Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
18 Jun

The Definitive Guide to Grains

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Amber Waves of Pain

Order up! Yes, folks, it’s definitive guide time again. I’ve read your requests and am happy (as always) to oblige. Grab your coffee (or tea), and pull up a seat. Glad you’re with us.

Insulin, cholesterol, fats… They’re only the tip of the iceberg. I’ve had a few “definitive” topics up my sleeve for a while now, and grains are it for today. Yes, grains. I know we’ve given them a bad rap before, and it’s safe to say I’ll do it again here. Sometimes the truth hurts, but you know what they say about the messenger, right? Without further ado…

Grains. Every day we’re bombarded with them and their myriad of associations in American (and much of Western) culture: Wilford Brimley, Uncle Ben, the Sunbeam girl, the latest Wheaties athlete, a pastrami on rye, spaghetti dinners, buns for barbeque, corn on the cob, donuts, birthday cake, apple pie, amber waves of grain…. Gee, am I missing anything? Of course. So much, in fact, that it could – and usually does – take up the majority of supermarket square footage. (Not to mention those government farm subsidies, but that’s another post.) Yes, grains are solidly etched into our modern Western psyche – just not so much into our physiology.

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Those of you who have been with us a while now know the evolutionary backdrop I mean here. We humans had the pleasure and occasional scourge of evolving within a hunter gatherer existence. We’re talking some 150,000 plus years of hunting and foraging. On the daily scavenge menu: meats, nuts, leafy greens, regional veggies, some tubers and roots, the occasional berries or seasonal fruits and seeds that other animals hadn’t decimated. (Ever seen a dog at an apple picking?) We ate what nature (in our respective locales) served up. The more filling, the better. And then around 10,000 years ago, the tide turned. Our forefathers and mothers were on the brink of ye olde Agricultural Revolution. And, over time, grains became king. But, as countless archaeological findings suggest, people became smaller and frailer as a result of this new agrarian, grain-fed existence.

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Ten thousand years seems like a long time, doesn’t it? Think of all the house projects you could get done, the advanced degrees you could earn, the dinner party recipes you could try out, the books you could read. Almost oppressive, isn’t it? But our personal vantage point on the span of 10,000 years doesn’t mean much of anything when the context is evolution. It takes a lot to drastically change a major system in the human body. We’re talking a way bigger change than trying out the latest flavor of Malt-O-Meal. Grains were certainly not any substantial part of the human diet prior to the Agricultural Revolution. And even after grains became a large part of human existence, those who were deathly allergic to them or had zero capacity to take in their modest nutrient value were, in all likelihood, selected against. And pretty quickly at that. Those whose health was so compromised by grains that they were rendered infertile early in life were also washed out of the gene pool. That’s how it works. But if you can limp along long enough to procreate (which was considerably earlier then than it typically is now), that new fangled diet of grains got you through. No matter how stunted your growth was, how awful your teeth were, how prone you were to infection.

When I say humans didn’t evolve eating grains, I mean our digestive processes didn’t evolve to maximize the effectiveness of grain consumption. Just because you can tolerate grains to a certain degree, as just about all of us can (thanks to those earlier folks hitting the end of the genetic line), doesn’t mean your body was designed for them or that they’re truly healthy for you or – especially – that you can achieve optimum health through them. We’re not talking about what will allow you to hobble along. We’re talking about the foods that offer effective and efficient digestion and nutrient absorption in the body. And that’s all about evolutionary design. If you’re not after optimal health, you’re probably reading the wrong blog. But if you want to work with your body instead of unnecessarily tax it, if you want to focus your diet on the best foods with the most positive impact, you most definitely are reading the right blog. Now let’s continue.

insulin levels

Among my many beefs with grain, the first and foremost is the havoc it plays with insulin and other hormonal responses in the body. For the full picture, visit the previous Definitive Guide to Insulin from some months ago. Guess what? The same principles still hold. We developed the insulin response to help store excess nutrients and to take surplus (and potentially toxic) glucose out of the bloodstream. This was an adaptive trait. But it didn’t evolve to handle the massive amounts of carbs we throw at it now. And, yes, we’re talking mostly about grains. Unless you have a compulsive penchant for turnips, the average American’s majority of carb intake comes from grains.

The gist is this (as many of you know): Whatever the carbohydrate, it will eventually be broken down into glucose, either in the gut or the liver. But now it’s all dressed up with likely no place to go. Unless you just did a major workout or are finishing tying your running shoes as we speak (which would allow those grain-based carbs to be used in the restocking of depleted glycogen stores or burned as secondary fuel, respectively), that French baguette will more likely get stored as fat.

Why? Because carbohydrates elicit a physiological response that favors fat storage. That blasted baguette has already set off a strategic chain of hormonal events akin to a physiological-style Tom Clancy plot: the ambush of baguette glucose, the defensive maneuver of insulin, (if you ate the whole baguette, in particular) the entering reinforcements of adrenaline and cortisol. Why the drama? Because, remember, this was not the standard mode of nutrition in our body’s evolution. And every time it happens, the body is a little worse for the wear. This whole hormonal production taxes the adrenal system, the pancreas, the immune system, and results in a tiny amount of inflammation. We all know what we say about inflammation, right? (Hint: the blight of modern existence.)

And as for the nutritional value of grains? First off, they aren’t the complete nutritional sources they’re made out to be. Quite the contrary, grains have been associated with minerals deficiencies, perhaps because of high phytate levels. A diet high in grains may also reduce the body’s ability to process vitamin D.

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Why not get the same nutrients from sources that don’t come back and bite you in the backside? If you have the choice between getting, say, B-vitamins from chicken or some “whole wheat” pasta, I’m going to say go with the chicken every time. Is pasta cheaper? Yes. Is it healthier? No. The B6 in chicken is more bioavailable, for one. The fact is, you pay too high a physiological price for the pasta source. Let’s get this point on the dinner table as well: whatever nutrients you can get from whole grains you can get in equal to greater amounts in other food. In terms of nutrient density, grains can’t hold a candle to a diverse diet of veggies and meats. (And if the label says otherwise, look closely because the product is fortified. Save your money and buy a good supplement instead.

But, wait, there’s more. Enter the lurker substances in grains that cause a lot of people a whole lot of obvious problems (and probably all of us some kind of damage over time). Grains, new evolutionarily-speaking, are frankly hard on the digestive system. (You say fiber, I say unnecessary roughage, but that’s only the half of it.) Enter gluten and lectins, both initiators of digestive mayhem, you might say. Gluten, the large, water-soluble protein that creates the sludge, err, elasticity in dough, is found in most common grains like wheat, rye and barley (and it’s the primary glue in wallpaper paste). Researchers now believe that a third of us are likely gluten intolerant/sensitive. That third of us (and I would suspect many more on some level) “react” to gluten with a perceptible inflammatory response. Over time, those who are gluten intolerant can develop a dismal array of medical conditions: dermatitis, joint pain, reproductive problems, acid reflux and other digestive conditions, autoimmune disorders, and Celiac disease. And that still doesn’t mean that the rest of us aren’t experiencing some milder negative effect that simply doesn’t manifest itself so obviously.

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Now for lectins. Lectins are mild, natural toxins that aren’t limited to just grains but seem to be found in especially high levels in most common grain varieties. They serve as one more reason grains just aren’t worth all the trouble that comes with them. Lectins, researchers have found, inhibit the natural repair system of the GI tract, potentially leaving the rest of the body open to the impact of errant, wandering (i.e. unwanted) material from the digestive system, especially when these lectins “unlock” barriers to entry and allow larger undigested protein molecules into the bloodstream. This breach can initiate all kinds of immune-related havoc and is thought to be related to the development of autoimmune disorders. Some people are more sensitive to the damage of lectins than others, as in the case with gluten. Nonetheless, I’d say, over time we all pay the piper.

The bottom line is this: grains = carbs. Unnecessary at best, but flat out unhealthy at worst, they’re not the wholesome staples they’re made out to be. Talk about double taxation: Our bodies pay for what our trusty government subsidizes Big Agra for. The best – really the only way – to achieve a low carb, whole foods diet is to ditch the grains. (Your body will be better off without inflammation, the insulin roller coaster, not to mention the constant onslaught of creepy gluten and lectins.) A diet very low or entirely without grains (low-carb) has been shown to decrease risk for problems associated with diabetes, to lower blood pressure, alleviate heartburn symptoms, and shed abdominal fat. Finally, low carb diets have been associated with significant “reductions in a number of pro-inflammatory cytokines, chemokines, and adhesion molecules.”

The idea here is not to demonize grains. Well, O.K., it is. (But only because our society and medical establishment spends so much time exalting them.) Just as I choose to steer clear of grains as a regular part of my diet, I do occasionally indulge a bit. A tiny bit. And that’s where the Primal Blueprint enters: it’s about informed, not dictated choices. That French bread at an anniversary dinner, a sample of the pasta salad at your Uncle Billy’s steak fry, the saffron rice your daughter cooks for you when you visit her first apartment – they’re thoughtful, purposeful compromises. (And they’re perhaps very worth it for reasons that have nothing to do with the food itself.) The point of the Primal Blueprint if this: When you understand the metabolic effects of eating grains, you’re empowered to make informed decisions about the role grains will have in your diet. You’re free to enjoy good health and self-selected compromises with a clear conscience and full epicurean gusto!

Thanks for tuning in. It’s been a pleasure, as always.

Fitness Black Book Photo and Natmandu, Bern@t, Slack13, atomicshark, yarnivore Flickr Photos (CC)

Further Reading:

What Happens to Your Body When… You CARB BINGE?

The Definitive Guide Series

What About Beans and Legumes?

Jack LaLanne on Sugarholics

Sensible Vices Round 1 and 2

Yet Another Half-Baked Grain Study

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You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Randy, I’m afraid you won’t learn much becoming a dietician. You will just be repeating the inaccuracies that you are being taught. You need to do some extra reading and research on your own.

    Sue wrote on June 21st, 2008
  2. oops I meant Tyler!

    Sue wrote on June 21st, 2008
  3. Mark,
    Every morning I have a bowl of store bought “old fashioned oats” along with a cup of walnuts, cup of blue berries, honey and milk.
    What do you think or should I stay away from oatmeal all together?

    Maury wrote on June 25th, 2008
  4. Maury,

    Of course millions have lived on oats for centuries, so who am I to take that away from you. The PB idea is one of moderating carb intake over the course of a day, a week, a year. Oats are less offensive (from a gluten POV) than other forms of grains. If you derive pleasure from this (and have no symptoms of oat intolerance), then the 25 or so grams of carbs you add to your daily intake by eating oats won’t have that great an influence on overall daily carb intake.

    Mark Sisson wrote on June 25th, 2008
  5. Standard nutrition textbooks will tell you that whole grains contain many valuable minerals. This is true is the sense that you can analyze whole wheat or brown rice in a laboratory and find relatively high amounts of minerals.

    But standard teaching on nutrition skips over the fact that grains, legumes, nuts and seeds contain a substance called phytic acid or phytate. In humans, phytic acid is a strong chelator of iron,
    calcium, zinc, magnesium, and phosphorous. What this means is that the phytate generally stays undigested in our digestive tract and it clings to other minerals in our food and escorts them out of our bowels.

    It turns out that whole grains actually have fairly low levels of usable minerals unless we soak and sprout the grains or ferment them in order to break down the phytic acid. In medieval times porridge was commonly fermented over night before cooking. And, until recently, the Chinese would only feed soy to animals unless it was fermented first.

    Cows have no trouble eating the seed heads of
    grasses in the fields because their food passes through the four compartments in their stomachs and they produce the enzyme phytase to break down the phytic acid in their digestive tract. They were made to eat grains. We humans, however, lack sufficient phytase in our system.

    This is an almost perfect example of evolutionary nutrition. Cows evolved over millions of years to stand in herds and graze and be perfect grass and grain eating machines. They have the four stomachs and the enzymes to process grains. But we do not. We evolved to hike around, scan the horizon and look for a variety of fruits, nuts, vegetables and animal products to eat.

    The mix certainly varied enormously. Some paleolithic peoples lived on the seacoast and ate mostly vegetables and seafood, some lived in the jungle and ate mostly fruit and bugs, some lived in the cold north and hunted big game and so on. But none of them ate grains to any degree at all until about 10,000 years ago when people developed the settled lifestyle and the tools necessary for large scale grain cultivation.

    So now, in modern times, you can eat a ton of whole grains and happily read the label on the package telling you how much iron and other nutrients you are ingesting. But your happy smile may fade once you learn that you are only absorbing a small percentage of the minerals while the rest are carried out of your system by the phytic acid in supposedly good-for-you whole grain.

    Binko wrote on July 7th, 2008
  6. According to The Okinawa Program, 32% of the Okinawa diet (by weight) consists of grains, compared to 11% for Americans (figure on page 71). Also, these grains include “at least three servings of Japanese white (sticky) rice, supplemented by whole grains such as buckwheat noodles (soba) and wheat noodles (udon). Rice is the most commonly eaten single food in Okinawa” (p. 70).

    The book also states that “Elderly Okinawans were found to have amazingly young, clean arteries. low cholesterol, and low homocystine levels when compared to Westerners. These factors reduce their risk for coronary heart disease by up to 80 percent and keeps stroke levels low” (pp. 17-18).

    So if carbohydrates (including white rice and pasta) are so unhealthy as you and Taubes state, how can the Okinawans live for so long with such good health?

    –Gary

    Gary wrote on September 2nd, 2008
  7. Gary, the Okinawan diet has been grossly exagerated in popular literature.

    1) The reason they live so long is the very low total calories they take in. Avergae BMI is 20. The best studies on longevity relate to calorie restriction. Okinawans are the kings (and queens) of CR

    2) The percentage of rice they eat has been overstated. Their diet has a higher percentage of fats and colorful vegetables than the avergae Japanese. So they don’t actually eat that much rice.

    3) Having said that, rice (of all the grain choices) is probably one of the “safest” in terms of gluten, lectin and phytates. They don’t eat much other grain at all.

    In sum, the Okinawans’ experience fits in nicely with PB and with Taubes’ thesis.

    Mark Sisson wrote on September 2nd, 2008
  8. Mark-
    While I stand with you on your take on grains. I myself am a year round Triathlete, minus the break I take in the winter from the bike. I have a hard enough time being able to keep weight on when I’m putting in big weeks.

    So my question is, what is a an ahtlete to do, I know Simon Whitfield is a big advaocator of you and your site. As far as my meals go, ive been cutting back on grains during the day and the evening, but for breakfast, its hard to cut out a bowl of oatmeal with fruit and still be able to get the calories I need.

    Thanks

    Avery wrote on September 10th, 2008
  9. I gave up eating all grains when I was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis. When I was tested, one of the antibody tests showed antibodies over 100,000, and the other antibody test was extremely high as well. It took two years, but one of the antibodies is now negative and the other is down to 792 from being over 100,000. I hope that the next time I have my throid antibodies checked, that both antibodies are negative. The only change I made to my diet was giving up all grains.

    Betty Sehr wrote on November 19th, 2008
  10. Mark,

    Great post, very informative, and it certainly fits in with what I believe about grains.

    However, having read Sally Fallon’s nourishing traditions, as well as other books, does your viewpoint change if the grains are ‘prepared’ before consumption? For example, mung beans aren’t that great for you unless you soak them and let them sprout first over the course of a few days, similarly, soaking grains overnight will deactivate the phytates in the grain.

    And then there are the edge cases, like quinoa, which is considered a seed, and buckwheat, which is considered a fruit (at least according to an earlier post), what are your thoughts on these?

    Charles wrote on December 5th, 2008
  11. Charles, I think there’s a “continuum” from worst to less-worse. Wheat is the worst, quinoa much less offensive. But I still don’t believe there’s any way to prepare wheat, barley, rye or corn that can overcome their glaring defects.

    Mark Sisson wrote on December 6th, 2008
  12. Cannot WAIT for your book to come out! I’m going to be passing it around to everybody I know who thinks I’m absolutely crazy to be eating the way I do.

    Arlo wrote on January 5th, 2009
  13. I read your(Mark’s) interview in the Rivendell Reader. I’ve cut way back on carbs. One bread I’ve found that seems acceptable is the Ezekiel 4:9 breads. They are sprouted grain and are supposed to be low glycemic.
    http://www.foodforlife.com/low-glycemic-diabetic-friendly.html
    From their website: When sprouting occurs, the grain is partially predigested. This creates vitamin nutrients which help your body digest and absorb the healthy content of the grain. As well, the starches have already started being converted into maltose during the sprouting process, reducing the final maltose content and producing a lower glycemic response.

    Just wondering any thoughts on this product.

    Dan wrote on February 23rd, 2009
  14. Dan, the carbs are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to grains. I think whole grains like Ezekiel are worse than refined sometimes (phytates, lectins, gluten, etc). I personally stay away from them all.

    Mark Sisson wrote on February 23rd, 2009
  15. I have been doing research concerning health ever so often and I have experimented to come up with results. I do wonder if genetic type and body type have something to do with how much grains one is supposed to have. I do notice that grains fill me up quick and leaves little to no room for anything else. I tend to eat food in order. Proteins and vegetables and like my Dad said, “If you are still hungry go into the bread droor.” Of course that was when I was a growing boy but now things are different. I feel that grains should be at the top of the official food guide pyramid a long with the sweets and sugar not at the base like the established medical industries say. Recall money drives people to say certain things. They may want you to consume as much grain as possible to fill up their pocketbooks, just something to think about. I also realize our history books and biology books are inaccurate. How old are humans? Do we have more of a carnivorous digestive system or more of a digestive system like cows or horses? Some things to think about.

    Bryce Green wrote on March 9th, 2009
  16. I have been diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome and IBS and have spent the last 15 months trying to recover. I was also advised that I might be wheat-lactose intolerant and am now doing my best to eliminate all starch from my diet and have bulked up my new eating plan with loads of veg. I am starting to feel a bit better and hope to be back to normal in a few months when my energy returns.
    I have a question regarding my intake of veg. Do I count the protein in veg as part of the protein allowance for the day?

    Maureen wrote on March 14th, 2009
  17. Maureen, yes you count the protein in veggies for sure.

    Mark Sisson wrote on March 20th, 2009
  18. Am I a bad person b/c I’m eating Ben and jerry’s while reading this?

    matt wrote on March 28th, 2009
  19. I’m fully on board with your “primal nutrition” notion and was so long before I found this website. In deciding WHO TO BELIEVE in the sea of misinformation out there, and the motivations of groups and gov’ts dispelling that misinformation I always ask myself “Did God make this for me to survive on, or did MAN create it?” If you don’t believe in God there’s no need to turn it into a religious debate “Did nature/evolution create this or did MAN make it?”

    So with that in mind I can NOT understand why you demonize grains??? Bread? Sure! Highly processed. But the actual WHEAT that bread started out as. God/nature/evolution created that! I’m sure Grok came across wheat in his travels and ate it. How can you demonize Oatmeal??? It’s oats, rolled flat. Doesn’t get much more natural than that.

    You say for 2,000,000 years man didn’t eat grains then the Ag-revolution took place 10,000 years ago and he did. What??? And man INVENTED corn/rice/wheat 10,000 years ago? Just because man started farming it and mass producing it, doesn’t mean it didn’t EXIST before. I’m sure Grok came across corn and rice and all kinds of grains and ate them just like he would fruit, veggies, nuts, seeds, legumes, POTATOES, animals, fish and birds. So WHY do you advocate excluding these things?? Things that occured in NATURE before the agricultural revolution.

    I understand a potato elicits an insulin response. But if it’s a potato… that grew in the ground, and wasn’t made in a factory… that insulin response is a very NATURAL thing. How can it possibly be bad??

    I’m fully on board with your philosophy, but I just don’t get how you completely EXCLUDE grains. It doesn’t make sense. I’ve cut out bread, sugar, cheese, ANYTHING processed. But I’m not cutting out oatmeal or brown rice. Why should I?? I’m not convinced.

    Fixed Gear wrote on May 12th, 2009
    • lol, when I eat a single stupid potato that makes me feel super bloated sluggish and ready for a nap on the inside, and makes me look 9 months pregnant on the outside almost immediately (same thing goes for pasta prepared in the most natural way possible, and any bread in any form whatsoever), thats how it could possibly be bad for me – regardless of the fact that it is natural…Or how about when I have corn on the cob and crave ice cream (which I do not like) within a half an hour? Or how about when 1 slice of bread gets my skin looking like a teenagers for 3 weeks till I get it under control finally, Or how about within the first 5 days of following a meat, fat, and low glycemic veggie diet (I don’t like fruit except for the occasional apple), people ask me if I’ve been on vacation cause I look so de-stressed, ask me what my diet secret is cause my pants are falling off (5 days!) or how I could possibly have so much cheery energy while the rest of the world is in a miserable fog, I can only simply reply that I got there by eating one of my favorite most delicious foods – MEAT!!!! I think when you eat simply to survive, it’s a lot easier to let go of what your not eating and the reasons for not eating it, and find pleasure from things that don’t add calories….Living to eat makes the above statement not possible.

      lisa wrote on August 1st, 2011
  20. Fixed, these things may have existed in some form or another along with humans, but Grok didn’t rely on them much (if at all) as a source of calories. Grass seeds were small and hard to gather/process/cook. It was easier to kill a beast. Agriculture changed all that.

    I’m sure most people will survive fine by not cutting oatmeal or brown rice…but I prefer to get my calories from other sources and the keep my intake of simple carbs (and, hence, insulin) to levels attained through veggies and fruits only. That way I reinforce the fat-burning bias over the predominantly glucose-burning alternative. It’s all a choice.

    Mark Sisson wrote on May 13th, 2009
  21. From a Christian/creationist perspective the world as we know it is only 10,000 years old (or less). So essentially that makes ‘Grok’ a whole lot more advanced and almost definitely a grains eater.

    It is often amusing to me that most people that build arguments on evolution will end their arguments with something to the effect of, “…so our bodies are actually designed for…”. ‘designed’? ;-)

    Anyway, getting into an argument about evolution/creation has no place here (I’ll just say from an intellectual standpoint if more people studied logic these days there would be less people blindly following evolutionary theories – hey, you’re against conventional wisdom aren’t you Mark?)!

    Well written article though, and I enjoy reading your blog.

    Elliot Wilson wrote on May 15th, 2009
    • Oh lose that ‘gotcha’ smirk–you should know that the choice of the word ‘designed’ in such cases is a matter of convenience, used in lieu of the much more cumbersome “naturally selected for”. There aren’t enough roll-eyes in the world for someone who doesn’t understand the self evident and observable truth of evolution and then claims to be a proponent of rigorous logic.

      Old Mother Reagan wrote on May 27th, 2009
      • Okay, like I said I don’t really want to get into a proper debate. Until we invent time travel evolution can never really be considered ‘observable truth’. By definition it takes millions of years for the minute differences to emerge.

        If you don’t want to consider the logic of it all, have a look into mathematics – take the human cell for example, it is mathematically impossible to have evolved. Another example is the eyeball – to have been formed by successive failures/mutations and then eventually lead to a perfectly working eyeball is not possible through evolution. Without everything in place as it is, it would be 100% useless. Do you think evolution is smart enough to know that it is 1% away from creating a working eyeball when in it’s state of 99% completion it is completely useless?

        “If anyone would prove the existence of a complex organ that could absolutely not be the result of a large number of sequential changes, my theory would collapse completely.” – Charles Darwin (from ‘The origin of species’)

        Elliot Wilson wrote on May 27th, 2009
        • First, you have failed to prove that “it is mathematically impossible” for the eyeball to have evolved. Try to do that for us.

          In the first billion or so years, when life was still floundering and trying to establish itself, things would have been chaotic and random. Mutations would be quick and varied because life was cellular. As soon as a single mutation emerged that offered some measure of protection or advantage, it would flourish. Sensitivity to light (which, when you get down to it, is the base function of an eyeball) would undoubtedly be one such advantageous mutation.

          Think about it: all life has a parasitic connection to light. Plants have photosynthesis, animals generate Vitamin D from sunlight and eat the plants that draw on the sun for energy. The ability to identify sources of light is definitely good for survival, especially for single celled primordial marine life who need to “swim” upwards to meet the sun and all the nutrients it provides.

          There are other advantages. Sensitivity to light means one can perceive changes in the external world. A shadow crossing your path could mean a predator, or a source of food.

          And what about the thousands of other types of eyes out there in the animal kingdom? All are unique; none of the others conform exactly to the “perfect” design of the human eyeball. If what you say is true, how do they function? Or is my dog only getting around with a preternatural sense of smell and hearing?

          Take the eye of the octopus, for example. Its nervous system attaches directly to the back of the retina. In the human eye, the nervous system attaches to the front of the retina. Ocular data must exit from the front of the retina, do a “u-turn”, and travel the curvature of the retinal cell to the optic nerve. Completely different designs, but both work quite well. How do you explain that?

          erik.cisler wrote on May 27th, 2009
        • Richard Nikoley wrote on January 9th, 2010
        • If an all knowing, omnipresent being, who is also perfect, designed humans in his image…

          Why did he include flaws such as the appendix and optical illusions.

          To me, the mere existence of optical illusions destroys the basis that the world and the human body was intelligently designed.

          If god is perfect and all his plans correct. Why did he make that mistake?

          Raleighwood wrote on April 1st, 2010
        • Actually the eyeball to me is the perfect example why “intelligent design” is complete nonsense. Which engineer would have designed the optical nerve to originate on the INSIDE of the retina, while there is absolutely no reason to do so…? (And there are actually some animals who have it originating on the outside and therefore miss the “blind spot”)

          Paleo diet works: in our CrossFit group 20 people took the “Paleo challenge” and completely eliminated all non-paleo foods from their diet for 1 month. That’s right: 31 days only. The results in fat and weight loss are astounding and completely convinced me. I didn’t participate (and frankly don’t need to lose weight) but I did change my cooking over the last 2 months and include a LOT less grains. Result: my husband is losing weight. :-)

          But then: I’ve always “believed” in evolution and come to many similar conclusions (though of course not in such an elegant and thoroughly constructed way) as Mark on my own simply by listening to my own body and thinking about what makes sense in a “mammoth-hunter” context. Example: as a competitive athlete I’ve found that performance on an empty stomach is fine. Very useful if you’re struggling to meet certain weight restrictions, as well as when you spend a day chasing a mammoth and still have to kill it at the end of that.

          Scientific theories are just models that help us understand and predict phenomena around us. Just like Newtonian mechanics, the evolution theory as it is today will probably at some point be disproven because of a flawed inherent assumption. However, the theory replacing it is bound to have more common than diverging points, simply because the current theory does such a superb job of explaining most (not all) of the phenomena we observe.

          There’s no point in arguing with people who are convinced they’re right: cognitive dissonance will ensure that all data points not corresponding with your views are eliminated or modified before you store them in your brain. So feel free to ignore the fact that Paleo works and that it is another piece evidence for evolution; you’d have done so anyway.

          VO wrote on April 16th, 2010
  22. Yeah….. I understand it’s a choice. That’s not what I was looking for. I wanted to know why you think Grok would not eat these things?

    I did some research and found the answer. ….so I think that means I’m going to argue with myself now against my original comment. ;)

    There are 2 things I didn’t think of. 1) Just because it occurs in nature doesn’t mean it’s fit for HUMAN consumption. I can’t go outside and start eating grass like a cow. I can’t eat poisonous mushrooms. I can’t eat tree leaves like a Deer. You know?

    2) Correct me if I’m wrong, but my Googling indicates legumes, grains and potatoes are UNFIT for human consumption unless you cook them! Many will make you violently ill with food poisoning. We have the ability to cook our food today. …but if it’s basically POISON raw, it can’t be what nature intended. I don’t know exactly when Grok tamed fire and learned to cook with it, but until he did I’m sure he wasn’t eating any legumes, grains or potatoes. ….not after he got sick the first time anyway.

    So THAT is the “Why.” Because it’s unfit for human consumption in it’s raw form. Unlike veggies, unlike an APPLE. Unlike Almonds. Even meat. That’s not very palatable to most people myself included, but FRESH meat like a chicken slaughtered 5 minutes prior you CAN eat. It won’t make you sick. A fresh out of the ground, uncooked potato or rice? Nausea at best, violent food poisoning at worst.

    So I’m on board! No more grains, legumes, potatoes for me. :)

    Fixed Gear wrote on May 18th, 2009
    • Which means you’ll be eating a lot of Steak Tartare? ;)

      Pam wrote on August 1st, 2010
    • Hate to be pedantic, well not really, but almonds used to be poisonous because of cyanide content, wild almonds still are, they were domesticated and the cyanide bred out of them, so Grok was not eating almonds.

      Vanessa wrote on October 18th, 2013
  23. Two points : where is the evidence that people became “smaller and frailer” 10 000 years ago after introducing grains and why do you assume that evolution essentially stopped when we were hunter gatherers? What about all the studies now coming out showing huge evolutionary changes in the genome. What about all the primitive human skeletal remains that are small and that show death occured quite young (relative to our expected lifespan). I think that your point that most of our diet should be vegetable and lean protein based is reasonable. However I think it is a mistake to vilify one food group.

    browngrl wrote on May 31st, 2009
    • To your first point:

      Check out Eades’ post at http://www.proteinpower.com/drmike/low-carb-diets/nutrition-and-health-in-agriculturalists-and-hunter-gatherers/.

      This was study of two separate groups – hunter gatherers and agrarians – who lived in the same area at different times. The HGs ate a meat-centric diet: river snails, insects, deer, rabbit, wild turkey, turtle, fish, even dog. The agrarians subsisted on corn, squash, beans, with some supplementary game meat and fish. Records clearly show stronger, more robust bones in the HG group; tooth decay and skeletal iron deficiencies were typical in the agrarian group’s fossils.

      That’s just a small selection. Stephan writes of a 1982 symposium of paleo-archaeologists. Their goal? To use “data from human skeletal analysis and paleopathology [the study of ancient diseases] to measure the impact on human health of the Neolithic Revolution and antecedent changes in prehistoric hunter-gatherer food economies.”

      They examined the evidence – all the fossil records available of Paleolithic, Mesolithic (transitioning between HG and agriculture), and Neolithic – to determine which population was healthiest.

      Health in general suffered with the advent of agriculture, but to answer your question regarding bones: “The level of skeletal (including cranial and pelvic) development Paleolithic groups exhibited has remained unmatched throughout the history of agriculture.” http://wholehealthsource.blogspot.com/2009/03/paleopathology-at-origins-of.html

      The evidence is ironclad.

      erik.cisler wrote on May 31st, 2009
  24. How do you deal with the evidence that shows people on unrefined carb diets actually lower insulin levels significantly?

    And the evidence that high saturated fat foods actually can increase insulin?

    bongoman wrote on July 30th, 2009
  25. Bongoman, all carbs raise insulin to some degree, so I’m not sure exactly what “evidence” are you referring to? Can you point me to your specific studies that compare diets high in complex carb with low carb diets, for instance?

    Mark Sisson wrote on July 31st, 2009
  26. Just a quick update, I’m down TWENTY pounds since ditching grains. And my afternoon nap or coffee (depending on my schedule) is virtually eliminated. I was “primal with heavy grains” for about 2 months while I read, researched and decided whether or not to eliminate grains. I could NOT drop weight that way. And I went into a massive food-coma after every chicken-and-rice type meal I had. Just like I would with pasta, or pizza or something I ate in my pre-primal life. You really want to know whether you should drop grains or not?? Try it for 1 week. You won’t be able to argue with how great you FEEL. Horray for even energy all day!! No more 3 o’clock sleepy’s.

    Fixed Gear wrote on August 1st, 2009
  27. Fixed Gear, as a Christian, I find you were more ontrack with your original post… God did give us this Earth to use (wisely, hopefully). He gave us our darn big brains for reason…to become more human and less animal. Just because wild animals lack the ability to cook, doesn’t mean we are wrong for making the inedible edible. I am way in agreement with Barlow in that we don’t eat just for fuel…we share meals for pleasure as well.
    I can’t disagree with your weight loss…that’s why I’m attempting to eat this way…but I think you could have done the same just by eating far fewer carbs.(rather than elimination) I think if we all just ditch the simple carbs (Doritos really just don’t add to anyone’s life) and savor the occasional treat (that artisan bread he was talking about)we’ll be on the right path.
    p.s.
    Barlow spoke of Communion…for me,I always think of God feeding the Israelites in the desert…he gave them manna…not a side of beef.

    Marie wrote on October 2nd, 2009
  28. Yeah well if we’re using that big brain, then we should realize that if you HAVE TO cook something just to make it edible, it’s probably not good for you. By using that brain and realizing grains are NOT meant for human consumption I AM becoming more human, less animal. I’d argue people “going primal” are using a superior intellect than the masses following conventional wisdom!

    By cooking beans, or rice or oats, you can stomach them without getting sick. But that doesn’t mean it’s optimal fuel. I would argue they ARE making you sick, even cooked, just not as sick as they do raw. Raw beans off the vine = you’ll throw up. Cooked beans = lots of flatulance, and insulin spike/crash. That’s not the same as throwing up, but it’s certainly not positive. I’d call that low-grade sickness.

    I’m not advocating that we don’t cook because Grok didn’t cook, anymore than I’d say men shouldn’t shave or cut their hair because Grok didn’t. I LIKE our modern world. I’m simply saying if you HAVE TO cook a food just to make it edible…. then that’s a very compelling argument that it’s UNNATURAL for you to eat that food. The same way I don’t eat tree leaves or grass just because they occur in nature.

    Your argument that I “could have lost the weight anyway” by including the VERY THINGS that were impeding my weight loss…. just doesn’t make logical sense. I figured it out, it was the grains! That was the problem. I took them out and the weight came off. Going primal WITH grains, in 2 solid months I could only mange to drop 3 pounds. Once I ditched the grains, it was 1-2 pounds a week. I’m now down 38 pounds! That’s 18 more since my last post here. And I’m STRONGER in all my lifts in the gym.

    Go ahead and eat grains if you want to; I don’t need any more convincing. Honestly the weight loss, is secondary. I FEEL so much better without grains. You never really get off the insulin spike/crash rollercoaster if you eat lots of brown rice or oatmeal.. Replace those things with veggies and you’ll be much happier.

    Fixed Gear wrote on October 2nd, 2009
  29. Fixed Gear,first of all, congratulations on your weight loss… well done!
    But…I’m not understanding why all the shouting in your post…?? I wasn’t trying to be in your face.
    Let me just try to rephrase: I too am starting to limit grains and am starting to eat some meat. I do believe it will help me lose weight. I just think food is more than simply the sum of it’s nutritional parts, and that life is a gift… and too short to not enjoy a piece of good bread on occasion. I didn’t believe Ornish when he insisted on “no nuts” (fat content) and I don’t believe eliminating all grains is necessary…and cannot accept that agriculture was a purposeless fluke.
    It’s all just my humble opinion/perception/philosophy…I’m not trying to tell you how to eat.
    BTW, how much more do you want to lose?

    Marie wrote on October 2nd, 2009
  30. please tell me how civilization can continue without grains

    Alex wrote on December 2nd, 2009
    • Current and projected levels of population cannot exist on this planet without grains. That’s a big issue, and Mark as well as Loren Cordain acknowledge this. Therefore most people sadly will never have the choice to eliminate grains.

      However, if you have the choice and you do accept the premise that you can help your health, consider yourself lucky.

      VO wrote on April 16th, 2010
  31. 1) I don’t believe in evolution. I believe in creation. We did not evolve from apes.

    2) MODERATION.

    ‘Nuff said.

    Wendy wrote on December 6th, 2009
    • Are you f***ing serious? I love your site Mark, but the comments section appears to attract its fair share of whackjobs.

      Shayne wrote on February 22nd, 2010
      • Unfortunately, anything that challenges the general belief system out there is going to attract its fair share of crackpots and whackjobs, as well as the occasionall tr*ll.

        Griff wrote on April 29th, 2010
    • You are right, we didn’t evolve from apes. We evolved from a common ancestor.

      Moderation is important. Intelligent, science and evidence based decision making is better.

      enough said.

      Raleighwood wrote on April 1st, 2010
  32. What about the grains that don’t have gluten? Quinoa, Amaranth, rice, etc.? I thought these were supposed to be good for consupmption?

    E wrote on December 9th, 2009
  33. Interesting article. I’ve been battling eczema for the past few years and have always felt lethargic after meals, I wonder if cutting pasta and bread would help?

    One thing I was unsure about though was re. the Carbs… I thought potatoes / sweet potatoes and other spuds have equally high GI index to brown rice or wholewheat pasta? In that case wouldn’t potatoes cause equal amount of havoc to insulin spikes, etc? How can you recommend spuds in the same breath then?

    And as a seed does Quinoa have phytates?

    Joey wrote on January 1st, 2010
  34. A friend of mine recommended this website which he loves with a passion. Cutting carbs completely from ones diet is reminiscent of the Atkins diet which i ABHOR. im currently following the Glycemic Load system of eating by a british nutrionist called Holford. I do eat carbs in the form of Oats,Quinoa,nd Pumpernickel rye bread. I have been losing a kg a week which is great. Im really interested in Primal way of eating, does that mean i have to eliminate all of the above? i weigh my carbs and i dont consume more than 150gm a day + i love quinoa (is this a nasty grain?)dunno what to do really??
    As an added note i think ppl should look up the Codex Alimentarius which is unrelated to this diet but very much to vitamins and supplements Dr. Rima Laibow in Youtube. Peace

    Bsam wrote on January 8th, 2010
  35. All this creationist and christian bibble babble is making my head hurt.

    This is a HEALTH, NUTRITION and FITNESS blog. Not religion. Religion should be like your genitals… Kept covered in public, but you can play with it as much as you want in the privacy of your own home.

    It is a FACT, supported by EVIDENCE, that the earth is over 4 billion years old. Evolution does occur DAILY. Explain to me how bacteria adapting and evolving to become resistant to antibiotics is not evolution. Do some research about salamanders and how recent, NEW, species have evolved from separation and environmental changes.

    Biology only makes sense in the light of evolution. To completely dismiss it based upon your “faith” is ignorant and troublesome.

    With all that being said, and back to the original topic. The days (Wednesdays and Sundays) that I completely cut out grains (and carbs) are the days that I feel my best and most balanced energy wise. This is anecdotal at best, but what works for me is what works for me.

    In closing, please STFU about your religion and how it disproves evolution, science, practical reasoning and the such. Save it for another website that was actually created and designed for that audience.

    Thanks.

    Raleighwood wrote on April 1st, 2010
    • What exactly is the problem with someone posing a religion-related question to the author of the post/website? It probably wasn’t written to target specifically you, it was probably written to see what any other interested people thought about it… You don’t have to read it, you don’t have to response to it… Also, where on this site does it insist that all discussion generated is to be within the health/nutrition/fitness limits? It seems as though the entire goal, aside from the obvious selling-supplements part, is the education and back-and-forth with readers about a particular lifestyle. That doesn’t exlude a topic just cuz you don’t like it..

      Also, just as an admittedly off-topic sidenote… the belief that the earth and people were created is not mutually exlusive to the idea of evolution. As far as the “we did not come from apes” comment, that doesn’t exlude the possibility of evolution altogether… I personally make a distinction between macroevolution and microevolution. I have yet to see proof that macroevolution is possible.

      Maria wrote on April 16th, 2010
    • Raleighwood, evolution is a theory, there is no possible way of proving a “millions of years” theory when modern science has been around for just a few hundred years. The majority of scientists will agree to this.

      “Explain to me how bacteria adapting and evolving to become resistant to antibiotics is not evolution.” The bacteria remains bacteria, it therefore has nothing to do with proving or disproving macro-evolution (the millions of years theories).

      Ultimately evolution is world view that a lot of scientists have when they look at scientific evidence. People like to be able to disprove texts like the Bible as it means they can live however they want to live (no moral absolutes etc). Of course Creationist scientists are no different, they too have a world view through which they apply to their science.

      In the end it’s a faith question, not a science question.

      Also, I believe this discussion is very relevant to this article as Mark holds up evolution as one of the main reasons why humans should avoid excess carbohydrates. Yet evolution contradicts the beliefs of Christians, Jews and Muslims (a huge proportion of the world’s population).

      Will wrote on April 16th, 2010
  36. Thanks for this information, Mark. I’ve been following a primal diet and lifestyle for a few months and the results are obvious – obviously good. It’s hard to argue with results. It is in my nature, however, to fully explore new ideas, and not take them at face value. With that being said…

    As we will (should) all agree that evolution is occurring constantly, is it not possible that humans are slowly adapting to a diet high in grains? Evolutionary Theory and the “survival of the fittest” principal is based on the idea that those members of a species best adapted to changes in thier environment will pass along those adaptive traits to thier offspring. In this case, one environmental change is the superpopulation of the human species resulting in a lack of nutrient rich foods appropriate to feed the increasing population. I haven’t crunched the numbers yet, but I’d be willing to bet that the entire human population as it stands today could not survive on a strict primal diet without grains. Should you grant me that assumption, then next logical progression is a human species that will adapt (or is adapting) to ingesting grains as a major source of nutrition. The inability to digest gluten will continue to weed itself out. The sheer availability of grains will continue to encourage a growing population of humans until we have adapted to dependancy. (We are probably not too far off of that.) Is it better to resist these inevitable changes or to encourage them? Who knows?

    As for me, I won’t live in the future. I can control my diet, and don’t have a dependancy on grains. I enjoy my (semi-) primal lifestyle and look forward to passing my genes on to my children.

    T-Stake wrote on April 2nd, 2010
  37. Inevitably, a question came up while reading this… According to numerous sources, including several medical types, in order to continue lactating properly and producing the necessary amount of milk, carbs (most specifically whole grains, and even more specifically oatmeal) are a must… Do you happen to have an explanation for why this might not be the case? Also, any idea why the whole-grain idea is pushed by nearly 100% of nutritional experts? Just wondering what the motivation would be to tell so many people that it’s vital to their well-being if it is in fact not.. Thanks in advance!

    Maria wrote on April 7th, 2010
    • As for why almost all CW health experts recommend hearthealthywholegrains I think because they saw on CNN that they were good for you. And besides, eating meat is sinful and we should all be vegetarian. I’m being slightly tongue-in-cheek here but not too far off, many ‘experts’ just regurgitate what they hear 2nd or 3rd hand. We’ve all played telephone as kids and similar stuff happens in news sources/science reporting. Few people actually take the time to read the studies first hand(the whole thing not just the ABSTRACT, which is often misleading) and even fewer will read them if they are in a different language. I’ve read many, many studies where the abstract and the actual result of the study are in conflict or the researchers doctored the results so that they fit in w/ CW. Make the data fit the hypothesis so they can still get grant $$.

      Ann wrote on April 16th, 2010
  38. …I’ll add a bit to my question, as your explanation above somewhat answers what it sounds like I was asking… I wanted to know if the same explanation is valid in the case of lactation AND, if so, what is the best way of ensuring proper milk supply? (If you know..)

    Maria wrote on April 8th, 2010
    • Nurse more frequently is the best, most reliable way to up milk production. I’ve heard rumors that nettle / milk thistle tea will also work but haven’t tried it.

      Ann wrote on April 16th, 2010
  39. Ah yes, of course. Since we all know that before there was oatmeal, no woman ever breastfed a baby. Of course not. How could they? They didn’t have oatmeal! Makes perfect sense!

    Ian Wendt wrote on April 8th, 2010
    • Well, that was an incredibly useful response. Good on ya!

      Disregarding the idiot above, my question still remains, to anyone who may care to answer it… Just wondering what the magical quality of grains is that supposedly facilitates proper lactation (atleast in the opinion of the med. specialists to whom I’ve talked about this) and in which other replacement-type foods this would be found.

      Maria wrote on April 16th, 2010
      • I don’t know about the medical ‘experts’ that you’ve spoken to about this but I’ve been nursing my 17 month old since birth just fine on a diet that has been extremely low in grains. I do cheat occasionally on really, really good bread. But no more than once/twice a month (excluding a recent trip to France). I know this is just anecdotal, and therefore not strictly science, but as long as you get enough calories you should do just fine. I would be interested to know what the fat content of the milk is when you go high fat/lo carb. Perhaps the volume does decrease but the calories/fat content of the milk goes up? Perhaps women just have a harder time getting in enough calories to lactate properly w/o loads of carbs/sugar, I dunno. I would also tend to think that the increase in milk supply would be based on the amount of carbs (plus insulin spike) and not on some kind of micronutrient in the grains themselves since they are a pitiful source of nutrition.

        But I do agree with Ian’s statement above. Even HGs now bf just fine w/o grains. Babies do start out eating meat much earlier in HG/traditional societies also which lessens the amount of milk required after the first 4-8 months of life. See Sally Fallon’s work on this for more information.

        Personally, I feel so much better without grains that I don’t think I will be adding them back (n=1 rules). I don’t really miss them at all either.

        Ann wrote on April 16th, 2010
        • Gotcha, good to hear… I hadn’t yet come across anyone who had changed their diet to [mostly] eliminate grains etc yet was breastfeeding… Just wondering if it’d cause unnecessary complications. As far as the nursing more often thing, I don’t have any problems at present with milk, just didn’t want them to develop… As far as Ian’s “statement”, if you categorize it as such, I’m aware that it has happened, that part was clear to me before asking the question, the difference is the way they ate was/is second nature, whereas I’d be switching to it and not necessarily have the expertise to sub in the right food for the particular demands of breastfeeding… Either way, so far everything seems to be going fine, just was wondering if there’d be a large difference or some kinda special action that needed to be taken, what with the way it’s insisted that carbs are necessary or milk production will go out the window… At any rate, thanks for your comments/experience! Reassuring :)

          Maria wrote on April 16th, 2010
        • How long have you been eating this way? Has it been throughout nursing or somewhat recently?

          Maria wrote on April 16th, 2010
      • Maria, I don’t know if this is what you are looking for, but the body makes saturated fat out of carbs, and I believe at one point that was the logic behind saying ‘You MUST eat grains or you won’t be able to nurse’, though I know for a fact that’s bunk.

        IF you should start to see an issue-fenugreek worked very well for me when I started to see a bit of a shrink in my supply. You have to take enough of it to smell a bit ‘fennel-y’-your sweat, breath and urine will take on the scent, but it’s by no means bothersome or unpleasant.

        I don’t think there ‘is’ a component in grains that is necessary for lactation; The lipid profile of your milk will resemble that of your diet, so high vitamin CLO, coconut oil, and plenty of saturated fat are good things to get plenty of.

        I suspect that the recommendation for ‘whole grains’ is a lot like the ‘avoid raw milk’ and the ‘don’t eat liver or any vitamin A’ mandates you get when pregnant. Conventional wisdom and crummy even at that.

        That said, I did notice a measurable increase in my milk supply when I had oatmeal for breakfast (soaked overnight in buttermilk/kefir) than when I had something else (eg rawmilk eggnog, etc) so for me, at least, oats are a definite galactagogue.

        Laurel wrote on April 27th, 2010
        • Interesting… thanks! I wonder why the oats were helpful… that was what I was eating daily for breakfast (cooked in water, “served” with a halfish cup of apple juice cuz I can’t eat them raw ;) ) Now I’ve been eating several (3-4) eggs scrambled with some kinda of meat (ham/salmon/whatever) and some vegetables (spinach/bell peppers/etc) and a little cheddar cheese… So far milk’s okay, maybe a little down, but I just got back from a week long TDY (“business trip” in normal speak) and that probably had an impact. ANYWAYS! Thanks!

          Maria wrote on April 29th, 2010
      • If it were true that whole grains and oatmeal and milk are necessary for lactating, then the Inuit could not have existed. Until the relatively recent contact with “civilization”, they ate mostly whale meat and other animals, and their source of carbs was the stomach contents of the animals. They would not have been able to breastfeed and their infants would have starved.

        I knew that I was hypoglycemic before I had children, so I was eating a low-carb diet when I was nursing and had great amounts of milk with lots of cream. My babies looked well-nurished! So don’t be afraid to eliminate grains from your diet.

        Maxine wrote on June 16th, 2010
  40. Mark (or other helpful friends): I think I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place. I’m currently reading through Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle (BFFM)by Tom Venuto, and he recommends whole grains and oatmeal but not white flour. Since carbohydrates are the most efficient way to produce glucose for the body’s production of ATP, and since grain is a great source of carbohydrates, I’m at a loss. I want to combine the Primal Blueprint and BFFM for optimal health.

    With so many conflicting ideas regarding grains, part of me wonders if the only way for me to solve this issue is to cut to low grains and see how I feel after a month or two and then go back on a higher amount of grains and see if I feel better or worse.

    As you talk about how grains are damaging to the digestive system, I can’t help but wonder why evidence of this isn’t in great excess.

    I want to change my diet from processed to organic (straight from the earth, grass fed beef, etc). I think that would do a great deal for energy levels and overall health.

    -Benjamin

    Benjamin McLane wrote on April 19th, 2010

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