A few weeks ago, I shared with you the story of having my world turned upside down with the revelation that saturated fat and cholesterol really aren’t the boogeymen that we’ve been told for decades that they are.
Well, my little tumble down the rabbit hole doesn’t end there.
Around the same time I started learning about my misconceptions regarding fat and cholesterol, I started to learn reasons why “heart healthy whole grains” may not actually be so “healthy” after all.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not going to go off and bash grains without regard for the benefits they provide. Our grain-based food system is arguably the most influential factor in humankind’s explosive population growth, particularly since the dawn of industrial agriculture.
However, from a health, fitness, and sustainability standpoint, it seems to me that the way we are currently growing, preparing, and consuming grains may be doing us more harm than good.
A quick word on sustainability and socioeconomics
I touched a bit on food sustainability in my post about my experience with veganism, so in this article I’ll focus primarily on the health implications of grain consumption. I’m just not prepared to write about food sustainability with the depth and breadth it deserves.
Food sustainability will likely be a post for way down the line once I, myself, have better grasp on the current state of affairs. At the moment, though, I’m not convinced we have the land or technology to feed our current population without a net depletion of natural resources – with or without cows, and with or without grains, regardless of cultivation method.
I understand that from an affordability and food availability perspective, food variability is a luxury that billions of us do not have, but – if you do have the option – I’d implore you to consider the points below as you figure out what a healthy diet looks like for you.
As with most of my other articles regarding food, I will be providing additional links at the end of my post for you to learn more from the resources upon which I’ve drawn my (current) conclusions.
Grains, calories, and civilization
For starters, I should be clear that grains do offer one major health benefit – calories in the form of carbohydrate. As mentioned before, the calories we’ve been able to extract from grains through their carbohydrate content has been paramount to our development as a species.
However, we now face an interesting juxtaposition of obesity and starvation, as our cultivation, preparation, and consumption methods have changed in an effort to achieve more efficient food production, longer shelf-life, and higher profitability from the grains upon which a majority of our species depend for survival.
Food scarcity is becoming an increasingly important threat as we face desertification and deforestation as a result of our reliance on grains to feed our population. While I won’t pretend to have a solution for these issues, the way we’re currently going about producing our food does not appear to be a viable long-term solution.
With respect to obesity and disease, there are some interesting characteristics of grains that, in the context of how we’re growing, preparing, and eating them now currently, seem to offer more detriment than benefit.
Grains and individual health
We’re often told about the health benefits of whole grains, particularly with respect to their fiber, vitamin, and mineral content.
It’s true that there are legitimate studies touting the benefits of whole grains, but most of these studies compare diets based on whole, intact grains to those based on processed, refined grains.
However, when we look at more recent studies in which grains have been removed from the diet altogether, we see an improvement in many of the chronic diseases we face in our modern world. I’ll provide links to such studies at the end of this article.
It’s important when evaluating studies to look at the two variables being compared.
That is, whole grains may appear to be more beneficial to health than refined grains, but does that mean that whole grains are more beneficial than not eating them all?
With respect to fiber, this is in comparison to refined grains, which have had their hulls removed for reasons we’ll discuss shortly, and may be a null point when compared to properly prepared legumes, tubers, or non-starchy vegetables, which also provide ample fiber.
The same nutrient-per-calorie concept applies when considering vitamins and minerals – there appear to be better options out there. There are no vitamins or minerals for which many of us can’t find better options than grains.
This begs the question, though, of why might we choose to get our fiber, vitamins, and minerals from other sources?
The potential risks of modern grain consumption
Nearly all foods come with benefits and risks, and when I take a step back and look at the benefits and risks of grain consumption compared with the benefits and risks of other foods, it’s my opinion that the benefits of grains do not justify the potential risks.
Mainly, my concern is that grains come along with some potentially problematic anti-nutrients – including lectins, phytates, and protease inhibitors – in higher concentrations and of different types than those in other foods options.
First and foremost, there are actually thousands of different types of lectins, not all of which have negative effects on human health. Some are actually beneficial. However, grains contain higher concentrations of potentially problematic types of lectins.
Probably the most notable issue with these lectins is their effect on the cellular lining of our intestines. They can bind to this lining, causing damage, reducing its ability to absorb nutrients, allowing food particles to leak into the bloodstream.
This effect is called “intestinal permeability” (or “leaky gut”) and is thought to be a major contributor to autoimmune issues like IBS, Chron’s, fibromyalgia, and arthritis by stimulating our immune systems and promoting chronic inflammation.
Lectins may also negatively affect the balance of bacteria living in our digestive system (our microbiome) and bind to insulin and leptin receptors, contributing further to our rising epidemics of obesity and chronic disease.
I should note that many of the foods high in gluten are also high in other problematic lectins, which is why there seems to be a rise in people seeing better health with the elimination of gluten, even if tests and studies indicate that gluten itself doesn’t appear to be the issue.
Another class of anti-nutrients we might want to pay attention to when it comes to grains is phytates.
The term “phytate” actually refers to phytic acid bound to a mineral. A diet high in grains can contribute to impaired absorption of essential nutrients like zinc and magnesium. Additionally, phytates can, similarly to lectins, damage the lining of our intestines and alter our gut bacteria.
There is some evidence to suggest that phytic acid can be beneficial to our health as an antioxidant, but in the context of the negative effects that they might also offer, our bodies’ innate antioxidant capabilities, and the questionable efficacy of antioxidants from food, I’m just not convinced that phytates are a net “win” when it comes to health.
Finally, grains also come along with what are called “protease inhibitors”, which impair the activity of enzymes that break down proteins.
At face value, this is problematic because our ability to digest proteins is impaired in the presence of high protease inhibitor intake.
However, this can also lead to our pancreas secreting more enzymes to compensate, throwing the balance of these enzymes in our digestive systems out of whack.
One of the enzymes that can be disproportionately secreted is trypsin, which can – similarly to lectins and phytates – damage our intestinal lining.
That all being said, it would be negligent of me not to include the point that preparation methods play a role in the effects that grain consumption may have on our health.
Most of thee anti-nutrients mentioned above are included in the “hull”, or outer shell, of the grain.
When we mill and refine grains down such that we are only consuming the starchy germ, as is the case with white flour or white rice, we are lowering our exposure to these anti-nutrients.
However, this refining also removed the fiber that slows these grains’ digestion, making them easier to digest and quicker to hit the blood stream.
This effect might be problematic in terms of managing blood sugar levels, and may even play a role in feeding strains of gut bacteria linked to ill health.
Furthermore, our individual gut bacteria profiles and even genetics might play a role in our ability to digest certain grains (and foods in general) compared to others.
There’s still a lot of research going on in this area, though, so I won’t elaborate upon it too much as I’d be stepping a bit (or a lot) outside of my wheelhouse.
Soaking, sprouting, and fermenting can also be effective in terms of minimizing the effects that these anti-nutrients have on our health. However, most of the grains available to us today aren’t prepared in this method.
We are using different yeast strains to achieve a faster “rise time”, but may be short-changing ourselves when it comes allowing for adequate breakdown of the anti-nutrients that once were largely deactivated through slower traditional means of fermentation.
Cultivation methods and GMOs
I’ll also add a quick note that many of our grains today are grown with heavy use of fertilizers and pesticides.
One popular chemical used on crops, Roundup, for example, kills weeds through a mechanism known as the shikimate pathway. While the shikimate pathway is not thought to be present in animals, it is thought to be present in bacteria – including those that inhabit our digestive tracts.
Some think that the use of roundup on food crops might be contributing to disease through promoting gut biome imbalance. Roundup is also thought to exacerbate some of the nutrient deficiencies associated with consumption of crops for which it is commonly used.
Many people are up in arms about genetically modified organisms (GMOs), thinking that it’s the genetic modification itself that is the issue. It seems to me that it’s not the act of genetic modification itself that’s problematic, but the fact the “GMO” crops that most people refer to specifically with this term tend to be those treated with Roundup, made feasible through genetic modification such that the herbicide doesn’t affect the genetically modified crop.
Food for thought.
Are grains healthy?
The million dollar question.
If all of our grains were grown without problematic pesticides and herbicides, prepared traditionally, and entered an otherwise healthy digestive system, then I’d say, “Sure. That seems reasonable”. As a matter of fact, I think this “perfect storm” of factors is why grains didn’t appear to be such an anecdotal problem for so many people until recently.
However, if we are cultivating our grains using chemicals that are a detriment to our gut bacteria, and then not preparing them in a method so as to prevent damage to our digestive tracts and impair nutrient absorption, then my answer is a resounding, “No.”
My main justifications for this conclusion are the points above about disruption to our gut bacteria and damage to our intestinal linings.
These could be a really big problems, and be central contributors to many of the diseases we face today. Our gut bacteria have a strong influence in weight regulation, mood, cognition, emotions, and immunity. The more we learn about imbalances in our gut and their effects on our health, the larger of a red flag this raises in my book.
Further, foreign undigested particles entering our blood stream has been linked to the accumulation of arterial plaque and chronic inflammation has been tied to nearly all disease, including cancer, especially in the context of a suppressed immune system.
Finally, the idea that lectins can bind to insulin and leptin receptors could indicate that their presence in our bloodstream is playing a role in the rising prevalence of insulin resistance, cognitive decline, and obesity.
Now, are grains the only reason we’re seeing these health issues?
I doubt it.
We’re also sedentary, stressed out, sleeping poorly, socially isolated, and getting minimal sunlight compared to generations past.
However, is it possible that our modern way or growing and preparing grains is a culprit in the obesity, depression, cognitive decline, cancer, and heart disease epidemics?
I don’t know, but I don’t think it’s out of the question.
What this all means for you
I’ve found that since removing grains from my diet, and then experimenting with reintroducing them after an extended amount of time without them, I generally have better health – digestion, weight management, sleep, appetite, and hunger regulation – without them.
While I won’t tell you that you should or should not include grains in your own diet, I think we’d all benefit from taking the time to do a similar elimination experiment.
Ultimately, it comes down to benefits and costs, which will vary for all of us based on our geographic location, genetic makeup, socioeconomic status, gut profile, and overall stress load.
The intent of this post is only to provide you a bit more understanding of what role grains might be playing in your own pursuit of health so that you are better equipped to make this analysis.
You are your own best advocate.
Settling the great grain debate., Brian St. Pierre
Phytates and Phytic Acid, Ryan Andrews
All about lectins, Ryan Andrews
Why Grains Are Unhealthy, Mark Sisson
Why Grains are Bad, Dr. Sarah Ballantyne
Are all lectins bad? (and what are lectins, anyway?), Dr. Sarah Ballantyne
The Shikimate Pathway, The Microbiome, and Disease: Health Effects of GMOs on Humans, Jeanne D’Bryant, DACBN, DC, CTN, RH (AHG)
Roundup: The “Nontoxic” Chemical that May Be Destroying our Health, Stephanie Seneff, PhD
Antioxidant Hype and Reality, Steven Novella