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. It was as useful a response as the question warranted. If you apply even a modicum of critical thinking to your question, you’d know that the “experts” that told you that oatmeal is a must for proper lactation have no real idea what they’re talking about. It has little to nothing to do with hunter-gatherer societies eating things that are “second nature”. They ate and still do eat, what is available to them. Second nature has very little to do with it.

    Ian Wendt wrote on April 20th, 2010
    • You, for a second time, are failing to understand what it is that I’m asking… I’d like to know what the nutrient(s) is(are) in grains that’s conducive to breastfeeding/good supply and where else it can be found, not whether or not the experts’ advice is valid. It seems you did not notice the second part to my question? The one where I said “since what it sounds like I’m asking has already been answered, can you tell me what the good part about grains is and where else I can find it?”…

      Maria wrote on April 20th, 2010
      • I’m definitely not insisting that women weren’t previously able to breastfeed successfully… it’s just that, again, back then eating right was second nature. Today it’s not. I’m just switching to it, I don’t have generations to ask or experience on which I can lean to answer my questions… I have to ask others that have been in this similar situation in order to find my answers.

        Maria wrote on April 20th, 2010
  2. Ever notice how mad some people get when you tell them grains are bad for them? It’s like telling a kid there is no Santa!

    nathan wrote on June 1st, 2010
  3. I may have read this post before, but I just read it again. It was necessary to remind myself why I do not eat grains and why I try to encourage my family to do the same. I have stepped back lately, but will continue to hint at this fact overtime.

    I think they will catch on eventually. I have been primal for 2 months and will never look back.

    Grok on!

    Primal Toad wrote on June 3rd, 2010
  4. Very nice. The mention of the family making “digs” especially hits home. I’m often taken back by how offended carb consumers become when you turn down the rice and beans. Most seem to take it very personally.

    C. Rauth wrote on June 8th, 2010
  5. I’m not saying you are ‘completely’ wrong in your whole anti-grain extravaganza, but you do contradict yourself a great deal with respect to the negative aspects of grains.

    For example

    “The bottom line is this: grains = carbs. Unnecessary at best, but flat out unhealthy at worst….. really the only way – to achieve a low carb, whole foods diet is to ditch the grains”

    Did I miss something in my 5th grade health class? The calories obtained from eating vegetables and fruits are >95% carbohydrates, yet, (for you) the bottom line is grains = carbs and carbs are bad. Through deductive reasoning, if carbs are bad, so are vegetables and fruit. I would certainly agree that vegetables and fruits are more nutrient dense than grains (therefore, more important to eat), but to flat out say that carbs are bad is just ridiculous.


    “You say fiber, I say unnecessary roughage, but that’s only the half of it.)”

    Fiber????? Are you seriously trying to tell me that you shouldn’t eat grains because they have FIBER?! Now you’re just scraping the barrel for gullible people on the internet. Regardless of whether you’re speaking of soluble or insoluble fiber, wholesome veggies contain both… so… what exactly is your point?

    I could mention other things, but this post is going on long enough as it is. Health and nutrition is about balance, not about complete absence or gluttony of specific foods (unless you have a serious health condition which requires the intake and ignorance of specific foods).

    I’m going to wake up in the morning and have my bowl of buckwheat or oatmeal mixed with fruit, nuts, and other goodies and I’m not going to feel bad about it. I’m going to get back from my daily run/swim/exercise routine and eat a nice bowl of brown-rice/lentils/quinoa mixed with an assortment of veggies and flax-oil without feeling bad about it.

    Not to mention, I’m going to throw some zucchini, carrot, banana, seaweed, garlic, and water into a blender, then drink the large glass of carbohydrates and fiber left over with a smile on my face.

    Get up, get out, be happy: eat grains.

    Life is about balance, not abstinence.

    Sam wrote on June 19th, 2010
  6. Sam, you seem to have ignored the whole explanation about how our digestive system has not yet evolved to be able to adequately handle grains. Humans have varying degrees of tolerance or intolerance, but as with carcinogens, just because we don’t see the immediate effect doesn’t mean we should eat them.

    Maxine wrote on June 21st, 2010
    • I see no scientific evidence in this article as to why the human body has not evolved to handle grains. Extreme conjectures require extreme evidence. In this article, I see nothing. Grains are a ‘part’ of the most balanced and healthy diet that a human being can eat. No doctor, nurse, or anyone with a degree or expertise relating to nutrition could possibly argue against me with any form of scientific evidence because it doesn’t exist. 95% of the replies on this webpage come from the gullible common folk of the internet who will believe anything they read. This is especially dangerous because it contributes to the spread of mal-information in the world. This kind of extremist point of view (of the author) is what creates a huge knowledge gaps in a vast amount of individuals. Just like the Atkins diet and most of the other fad diets out there, they are simply wrong because they are ‘too extreme’. People become afraid of eating things that are healthy for them!

      Sam wrote on July 8th, 2010
  7. Your article definitely makes a lot of sense but it sure is hard to ditch grain for me. That means almost no more pasta, bread and bagels huh? Guess it’s time to look for alternate breakfasts since that’s the hardest meal to replace grain’s in I think.

    vaal wrote on June 22nd, 2010
  8. Coming from a “gulible commoner” I think if you feel that if you dont believe the science the way it was presented, & you are not willing to try for yourself, than I say stop reading these things designed for idiots like me. Since eliminating grains for 12 weeks now, I have never felt or looked better, been stronger mentally & physically in my entire life. & that without eating red meat or pork(personal preference {sorry all of you bacon pushers})

    STEVE wrote on July 9th, 2010
  9. Regarding the Atkins diet, only the first weeks have severe carbohydrate restriction, to get your body to switch to burning fat instead of storing it, and to reduce insulin resistence. After that, veggies and then fruits are added according to the individual’s tolerance, the point at which they start to gain weight again. Yes, some veggies and fruits have a lot of carbohydrates, so must be added cautiously. Personally, if I eat grains (and also sugar), I have a hard time controlling my intake. Once I start, I crave more and more. If you find that you tolerate grains, fine. Don’t malign those of us who find better health and well being after eliminating them from our diet.

    Maxine wrote on July 9th, 2010
  10. I agree with Sam on this one. He makes a very good point. In reading this article, and others by Mark regarding grains, the only “downside” I saw to eating grains was that the indigestible part caused cells in the intestine lining to slough off more. Also, Gluten and Lectin can cause some issues, and, hey, if a more well rounded argument was presented along with sources to show the scientific understanding of Gluten, Lectin, and the like, it would make considering this a article easier.

    I only eat whole wheat bread or whole wheat rice, and I make my bread at home now. One thing that should be understood about bread is that the insulin issues that come from eating refined breads (which are basically simple sugars) is that they can be somewhat controlled with lean proteins (because of how long it takes for lean protein, such as chicken, to be metabolized). It would be even better to eat whole wheat, non-refined grains with protein because they are complex carbs.

    Benjamin McLane wrote on July 9th, 2010
  11. I cant replace grains with vegetables… theres too little of quality veggies around my house =(
    And my mum wants me to eat rice

    I guess i’ll have to put up with brown rice then

    Gab wrote on July 14th, 2010
  12. I mentioned this in a previous post but it’s worth mentioning again – leptin.

    If you go really low carb for extended periods your body will undergo hormonal changes to scrounge carbs and presrve consumed calories (including giving you cravings).

    As such a small shot of carbs now and then actually prevents such changes and increases the speed at which you burn off fat. In effect you’re giving your body permission to continue burning fat, your body’s reserve fuel.

    The good news is such a shot of high carbs doesn’t have to come from grains of any sort. I mention it anyway though as in 20 pages or so of comments no-one has touched on this.

    To the guy following BFFM, which is very similar to my own book on fat loss, like me he’s a bodybuilder. As such he’s looking to carbs to replenish the muscles, both for training and to reduce the need to burn protein for calories.

    The primal stuff is more about health than a lean, muscular appearance. It will give you that eventually, with suitable exercise, while bodybuilding gives it to you faster. So it’s up to you, do you want to look great quick but neglect elements of your health, or develop great long-term health and let your appearance catch up naturally?

    Me, I’m doing the bodybuilding thing :o)

    That is however a conscious choice…

    Alan Carr wrote on August 30th, 2010
  13. This might work if your a couch potato, but any one who seriously workout, seem to get massive cravings for carbohydrates. Exactly how then would it be so bad, if our body tells us it wants them so much.

    Matt Flipago wrote on August 30th, 2010
    • Only until you’ve converted to burning fat for fuel instead of relying on carbs (which are not good for you; look around this site and read up on insulin to understand why). Once you’ve done that, you won’t get the carb cravings any more.

      Griff wrote on August 30th, 2010
    • That has been my experience. I lost 45 pounds on very low carb diet and started working out again … but I found that once I was exercising 2-3 hours a day I would bonk really bad … so now I eat beans of various types with dinner and a little oatmeal in the morning.

      rob wrote on August 30th, 2010
  14. I have pretty much replaced most grains with beans such as black and small red beans combined with tasty herbs and olive or grape seed oil any time i crave carbs

    Cory wrote on September 12th, 2010
    • Beans are almost as bad for you as grains are. Better to ditch them, too. Look up “lectins” – they’re not pleasant.

      Griff wrote on September 13th, 2010
  15. Longevity–
    Reduce meat

    This Taoism observation for increased long life is 2,000 years old or more. Note: older persons just reduce meat (Eat more fat I assume) but do not eat grain.

    Diet studies by quintile that look at fat and oil consumption are just as bad as the grain study conclusions.

    Why not test this idea?
    Anyone over 60 can get a series of blood test for Insulin, Glucose, IGF-1, HgB A1c, C-reactive protein etcetera and then in 90 days of a grain free diet. See the results for yourself. Eric

    Eric wrote on September 24th, 2010
  16. After looking over some of these comments, I’m noticing that on BOTH sides of the evolution/creation divide is a stifling misunderstanding of several important notions. Anyone who wants to partake in the discussion of evolution, creation and intelligent design needs to recognize the distinctions between hypotheses & theories, observation & prediction and confirmation & proof – to begin!

    PLEASE do all of us a favor and read something by Karl Popper, Carl Hempel, Ernest Nagel, Rudolph Carnap, W.V.O. Quine, Hilary Putnam or Thomas Kuhn. Effectively, READ SOME PHILOSOPHY OF SCIENCE! This debate is becoming more common and familiar, and it seems like the popular view is still drudging along, stumbling over the nuances that ought to by this point be more appreciated by the average participants.

    Peter wrote on October 5th, 2010
  17. Just wondering, haven’t got as much knowledge as most on this comment board, I know feeling great is important of course but is no one tempted to eat bread? I love the stuff but after reading most of these comments it makes me feel guilty.. But I would mostly like to know is it more on the don’t eat grain side or the don’t eat bread side? And if one was dairy and egg and fish intolerant wat would one eat? I went and had a allergy scratch test on my arm and not huge dots but small dots came up under my skin and he told me I should avoid dairy and eggs to see if I feel less bloated.. I found it extremely hard with the eggs and fish so I gave up.. Any advice? I would like to try it again.. And also I really love yoghurt but how long has that been around for? And it’s not natural?? Just curious george I guess.. I would love to be lean but tend to bulk even doing cardio but my diet doesn’t consist of over 80g of carbs a day? Please help I would love to be lean

    Gab wrote on October 9th, 2010
    • I am not tempted to eat bread at all. Eating it gives me immediate and painful reactions.

      Now, does that mean you won’t have cravings for the first few days or weeks? No. Kicking grains is every bit as difficult as kicking heroin or cocaine – they are that addictive. But once those cravings are gone, bread will no longer tempt you unless you have an eating disorder or some other psychological condition (i.e. emotional eating). But I’ve been doing this for a year and more; the last time I had anything made of wheat was last December when I had one bite of the top of my wedding cake (saved in the freezer for the one-year anniversary), and I paid for it with two days of bloating, pain, and indigestion. If it hadn’t been my wedding anniversary, it wouldn’t have been worth it. Before that, the last time I had anything made of wheat was a slice of Roman Meal bread in August 2009. I don’t crave it; in fact, I actively avoid it.

      If you’re sensitive to dairy, why are you eating yoghurt?

      Go grain-free for a month and then ask for another scratch test. I’d bet some of your “allergies” are wheat-related and have nothing to do with dairy and fish and eggs – once you’ve eliminated wheat and other grains (including corn!) you might find your bloating and allergies go away and you can eat eggs and fish and dairy again. But in answer to your question: you can eat meat and non-starchy veggies and the occasional piece of fruit. Eat chicken with the skin on. Eat steak! Eat high-fat ground beef, bacon, pork chops, lamb. Eat big-ass salads with olive oil and vinegar dressing, three different kinds of lettuce, tomatoes, onions, other good non-starchy veggies. The list is awesome and endless – and filling.

      The forums here are filled with a wealth of information. So is Mark’s book. Go to the one, and buy the other – and don’t look back. You’ll thank yourself for it in months and years to come.

      Griff wrote on October 9th, 2010

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