We have all been programmed to believe that grains are a health food. From whole wheat bread to pasta to the rice in sushi, we think we’re staying healthy by eating grains—in particular, large amounts of them.
Grains include wheat, oats, rice, and corn (yes, corn), which we eat in the form of bread, pasta, bagels, and Captain Crunch. They provide 56% of the calories consumed on earth. Yet if you were to go out in a field and chew on a stalk of wheat, you would find it tough and indigestible. So why do we eat them? The answer, from an evolutionary perspective, is that humans don’t eat grains—or didn’t, as the case is.
The first human species sprung up around 2.5 million years ago, starting with Homo habilis. Our ancestors were hunter-gatherers. Roaming from place to place, they ate fish, vegetables, meat, and occasionally nuts or berries. They consumed no grains, dairy, legumes, and certainly no refined sugars (okay, so honey was a hard-to-come-by treat).
Yet around 10,000 years ago something happened. Somewhere in the Middle East, people found a way to make wild wheat and barley digestible–grind it then cook it.
The addition of grains in the human diet both was good and bad. The good news is that the Agricultural Revolution allowed for the sustainability of large populations. We moved out of the hunter-gatherer niche and into the realm of big cities, which paved the way for further monumental advancements like the Industrial Revolution, modern science & medicine, and the iPod.
But grains have a dark side. Our genetic makeup, and the subsequent process of gene expression, is stuck in the past. Genetically speaking, we’re identical to our ancestors of at least 40,000 years ago. We’re hunter-gatherers, and our bodies don’t take kindly to the newfangled grains that were nonexistent in our primal diet.
It took about 5,000 years for grain cultivation to move from the Middle East to the outskirts of Europe. By looking at the archeological record, scientists have found that when a culture switched to eating grains, it was accompanied by a reduction in stature, an increase in bone abnormalities, an increase in infectious diseases, and a shorter life span.
Interestingly, if your close relatives are from Scandinavia—a late adopter to the grain diet—you’re at higher risk of being sensitive or outright allergic to wheat. In other words, it looks like as wheat cultivation spread across Europe it accidentally wiped out a good portion of the gene pool in its wake. Oops.
Why Grains are Unhealthy
So why are bread, pasta, rice and other grain-based foods bad?
(Skip this section if you don’t like nitty-gritty science).
Well, the health dangers of grains depend on your dietary context, lifestyle context, and your genetics, but for now let’s just explore their evil side.
- Grains contain gobs of carbohydrates. I don’t care where you stand on the pro-Atkins-anti-Atkins scale. For more than 99.5% of human history, humans got ALL their carbs from veggies and fruits. That should raise a red flag, no?
- Grain foods spike blood sugar. Carbohydrates from refined grains get broken down into glucose so fast that there’s little difference between eating 10g of sugar and eating 10g of refined grains. Lots of glucose in the blood generates free radicals and damages proteins (via Advanced Glycation End-Products) — translation: white bread makes your tissues age faster.
- Grain foods also spike insulin levels. To counteract the excess glucose in the blood, your pancreas secretes large amounts of insulin, which is designed to allow glucose to enter cells. Too much insulin, however, and those cells become insulin resistant — to say this is a bad thing is an understatement. High insulin levels and insulin resistance are associated with obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, dementia, Alzheimer’s, and several cancers. Your brain, for example, loves to use glucose for fuel, but some neurons involved with complex thinking and memory can become insulin resistant. Brain fog, anyone?
- Grains contain poor amounts of nutrients and fiber per calorie. Refined grains contain only trace amounts of nutrients and are quite barren in terms of fiber. Whole grains contain some vitamins/minerals, but also antinutrients (what the hell are those?! — see 6 and 7).
- Wheat contains gluten. Gluten = allergic reaction = bad. More on this little bugger later.
- Whole grains contain phytates. To put it simply: phytates block the absorption of certain nutrients like zinc and magnesium, which by the way are important for sleep quality.
- Whole grains contain lectins. Lectins increase gut-permeability, which allow various junk into the blood. Your immune system gets confused, since some of that junk looks like body proteins, and starts attacking both the junk and the body proteins it resembles. The result ranges from acne to multiple sclerosis. Lectins are bad, mmkay?
OK… whew. Let’s summarize the above 7 points:
- Points 1-4 implicate that the grains put a huge sugar load on the body while providing little nutrients — something our genes weren’t designed to handle well. This is thought to be primarily responsible for the slew of modern diseases absent in pre-agriculture times. In other words, Grok the caveman never had diabetes.
- Points 5-7 simply state that grains contain crap our bodies don’t know how to handle. It’s no surprise that lectins, phytates, and gluten aren’t handled well by our bodies — for 99.5% of human history, those chemicals didn’t enter the gastrointestinal tract. By contrast, cows can metabolize phytates, but their ancestors fed on grains.
Myth: Whole Wheat is Healthy
Points 1-7 above help dispel the myth that whole wheat is a healthy alternative to refined grains (healthier, yes, but not necessarily healthy in its own right). Let’s drill in a few more points (Sorry, I can’t stop… I’m on a roll.)
- The idea is that whole grains contain more “complex carbohydrates” than refined grains. Whole wheat flour (as found in whole wheat bread) will affect the blood sugar just as much as refined flour. True whole grains (like brown rice or oats) do affect blood sugar levels less so than refined grains, but their glycemic load is still very high.
- In other words: Regardless of how “complex” a carbohydrate is, it still becomes glucose and it will still raise insulin levels, even if over a longer time scale. Large amounts of whole wheat can put a strain on a body that has adapted to vegetables and fruit as carbohydrate sources.
- Whole grains are a good source of fiber. They are a source of fiber, but so are bananas. One banana has twice as much fiber as a slice of whole wheat bread.
- Whole grains contain vital nutrients. But they also contain antinutrients (like phytates) which block the absorption of those nutrients. Pick the right veggies or fruit and not only get those same nutrients, but also flavenoids, phytonutrients, and anti-inflammatories.
Whole grains are still grains. There’s no nutrient in a whole grain that can’t be better delivered by any nonstarchy vegetable. Nonstarchy vegetables simply deliver a stronger nutrient punch than whole grains, but without the insulin roller coaster.
Grains are Drug-Like
Okay, this is just getting ridiculous. Grains are like drugs?
Studies have revealed that cereal grains, especially wheat, maize, and barley, and dairy products contain opioid substances called exorphins. Opioid substances have a very similar sequence of amino acids to thsoe in our natural endorphins and apparently can bind to endorphin receptors in the brain… In simple terms, exorphnis produce narcotic-like and mood-altering affects and can be addictive.
While I wouldn’t compare grains to cocaine, think of how most hunger cravings are for grain-based foods. Ever had tuna fish or broccoli for a midnight snack? Probably not.
It is believed that the exorphins in grains play a large part in addictive eating behavior, particularly in those people who (ironically) are more allergic to grains.
Since the majority of people have some level of wheat (gluten) or dairy allergy, this becomes a very interesting point. When you eat allergenic foods, your body releases “feel good” endorphins to alleviate the allergy symptoms. The endorphins give you a “high,” which can turn to constant food cravings and an addiction to the very foods you’re allergic to.
Since the allergic response to gluten in wheat grains is so much more prevalent than people realize, let’s now give it a closer look…
What if I told you there was a little protein that could cause…
- joint aches
- bone pain
- abdominal pain
- low nutrient absorption
- short stature
- premature balding
Well… let me introduce my friend gluten. Everyone say “hi gluten!”
Gluten is a troublesome protein that appears to be doing more damage to our healths than we initially thought. This little guy is found in wheat, barley, and rye — pretty much any bread or pasta product has it. (But rice and corn are safe.)
A certain percentage of us contain genes that see gluten for the foreign substance that it truly is. Our immune system reacts to it, but that immune response itself can become toxic. As we load up on bagels over the years, the immune reaction to gluten can be toxic enough to cause a whole buffet of problems. (Depression thought to be the most common, along with other vague symptoms like fatigue.)
Those of us who have an immune response to gluten are labeled gluten sensitive.
So how many of us contain genes that see gluten as toxic? (How many of us are gluten sensitive?) According to some research it might be 50% or more. But there are other genes that determine whether a toxic immune response will occur and to what extent that response damages our tissue. It’s confusing, but it boils down to this:
It is believed that 30-50% or more of the population is gluten sensitive, thus are deteriorating their health by eating wheat.
You know what they say about not shooting the messenger, right?
So gluten’s bad. But how bad? It depends on where you fall in the gluten sensitivity spectrum.
Grains affect people differently. Gluten might be harmless to one person, while giving the next an autoimmune disease. The carb content of grains also affect have a varied effect.
So when it comes to eating grains, there are two sensitivities to think about: carbohydrate sensitivity and gluten sensitivity. You fall somewhere on both of these spectrums.
The above graph chart shows the carbohydrate sensitivity spectrum. Being on the left end of the spectrum is ideal, but the modern diet places most of us somewhere in the middle.
Carbohydrate sensitivity is caused by excessive intake of carbohydrates, especially refined grains and sugar. How far to the right you fall on the spectrum partly depends on how many refined grains and sugars you’ve eaten in your lifetime. There are other factors, like genetics, but your diet history is a big one.
I’ve always thought brown rice was a superior health food, but it has always given me brain fog. When you experience brain fog after a “healthy” meal of brown rice, you refuse to make the connection (out of allegiance to the idea that rice is healthy).
Even brown rice is very high in carbohydrates, which are broken down into sugar faster than we’ve been led to believe. I now realize that my brain fog was probably due to some level of glucose intolerance.
The gluten sensitivity spectrum is also something to consider. It is believed that about 1% of the population has classic celiac disease, which puts them at the far right of the spectrum. (Note: only about 2.5% of those cases are currently diagnosed. Eeek!) Celiac disease, by the way, is when your immune response to gluten is so bad (or occurs over such a long time) that it destroys the small intestine walls to the point where all nutrients are insufficiently absorbed — that can lead to a whole range of health problems.
Silent celiac disease is the same as classic celiac disease, except there are little or no symptoms. This is a bad place to be if you still eat gluten.
But like I said, research suggests that 30-50% or more of us fall somewhere on the gluten sensitivity spectrum, even if it hasn’t resulted in full-blown celiac disease.
Where you fall on the spectrum depends largely on two factors:
- The amount of gluten you’ve eaten in your lifetime.
The way I understand it is this: A person with a mild genetic disposition to gluten sensitivity can push himself farther to the right by continuing to eat more and more gluten grains.
Most research indicates, however, that still some people simply don’t react to gluten, or don’t react badly enough for the mild reactions to cause health problems. This could be from 50% to 70% of the population. What’s interesting is that much more people are sensitive to gluten than most people think. And worse, this gluten sensitivity is essentially undiagnosed in the general population.
If you’re sensitive to gluten, eating wheat can lead to a gamut of health problems. The common ones are vague issues like depression or fatigue. The good news is there’s a cure: a gluten-free diet.
Finding out whether or not you’re gluten sensitive is difficult. Go to your doctor and he’ll perform a blood test which can give false negatives. For the most part you’re on your own. Do more research, and more importantly, do a grain-free experiment to see how you feel.
A gluten-free diet is essential for anyone with celiac disease. Those with gluten sensitivity, though, should certainly look into it.
There are numerous inspirational stories of people overcoming life-long fatigue, depression, or more serious illnesses by removing grains.
Anecdotal evidence provides a good backdrop for all the scientific reasons why grains can be harmful. Let’s take a look at story of Melissa Diane Smith, author of Going Against the Grain.
Fifteen years ago, I worked at a world-famous health resort known for its ability to transform overweight guests into slimmer and presumably healthier people. … I wrote stories that educated and inspired guests and employees about the value of the low-fat, high carbohydrate, grain-rich diet. This was a health prescription I believed was beneficial for everyone…
In retrospect, I should have recognized the signs warning me I didn’t thrive on a high-grain diet. For one thing, I was just plain hungry much of the time. I didn’t want to lose my trim figure though, so I tried to ignore my hunger pangs and kept a tight rein on what I ate. Other warning signs appeared. Less than a year into my job at the spa, I came down with a series of viruses and strp throat infections…
It never occurred to me that my diet could be contributing to my health problems. I paid severely for this naivete. Labor Day weekend of 1987 I developed a very severe, mysterious, flulike illness (much later diagnosed as chronic fatigue syndrome) that I could not shake. I then began a five-year odyssey in which I desparately searched for answers and solutions for my health problems …
At first I tried eating what I thought were healthful foods, especially vegetarian, macrobiotic, and other meals centered around grains. But the more I ate light foods … the more my health worsened. I experienced an aggravation of my sore throats, increased digestive discomfort and bloating, depression, and greater difficulty getting out of bed each morning…
Frustrated beyond belief, I delved further into nutrition books and health magazines and decided to try a radical new strategy: a wheat-free, hypoallergenic diet rich in lean animal protein and lots of vegetables… A strange–and wonderul–thing happened during my experiment: I started to gradually, effortlessly lose fat. i didn’t understand why but was elated with this development and stuck with the diet, difficult as it seemed. After about six months, I lost all the weight I had gained and was back to 115 pounds.
The seriousness of chronic fatigue syndrome forced me to persist on a diet that went against the grain (at least the gluten grains), and this was a blessing in disguise. My diet not only allowed me to regain my health but to maintain it ever since.
The Bigger Picture
Like I said above, the health dangers of grains depend on your dietary context, lifestyle context, and your genetics. For some genetic profiles, grains aren’t terribly harmful. At best, however, grains are simply unnecessary. Never will a grain replace a good, nonstarchy vegetable.
As you can tell, I like picking on grains. Humans survived over 2 million years without them. They can be harmful if they contain gluten. They put you on an insulin roller coaster that sets you up for poor energy, poor sleep, and future health problems.
But it’s true — grains taste good. They’re everywhere. They’re convenient. And going grain-free puts you in that fine category of social freak.
But if being in the social norm sets me up for obesity, diabetes, heart-disease, stroke, dementia, cancer, depression, and fatigue… then go ahead and sign me up for freak.
Further Reading (other websites)
- The Definitive Guide to Grains — Read more about the amber waves of pain at Mark’s Daily Apple. That blog is like RSS candy (or fruit) — worth the subscription.
Further Reading (books)
- Going Against the Grain, by Melissa Diane Smith — A wonderful starting point for anyone interested in the role of grain in our diets. The quotes and charts from this article were adapted from this book.