy for me. I’ve even tried them in baked goods and smoothies and can’t get past the taste. Is that how yours are or maybe i got a bad batch?

I love buckwheat groats and chia seeds. I make overnight groats by soaking the groats in water and chia seeds in milk overnight. Drain and rinse the groats and mix w/ the chia/milk and add any fruit, nuts, cinnamon, sweetener you’d like. Delish!

I want to try some of these other grains. Thanks for the ideas!

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Charlotte April 28, 2014 at 3:51 pm

I don’t think it was just your batch – the hemp has a very strong flavor, for sure. I like it but I can definitely see why other people wouldn’t. I read that toasting raw hemp seeds can take away some of the earthy flavor though! Thanks for the idea for overnight groats – I’ll have to try it!

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Cavy April 28, 2014 at 11:34 am

“Corn is not a vegetable.” . . . really?! That actually had me a little relieved, because for some weird reason I’ve never thought of corn as a vegetable and every time I eat it I feel like I need some broccoli or spinach with the dish ’cause I’m not getting any veggies, then I’ll remind myself that corn is a vegetable. Somehow. But I guess it’s not!

Also, I went gluten-free for months after a friend convinced me I might have Celiac, and let me tell you I have never tried a more useless, unsatisfying diet in my life. Also, it did NOT cure my chronic, agonizing IBS. Of course, I’m not trying to say it won’t work for anyone, or that it isn’t a generally healthy way to eat. I’m just not on the wheat-is-evil bandwagon. Also, I gained sooo much weight on that diet (mostly because I tried to console myself on having to give up most of my favorite foods by letting myself have a never-ending stream of unmalted milkshakes).

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Charlotte April 28, 2014 at 3:57 pm

I’ve gained weight every time I’ve tried to completely cut out grains too. Although now I want a milkshake;)

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joemama April 28, 2014 at 8:21 pm

Unmalted!? What’s the point in living? : ) I, too, am not a big believer that gluten is the devil for everyone. (I don’t mean you, true Celiac’s Disease sufferers…) Give it ten to twenty years and enough authors to ring the gluten-free cookbook market dry and wheat will be cool again.

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JavaChick April 28, 2014 at 5:54 pm

I’m the same as you – I eat meat, but I don’t love it. Mostly I prefer it to be in something – stir-fry, curry – so that it tastes like something else. I don’t enjoy just eating a piece of meat. I also stick to the basic three: chicken/turkey, beef, pork; I’m not interested in getting adventurous.

I was eating Q’ia cereal for a while – I’m too lazy to look it up, but it had buckwheat, hemp, chia and quinoa; also almonds and dried cranberries I think. I enjoyed it. Then I eventually got bored I guess…Breakfast is the most difficult meal of the day for me, and I get bored quickly.

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Kristen April 28, 2014 at 6:54 pm

Weird! I do a mix of these little cuties for breakfast and haven’t had any problems. I mix 1T each of chia, hemp, buckwheat groats, sunflower seeds, almonds and dried cranberries. I pour almond milk over it while I brew my coffee. Just before I sit down to eat, I chop up a banana and throw in some berries or something. It’s a huge breakfast, but incredibly nutrient dense. The best part is that it, like most other cereals, doesn’t get soggy! Dealing with a 3 yr old’s interruptions often results in soggy cereal, so this is great!

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joemama April 28, 2014 at 8:04 pm

I eat quinoa almost every day for lunch. I make a big batch up at the start of the week and saute veggies each day as suits my mood. It’s usually mushrooms, zucchini and spinach, but sometimes red peppers, broccoli, or sweet potatoes go in as well. I finish it off with sriracha. Yum. I could (and almost do) eat it every day. I love the little “pop” each seed makes when you bite it. They have a good flavor, but a great texture! It doesn’t make me any more regular, but boy does it generate a lotta gas!

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Annabel Adams April 28, 2014 at 8:13 pm

Great post! I do love me some snot pudding aka chia pudding! :)

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Rosa @HHR April 28, 2014 at 9:31 pm

Ooh, interesting. These grains are raw and soaked? Or are some of them cooked? (I guess quinoa would be gross raw haha.)

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Cat April 29, 2014 at 8:21 am

Just curious – how long before you get hungry after eating your breakfast? I know it probably varies (it does with me – even if I eat the same thing each and every day – because I am a creature of habit, at least at breakfast) – but in general what do you find?

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purelytwins April 30, 2014 at 7:56 pm

mmm sounds great, we love raw buckwheat porridges

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Becca May 1, 2014 at 7:34 am

I’m glad to see I’m not the only person who can’t stand chia pudding! I really like chia in my oatmeal but not as a slimy concoction that has zero resemblance to smooth, creamy pudding!

My friend eats that “Ancient Grains” cereal everyday and I always scoff at it because the name sounds so fake, kind of like your “handmade” oats! But I hadn’t realized that “ancient grains” actually described a whole category of food.

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Lily@findingmyhappymedium May 1, 2014 at 10:50 am

This inspired me to try out Qia a cereal that has pretty much your mixture of chia, hemp and buckwheat. I wanted to make my own since I’m sure it’d be cheaper but as I’m on bed rest I just had my husband buy Qia. Just ate it for the first time and it was okay. I used water and then some yogurt but next time I think I’ll use coconut milk once I can get my husband to buy some. Oh and I ate it in bed because that’s where I eat every meal now!

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Brenda May 5, 2014 at 6:48 am

The best morning read I’ve had in a long time! It may be pregnancy hormones, but I laughed so hard I cried. Seriously thought, some great info about grains/non grains and something to consider adding more of to my diet. Thanks!!

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Inca May 5, 2014 at 5:03 pm

Thanks for doing this experiment! When you posted it, I went looking for some of those ancient grains/seeds thingys and found amaranth and chia and pumpkin seeds and have been having that with some fruit and yogurt for breakfast. I now poop once or twice a day! It used to be just once and sometimes it was… you know, funky, but now it’s normal and more frequent! My digestive system thanks you very much.

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Anne May 19, 2014 at 2:27 am

I am trying this right now, as I type & I have a question. How long am I supposed to leave it to soak for? I quite like the taste (not a fan of sweet breakfasts) but the crunchy buckwheat seems to me slightly too crunchy, would it have softened up if I had left it longer?

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