Let’s talk about barley. This little grain is often overlooked and forgotten. Wheat, oats, and brown rice are the ones we think of when someone starts talking about grains. Poor barley gets relegated to the occasional soup recipe. To be fair, barley does shine in soups and veggie stews, but it deserves a little more attention than we tend to give it.
Low Glycemic Index – The glycemic Index ranks carbohydrates from 0 to 100 on how quickly they raise blood sugar levels after we eat them. Barley ranks extremely low on the Glycemic Index, as low as 20 for hulled barley. This makes barley a very healthy alternative to many other carbohydrates. It is even about 20 points lower than oats, another low glycemic food, and 15 lower than minimally processed groats.
Carbs get a bad name because they spike your sugar levels, leading to cellular damage and weight gain, but we need carbs and not all carbs are the same. Our cells run on glucose, a simple sugar derived from the carbs we eat, and our brains cannot function well without a steady supply. The problem with most carbs is they have been processed, the fiber has been removed, the sugars have been concentrated, and thus they rank much higher on the glycemic index and raise blood sugar too quickly. The right amount of sugar is good, but too much creates dangerous free radicals. The body responds to the threat by storing the sugars away where they can’t cause problems and we can still use them later, leading to weight gain and insulin resistance.
Slow Burning Carb – Barley is rich in complex carbohydrates that break down slowly. The soluble and insoluble fiber in this grain also slows down the absorption of carbs, feeds the beneficial bacteria that make our digestive system healthy, cleans the colon, and helps reduce cholesterol. This slow absorption makes barley fairly unique in its ability to supply the glucose our bodies and brains run on without causing the problems of more simple sugars. It also means you get a boost to your energy levels for the long haul, feel fuller so you eat less, and see improvements in endurance and stamina. Barley is a very good pre-workout addition, especially for intense exercise or competition.
Warrior Food – Barley was the go-to food for gladiators and the Roman army, fueling grueling marches, intense battles, and life and death competitions. This may be partially due to how well barley tolerates large plant populations and frost so well; making it was a cheap, high yield way to feed many men and horses, but it was also known to increase stamina, endurance, energy, performance, and muscle growth even in ancient times.
The gladiators were often called “barley men” by their public audience. Soldiers enjoyed this grain a little less. It was sometimes used as a form of punishment for soldiers to receive all their grain rations in barley, but this may have more to do with social standing where soldiers saw themselves above gladiators and horses, or the fact that, without proper soaking or cooking, barley can be hard to eat. Thank goodness we no longer rely on such violent forms of entertainment and hopefully aren’t marching to war, but we can still learn something from the foods these warriors ate.
Beta Glucans – Just like barley is the unsung hero of grains, beta glucans are the unsung heroes of barley. These special polysaccharides exist within the cellulose of some plants, especially oats, barley, and some mushrooms. Beta glucans are very good at lowering cholesterol, improving the cardiovascular system. These molecules are also associated with enhanced immune function. Since beta glucans are often a part of bacteria and fungi, the body responds to them by activating and enhancing macrophages and natural killer cell function. They are also being studied for their beneficial effects against allergies, irritable bowel syndrome, and even cancer. Beta glucans may even help with healthy weight loss, by allowing the body to store less carbs, letting us feel full longer, and giving the blood sugar spikes a rest long enough to let us tap into fat stores we don’t need. These little guys are worth looking into and the research continues to look promising.
Start adding barley to your meals more often. There are hundreds of recipes, from a hearty breakfast to the most savory vegetable stew. Hulled barley is the healthiest, with plenty of the original bran and fiber intact. Get the slow burning carbs and beta glucans your body could use.
Note: Barley does contain a small amount of gluten. People with Celiac Disease should not consume it. Those with sensitivities to gluten may be able to eat it without incident as it contains less protein than wheat, less gluten, and less gliadin, the prolamin in gluten that causes reaction in a small percentage of people. Those with sensitivities often have no reaction to barley, but take care and consult a physician before adding new foods to your diet, especially if you have Celiac or a gluten sensitivity.