I took a “Chemistry of Nutrition” class during my undergrad. At that point in my life, I had been eating a strict paleo diet for about a year. I had battled gnarly bread cravings, and I had come out on the other side a healthier, happier person. Grains were a thing of the past for me, and I had never felt better. I really hoped that this nutrition class would give me some good information that would help me along in my health journey.
Boy was I wrong. While we did study some objective things like the chemical breakdown of different foods, the class crossed into some controversial territory when we got to the Food Pyramid section. Our teacher, who was overweight, diligently explained the importance of eating 6-11 servings of whole grains every day. I wanted to raise my hand and share with her some of the information I was learning—that grains aren’t the nutritional powerhouse that we’re told they are, that they have actually been linked to some mineral deficiencies, that they are inflammatory, and that I personally had been grain-free for a year and never felt better…. But I was too shy to speak up in class. I didn’t want to be ‘that kid’ who argues with the teacher and makes the lecture drag on longer than it has to. So I went home and sent her an email about it instead.
She responded that she was very concerned that I had removed grains from my diet. She thought there must certainly be some trace minerals in grains that I couldn’t get anywhere else, though she didn’t know what, and she reiterated that the FOOD PYRAMID SAYS we should eat this way, so I shouldn’t question it.
About halfway through the semester she stopped coming to class, and a substitute teacher informed us that she had been hospitalized for some serious inflammatory bowel disease of sorts.
My nutrition teacher. Had to stop teaching. Because her intestines were too inflamed.
Now who knows what her diet was really like, or what caused her to become sick. I know that’s not any definitive evidence for one diet or another, but that experience drove me to do more research and take all of her dietary advice with a grain of salt (pun intended).
Several nutrition bloggers and doctors have already preached the grain-free gospel all over the interwebs. Mark Sisson wrote about it here, and here, and here, and here, and Chris Kresser wrote about it here, and here, Katie the Wellness Mama wrote about it here, and Shannon from Nourishing Days wrote about it here…. I could go on. There has also been some discussion about the downsides of grain consumption in documentaries like King Corn and Fat Head.
But apparently the message hasn’t reached everyone yet, so if you are a believer in heart-healthy-whole-grains, please read on.
Here’s how the story begins:
This line represents about how long humans have been on the earth. See that little red blip on the right side there? That’s how long humans have been eating grains. (Archeologists estimate that humans have been around for 200,000 years, and we have been eating grains for roughly 10,000 of those years.) That means that for the other 190,000 years that our digestive systems were developing, we weren’t developing the mechanisms to digest grains.
At the very least we can conclude that grains aren’t a dietary necessity if we lived without them for 190,000 years… But maybe we were sick and deficient for all those years until we finally found grains and we got healthier. Eh?
It’s a good thought, but that’s not what happened.
Archaeologists have concluded that human health actually declined around the beginning of agriculture, when grains became part of our diets. (source) Humans became smaller and more frail, and bone density suffered as well. There are several reasons for this.
Grains Hate Humans.
And for good reason: We are their predators. Plants often produce toxins to discourage animals (and humans) from eating them, and grains are no exception. Here are some of the booby traps they’ve set up to protect themselves:
All plants have lectins, but they vary widely in toxicity. Some lectins are so toxic that they are used in biochemical warfare, like ricin from the castor bean plant. Others are relatively mild and our enzymes are able to disarm them without too much trouble, like those found in most vegetables.
The lectins found in grains and legumes are particularly harmful to our digestive systems because we don’t have the enzymes to break them down. (Remember that part where we talked about how humans didn’t evolve to eat grains?) Turns out lectins bind to the epithelial cells that line the digestive tract, and they prevent those cells from repairing themselves. (source)
A little background: The cells that line our intestines have a pretty high turnover rate. They are damaged quite frequently by our food intake, so they are constantly repairing themselves. This repair process is essential for good digestion, and good digestion is essential for good overall health.
So when lectins are absorbed in high quantities (6-11 servings of whole grains, anyone?) our digestive tract is highly vulnerable to damage, and repair doesn’t happen. This interferes with digestion and absorption, and can even throw off the balance of microflora in the gut. Systemically, lectins disrupt the metabolism of nutrients, and they have even been found to alter hormones and mess with the immune system. (source)
Note: You can greatly decrease your exposure to lectins with good preparation methods. If you are going to eat grains (or legumes, or nuts, or seeds…) it’s important to prepare them by soaking/sprouting/fermenting them first. Turns out those traditional cultures knew what they were doing…
Humans are unable to digest phytic acid, which is found in the bran of grains. This wouldn’t be a problem if it just passively moved through our digestive system unscathed, but that’s not what happens. Phytates love binding to minerals, especially iron, zinc, copper, magnesium, and calcium. Binding those minerals up renders them useless to us, and creates deficiencies.
In case you missed that last part, I’ll say it again: Grains leach essential minerals from our bodies.
Similar to lectins, soaking, sprouting, fermenting, and cooking can reduce the amount of phytates in your food.
Gluten hates humans more than any of these guys. It’s found in wheat, rye, and barley, but other grains have their own proteins that are similar to gluten in that they can cause damage over time.
Here’s how it works:
Gluten breaks down the microvilli in your intestines. Think of your villi as long, luscious shag carpeting. When you eat a bagel for breakfast, gluten comes along with a lawn mower, and mows the tips of your villi off. Then for lunch you might have a sandwich, and the lawn mower takes another layer off those villi. You can probably see where this is going.
This villi-lawn-mowing happens even in individuals who have no gluten-related allergies or disorders. The difference is that healthy individuals who have no problems with gluten are able to repair the tips of their villi without too much trouble.
For those of us whose guts aren’t able to repair quickly enough, the villi become more and more damaged. When your villi are damaged, they lose the ability to control what gets into the blood stream. The result is intestinal permeability, or “leaky gut syndrome”. This has been inextricably linked to autoimmune conditions and various chronic diseases. If you have any food allergies, skin disorders, autoimmune conditions, mental disorders, or other chronic inflammatory diseases, you likely have some intestinal permeability as well.
But I don’t feel sick when I eat bread…
If you are able to tolerate gluten fairly well, I am sincerely happy for you, and profoundly jealous. But keep in mind, just because you don’t feel sick immediately after consuming a meal doesn’t mean there isn’t any silent inflammation and damage going on under the surface. Even if you have a gut of steel and you repair damage very quickly, that doesn’t make gluten a health food. The ability to tolerate grains does not make them healthy.
If you continue to bombard your system with gluten-containing grains at every meal, it’s likely that you will eventually develop a damaged digestive tract. This may not present itself as digestive upset—the symptoms can range from headaches to joint pain to skin disorders to weight gain to hypothyroid and on and on.
I’ll get off my milk crate now. Moving on…
The Insulin Roller Coaster
Grains are primarily starch. When we eat starch, it is absorbed very quickly into the blood stream as glucose. Our blood sugar levels spike, and we pump out insulin to bring the blood sugar back down to normal levels. This usually results in a short burst of energy followed by a sugar crash, or food coma. It’s a dangerous roller coaster.
One of the most beneficial things you can do for your body is to keep your blood sugar levels stable. High blood sugar is very damaging to the nerves and blood vessels, which is why diabetes is such a serious issue. If blood sugar levels remain high for too long, we start seeing more serious health issues arise, like heart attack, stroke, kidney disease, and eye damage. (source)
The simple act of eating a heart-healthy-whole-grain bagel is enough to spike blood sugar levels, signaling the pancreas to pump out insulin to drive the excess sugar into storage. Some of the sugar goes into our glycogen stores in the liver, which will be used as quick emergency fuel when needed. The rest gets dumped into long-term storage, usually located on your waist, hips, and thighs. If you haven’t done any high-intensity exercise in a while, chances are your glycogen stores are already full, and whatever glucose you don’t use up immediately will be added to your fat storage. Grains are responsible for building up the padding around our midsection, not dietary fats.
Note: If you regularly deplete your glycogen stores (high intensity workouts) then you won’t need to limit starch consumption quite as much. I recommend getting starch from root veggies, rather than grains.
This whole insulin/blood sugar tango isn’t just an issue of fat storage, it actually puts a strain on your hormones. The pancreas has other work to do, and it isn’t too happy about having to constantly produce insulin to control your carb habit. Likewise the adrenal system and the immune system take a hit every time blood sugar spikes, and the result is chronic inflammation.
You may recall that inflammation is largely responsible for heart disease. An interesting study was published, stating that that “lowering total and saturated fat only had a small effect on circulating inflammatory markers whereas reducing carbohydrate led to considerably greater reductions in a number of pro-inflammatory cytokines, chemokines, and adhesion molecules. These data implicate dietary carbohydrate rather than fat as a more significant nutritional factor contributing to inflammatory processes.” (source)
But won’t I miss out on all the essential nutrients that only grains provide?
While grains do have some nutrients in the bran, they are mostly locked up in insoluble fibers that we can’t break down anyway.
You can get every single vitamin and mineral you need from fruits, vegetables, and high quality, fatty, delicious meats. If you’re concerned about trace minerals, use real sea salt or himalayan pink salt to season your food, and you will have all of your bases covered.
Plus, remember earlier when we talked about how phytic acid creates mineral deficiencies? New research is finding that grains may even reduce our body’s ability to make vitamin D3, which is an integral part of nearly all of our bodies functions. (source)
Whatever nutrients grains provide, you can find them in equal or greater amounts in other foods, and those other foods are likely to cause less damage in the process.
But What About Fiber?
Vegetables and fruits are a wonderful source of fiber, and I’d like to argue that they are a superior source. The type of fiber found in fruits and veggies is largely soluble fiber, which means it feeds the healthy bacteria that live in our guts, and it contributes to happy, healthy digestion. The type of fiber found in grains is insoluble, and nothing in our guts can break it down. Our microflora just ignore it, and it doesn’t do much but add bulk to our excrement. Furthermore, if your gut is already damaged from eating processed foods (and grains), insoluble fiber is actually quite irritating and inflammatory to the gut. It’s like taking a scrub brush to raw, tender skin. Eesh. (source)
A Few Closing Thoughts:
It’s worth taking a minute to question what we’ve been told about grains. The USDA is undoubtedly biased in their recommendations, and we can see very clearly where those recommendations have gotten us. (Read Denise Minger’s book, Death By Food Pyramid for more insight into all of that mess).
It’s worth noting that there are several traditional cultures that Dr. Weston A. Price studied who enjoyed robust health and still included some grains in their diet. The main difference is how they used traditional methods of processing the grains (soaking, sprouting, fermenting, etc) to break down the harmful components and ease digestion. It’s also important to note that when processed grains (like the flour we know today) entered the scene, their health rapidly declined.
I give you all of this information not so that you will swear off grains and run through the street swatting muffins and bagels out of people’s hands to save them from themselves, but to empower you to make decisions for yourself. If you are trying to eat a healthier diet, think twice about that whole wheat bagel.