When I check out at the grocery store with a cart devoid of any processed foods or “heart healthy whole grain” products, I get occasional odd glances. When my kids won’t eat donuts because of the health ramifications, most people don’t think anything of it. When our entire family refuses the “healthy whole grain” bread at a restaurant or party, we get questions…
But why, people ask? “Grains are healthy and give you necessary fiber!” and “What about the nutrients in grains?” or my favorite, “But they are low-fat!” It was surprising to me when I first learned that all the hype about grains really was just that, hype.
Are Grains Healthy?
“Haven’t people always eaten grains?” you ask? I used to think so too, heck, even the Bible mentions grains, so they must be good. Interestingly, scientific and historical research show that not only have humans not always eaten grains, but the human body is not designed to function well on grains at all!
Hang on tight, this explanation gets messy!
Regular grain consumption began a measly 10,000 years ago by most estimates. Before the Agricultural Revolution, humans had a couple hundred thousand years of not having any regular consumption of grains, (and, are you ready for this?) studies show that human brain function and physical ability peaked just prior to the agricultural revolution as well. Since the dawn of agricultural practices, archeological evidence shows a gradual but steady decline in human strength.
Grains contain Phytic Acid, a mineral blocker that prevents absorption of calcium, magnesium, iron, copper and zinc. This phytic acid is found in the bran of all grains as well as the outer coating of seeds and nuts. Even after grains became more mainstream during the agricultural revolution, grains were allowed to sit in the fields for several weeks before thrashing. This allowed the grains to be exposed to the elements and to sprout. Evidence shows that sprouting increases the content of many important vitamins, and breaks down the phytic acid. Unfortunately, grains today are not sprouted and are consumed in much larger quantities than ever before. The presence of the phytates blocks the absorption of calcium, a risk factor for osteoporosis and other bone-related problems. Unfortunately, many doctors provide a low-fat, high-fiber diet and a calcium supplement for those with osteoporosis but the calcium isn’t being absorbed anyway because the phytates block its uptake.
Perhaps you noticed the general consensus among medical professionals that grains are not only healthy, but the necessary foundation of our diet (solidly nested at the base of our “food pyramid”). The trend lately is to acknowledge that processed grains are bad but to deify those “healthy whole grains” that supposedly provide the bulk of our nutrition in just 6-11 servings a day!
The sad truth is that grain consumption, especially in the the forms found today, are a blatant departure from the way humans have eaten for almost our entire history. The ability to grow and process grains more easily allowed more people to afford grain products like flour, a “luxury” previously reserved for the wealthy. The important thing to remember here is that just because humans seem to have no immediate negative effects from grains, doesn’t mean our bodies can handle them or that we can function optimally while consuming them.
Besides the phytic acid which strips your body of nutrients, another serious disadvantage to grain consumption is the astronomical spike in insulin production which throws a monkey wrench in hormone production in the body. Insulin production is an important process for storing nutrients and processing glucose in the bloodstream, but our bodies simply can’t handle the insulin requirements we throw at them with the carb load we consume these days.
Let’s take a trip back to freshman Biology, shall we? When carbohydrates enter the body (whatever the source, be it grains, fruit, sugar, etc.) they are eventually broken down into glucose. Any extra glucose floating around in the body that we are not immediately using to replenish glycogen stores is stored as fat. This is a natural response of our bodies that has allowed humans to survive for thousands of years. If we aren’t using the fuel now, our bodies store it for future use in the form of fat. Unfortunately, as we are not commonly faced with famine, we don’t often get the chance to use up these stores, and the fat accumulates. If the carbohydrate consumption is excessive (milkshake anyone?) the body throws in the added bonus of cortisol and adrenaline production to handle the extra load. This whole hormonal song and dance does the tango on the body’s endocrine and immune systems and creates inflammation in the body.
With the dawn of the roller mill in 1872, flour became accessible to virtually everyone, though the bran and germ were stripped out, leaving very little of the minuscule nutritional value the grain had to begin with. Surely though, as grains are the center of our diet, an important source of fiber, and a low-fat staple, the general health of the American population must have dramatically increased from this novel invention? Or not…
In the last 130 years of increased grain consumption, chronic disease rates have skyrocketed, fertility has fallen and the average weight of the population has steadily risen. The more consumption of grains rose, the more fertility rates fell. Research from the University of Missouri, the average sperm count of American males has dropped 50% since the 1930s. To add insult to impotence, testicle size tends to have an inverse relationship with grain consumption.
We have found that grains can deplete nutrients, cause weight gain and infertility, but don’t they still have nutrients? Unfortunately, grains do not have the nutritional profile that all the granola-pushing commercials of late make them out to have. It makes much more sense to get your nutrients from foods like vegetables, fruits, proteins and healthy fats, which offer much higher nutrient profiles without the drawbacks.
Back to the insulin equation for a second… It is no secret that the United States is facing a very real epidemic of insulin sensitivity, Type 2 Diabetes, insulin resistance, and obesity. If the corresponding rates of disease and weight gain with grain consumption over the last 130 years aren’t enough to convince you, consider this: when ground into flour, the surface area of a grain is increased to 10,000 times the surface area of the grain itself. The resulting high-starch food is biologically similar to consuming pure table sugar. Consider the fact that flour is often mixed with sugar to create recipes (or used to make wall-paper paste, your choice) and you have a virtual diabetic coma in a bowl (or can).
Sounds bad enough to me, but there are still a few villains left in this mystery story! Behold gluten and lectins! These two are the Bonnie and Clyde of digestive health.
Gluten is a sticky, water soluble protein that is found in your favorite grains (wheat, rye, barley, etc). Grains like corn, rice and oats have similar proteins that cause problems over time. Gluten and similar grain-based proteins work to break down the microvilli in your small intestine, eventually letting particles of your food leech into your blood stream (a lovely term called “leaky gut syndrome”) causing allergies, digestive disturbances or autoimmune problems.
Gluten’s sidekicks, the posse of Lectins, are mild toxins the inhibit the repair of the GI track. Lectins are not broken down in the digestive process and bind to receptors in the intestine, allowing them and other food particles to leech into your bloodstream. Nothing like pre-digested food circulating the blood stream! The body views these lectins and the food they bring with them as dangerous invaders and initiates an immune response to get rid of them. This immune response to particles of common foods explains the allergy creating potential of grains.
Gluten and Lectin now move their destructive dance to the gallbladder. The Gall bladder releases bile salts that help break down and properly digest foods. When the intestines are damaged, the chemical responsible for starting this bile secretion is not released. Bile backs up in the gall bladder, and cholesterol that is left there crystallizes into little “stones” that are usually surgically removed with the rest of the gall bladder.
These chain-reactions created by grain consumption are shown to increase your risk of:
- Various cancers including, drumroll please: pancreatic, colon, stomach and lymphoma
- Autoimmune diseases like Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis
- Depression, Anxiety and Schizophrenia
It all boils down to this: Grains are not healthy and they are toxic to the body. That is the way they were designed. The non-digestible proteins that wreak havoc in our system allow grains to pass un-harmed through the intestines of animals and emerge victorious and in a pile of fertilizer at the other end. Good for the grains-bad for us! Studies have shown, and I have seen in my own work with clients, that a no-grain diet can lower cholesterol, lower blood pressure, reduce inflammation, promote weight loss, alleviate dermatitis or acne, end digestive disturbances like heart disease, increase fertility and dramatically improve energy levels.
Did she just say no-grain? That means pasta, bread, pastries, desserts, rolls, crackers, etc! (I would actually add white potatoes, corn, and any forms of “whole grains” to that list.) Say it isn’t so!
Trust me, I like them too and used to live on them! From personal experience I can tell you that there is no comparison between how you feel when you don’t eat grains and when you do. I realize that you like grains, probably a lot, and that your doctor probably even encourages you to eat them. I understand that the idea of giving them up might sound absurd, even impossible. I also know that giving up the grains is one of the best things you can do for your health.
Do you want to lose weight, or do you suffer from any of those medical conditions above? You can continue on the high insulin, pre-diabetes and cancer roller coaster, or you could try cutting the grains for a couple months and let your body tell you what it thinks. (Important Note: Even a little exposure to grains every couple weeks can keep the intestines damaged, so to see improvements, you will have to completely cut grains like wheat, barley, oats, rice, rye, millet, corn etc. and it also helps to limit beans and legumes)
Try it for 90 days! If you hate it, you can always go back to your carb consuming ways and live the rest of your life in bagel paradise. Instead, you might discover that you feel better than you ever have, have more energy than you did as a kid and don’t even want the grains anymore.