Barley is one of the most widely consumed grains in the American diet. The versatile grain has a somewhat chewy consistency and a slightly nutty flavor that can complement many dishes.
It’s also rich in many nutrients and packs some impressive health benefits, ranging from improved digestion and weight loss to lower cholesterol levels and a healthier heart.
Barley is a simple grain which most of us have in our pantries, yet very few of us know its many health and beauty benefits. Barley is relatively low in calories, high in fiber, and packed with vitamins and nutrients. Hulled barley is especially beneficial, due to its bran content.
HEALTH BENEFITS OF BARLEY
■ RICH IN MANY BENEFICIAL NUTRIENTS
Barley is rich in vitamins, minerals and other beneficial plant compounds. It’s available in many forms, ranging from hulled barley to barley grits, flakes and flour. Almost all forms of barley utilize the whole grain – except for pearl barley, which has been polished to remove some or all of the outer bran layer along with the hull.
When consumed as a whole grain barley is a particularly rich source of fiber, molybdenum, manganese and selenium. It also contains good amounts of copper, vitamin B1, chromium, phosphorus, magnesium and niacin.
Additionally, barley packs lignans, a group of antioxidants linked to a lower risk of cancer and heart disease.
However, like all whole grains, barley does have antinutrients, which impair your body’s digestion and nutrient absorption.
Try soaking or sprouting the grain to reduce the antinutrients content. These preparation methods make barley’s nutrients more absorbable.
Soaking and sprouting may also increase vitamin, mineral, protein and antioxidant levels.
What’s more, you can use sprouted barley flour for baking.
Whole grain barley contains a range of vitamins, minerals and other beneficial plant compounds. Soaking or sprouting your barley can improve absorption of these nutrients.
■ REDUCES HUNGER AND MAY HELP YOU LOSE WEIGHT
Barley may reduce hunger and promote feelings of fullnes – both of which may lead to weight loss over time.
Barley lessens hunger largely through its high fiber content. A soluble fiber known as beta-glucan is particularly helpful.
That’s because soluble fibers, such as beta-glucan, tend to form a gel-like substance in your gut, which slows the digestion and absorption of nutrients. In turn, this curbs your appetite and promotes fullness.
A review of 44 studies found that soluble fibers, such as beta-glucan, are the most effective type of fiber for reducing appetite and food intake.
What’s more, soluble fiber may target belly fat associated with metabolic disease.
Barley contain soluble fiber, which reduces hunger and enhances feelings of fullness. It may even promote weight loss.
■ INSOLUBLE AND SOLUBLE FIBER CONTENT IMPROVES DIGESTION
Barley can boost your intestinal health.
Once again, its high fiber content is responsible – and in this case, particularly its insoluble fiber.
Most of the fiber found in barley is insoluble, which – unlike soluble fiber – does not dissolve in water. Instead, it adds bulk to your stool and accelerates intestinal movement, reducing your likelihood of constipation.
In one four-week study in adult women, eating more barley improved bowel function and increased stool volume.
On the other hand, barley’s soluble fiber content provides food for friendly gut bacteria, which, in turn, produce short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs)
Research shows that SCFAs help feed gut cells, reducing inflammation and improving symptoms of gut disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.
Barley’s high fiber content helps food move through your gut and promotes a good chance of gut bacteria, both of which play important roles in digestion.
■ MAY PREVENT GALLSTONES AND REDUCE YOUR RISK OF GALLBLADDER SURGERY
Barley’s high fiber content may also help prevent gallstones. Gallstones are solid particles that can form spontaneously in your gallbladder, a small organ located under the liver. The gallbladder produces bile acids which your body uses to digest fat.
In most cases, gallstones don’t cause any symptoms, however, from time to time, large gallstones can get stuck in a duct of your gallbladder, causing intense pain. Such cases often require surgery to remove the gallbladder.
The type of insoluble fiber found in barley may help prevent the formation of gallstones and reduce the likelihood of gallbladder surgery.
In one 16-years observational study, women with the highes5 amounts of fiber intake were 13% less likely to develop gallstones requiring gallbladder removal.
This benefits appears to be dose-related, as every 5-gram increase in insoluble fiber intake dropped gallstones risk by around 10%.
In another study, obese individuals were put on one of two rapid weight loss diets – one rich in fiber, the other in protein. Rapid weight loss can increase the risk of developing gallstones.
After five weeks, participants on the fiber-rich diet were three times likelier to have healthy gallbladders than those on the protein-rich diet.
The type of insoluble fiber found in barley may prevent the formation of gallstones, helping your gallbladder function normally and reducing your risk of surgery.
■ BETA-GLUCANS MAY HELP LOWER CHOLESTEROL
Barley may also lower your cholesterol levels. The beta-glucans found in barley have been shown to reduce “bad” LDL cholesterol by binding to bile acids.
Your body removes these bile acids – which your liver produces from cholesterol -via the feces.
Your liver must then use up more cholesterol to make new bile acids, in turn lowering the amount of cholesterol circulating in your blood.
In one small study, men with high cholesterol were put on a diet rich in whole wheat, brown rice or barley.
After five weeks, those given barley reduced their cholesterol levels by 7% more than participants on the other two diets.
What’s more, the barley group also increased their “good” HDL cholesterol and reduced their triglycerides levels the most.
A recent review evaluating 14 randomized control trials – the gold standard in scientific research – found similar results.
Lab, animal and human studies also show that the SCFAs produced when healthy gut bacteria feed on soluble fiber may help prevent cholesterol production as well, further reducing cholesterol levels.
The type of insoluble fiber found in barley appears to reduce cholesterol levels by preventing its formation and increasing its excretion through the feces.
■ MAY REDUCE HEART DISEASE RISK
Whole grains are consistently linked to better heart health. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that regularly adding barley to your diet may lower your risk of heart disease
That’s because barley may lower certain risk factors – in addition to reducing “bad” LDL cholesterol levels, barley’s soluble fiber may bring blood pressure levels down.
In fact, a recent review of randomized control studies observed that an average intake of 8.7 grams of soluble fiber per day may be linked to a modest 0.3-1.6 mmHg reduction in blood pressure.
High blood pressure and high LDL cholesterol are two known risk factors for heart disease. Thus, reducing them may protect your heart.
Regularly adding barley to your diet may reduce risk factors for heart disease, such as high blood pressure and “bad” LDL cholesterol.
■ MAGNESIUM AND SOLUBLE FIBER MAY PROTECT AGAINST DIABETES
Barley may reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes by lowering blood sugar levels and improving insulin secretion.
This is in part due to barley’s rich magnesium content – a mineral that plays an important role in insulin production and your body’s use of sugar.
Barley is also rich in soluble fiber, which binds with water and other molecules as it moves through your digestive tract, slowing down the absorption of sugar into your bloodstream.
Research shows that a barley breakfast provides a lower maximum rise in blood sugar and insulin levels than a breakfast consisting of other whole grains, such as oats.
In another study, participants with impaired fasting glucose were given either oatmeal or barley flakes daily. After three months, fasting blood sugar and insulin levels decrease by 9-13% more for those eating barley.
Whole-grain barley may help improve insulin production and reduce blood sugar levels, both of which may reduce the likelihood of type 2 diabetes.
■ MAY HELP PREVENT COLON CANCER
A diet rich in whole grains is generally linked to a lower likelihood of many chronic diseases, including certain cancers – especially those of the colon.
Again, barley’s high fiber content plays a central role. Its insoluble fiber specifically helps reduce the time food takes to clear your gut, which appears particularly productive against colon cancer. Additionally, soluble fiber may bind to harmful carcinogens in your gut, removing them from your body.
Other compounds found in barley – including antioxidants, phytic acid, phenolic acids and saponins – may further protect against cancer or slow its development.
That said, more human studies are needed before strong conclusions can be drawn.
Fiber and other beneficial compounds found in barley may fight off certain types of cancer, particularly those of the colon. However, more research is needed.
VERSATILE AND EASY TO ADD TO YOUR DIET
Barley is cheap and incredibly easy to add to your diet.
Due to its high fiber content, barley can make a great alternative to more refined grains.
For instance, you can use it as a side dish instead of couscous or white pasta. Barley is also a great alternative to white rice dishes such as pilaf or risotto.
Barley can likewise be added to soups, stuffing, stews, salads and loaves or eaten as part of a hot cereal breakfast.
You can also simply buy whole grain bread that contains barley.
For a unique twist, add barley to desserts – barley pudding and barley ice cream are just two options.
Barley is cheap, edible warm or cold and easily added to a variety of savory and sweet dishes.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Barley is a very healthy grain. It’s rich in vitamins, and minerals and other beneficial plant compounds.
It’s also high in fiber, which is responsible for most of its health benefits, ranging from a better digestion to reduced hunger and weight loss.
What’s more, making barley a regular ingredient in your diet may offer protection from chronic diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease and even certain types of cancer.
To reap the most benefits, avoid processed, pearled barley and stick to whole-grain varieties like hulled barley or barley grits, flakes and flour.