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

The Definitive Guide to Grains


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.

Grain Truck

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.


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.

Bread, Pasta

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.

Whole Wheat Pasta

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.


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. How does one go about obtaining the daily intake of 48g of whole grain, if not from 100% Whole Grain Bread then?

    Chuka wrote on April 11th, 2012
  2. Really interesting article, im considering absolutely remodelling my daily diet. I’ve got a question though. My dad has gout, and apparently it’s because of having a high protein diet. What do you think? Thanks.

    Tim Nguyen wrote on June 11th, 2012
  3. My god this is a stupid,uneducated and just plain wrong viewpoint. Grains are not the devil. Humans are made to be omnivores…grains included.

    Jimmy wrote on July 3rd, 2012
  4. Grammatical error: “and their myriad of associations”

    Matt wrote on July 18th, 2012
  5. I find all of this very interesting but shouldn’t there be a concern with what is added to foods. Another words anything that isn’t organic. It can be hard to shop for healthy foods cause of how much more expensive it is. Then try feeding a family. Anyone have any secrets on how to buy healthy foods when u live paycheck to paycheck?

    Rich wrote on August 9th, 2012
    • Plant a garden.
      If you have no yard, you can plant almost anything in pots. You can even grow some stuff in a sunny window (think herbs, lettuce)

      I live in the country and have land, but I’ve seen people in cities turn their lawns into gardens. BONUS – working in the garden gets you out in the sun and gets you some movement.

      Get together with friends and buy a cow/pig. Cut out the middle man and pay the farmer – everyone gets a great deal that way.

      I feed a family of six and actually find it costs about the same as it did pre-primal.

      MamaB wrote on August 11th, 2012
    • Healthy foods do not have to be expensive. I live in one of the most expensive areas of the USA, but I can easily feed my family a nutritious, high-protein, low-carb meal for about $2 per person. In my house, dinner means about 2.5 pounds of vegetables and 2.5 pounds of meat/fish/poultry for two men and two women.

      Produce does not have to be labeled organic to be healthy–it may be a nice plus if you can afford it, but it’s been proven to add little to no nutritive benefit. When you live on a shoestring budget, you have to make compromises. Much better to focus on freshness, which usually means more local-type produce in season and/or frozen vegetables.

      In my area, fresh produce tends to run about $2 per pound on average. Some things are higher, many things are lower, but i can very accurately predict my grocery bill by using $2 as my estimate. Frozen vegs are almost always more affordable, often of better quality, and frequently on sale. They’re also easier to prepare and less likely to go to waste, so a good choice on a budget.

      Eggs are probably the best possible bang for your nutrition buck at about $0.15-$0.20 each. Even the most expensive eggs shouldn’t be more than 40¢ apiece. A the low end of the spectrum for meats, there are chicken thighs for $2/lb and whole chickens regularly on special for $1/lb. Tuna packed in olive oil is $2 per can at Trader Joe’s where I also buy frozen grass-fed ground beef at a reasonable price.

      You can spend even less at Costco provided you have enough mouths to feed, or sufficient space to store longer-lasting items.

      Also, if you eliminate most grains and carb-dense foods, you’ll find yourself eating less, so grocery bills won’t necessarily rise.

      Love wrote on March 17th, 2013
  6. Just stumbled across this article and I’m really interested in the subject! I’ve developed a gluten allergy in the past few years and am 8 months in to being gluten free, so I’m always on the look out for better/easier eating options.

    The only thing I would caution regarding not eating grains is that (at least for gluteny grains) unless you’re prepared to give them up forever, you have to be careful about how long you go without eating them. Because the body stops being able to process gluten after a certain period of time. (I’ve heard things start to go downhill after roughly two weeks.) So while it starts out as a choice, it eventually has to be a permanent lifestyle. Which can lead to concerns regarding cross-contamination when you’re eating outside of your controlled environment, or hidden gluten such as flour in gravies/dressings/sauces. And instead of saying “Oh, I don’t eat rye bread” it’s “trace amounts of flour can make me physically ill”. Again, just something to keep in mind. I’ve been finding this all out the hard way.

    Apa wrote on August 11th, 2012
  7. Hi, although I am not advocating eating grains, I wonder if they are really the cause of extreme obesity nowadays. I mean, until the 1950s, 1960s, people ate grains and only a low percent was overweight or obese. but then with the advent of high-calorie snacks, fructose syrup, processed food etc. (e.g. buying a premade salat sauce in pulver form gives you alot of unnecessary calories, which is of course not mentioned on the package)people got fatter. when I was a child in the 70s, chips were snacks for parties, not an every-day food….etc. pp.
    so it is not the grains per se to cause obesity and other illnesses imo (although I seldom eat it)

    Sonja Stendera wrote on August 20th, 2012
  8. Just one question. What about quinoa? I know it is high in protein but does it fit into a primal diet?

    Sheri Claringbold wrote on October 25th, 2012
    • My understanding is that quinoa is a seed, not a grain, but still poses similar risk (albeit a much lower one).

      Carson wrote on July 27th, 2013
  9. Try a plain ommelette with sliced strawberries for breakfast…heaven!

    MsFoxwell wrote on November 2nd, 2012
  10. Growing your own sprouts or meorcgreins in the fall and winter is an excellent way to ensure a continual supply of greens when fresh options are limited. Some people consider them to be a superfood. Others claim they are a great survival food. I would simply say, sprouts are nutritious and contain none of the harmful things found in processed food, making them a good choice to incorporate into a whole foods diet. Sprouts grown at home retain their nutrients better than produce that has traveled long distances and sat on a shelf, waiting to be purchased. Sprouting or soaking grains and legumes, greatly increases their nutritional value and digestibility

    Yuma wrote on December 6th, 2012
  11. I so love the way you write. Smile stuff.

    Marloe wrote on January 30th, 2013
  12. I first started reading about grains/bread when I found out about candida yeast infection. I had been searching for what was wrong with my mouth for 7 months. The candida diet finally took care of that and I lost 40 lbs. The candida diet consists of no sugar which also mean no bread since it turns to sugar. I made buckwheat pancakes which I used as my bread.

    Jamatego wrote on February 15th, 2013
  13. Hi Mark-
    Have you ever run across anyone that does very well on the primal diet, except seems to need something that is a gluten free grain type substance because of irritability. There is something in gluten free grain or seeds that I need to keep me balanced, but do not tolerate any grain even gluten free very well. They all seem to cause inflammation. Any thoughts? Or suggestions?

    Linda wrote on March 6th, 2013
  14. I thought I’d check out this “primal” diet thing after I heard people mention it. Yeah, this is silly. At least in America (yes, it’s a CONTINENT), natives have eaten corn (maiz) since forever. Do not compare GMO corn to the over 70 varieties that exist non modified. Highly nutritious FYI. It’s silly to believe that only 10,000 years ago people started eating grains… All natural foods are healthy as long as they are consumed in balance. This “primal diet” is not really primal. Silly humans, you don’t need to live in the past, just eat natural food. Anything that isn’t modified is good for you. GMOs are ridiculous, it’s obvious that nature knows best, there’s no need to change it. Viva el maiz! Read up on the 70+ varieties 😉 no joke!

    Sun-i wrote on March 27th, 2013
  15. I’d love a private email since I might forget to come back and look if anyone responds (kishag(at)live(dot)com after a while. I’m really having mixed thoughts on which camp of thought is closets to spot on for a long-term diet regimen. I know you all have heard of the RAW foodies and well, they clearly consume lots of sugary fruit and are lean (some too lean) but they appear healthier than most of society. However, I’m not sure that totally eliminating animal protein is superb for long-term health. How does one make sense of the fact that most raw foodies are super lean while eating well over 2500 calories for women of fruit and are still thin? I’ve read Paleo, Primal and 801010. They all seem to make sense and each camp has extremist so where’s the balance? So much information…Thanks for any kind help offered.

    Kisha G. wrote on July 5th, 2013
  16. Hi Mark,
    I have a family history of diabetes and have had several diabetes scares myself (thankfully I don’t have the disease though). I’ve a bad head for science (beyond the forensic aspect) and so this may be a silly question, but if I avoid these spikes in insulin by severely limiting my grain intake, will that decrease my diabetes risk?

    Carson wrote on July 27th, 2013
    • Chronic high levels of insulin have been implicated in the onset of insulin resistance, and undisputedly, insulin resistance leads to type 2 diabetes and other metabolic syndrome. Insulin levels rise as serum glucose levels rise. Since carbohydrates are converted into glucose in the body and since grains are very high in carbs, there is a direct correlation to grain consumption and insulin level. Combine that relationship with very high levels of grain consumption, and I think you have the recipe for diabetes and other metabolic syndrome.

      Insulin spikes are normal and good for healthy bodily function to a certain point. A core concept of primal/paleo eating is that our bodies do very well on the amount and rate of glucose that results from eating clean meats, vegetables, and fruits. On the other hand, heavy grain consumption pushes us outside of that optimal range.

      A good way to treat diabetes is to not get it. When someone finds out they have diabetes, suddenly they must start watching their blood sugar and insulin. Well I like the idea of doing precisely that before I end up with diabetes. Interestingly, prevention is just like some aspects of treatment, so let’s manage serum glucose spikes and the corresponding insulin spikes. Cutting the grains in favor of more clean meats, vegetables, and fruits is a huge step in the right direction. Plus all of this is not even considering inflammation and all the other problems with grains, so there are a lot of other benefits in cutting grains and going primal/paleo besides heading off diabetes.

      RationalGuard wrote on December 4th, 2013
      • Thanks for replying :) Unfortunately I’m studying abroad in Japan right now and I don’t have access to an oven, so keeping primal has been a bit more difficult than it was at home, but your comment makes me want to try even harder.

        Carson wrote on December 4th, 2013
  17. Grains are a slave food: The gladiators ate mostly barley, remember. Armies were fed on grains and many times were treated indifferently by their masters in charge (thus treated like slaves) and large groups of people busy building cities feast on grains night and day to fuel their ever reaching suburban sprawl.

    And they are a perfect slave food because they are cheap and it doesn’t really matter if they contain nutrients anyway. As long as they produce a satiated slave it’s OK. As long as they fill the belly with roughage and cause production to happen on the assembly line.

    My point–>
    Grains don’t feed the brain; slaves don’t need brains.

    Lisa Being wrote on August 23rd, 2013
  18. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your article and I am processing the information you delivered. I have one question (possible a stupid one). If I want to avoid grains based on your article, does eating gluten-free do the trick? Does this mean I’m eating the good grains and avoiding the bad ones? Or is it better to avoid all grains altogether?

    Susan wrote on September 24th, 2013
  19. Mark – please cite your source for this statement:

    “Researchers now believe that a third of us are likely gluten intolerant/sensitive.”

    With a statement including such a large part of the population it should be easy to find this study, however, I cannot find a single study that includes this statement. I can find this information repeated on several other blogs, but that doesn’t make it a fact.

    Please cite your source/study.

    Jen wrote on November 8th, 2013
  20. I agree that grains should not be the cornerstone of the diet of anyone who is seeking optimal health, but this article ignores that traditional cultures knew/know how to neutralize many of the negatives and enhance the nutritional value. Soaking, sprouting and fermentation. The phylates, lectin and gluten are modified or eliminated. Sourdough, tempeh, miso…

    Stephie wrote on March 7th, 2014
  21. Mark,

    I have read your article on Lectin’s, which also lead me to read this article as well. Both very informative, however, I currently have a client that has experienced lack of hormone production due to cutting out all grains/carbs. On the flip side, the main reason for cutting out carbs was that she developed leaky gut syndrome prior to cutting out carbs.

    Now she is back to incorporating carbs and grain sources like quinoa, brown rice and sweet potatoes to help increase her energy levels, but has also found the gastrointestinal symptoms to present themselves once again. My question for is, if grain sources are a clear result of her GI distress, but she is experiences hormonal dysfunction and lack of energy without incorporating them, then how can she get the right sources of carbs? Vegetables simply do not provide enough carbs for a woman to stay in the 75 g intake I’d like her to stay at in order to sustain a substantial energy levels. In addition, although sweet potatoes are not one of the sources you pointed out that is high in lectin, is quinoa and brown rice included in the “high lectin” category? Your feedback would be much appreciated.

    Ali wrote on March 16th, 2014
  22. I understand what you are saying about a low-carb diet. I read that certain people who take antidepressants can crave carbohydrates simply because it is a side effect of the medication. How true is that?
    My wife has had gasteric by-pass, but due to her afib condition was not able to burn more calories than she ingested. Right now her weight seems to stable (morbidly obease). What suggestions can you provide to stear her away from carbs and onto other items. She will eat fruit that I cut for her, but that is not an ideal solution either.
    I want to help her, but I also realize that it must be her choice to change what she eats.
    She is home all day because she cannot work due to her afib condition (FYI …she is out of rythym more than she is in).

    I welcome your suggestions.

    Tracy wrote on June 3rd, 2014
  23. Who’ll Stop The Grain
    by Joe Disch
    (tune of Who’ll Stop the Rain by Creedence Clearwater Revival)

    Long as I remember, grains been growin ‘round
    Clouds of mystery, pourin’ poison on the ground
    Farmers through the ages tryin’ to trap the sun
    And I wonder, still I wonder who’ll stop the grain

    I went down Virginia seekin’ shelter from the corn
    Caught up in the fable I watched the cereal flow
    Pyramids and “my plates” praise the golden waves
    And I wonder, still I wonder who’ll stop the grain

    Smelled the bakers bakin’, how we cheered for more
    The children rushed together cryin’ for wheat and corn
    Still the pain kept warning, fallin’ on deaf ears
    And I wonder, still I wonder who’ll stop the grain

    Joe Disch, Madison Paleo wrote on October 15th, 2014
  24. I think you should check paleo recipes and enjoy the benefits of that lifestyle. I love it.

    Michael Grisham wrote on December 4th, 2014

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