Although barley may not be as popular as other whole grains like oats, wheat, or even grain-of-the-moment quinoa, barley has some impressive health benefits. A very high fiber content, vitamins and minerals, antioxidants, heart health and diabetes protection are just some of the barley nutrition benefits that make it one of the best whole grain choices.
Barley is actually one of the oldest consumed grains in the world. It was a staple grain for peasants during medieval times for centuries and today is still included in the diet of many European, African, and Middle Eastern nations that have been eating barley for thousands of years.
Barley provides a range of important vitamins and minerals: fiber, selenium, B vitamins, copper, chromium, phosphorus, magnesium, niacin, and more. And when compared to many other grains, even other ancient whole-grains, barley is lower in fat and calories, but higher in dietary fiber and certain trace minerals. For example a one-cup serving of cooked barley has less calories, but more fiber, than an equal serving of quinoa, brown rice, amaranth, sorghum, millet or wild rice.
Barley Nutrition Facts
About one cup of cooked hulled barley, which is about equivalent to 1/3 cup uncooked, provides: (1)
- 217 Calories
- About 1 gram fat
- 10 grams fiber
- 7 grams protein
- 45 grams carbohydrates
- 1 mg manganese (60%)
- 23 mg selenium (42%)
- .3 mg copper (34%)
- .4 mg vitamin B1 (33%)
- 162 mg phosphorus (23%)
- 80 mg magnesium (20%)
- 8 mg vitamin B3 (18%)
To get the most benefits from barley nutrition, it’s recommended that you first soak and sprout hulled uncooked barley grains, or you can choose to buy sprouted barley flour for baking. Sprouting whole grains helps to unleash their nutrients, so that the body can actually absorb and use the various vitamins and minerals found within the grain.
This is because all whole grains contain certain antinutrients, like phytic acid for example, which bind to nutrients and make them very difficult to absorb. Soaking and sprouting grains, including hulled uncooked barley, can help to lower the level of antinutrients significantly, making grains more beneficial and also easier to digest. It can also reduce the amount of gluten present within barley to some degree.
Numerous studies have found that when grains are soaked and sprouted, improvements in digestibility and nutrient absorption are commonly seen and also vitamin, mineral, protein, and antioxidant levels are increased. (2, 3, 4) To sprout your own barley, you can soak whole, raw barley grains for 8-12 hours and then sprout them over the course of about 3 days. Or check out my Sprout Guide for a full list of how to soak and sprout seed-based foods.
Top Barley Health Benefits
1. High Source of Fiber
One of barley’s most noteworthy health benefits is its high fiber content. Each one-cup serving of barley provides approximately 6 grams of fiber. Most of the fiber found in barley is the insoluble type which aids in healthy digestion, glucose metabolism, and heart health. (5)
Consuming foods that are high in fiber also makes you feel fuller, since fiber expands within the digestive tract and takes up a high volume of space. This means you feel more satisfied after a meal, are better able to control blood sugar levels, and have less cravings.
2. Can Help Improve Digestion
Fiber also helps to fight constipation and diarrhea by forming bulk within the digestive tract, therefore regulating bowel movements. A 2003 study observed the effects of adding more barley to the diet of adult women and found that after 4 weeks, barley intake had beneficial effects on lipid metabolism and bowel function. (6)
Barley’s fiber is also important for maintaining a healthy balance of bacteria within the digestive tract. Another important and well-researched benefit of barley nutrition? Barley’s high supply of fiber may even be beneficial in preventing certain types of cancers within the digestive system, including colon cancer.
3. Helps with Weight Loss
Fiber provides volume to a healthy diet without any additional calories since the body cannot digest fiber. This makes the fiber found in barley beneficial for weight loss. A study in 2008 found that when adults added high amounts of barley’s beta gluten fiber to their diets for 6 weeks, their weight significantly decreased, as did their levels of hunger. (7)
And many other studies have found that compared to more refined grain products, like white bread for example, consuming whole grains like barley significantly reduces hunger levels and positively impacts metabolic responses to carbohydrates by absorbing starches at a slower pace. (8)
4. Helps Control Blood Sugar Levels
Barley nutrition can benefit blood sugar level management, making it a smart grain choice for those with diabetes or any form of metabolic syndrome because it helps to slow the rate at which sugar is released into the blood stream. (9)
Barley contains 8 essential amino acids, the building blocks of protein, as well as high amounts of soluble fiber which control insulin release in response to barley’s sugar in the form of carbohydrates.
Inside the cell walls of barley is a type of soluble fiber called beta-glucan. Beta-glucan is a viscous fiber, meaning our body cannot digest it and it moves through our digestive tract without being absorbed. As it does this it binds with water and other molecules within the digestive tract, slowing down the absorption of glucose (sugar) from food intake.
One animal study conducted in 2010 found that after rats were given high levels of barley for a 7 week period, the addition of barley helped reduce their weight, decreased hepatic lipid (fat) accumulation, and improved insulin sensitivity compared to the rats not consuming barley.
Because of its special fiber compounds, barley nutrition has even been found to help control blood sugar levels better than other whole grains, like oats for example. (10)
5. Helps Lower High Cholesterol
A diet rich in fiber has been correlated with a lower incidence of heart disease, partially due to its ability to help lower high cholesterol levels. Barley’s high source of insoluble fiber is mostly responsible for giving it is heart health benefits because it inhibits the amount of bad cholesterol that can be absorbed by the intestines. (11)
In a 2004 study, 28 men with high cholesterol levels were put on a diet containing high amounts of barley, with roughly 20% of overall calories coming from whole grain barley. After 5 weeks, total cholesterol, HDL “good” cholesterol, and triacylglycerols levels all showed significant improvements. Researchers concluded that by increasing soluble fiber through consumption of barley, as part of an overall healthy diet, people can reduce several important cardiovascular risk factors. (12)
Barley’s fiber helps to form a type of acid known as propionic acid which helps inhibit enzymes that are involved in the production of cholesterol by the liver. The fiber found in barley also provides beta glucan, a substance that is needed to bind bile in the digestive tract to cholesterol and therefore to help pull it through the colon and out of the body in stool.
6. Prevents Heart Disease
One of the biggest advantages of barley nutrition is that eating whole grains is correlated with improved heart health.
Barley contains certain nutrients including vitamin B3 niacin, vitamin B1 thiamine, selenium, copper, and magnesium which are useful in lowering cholesterol, high blood pressure, and other risk factors associated with heart disease. These minerals help to control the production and metabolism of cholesterol, prevent dangerous blood clotting, aid in arterial health and are crucial for nerve signaling functions that help control cardiovascular processes like heart rhythms.
Barley’s nutrients are especially useful in slowing the dangerous progression of atherosclerosis, a condition in which plaque builds up within arteries and can lead to heart disease, a heart attack, or stroke. Barley’s nutrients help blood vessels to remain clear, improving blood flow and reducing inflammation.
7. Provides Antioxidants
Barley benefits the body in many ways because it contains antioxidant phytonutrients known as lignans. Lignans are correlated with lower incidences of cancer and heart disease because they are helpful in reducing inflammation and fighting the toll that aging can have on the body.
The main type of lignan that is found in barley is called 7-hydroxymatairesinol. Studies have shown that this lignan may offer protection against cancer development and heart disease because it helps the body to metabolize bacteria and to sustain a healthy ratio of “good-to-bad” bacteria within the gut, reducing overall inflammation. (13)
The antioxidants found in barley help to boost serum levels of enterolactones, which is a compound that is associated with controlling hormone levels and therefore fighting hormone-related cancers, such as prostate and breast cancer.
8. High in Vitamins and Minerals
Some of the highlights of barley nutrition is that this whole grain is a good source of important nutrients including: selenium, magnesium, copper, niacin, thiamine and many other vital nutrients too.
Barley nutrition helps many functions due to its high mineral content. Copper for example is important for maintaining cognitive function into old age, supporting metabolism, the nervous system, and producing red blood cells. And selenium found in barley benefits your appearance by improving skin and hair health and supports a healthy metabolism. Selenium also works with vitamin E to fight oxidative stress.
Manganese found in barley is important for brain health and supporting the nervous system. One cup of cooked barley also provides 20% of your daily magnesium needs. Magnesium is needed for numerous important enzyme relations within the body, including the production and use of glucose. Magnesium also helps control muscle functioning, dilating blood vessels, and many more functions.
9. Protects Against Cancer
A diet that includes whole grains has been shown to protect against various forms of cancer, including breast, colon, and prostate cancers. Whole grains contain compounds that have the ability to fight free radical damage and inflammation including lignans, polyunsaturated fatty acids, oligosaccharides, plant sterols and saponins. (14)
These beneficial compounds have mechanistic effects that include binding to harmful carcinogens and removing them from the body. (15) They also help improve the environment of the gut and therefore boost immunity by helping with antioxidant and nutrient absorption.
Also Barley’s antioxidants, enterolactones, protect against all hormone-based types of cancer.