Edible grains comprise the majority of global cultivated crops and provide the greatest percentage of consumed calories worldwide, in the form of corn, rice, wild rice, wheat, barley, rye, kamut, spelt, millet, oats, triticale, buckwheat, quinoa, teff, and amaranth. Grains, however, are currently in the middle of a public relations nightmare. As an increasing number of people report incredible health improvements from the adoption of gluten-free or Paleo diets, the family of foods known as “cereals” is rapidly losing its status as a health food group. In fact, now, some would even refer to them as flat-out toxic.
But going completely grain-free isn’t easy, and the verdict still isn’t completely out on whether eliminating all grains is the best way to go. Our guest writer, Kathleen Bundy, combines her educated opinions with some of the main points expressed in various places to provide a comprehensive overview. Here are the bad and good of grains, and a response for each.
You can, however, meet all of your nutrient needs on a grain-free diet, if necessary. For example, consider this: lamb liver contains nearly 10 times as much folate as the same amount of whole wheat flour, and the same amount of yardlong beans has 6-7 times as much. Cooked collard greens contain almost twice as much dietary fiber than cooked brown rice. Green peas has nearly three times as much and raw fireweed has six times as much (all according to Nourished Kitchen). Remember, eliminating or reducing grains from your diet makes room for more vegetables, which of course, is healthy for everyone.
From an evolutionary perspective, this is a relative drop in the bucket. The hypothesis that grains are not fit for human consumption, then, is based on the premise that humans are not evolved to consume grains in the high concentrations that they are found in our diet today and that our digestive capacity has not evolved at the same rate as our diet has advanced over time. Notably, the diet that our ancestors thrived on for the majority of our species’ advancement was based on the hunter-gatherer pattern and included very little cereal grasses.
“When improperly prepared, grains can inhibit vitamin and mineral absorption. Grains contain substances like phytic acid which binds up minerals and prevents proper absorption. Essentially, though your diet might be rich in iron, calcium and other vital nutrients if you eat improperly prepared grain, you’re not fully absorbing nutrients from the foods you eat.” – Nourished Kitchen
Purchase organic and minimally processed grain products whenever possible. Keep portions reasonable and do not exceed the equivalent of three cups daily. You can also try soaking, sprouting, and fermenting grains to make them easier to digest. These techniques have been used for millennia and increase the availability of nutrients in grains. Sprouted buckwheat granola and sourdough bread are great examples.
Gluten is the name of the protein storage portion of edible grains. Most grains contain some form of gluten, but it is the “gliadin” portion of a certain class of grains that is toxic to people with celiac disease or “gluten-intolerance.” Wheat, rye, barley, spelt, kamut, and triticale are grains in this class. Oats may also be contaminated with gluten due to shared harvesting and storage equipment. “Current research estimates that about 1% of the population suffers from celiac disease, an auto-immune condition related to the ingestion of gluten-containing grains like wheat and barley; however, some researchers on celiac disease and gluten intolerance estimate that 30% to 40% of people of European descent are gluten-intolerant to some degree.” - Nourished Kitchen
Not all grains contain gluten, however. Some gluten-free grains include: amaranth, buckwheat, corn, millet, montina (Indian rice grass), oats, quinoa, rice, sorghum, teff, and wild rice.
Grains are not the only sources of carbohydrates in our diets, though. Other sources of carbs include: beans and legumes, fruits, sugars and sweeteners, milk and dairy products, and starchy vegetables, such as potatoes, peas, squash, and corn. Personally, I steer most of my patients towards eating primarily non-grain sources of carbohydrate in whatever amount is appropriate for them. Check out ”The Paleo Diet for Athletes,” written by Loren Cordain, Ph.D., and Joe Friel to see how you can make a grain-free diet work for your lifestyle.
As concentrated carbohydrates, grains may raise blood sugar and promote an insulin response. They may also contain compounds which can impair digestion, absorb nutrients, or damage the digestive tract. Lectins, though naturally occurring in grains, can impair (or damage) the intestinal lining and lead to digestive problems or food sensitivities. Phytate may bind to nutrients and make a portion of them unabsorbable by the body. Some people with inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn’s or colitis experience significant symptom improvement on a grain-free diet as a high starch intake may promote the growth of less-than friendly bacteria.
When taken in moderation, lectin and phylates may not be as bad as we think. Lectin is present in all foods at varying levels. Most of the lectin we eat becomes harmless when cooked. Some lectins, however, are not as affected by heat, and can be active when we eat them. This is the kind of lectin usually found in grains, though foods like carrots, apples, and bananas contain them as well. When some lectins enter our body, they can have positive effects. Lectins can break down the membranes of cancer cells, fungi, bacteria, and viruses. Lectins become an issue when they are consumed in large amounts. With too much lectin, the damage it can do to cancer and virus cells begins to pool over to your intestinal cells (according to OutLawFitness).
Similarly, phylate isn’t generally a worry with a well-balanced diet. Although they do keep a portion minerals from being absorbed, most people consume enough of what they need from their diets to make up for the small amount wasted (according to Dr. Andrew Weil).
Diets high in whole grains have been shown to significantly lower the risk of developing heart disease and stroke, increase IVF success in men, protect you from high blood pressure, improve insulin sensitivity by lowering insulin levels, significantly reduce heart failure risk, reduce risk for blood vessel disease and cancer, reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes, and help to lose and maintain weight.
While those health benefits are hard to ignore, it should be noted that while diets high in whole grains have been shown to have positive effects, there is probably many other health related behaviors and nutrition habits common to people that also eat more whole grains. Also, some of those results may be based on people who had a poor diet/lifestyle to begin with and when they started eating more whole grains and likely otherwise improving their diet, they had less health problems and lower risk of disease. In short, grains may not necessarily be responsible for the health benefits.
Also, the detrimental affects of grains must also be taken into consideration. The more hybridized or processed the grain, the greater the inflammatory potential. Whole grains are the least inflammatory of the grains, but they can still cause inflammation and immune reactivity. When immune cells mount a response against a foreign invader, the end result is inflammation. And since some groups of amino acids (proteins) in grains mirror that of body tissue, immune recognition of those proteins can cause your immune system to react to your own body. This can lead to autoimmune disease like Hashimoto’s thyroiditis and rheumatoid arthritis. Grains can also lead to tooth decay. Anthropologists often use the incidence of tooth decay as evidence of an agricultural society because record of pre-agricultural ancestors show little to no tooth decay (according to Nourished Kitchen).
To summarize, as gluten intolerance becomes a more prevalent problem, many people are finding relief by going gluten-free. Others are going entirely grain-free and experiencing significant benefits. However, a grain-free diet is not always easy, convenient, nor right for every individual. Consuming some grains may be right for some people, but remember to always focus on quality and processing techniques, and to eat smaller portions of grains. Eat more vegetables and non-grain sources of carbohydrates whenever you can to optimize your health.
Kathleen Bundy is a Registered Dietitian who works with people on a range of nutrition issues – managing chronic health conditions, looking to balance their metabolism, or trying to find small ways to tweak one’s current plan for performance. She specializes in food sensitivities, chronic inflammatory conditions, digestive disorders, metabolism, and weight management. Kathleen is currently the staff nutritionist at the Center for Health and Wellbeing in San Diego. She has worked as a clinical dietitian at Virginia Mason Medical Center and is certified in adult weight management. Kathleen has been adjunct faculty at Bastyr University & Wu Hsing Tao acupuncture school.