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

Why Grains Are Unhealthy

I find that grain bashing makes for a tasty, but ultimately unsatisfying meal.

You all know how much I love doing it, though. But no matter how often I sit down to dine on the stuff (and I’ve done it with great gusto in the past), I always leave the table feeling like I left something behind. Like maybe I wasn’t harsh enough about the danger of gluten, or I failed to really convey just how much I hated lectins. If I didn’t know better, I’d think the mere mention of grains was eliciting a crazy insulin-esque response and throwing my satiety hormones all out of whack. I was filling up on anti-grain talk, but I just couldn’t fill that void for long.

Well, I’ve got the hunger today, and this time I aim to stuff myself to the point of perpetual sickness. I don’t ever want to have to look at another anti-grain argument again (yeah, right). If things get a little disjointed, or if I descend into bullet points and sentence fragments, it’s only because the hunger has taken over and I’ve decided to dispense with the pleasantries in order to lay it all out at once.

So please, bear with me.

Apart from maintaining social conventions in certain situations and obtaining cheap sugar calories, there is absolutely no reason to eat grains. Believe me – I’ve searched far and wide and asked everyone I can for just one good reason to eat cereal grains, but no one can do it. They may have answers, but they just aren’t good enough. For fun, though, let’s see take a look at some of the assertions:

“You need the fiber!”

Okay, for one: no, I don’t. If you’re referring to its oft-touted ability to move things along in the inner sanctum, fiber has some unintended consequences. A few years back, scientists found that high-fiber foods “bang up against the cells lining the gastrointestinal tract, rupturing their outer covering” which “increases the level of lubricating mucus.” Err, that sounds positively awful. Banging and tearing? Rupturing? These are not the words I like to hear. But wait! The study’s authors say, “It’s a good thing.” Fantastic! So when all those sticks and twigs rub up against my fleshy interior and literally rupture my intestinal lining, I’ve got nothing to worry about. It’s all part of the plan, right?

Somehow, I’m not convinced that a massive daily infusion of insoluble grain fiber is all that essential. And that “lubricating mucus” sounds an awful like the mucus people with irritable bowel syndrome complain about. From personal experience I can tell you that once I completed my exodus from grains, the IBS completely stopped. If you’re not yet convinced on the fiber issue I’ll refer you to Konstantin Monastyrsky’s Fiber Menace. Anyway, there’s plenty of fiber in the vegetables and fruit I eat. Which takes me to the next claim:

“You need the vitamins and minerals!”

You got me. I do need vitamins and minerals, like B1 and B2, magnesium and iron, zinc and potassium. But do I need to obtain them by eating a carb-heavy, bulky grain? No, no I don’t. You show me a serving of “healthy whole grains” that can compete – nutrient, vitamin, and mineral-wise – with a Big Ass Salad. What’s that? Can’t do it? Thought so.

“But it forms the foundation of the governmental food pyramid!”

You know, I should have just started the entire post with this one. I could have saved my fingers the trouble of typing and your eyes the trouble of reading. Governmental endorsements are not points in your favor, grain-eater; they are strikes against you. An appeal to authority (unless that “authority” is actually a preponderance of scientific evidence, of course) does not an effective argument make. Conventional Wisdom requires consistent, steady dissection and criticism if it is to be of any value.

There’s a reason grains are first and foremost on the list of foods to avoid when following the Primal Blueprint: they are completely and utterly pointless in the context of a healthy diet. In fact, if your average unhealthy person were to ask for the top three things to avoid in order to get healthy, I would tell them to stop smoking, to stop drinking their calories (as soda or juice), and to stop eating grains. Period. Full stop. They really are that bad.

I’ve mentioned this time and again, but the fundamental problem with grains is that they are a distinctly Neolithic food that the human animal has yet to adapt to consuming. In fact, cereal grains figured prominently in the commencement of the New Stone Age; grains were right there on the forefront of the agricultural revolution. Hell, they were the agricultural revolution – einkorn wheat, emmer, millet, and spelt formed the backbone of Neolithic farming. They could be stored for months at a time, they were easy enough to grow in massive enough quantities to support a burgeoning population, and they promoted the construction of permanent settlements. Oh, and they were easily hoarded, meaning they were probably an early form of currency (and, by extension, a potential source of income inequality). And here’s the kicker: they were harsh, tough things that probably didn’t even taste very good. It also took a ton of work just to make them edible, thanks to their toxic anti-nutrients.

Toxic anti-nutrients? Do tell.

Living things generally do not want to be consumed by other living things. Being digested, for the most part, tends to interrupt survival, procreation, propagation of the species – you know, standard stuff that fauna and flora consider pretty important. To avoid said consumption, living things employ various self defense mechanisms. Rabbits, for example, with their massive ears, considerable fast-twitch muscle fibers, and nasty claws, can usually hear a predator coming, outrun (out-hop?) nearly anything, and (in a pinch) slash a tender belly to shreds. Blue whales are too big to fit into your mouth, while porcupines are walking reverse pincushions. Point is, animals have active defense mechanisms. They run, fight, jump, climb, fly, sting, bite, and even appeal to our emotions (if you’ve ever seen a puppy beg for a treat with sad eyes, you know that isn’t just accidental cuteness) in order to survive. All the while, predators are constantly evolving and generating adaptations.

Plants, though, are passive organisms without the ability to move, think, and react (for the most part). They must employ different tactics to ensure propagation, and they generally have to rely on outside forces to spread their seed. And so various methods are “devised” to dissuade consumption long enough for the seed to get to where it’s going. Nuts have those tough shells, and grains have the toxic anti-nutrients, lectins, gluten, and phytates. (Of course there are some obvious exceptions. Fruits are tasty, nutritious, and delicious so that animals will eat them whole and poop out the seeds, preferably into some fertile soil. The seed stays intact throughout the digestive process; it is indigestible by design. No seed “wants” to be digested, because this would defeat the purpose. They “want” to be swallowed, or borne by the wind, or carried by a bee to the next flower, but they do not want to be digested.)

Some animals are clearly adapted to grain consumption. Birds, rodents, and some insects can deal with the anti-nutrients. Humans, however, cannot. Perhaps if grains represented a significant portion of our ancestral dietary history, things might be a bit different. Some of us can digest dairy, and we’ve got the amylase enzyme present in our saliva to break down starches if need be, but we simply do not have the wiring necessary to mitigate the harmful effects of lectins, gluten, and phytate.

Lectins are bad. They bind to insulin receptors, attack the stomach lining of insects, bind to human intestinal lining, and they seemingly cause leptin resistance. And leptin resistance predicts a “worsening of the features of the metabolic syndrome independently of obesity”. Fun stuff, huh?

Gluten might be even worse. Gluten, found in wheat, rye, and barley, is a composite of the proteins gliadin and glutenin. Around 1% of the population are celiacs, people who are completely and utterly intolerant of any gluten. In celiacs, any gluten in the diet can be disastrous. We’re talking compromised calcium and vitamin D3 levels, hyperparathyroidism, bone defects. Really terrible stuff. And it gets worse: just because you’re not celiac doesn’t mean you aren’t susceptible to the ravages of gluten. As Stephan highlights, one study showed that 29% of asymptomatic (read: not celiac) people nonetheless tested positive for anti-gliadin IgA in their stool. Anti-gliadin IgA is an antibody produced by the gut, and it remains there until it’s dispatched to ward off gliadin – a primary component of gluten. Basically, the only reason anti-gliadin IgA ends up in your stool is because your body sensed an impending threat – gluten. If gluten poses no threat, the anti-gliadin IgA stays in your gut. And to think, most Americans eat this stuff on a daily basis.

Phytates are a problem, too, because they make minerals bio-unavailable (so much for all those healthy vitamins and minerals we need from whole grains!), thus rendering null and void the last, remaining argument for cereal grain consumption.

What, then, is the point to all this grain madness? Is there a good reason for anyone (with access to meat, fruit, and vegetables, that is) to rely on cereal grains for a significant portion of their caloric intake?

The answer is unequivocally, undeniably no. We do not need grains to survive, let alone thrive. In fact, they are naturally selected to ward off pests, whether they be insects or hominids. I suggest we take the hint and stop eating them.

And with that, I’m done. I don’t think I could eat another bite.

Prefer listening to reading? Get an audio recording of this blog post, and subscribe to the Primal Blueprint Podcast on iTunes for instant access to all past, present and future episodes here.

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. Great post! I really enjoy reading this website.
    Mainstream medical science is a hoax for the most part and the corporate shills and “skeptics” try to dupe people otherwise. Stay aware from conventional medicine and turn to natural nutritional/herbal treatments. Many of todays most deadly diseases can be traced back to our horrible dietary choices. In fact, the new field of epigenetics is proving that genetic determinism is a myth and that we can control our own health.
    I can see that even here and on many other natural health forums that the shills of mainstream medicine persist.

    Kelli wrote on June 22nd, 2011
  2. I used to have these arguments on a dog forum with people arguing against me that grains are even good for dogs. That the cheap grain filler processed dog chow is “healthly” for a canine. UGH!!! Then I look around at all these fat middle aged dogs just screaming for some good old meat in their diet – depressing actually

    mark wrote on June 23rd, 2011
  3. I am 60. My mother lived to be 92 and
    only cuz she stopped eating. All her
    sisters lived in their 90’s and the one
    sister lived to be 102.
    True, i too get bad heartburn from
    eating grain/starches. Fats, sauce does
    not bother me.
    I was a vegan when i was in my 20’s
    for a yr. I got extremely weak and was
    laying in bed all the time. I finally
    got some protein pd. and drank it every
    day. A week later i was back to normal.
    I too was a vegitarian for 18 yrs.
    I’ve been off it for 12 yrs. I am now
    doing Atkins to lose 20 lbs, and am
    just learning about the Palio diet. I
    like it. I love the receipes too.

    Marie wrote on June 27th, 2011
  4. I forgot to add that my 92 yr old mom
    ate mostly meat her whole life and not
    chicken or turkey cuz she had to cut
    their heads off as a teen and never ate
    them again. So she ate hamburger, steak,
    sausage, pork chops, ham and had meat
    every single nite with some veggies and
    a little carbs, but she never pigged out
    on carbs. Her blood pressure was normal
    and she had no diseases. Me, on the other hand had pigged out on carbs for
    many yrs, and ate chicken instead of
    red meat. I got high blood pressure.
    I am not doing Atkins and considering
    the paleo diet. My mom was thin. I have
    gained almost 20 lbs at age 60. I think
    my mom was healthier with the meat and
    little carbs.

    Marie wrote on June 27th, 2011
  5. Oops….I mispelled…I am NOW doing
    Atkins i meant to say! Again, the carbs
    and the juices always gave me heartburn,
    and yet i never get it with sauce or
    fried meat!

    Marie wrote on June 27th, 2011
  6. Whole Grains FTW !! (aka who cares what you think)

    lolozaur wrote on June 30th, 2011
  7. I’ve enjoyed reading the back and forth arguments on this post. I think it’s safe to add grain avoidance to politics and religion on the list of ‘things not to discuss’.

    My tuppence is:
    Are all grains bad? No. All gluten grains are. The remaining ones don’t bring a lot to party nutrition-wise when comapred with veggies or a salad. So going for ‘optimal’ nutrition would mean forgoing grains and their derivatives. I personally don’t believe there are any magic micronutrients out there.

    Is all sugar bad? No. Glucose is essential for the body functioning. Fructose is bad depending on the quantity and source. Some fruit won’t kill you.

    I’ll add the caveat that the above applies to individuals in full health and not trying to lose weight only.

    Steve wrote on July 1st, 2011
  8. Todd the “American cancer Society” You mean that organisation that has for years suppressed natural cancer cures,tried to steal patents from people that have had a track record of proven success in CURING yes that’s in capitals, cancer. Is the AMCS the same multi billion dollar corporation funded by big pharma is that the same one you’re speaking of?.
    OH Todd ….

    Kim wrote on July 5th, 2011
  9. Oh Toddy also look up the words Ad Hominum.

    And just as an aside I’m 52 5’9″ 75 KG and 5% BF year around and I DO eat grains, BUT since cutting down, I look and feel better.
    No need to get insulting when making a point.
    Science old chum wonderful thing isn’t it? Jeez its seems just like yesterday when we where told that cigarettes were good for you,breathing asbestos wasn’t going to harm you and the sun revolved around the earth,ooooops!

    Kim wrote on July 5th, 2011
  10. “paleodiet” is being increasingly mentioned here and there and everywhere, that it’s the healthiest diet.
    If we’re talking about the food that our ancestors ate 5000 years ago, then it’s a big big mistake to assume that they lived long lives.
    No, they didn’t. Their lifespan was 30 years.
    So, I’m still not convinced that paleodiet is TheHealthiest diet. Is paleodiet = grainless diet ?
    That’s is the original intention?

    zpitum wrote on July 6th, 2011
  11. What would you say to a 54 year old man who eats grains every day runs marathons, plays squash twice a week and feels as fit as a fiddle?

    Grains = bad isn’t an equation this particular human being believes is true.

    Jack Hollis wrote on July 9th, 2011
  12. Maybe it’s a genetic thing?

    It seems like if people of European descent eat grains, their body’s are unable to process it and start developing various types of disease.

    People of Asian descent like Chinese, Koreans, and Japanese don’t seem to have adverse effects with grain consumption, and they have been consuming masses of it like rice for about 2000+ years. Maybe their genetics are more geared towards grain consumption than Europeans are? If it were a problem, then wouldn’t they have noticed it sooner? They’ve only been starting to develop diseases commonly occurring in modernized Western countries ever since people became more international.

    saab wrote on July 14th, 2011
  13. Mark, you reasoned that no living things wants to be consumed by another, including plants, and that they have thus created defense mechanisms. When it comes to animals, however, we’ve used our intelligence to develop weapons, traps and other such tools to get past their defenses. For those of us who are not gluten sensitive, what about using the tools of fermenting the grains or soaking them in an acidic solution in order to break down the phytates and such? According to varied literature I’ve come across, that’s exactly what our ancestors have done for centuries (at least).

    Chantal wrote on July 14th, 2011
  14. So if we can’t have grains, what do people who exercise a lot do for getting increased carbohydrates?

    Also, what is a better breakfast to have then instead of grains? I save salad and baked beans for lunch and I’m also trying to be a vegetarian.

    Also, the grains keep you full for longer – won’t I end up crashing within an hour if I have salad for breakfast?

    Thanks for a great article!

    Massimo wrote on July 23rd, 2011
  15. So if we can’t have grains, what do people who exercise a lot do for getting increased carbohydrates?

    Also, what is a better breakfast to have then instead of grains? I save salad and baked beans for lunch and I’m also trying to be a vegetarian.

    Also, the grains keep you full for longer – won’t I end up crashing within an hour if I have salad for breakfast”

    Oh my Massimo, you are seriously misinformed, to put it gently. Carbohydrates spike your insulin and make you hungry a couple of hours later. Fats and proteins keep you satiated and nourished and are not inflammatory like grains. You need to read The Primal Blueprint or you will be swimming against the tide in this forum.

    Adriana G wrote on July 23rd, 2011
    • Thanks for the advice! I honestly wasn’t suggesting that I was right. I actually think you guys are right, I’m just wondering what to eat instead? And also, oats aren’t the ‘worst’ thing in the world to eat really?

      Massimo wrote on July 23rd, 2011
  16. Thank you so much for this!! I started the paleo “diet” in January and it was an amazing change, but recently fell of track on my honeymoon eating grains. I needed this to kickstart myself back into eating and feeling great!!

    Monica wrote on August 3rd, 2011
  17. Is all this knowledge of fairly recent origin, meaning just a few decades old? I can’t imagine the world being so dependent on grains if the disadvantages are so well-known. Even the western world which thrives on meat has wheat as a secondary staple (bread). Or is there no alternative to grain for reasons of convenience (ease of storage and transport)? Can veggies/fruits ever replace grains the world over?

    K.Gopal Rao wrote on August 19th, 2011
  18. I am not a doctor but I definitely there is some validity to the fact that we don’t need grains, and they might actually have an adverse affect on some (if not most) of our bodies. I always feel bloated, tired and heavy after eating grains. I think we can get all the nutrients we need from other sources!

    The Traveling Yogi wrote on August 19th, 2011

Leave a Reply

If you'd like to add an avatar to all of your comments click here!

© 2016 Mark's Daily Apple

Subscribe to the Newsletter and Get a Free Copy
of Mark Sisson's Fitness eBook and more!