Our ancestors didn’t have supplements like protein powders but they were still strong, lean, and healthy. How? They consumed ancient grains. Ancient grains are unrefined grains and have been around for centuries. They’ve also been planted and harvested the same way for thousands of years. According to BBC News, “They are seen as more healthy, more natural and better for us, providing more vitamins, minerals, fiber and protein than modern wheat – partly because they are rarely eaten in processed form.” While there isn’t a complete list of ancient grains, it’s generally agreed that grains such as amaranth, quinoa, barley, and a few other belong in that category.

Overdoing anything is a set up for disaster, especially when it comes to your diet — moderation is key. When you’re trying to shed the weight but can’t, take a good look at the amount of carbs you’re eating. Refined grains such as white bread, white rice, and white pasta, “Have fewer naturally-occurring vitamins and minerals, less fiber, and lower levels of phytonutrients, which protect all cells, including muscle cells, from damage,” says award-wining author, Elizabeth M. Ward, M.S., R.D.

After a long, hard workout your muscle glycogen stores need to be refueled with the right carb — whole grains. They’ll will make you feel fuller for longer and prevent any dips and spikes in blood glucose levels. According to the Whole Grains Council and numerous health studies, whole grains also reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, and obesity. The added bonus: they’re a good source of protein and some amino acids.

Start incorporating some of these ancient grains into your muscle-building diet. They’re a sure fire way of helping you shed stubborn weight.

1. Quinoa 

1 Food 5 Ways: Quinoa

By now quinoa should already be in your diet — it’s the most popular ancient grain, and it can be easily made as a main dish or side dish. Quinoa is a complete protein and has all of the essential amino acids — helping to pack on slabs of muscle. Up the protein content by pairing it with salmon: balsamic glazed quinoa salad. You can find quinoa in bulk at your local health food store or in packages at the grocery store. If the grain hasn’t been washed, then you’ll need to rinse it before cooking it. 

What You’ll Need

  • 6 oz salmon fillet (skinless, preferably wild-caught)
  • 3 cups fresh spinach leaves, chopped
  • ¾ cup cooked quinoa (Cook according to package directions, omitting any butter or oil.)
  • 1 tbsp light balsamic vinaigrette
  • 1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
  • salt and pepper, to taste


Serves 1

  1. Season salmon with salt and pepper. Put small nonstick frying pan over medium-high heat. Add salmon. Cook until desired doneness, about 2–3 minutes per side (turn down heat if it’s over-browning before desired doneness is reached; the fish should be slightly translucent in center).
  2. Meanwhile, mix balsamic vinaigrette with vinegar.
  3. Put chopped spinach in large shallow bowl. Top with quinoa and salmon. Drizzle dressing over top. Toss if desired.
Totals: 543 calories, 42g protein, 23g fat, 40g carbs

2. Freekeh


Photo taken from cooking.nytimes.com

New to the ancient grain market is freekeh, pronounced free-kah by most standards. Since it’s in popular demand, you’ll be able to find it at the grocery store. According to The Freekeh Cookbook by Bonnie Matthews, “The grain is a better option than brown rice because it contains more protein and fiber. It also contains more vitamins and minerals than other grains.” Check out this recipe from The New York Times: freekeh, chickpea, and herb salad.  

What You’ll Need

  • 1 cup freekeh
  • ½ tsp salt, more to taste
  • ½ cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • ¼ cup chopped fresh mint
  • 1 cup thinly sliced celery, plus 3 tablespoons chopped leaves
  • 1 bunch scallions, finely chopped
  • 1 can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
  • ¼ cup fresh lemon juice, more to taste
  • ½ tsp lightly toasted cumin seeds, ground, more to taste
  • 1 garlic clove, minced or puréed (optional)
  • 6 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil


  1. Heat a medium-size heavy saucepan over medium-high heat and add freekeh. Toast in the dry pan, shaking pan or stirring, until freekeh becomes fragrant, 2 to 3 minutes. Add 2 cups water and salt and bring to a boil.
  2. Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer 20 to 25 minutes or until water has been absorbed. Turn off heat and uncover. Place a clean dish towel over the pot and return lid. Let sit at least 10 minutes. Uncover and allow freekeh to cool another 10 minutes.
  3. In a large bowl, combine freekeh, chopped herbs, celery, scallions and chickpeas and toss together. In a small bowl, whisk together lemon juice, cumin, garlic, salt and olive oil; toss with salad. Taste and add more lemon juice if desired. Serve right away or let sit for up to 1 hour before serving.

3. Farro

Meatless Monday: More Muscle, Less Meat

Farro has a similar texutre to that of quinoa, and it’s super easy to cook. All you really need is a little extra virgin olive oil, sea salt, and herbs, and it’s a healthy carb swap. Fun fact: Ancient Roman armies used to eat farro to sustain their energy, which means it could be great as a pre-workout meal. It’s also high in fiber, magnesium, and vitamins and it’s easy to digest. Unlike rice, it doesn’t become gummy, and it makes dishes creamier and thicker. Cooked farro can be stored in the refrigerator for up to five days or in the freezer for up to two months. Chef Irvine has whipped up a great vegetarian muscle-building recipe: farro and roasted eggplant.

What You’ll Need

  • 6 eggplant
  • 2 cups farro
  • 2 ½ tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 4 oz low-sodium vegetable broth
  • 1 cup red onions, diced
  • 1 cup yellow peppers, diced
  • 1 cup red peppers, diced
  • 1 cup asparagus, blanched
  • 1 cup balsamic vinegar
  • 1 bunch parsley, chopped
  • 1 tsp honey
  • 6 oz crumbled goat cheese


Serves 6

For eggplant:
  1. Preheat oven to 350°.
  2. Cut eggplant in half lengthwise; trim off the rounded back so the eggplant can sit flat on a plate.
  3. Drizzle lightly with olive oil (about 1⁄2 tbsp) and season with salt and pepper.
  4. Place in a sauté pan over medium heat and grill on each side, 2–3 minutes.
  5. Place on a sheet pan and finish in oven for 15–20 minutes until tender.
For farro:
  1. Place farro in a saucepan, and toast for one minute over medium-high heat.
  2. Add garlic, bay leaf, and vegetable stock and bring to a simmer.
  3. Turn heat down to low-medium; allow to cook for 25–30 minutes until tender. Strain any excess liquid; set aside.
  4. In a separate pan over medium-high heat, add 2 tbsp olive oil, onion, yellow and red peppers.
  5. Sauté until onions are translucent; add asparagus and farro.
  6. Deglaze pan with vegetable stock and continue to cook for two minutes to allow farro to absorb liquid. Finish with chopped parsley and set aside.
For balsamic reduction:
  1. Pour balsamic vinegar into a small pot. Heat until it is reduced by two thirds.
  2. Take off heat and stir in honey. Let cool to room temperature.
For plating:
  1. Place grilled eggplant on the center of the plate with farro mixture on top.
  2. Garnish with balsamic reduction around plate and top with goat cheese.
Totals (1 serving): 544 calories, 21g protein, 18g fat, 61g carbs

4. Barley

Mushroom recipe rotator

Packed with fiber, calcium, and iron, barley can help thicken soups and stews. Also, look for pearled barkey because it cooks quiker than unpearled. You’ll be meeting your gains with Chef Irvine’s wild mushroom and butternut barlotto recipe

What You’ll Need

  • 5 cups Low sodium chicken broth
  • 2 cups Pearl barley
  • 1 Bay leaf
  • 1 Medium butternut squash
  • 5 tbsp Olive oil
  • 2 Shallots, minced
  • 1 Garlic clove, sliced
  • 2 cups Maitake mushrooms, sliced
  • 2 cups Oyster mushrooms, sliced
  • 2 cups Crimini mushrooms, quartered
  • ½ cup White rice
  • 2 cups Low-sodium chicken broth
  • ½ cup Parmesan cheese, grated
  • 2 tbsp Fine herbs (chopped chives, parsley, tarragon)
  • Salt and pepper


Serves 6

  1. Bring chicken broth to a boil and add the barley and bay leaf.
  2. Cook for 30-35 minutes. Spread on a sheet pan to cool.
  3. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. 
  4. Peel the butternut squash. Cut off the bottom, split it down the center. Remove all seeds, then dice.
  5. Toss the squash with 2 tbsp olive oil, then place on a baking sheet. Cook in oven for 15–20 minutes.
  6. In a large sauté pan over medium-high heat, add 3 tbsp olive oil, shallots, and garlic.
  7. “Sweat” the shallots and garlic, then add mushrooms. Sauté until tender.
  8. Deglaze the pan with white wine (heat until sauce forms).
  9. Add chicken broth, barley, and squash and continue to cook over medium heat.
  10. Once the barley begins to thicken, add cheese and finish with fine herbs.
Totals (1 serving): 579 calories, 24g protein, 14g fat, 87g carbs