Grains: Necessary for Health or Worse than Soda?

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aregrainshealthy

I grew up eating a lot of grains.

Every day consisted of cereal (lots of cereal), a sandwich for lunch, and varied dinners — always consisting of some sort of grain either as the main dish or side. And every day I felt awful. My stomach rumbled constantly. I was tired and groggy almost constantly (especially after eating). I came down with a cold every few months and struggled quite a bit with acne and allergies…I could keep going for awhile — but I won’t bore you with all of that now.

I thought these ailments were just a part of life…things that come along with being human. After all, it seemed like everyone I knew had their own list of annoying health issues they dealt with.

It wasn’t until my senior year of college when I met my husband Jeff that I even considered the notion that some of my problems could be related to the foods I was eating. Almost all of Jeff’s family was on either paleo or gluten-free diets and had healed some of their own health problems by eating that way. Farmer Paul got rid of his arthritis. His wife Lynsey saw major improvements in her dental health. And Farmer Tom lost about 70 pounds. It all sounded pretty wacky to me…

Until I gave it a try.

The first thing to go was grains. All grains. I’ve never been a big bread, pasta, or rice junkie — so that stuff wasn’t such a big deal for me to give up. But cereal was a different story. Not only did I often eat multiple bowls of it for dinner (in addition to breakfast), but would many times cap off normal meals with the stuff after I was already full. From sugary sweet Cocoa Puffs to “heart healthy” Kashi…I loved it all. That was a tough habit to kick.

But when I did, the changes were remarkable. My digestion and constant state of sluggishness improved immediately. And little by little (while making more changes towards a real food only diet) my other health ailments gradually all but disappeared.

So there it is in a nutshell — grains have never agreed with me and giving them up has improved my health tremendously and changed my life in major ways.

Yes, I realize that I’m probably more intolerant to grains than most people. And no, I’m not trying to suck the fun out of life for everyone else just because of my sensitivity to our culture’s beloved whole grains. But the fact is, there are extremely compelling health reasons for all of us (noticeably intolerant or not) to seriously consider whether or not we should be consuming the plant at the bottom of the food pyramid.


Humans Were Healthier Pre-Agricultural Revolution

10,000 years ago, people didn’t eat the cereal grains (grass seeds) that make up the overwhelming majority of the grains we consume today. Instead, our hunter-gatherer ancestors were dependent on meat, seafood, vegetables, fruits, and nuts for sustenance (and we were much healthier for it).

It wasn’t until the Agricultural Revolution that our diets changed dramatically. In Cereal Grains: Humanity’s Double-Edged Sword, Loren Cordain lists the conditions that resulted from early cases of grain-based diets replacing the primarily animal-based diets of hunter-gatherers:

  • Reduction in stature
  • Increase in infant mortality
  • Reduction in lifespan
  • Increased incidence of infectious diseases
  • Increase in iron deficiency anemia
  • Increased incidence of osteomalacia, porotic hyperostosis, and other bone mineral disorders
  • An increase in the number of dental caries and enamel effects

Though the advent of agriculture has allowed for the advancement of society in many ways, these massive gains have come with a price — our health. The foods we eat have drastically changed (as grains now make up the bulk of most modern diets), even though our genetically determined nutritional needs have virtually stayed the same. Because of this (along with other dietary and lifestyle factors), degenerative and autoimmune diseases are common in modern society. But common as they are, these modern ailments are anything butnormal.


Grains Are Genetically Adapted to be Toxic to Humans

Grains contain anti-nutrients that are toxic to the body and prevent the absorption of important vitamins and minerals that our bodies need (in addition to falling short in vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and more in comparison to the high density of nutrients in meats and vegetables).

They contain these toxins and anti-nutrients as a means of survival. Every living thing on this planet was designed with defense mechanisms. Animals can run, swim, fly, or hide from danger. Plants cannot. Mark Sisson writes,

Plants, though, are passive organisms without the ability to move, think, and react (for the most part). They must employ different tactics to ensure propagation, and they generally have to rely on outside forces to spread their seed. And so various methods are “devised” to dissuade consumption long enough for the seed to get to where it’s going. Nuts have those tough shells, and grains have the toxic anti-nutrients, lectins, gluten, and phytates. (Of course there are some obvious exceptions. Fruits are tasty, nutritious, and delicious so that animals will eat them whole and poop out the seeds, preferably into some fertile soil. The seed stays intact throughout the digestive process; it is indigestible by design. No seed “wants” to be digested, because this would defeat the purpose. They “want” to be swallowed, or borne by the wind, or carried by a bee to the next flower, but they do not want to be digested.)

According to Mark, our bodies may have adapted to tolerate the anti-nutrients in grains (as birds, rodents, ruminants, and other species can), had our ancestors diets’ contained a greater concentration or focus on grains. But they didn’t. And now we’re suffering from society’s shift to a diet rooted in a food that our bodies are not equipped to consume, especially in the large quantities that we eat them in today. Now, let’s tackle some of these anti-nutrients in greater detail…

Anti-Nutrients in Grains

We’ve already established that grains are not essential or even remotely necessary to survival or health — there are no nutrients found in grains that can’t be found in meat and vegetables (in much larger quantities).

Okay, so their nutritional profile isn’t all it’s stacked up to be. So what? I’ll exchange empty calories for a nice bowl of Cheerios or a fluffy dinner roll. But there’s much more to it than that. Aside from not being in any way beneficial, grains are also extremely harmful to the body for three main reasons:

  1. Phytic Acid: This compound binds to important minerals in the foods we eat (calcium, iron, magnesium, zinc, and more). Because phytic acid is indigestible and binds with minerals in the GI tract, these minerals are eliminated from the body instead of ever being absorbed — leaving us vulnerable to the many negative conditions that result from mineral deficiencies. As Diane Sanfilippo writes on page 83 of Practical Paleo,

    Mineral deficiencies can result in a myriad of symptoms that include, but are not limited to, suppressed immunity, fatigue, insomnia, irritability, heart palpitations, muscle cramps, restless leg syndrome, muscle spasms, asthma, migraines, constipation, and hormonal imbalances like premenstrual syndrome (PMS), polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), and infertility in both men and women.

  2. Gluten: Celiacs aren’t the only ones who should steer clear of gluten. Up until very recently, grain intolerance was only tested by the presence of antibodies to transglutaminase and alpha-gliadin, only two components of the gluten compound. But we now know that people can react to several other components of gluten besides just tranglutaminase and alpha-gliadin, suggesting that far more people are intolerant than conventional wisdom would tell us.

    Dr. Kenneth Fine, a pioneer in gluten intolerance research, has demonstrated that 1 in 3 Americans are gluten intolerant and that 8 in 10 have the genes that predispose them to developing gluten intolerance.

    Symptoms of gluten intolerance aren’t always obvious and can include a myriad of problems such as:

    • dermatitus
    • fatigue
    • joint pain
    • acid reflux
    • abnormal menses
    • infertility

  3. Lectins: These proteins (found in large quantities in grains — especially wheat) can impair digestive function by inhibiting the GI tract’s natural repair mechanisms. When lectins disrupt the cell wall, our bloodstream becomes vulnerable to unwanted materials from the digestive system potentially leading to leaky gut and autoimmune disease. The over consumption of lectins can also contribute to leptin resistance, a major perpetrator of weight gain and hormonal dysfunction.

*Sidenote: I know that many readers follow the teachings of Weston A. Price and practice traditional methods of preparing grains, which does effectively neutralize most of the harmful anti-nutrients in grains. I have not experimented with these methods myself (mostly because I’m too lazy and find it easier to just steer clear of grains completely), but do have much respect for individuals who take on this level of commitment and effort in regards to preparing food and fostering health.

Insulin & Grains

Not to be outdone by anti-nutrients is the havoc that grains cause on our bodies’ natural insulin response. Just two slices of whole grain bread has a higher glycemic index (GI) rating than a can of Coke or a Snickers bar. Consuming foods with a high GI leads to a spike in blood sugar which results in the pancreas secreting more insulin to move the glucose from the bloodstream to the muscle and liver cells (where it is stored as glycogen and burned during exercise). But when these cells are already at their max capacity of glycogen, (as they usually are from the excess of grains we eat), things get messy.

With too much glucose in the blood with nowhere to go, the pancreas continues to release insulin to move the glucose to the muscle and liver cells (even though the cell receptors are full) resulting in toxic amounts of insulin in the bloodstream. The excess of insulin results in an inflammatory response and the excess of glucose in the bloodstream leads to insulin resistance, weight gain, and diabetes…all over a measly few slices of whole wheat bread.

The Bottom Line

To sum it up, grains are not healthy. Their nutritional benefits are minimal at best, they prevent us from properly absorbing minerals, wreak havoc on our digestive systems, and contribute to a slew of modern diseases.

It took me about 6-9 months to fully give up grains — a lifestyle change that my body thanks me for daily. But that’s not to say that I never indulge. I’ll occasionally still chow down on sushi with white rice or even gluten-free treats (BJ’s has incredible gluten-free pizookies) from time to time. These compromises usually result in slight fatigue and some digestive discomfort. But sometimes (5% of the time) it’s worth it to me if the enjoyment of the moment is greater than the potential consequences.

That’s really what all of this nutrition and health stuff is about, right? Eating (and living) in ways that optimize wellness and maximize the enjoyment we get out everyday life. And 95% of the time, grains hold us back from that.

Now that I’ve shared my take on grains, what’s yours? Have you experienced better health after eliminating them? Or are you still dead set on having your 6-9 servings a day? Let me know!

Comments

  1. says

    Hi Bethany! Clicked on one of your pins in Pinterest and found your blog! Reading this was very timely, since my mother recently informed me that all grains are bad for you. That’s all she told me, “All grains are bad for you.” Thanks for the info mom. Ha. She didn’t have any research to back it up, so I was a little skeptical. But I have been seeing more and more articles out there that corroborate my mother’s statement. Just last night I told Stephen we should try to go grain-free! I know it will be hard, and we’ll go slowly, eating what we still have in the house and just not buying any more. I will especially be interested to see if it makes any difference with my asthma. I’ll let you know how it goes!
    – Tori

    • Bethany McDaniel says

      Hey Tori! Thanks so much for checking out the blog! So funny that your mom told you that recently. I can totally picture her saying that. Haha! And trust me…I was skeptical for quite some time as well. The “no grain” stuff goes against pretty much everything we’ve ever been told about nutrition. Best of luck going grain free! It takes some getting used to, but after awhile becomes super easy! Definitely let me know how it goes!!

  2. Brenda Reynolds says

    I respectfully disagree that All Grains are bad for you. Even in our Gathering and Hunting days, humans gathered the seeds of wild grasses and often made porridges.
    However, these grains were either sprouted, soaked, or fermented. This practice continued into the early 20th century when our food became “industrialized”. Once we turned over our food source to commercialized processing, in order to turn over a profit, faster methods were sought. Bread went from a 24 hour process to a 3’hour process using commercial yeast which is devoid of the naturally occurring bacteria in sourdough from breaking down both phytic acid and gluten into a form much more digestible, thereby not putting a strain on our digestive system that the shorter process incurs.
    Even 30 years ago boxes of Old Fashioned Oats suggested an over night soak before cooking.
    70 years ago when wheat sheaves were left on the field after harvesting, they naturally started sprouting, so when the wheat berries were ground in a stone mill, excess heat did not cause damage and the flour and the flour that was milled was a sprouted flour.
    So much of the ills we have today that is touted as “Wheat Belly” or Grain Brain” is NOT from the grains, but how the grains are overly processed and refined (and unfortunately the retention of residual pesticides and chemical fertilizers). But these authors just don’t trust people to use grains properly, as our great grandparent did, instead they just tell us to keep them out of our diets.
    It just the same with our meat source today. Beef, pork, chicken, and salmon aren’t bad for us, but forcing warehoused animals to eat things like corn and soy makes these animals sick. Fir instance, salmonella just doesn’t occur in pastured chicken. Why? Because nature just keeps things in balance. It is the crammed warehousing practices that force direct contact of feces that is the culprit.
    But we have become a lazy people. We do not want to spend the hour it takes to put a homemade meal,on the table and the palling necessary to make sure the grains we do eat or either soaked, sprouted or fermented.
    Of course, lazy people just claim grains are bad. It is just easier this way.

    • Bethany McDaniel says

      Hi Brenda, thanks for pointing this out. I agree that the majority of the problem with grains lies in how the vast majority of them are currently being processed. I even pointed this out in the article with the statement,

      “*Sidenote: I know that many readers follow the teachings of Weston A. Price and practice traditional methods of preparing grains, which does effectively neutralize most of the harmful anti-nutrients in grains. I have not experimented with these methods myself (mostly because I’m too lazy and find it easier to just steer clear of grains completely), but do have much respect for individuals who take on this level of commitment and effort in regards to preparing food and fostering health.”

      But you’re absolutely right – I am much to lazy to take the time to sprout/soak/ferment grains. I would rather just cut them out of my diet completely since I function much better without them, don’t miss them a bit, and can get all of the nutrients available in grains in much larger quantities by consuming plenty of vegetables and pastured meat.

      I feel strongly that there is no real “need” for grains of any kind in any human diet. But for those who love their grains and want to keep eating them (and are willing to put the time and effort into preparing them properly), more power to you! But for the majority of us lazy people, I do feel that cutting them out completely is an easier and more viable option.

      • Brenda Reynolds says

        Thanks, Bethany, I appreciate the clarification. Yes, I am following the Ancestral Cuisine philosophy from Nourishing Traditions.
        My main concern is for those people who are going gluten-free are just picking up the ultra processed gluten-free products at the store thinking they are doing something good for themselves. Instead they need to start healing their gut with good pro and pre-biotics and eating “Real Food”.
        Eating whole grains can be a real comfort to many. It is just they need to prepare them properly, so they receive all the nutrients they can offer.
        Whether you agree or not, it makes me very happy to have a toasted piece of my homemade sprouted grain sourdough bread for breakfast with a slice of grass-fed raw milk cheese. It starts my day and I would be sad not to have it in my diet.

        • Bethany McDaniel says

          Totally agree with you on the gluten-free thing! If the focus isn’t on eating REAL food that is also gluten-free, many just end up consuming large amounts of gluten-free processed garbage – definitely not healthy!

          And I do respect your food choices and your commitment to eating traditionally prepared foods. Personally, I feel much better on more of a paleo type of diet. I advocate for this way of eating because I consider it to be a more realistic approach for others as well but will always mention other options when appropriate. Just because I don’t practice traditional methods of preparing foods doesn’t mean that it won’t work for others!

          More than anything, I think that it’s important to motivate people to dump the processed junk and get back to a diet centered around real food.

Trackbacks

  1. […] It’s the refined carbohydrates (like whole grain cereal, whole wheat bread, etc. – basically everything that has been marketed to us as “healthy” for the last 4 decades) that actually raises small, dense LDL particles, potentially contributing to heart disease. For more info on why wheat and other grains are destroying your health, click here. […]

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