The Four Pillars:
- Blood sugar stability
- Gut health/ Immune health
- Nutrient availability
- Hormone function
Grains compromise all four.
The carbohydrate in grains send blood sugar levels into peaks and in time affect our ability to respond to the hormone insulin, which leads to diabetes. The toxins in most grains wreak havoc in most people’s digestive tracks, throwing gut health into disarray and causing full-body inflammation and innumerable health problems from that alone. If that wasn’t enough, the nutrient deficiencies that overt grain consumption may lead to promote forms of anemia, which further compromise the immune system.
In 1977, low fat diets were recommended to the American public. This came hand in hand with recommendations to eat more “heart healthy grains”, which are often claimed to be healthy precisely because they are low in fat. Since that low fat, high carb trend was set in motion, obesity has more than doubled from 15% in 1974 to 34% in 2006.
We’ll go into how that happened in a moment, but first let’s address the elephant in the room – If all this is true, why have we been given such damaging health advice for so long?
The Grip Grains Have on Us
We can’t get away from them.
Grains have been etched into our collective consciousness. They’re everywhere we turn. They’re a patriotic symbol, an official staple, and a great economic asset.
There’s a good reason for this.
In the 1960s there was a boom in world population, and a genuine fear that we would soon be overrun with hungry mouths. With catastrophic famine looming, Norman Borlaug and his colleagues set about solving world hunger by developing a robust, high-yield strain of wheat that the world had never seen before. At first this strain was introduced to India and Pakistan, and then other developing countries, and famine was turned into surplus in a matter of a few years. It’s no surprise that Borlaug received the Nobel Piece Prize for his contribution to world food supply.
He and his colleagues succeeded in producing an abundant and cheap source of calories.
And this sums up grains very well – A cheap source of calories.
Useful in helping developing countries feed burgeoning populations, but what about when they become fully “developed”? Should you still be driving an old Skoda after you’ve made your millions?
When you hear the praises of wheat and other grains being sung, remember that in the second half of the 20th century, the public saw it as the banisher of famine, the savior of the poor, and maybe even of humanity at large. Is it any wonder that this halo we painted around the humble wheat seed led to grain becoming the official staple of our diet?
What little science there was on grain consumption at the time was collected and pushed to far-reaching conclusions.
I’m sure you’ve heard them before. Grains are supposedly full of nutrients, slow-release carbohydrates, and heart-healthy fiber.
That’s what they believed in 1977 when our government first pushed grains as the official staple. There was no malicious intent. But four decades of research have proved illuminating, and it’s difficult to admit you’re wrong to your trusting public.
1. Grains Lack Nutrition
Vegetables beat grains for nutrition on all fronts, including fiber.
Most foods have their reputation dictated by their ratio of nutrition to calories. Most, but not all. Grains are known to be great sources of fiber, and some B vitamins and minerals, but since they are so calorie dense, their nutrient to calorie ratio is low. However, there’s more to it than that.
We’ll soon cover the reasons why the fiber in your bread should not be called a nutrient, but aside from that, two of the three minerals in wheat (iron and magnesium) are made unavailable to your body by an anti-nutrient called phytate, which all grains contain.
Iron deficiency is no small problem. It’s estimated that a staggering 2 billion people in the world today are anemic, and the majority of this is down to a lack of iron.
A diet based on grains will also tend to be low in vitamin B12. Deficiency in this nutrient is related to a type of anemia that results in cognitive dysfunction.
Is the grain-halo beginning to fade?
2. Grains Contain Toxins
Plants don’t want their seeds to be eaten. The exception is in fruit, where they are designed to pass right through the animal, land on the ground and start life wrapped in a convenient pile of manure. The grasses that provide us with our starchy staples, however, go by a different strategy. They try to make it as difficult as possible for animals to eat them safely by filling their seeds with toxins.
Thanks to these malevolent molecules, most animals have evolved a distaste for them. We are no exception. Try eating a raw head of wheat and give me your review.
Phytate is one such molecule. We’ve already seen that it inhibits absorption of iron and magnesium (found in the grain itself). It also reduces our access to other minerals that we might be consuming in the same meal, such as calcium, copper, and zinc. That includes the calcium in your milk that you pour in with your cornflakes.
Lectin is a little more vicious. It’s found in many foods but is particularly prolific in grain. It inhibits the natural repair system of the gastro-intestinal tract, and promote leaky gut syndrome, a condition in which the walls of the gut rupture and are left open to its undigested contents.
Gluten finishes off this unsavory trio. It is the substance that makes dough sticky, and when in the gut it can damage the microvilli of the small intestines and, just like lectin, cause a leaky gut lining. When contents from the gut enter the bloodstream, the body reacts with an immune response. Often, the line between friend and foe can blur, and when it does, the body will start attacking itself, leading to a host of horrible diseases.
Celiacs are very sensitive to gluten, and experience a violent reaction so strong that their life is immediately threatened. For most of us, though, the damage done by gluten and its two sinister cousins takes years to manifest, and isn’t always obvious when it does.
Perhaps you have a mysterious rash, pimply skin, or you’ve had to deal with IBS, MS, thyroid issues, or allergies. Perhaps you’ve been living with a case of arthritis even though you’re not old. Perhaps your blood pressure is dangerously high, or your doctor tells you you’re at risk of pancreatic, stomach, or colon cancer.
Or perhaps you’re just not as energetic as you used to be.
The majority of us cannot function at our peak while constantly fighting off the affects of these sorts of anti-nutrients, particularly gluten. How it affects you will be unique to you, but if it affects you at all, it won’t be in a good way.
3. The Carbohydrate in Grain is Fattening
If we don’t eat carbohydrate-rich grain, where will we get our energy from?
The idea that we need a large amount of carbohydrate every day to function well is worse than incomplete. In many cases it can be damaging.
Carbs are sugars. Glucose is a common sugar. When billions of tiny glucose molecules are strung together, we get starch. When anyone talks about grains being high in carbs, they’re talking about starch.
It doesn’t always taste sweet in the mouth, but once in the stomach, the individual glucose molecules are set free and quickly pour into the blood stream.
Once in the blood, glucose has to be carefully managed, otherwise it could damage the very same cells that it provides energy to. Insulin is the molecule that stops glucose from running rampant. It does this first by shoving it into your glycogen stores in your muscles and liver.
Unfortunately, these stores are limited to around 400g of glucose.
But don’t fret! Your body has an ingenious way of protecting you from the damage of excess carbohydrate while simultaneously storing it away for later – by converting it to body fat. Better yet, this storage method is limitless. Your fat cells can expand almost indefinitely!
If you were living on the plains of Africa, hunting and gathering for your food with your ancestors, such fatty deposits would be useful to you, and would likely only be filled during the yearly season when wild fruits came into bloom, or on the off chance that you find a bee hive dripping with wild honey. If you’re eating a diet informed by the USDA’s food pyramid, however, you are far from the environment your body was designed to handle.
When we eat processed grain our blood sugar spikes as if we were eating pure honey. Spikes in blood sugar cause spikes in insulin, which leads to inflammation across the whole body. If this happens every day for an extended period of time, we run the risk of numbing our cells to insulin. This is called being “insulin resistant”, and means type 2 diabetes could be just around the corner.
In American adults of 20 years or older, more than 1 in 10 suffer from diabetes, and it’s estimated that around 7 million Americans have the disease without knowing it. While some people deal with an excess of carbohydrates better than others, it’s not always obvious by looking in the mirror. This is a phenomenon that none of us should ignore.
4. The Fiber in Grain is Worthless
A common pro-grain sound bite is, “Grains are low in fat and high in fiber.”
True. And so is a rug.
It doesn’t mean anything by itself. Let’s investigate whether the fiber in grains is any good for us.
It’s known as insoluble fiber. It is not digestible by us, or by any of our gut bacteria. It simply passes right through. We’re told that this is a good thing, that it keeps us regular, protects against colon cancer, and therefore should be considered a “nutrient”.
Unfortunately for grain lovers, the science does not conclusively say this. There are studies that demonstrate insoluble fiber does nothing for colon cancer and may worsen irritable bowel syndrome and constipation.
Contrast this with soluble fiber. This is what holds fruit and vegetables together. Our gut bacteria know what to do with this stuff. In digesting it they produce short chain fatty acids which are happily absorbed by the body, and keep our friendly bacteria happy.
It is fiber from vegetables, not grains, that is protective.
Are Any Forms of Grain Okay?
Like most things in biology, grains exist on a spectrum.
White rice, for example, is relatively benign. It has had the outer husks removed, and while these husks contain most of the nutrients, they also contain the anti-nutrients. Without them, rice becomes almost nothing more than little balls of gluten-free starch. If your metabolism has already become very sensitive to carbohydrate (which will most likely manifest as a weight problem) then the levels of starch found in rice may prevent you from reaching your target weight. Apart from this, white rice is the most benign of grains.
Other gluten-free grains include quinoa, a flat-shaped grain native to the Peruvian Andes, and corn, another American staple alongside wheat.
Speaking of staples, the old European mainstay, the potato, is often talked about alongside grains due to its high starch content. As with all gluten-free starchy foods, potatoes won’t be too much of a problem as long as you do not have an autoimmune condition or inflammatory response already. The only way to tell for sure, of course, is to remove grains and potatoes from your diet for a few weeks, or enough time for you to feel the benefit.
Perhaps you’ve seen sprouted bread on the shelves of your local health food store. The process of sprouting the kernels of wheat before they are ground into flour greatly reduces the amount of phytates and lectins found within. The reason for this, as far as the seeds are concerned, is that they’ve been planted and have started to grow. Therefore, there’s no reason to protect themselves any longer with toxins. Their natural germination process disposes of them. Unfortunately gluten, (the most damaging toxin found in grains), is not reduced by this process at all, so while sprouted bread would be better than a bouncy white loaf, it’s not as benign as white rice, quinoa, corn, or potatoes.
What Can We Do?
If you struggle with autoimmunity or inflammation in your body, I highly recommend that you remove all grains from your diet.
Going cold turkey works best, largely due to a little something called gluteomorphin. This is the molecule that keeps you addicted by binding to opiate receptors in the brain. That’s right. It acts as an opiate, and makes “cutting down” to moderation very difficult for a lot of people.
If nothing else, remove gluten from your life. The human gut has a hard time digesting it, and by giving your body a constant stress from the inside, you are preventing yourself from ever feeling as good as you could be.
The damage builds over time, so even if you don’t feel it now, that doesn’t mean you’re necessarily getting away with it. Many conditions we used to put down to getting older are now being linked to diets high in refined carbohydrates; things like arthritis, Alzheimer’s, strokes, and even wrinkles to some extent.
Almost everyone who cuts out grains for a decent length of time reports feeling much better, usually with more stable energy levels and greater vitality than they’ve had since they were kids.
The sad fact is, most people don’t know what a truly healthy body feels like.
Aren’t you curious? Doesn’t this make sense? Bottom line, Grains are making us sick.
Take a month to go grainless. Most people never know what their body feels like when it’s not fighting off the difficulties of phytate, lectin, gluten, insoluble fiber, or carb induced energy dips and mood swings.
The topic of quitting grains is beyond the scope of this article, but you are in no shortage of information or support. You can even book a consultation with me through this website. Post in the comments below and join in the discussion.