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.

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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. I have two main issues with your article. Firstly, you fail to deal sufficiently with the issue – your rebuttal seems to consist of an irrational “yuk” and nothing more. Fibre is very important in the maintencance of adequate gut motility and deficiencies are associated with a range of GI diseases. Secondly, your statement that phytates “render null and void” the argument that grains provide important minerals goes well beyond the evidence provided in your citation. Just because they reduce absorption doesn’t mean they prevent the absorption of all the minerals in the grain.

    mrat wrote on August 26th, 2011
  2. What about the claim that “we need long-term energy”? Do we really need it? If so, where else can we get it?

    Martha wrote on August 27th, 2011
  3. Hey, I have a question regarding body building. I myself count carbs and I require over 3500 per day at the moment. The bulk of the calories comes from grains (I eat over 500 g per day). Should I just replace the grains with meat/ vegetable source? I’m already eating over 700 g of meat a day. Protein is toxic in large amounts is it not? I’m really stumped as to what I can replace grains with.

    mitch wrote on September 2nd, 2011
  4. We veterinarians are often asked about diet, and our answers need to be accurate because the consequences of wrong answers will not only harm our patients but our reputations as well. Diet is the foundation of good veterinary. If a farmer asks me how to fatten up his horse, cow, pig, chicken, sheep, dog, or cat I will answer, “Feed him grain.” It is generally known that this works. Why does my physician tell me to eat 5-10 servings of grain a day???

    W.J. Kelly, DVM wrote on September 5th, 2011
  5. I’m sorry but this article is complete rubbish. Several (not all) of your studies are weak at best. Your fiber argument is more personal preference than fact. In addition, the paleolithic diet and it’s claims are highly contested by the scientific community — especially anthropologists. Finally, you are trying to sell books– which throws a level of bias into the mix.

    brandon wrote on September 10th, 2011
  6. THIS MAKES SO MUCH SENSE. WE ARE HUNTER AND GATHERERS FOR MILLIONS OF YEARS, I JUST CAN’T SEE EARLY HUMANS REMOVING TOUGH HUSK AND BOILING A GRAIN TO MAKE IT EDIBLE. AS A FUTURE RN AND A CURRENT NATURAL FOODS CHEF WHO IS ALLERGIC SEVERELY TO GLUTEN I AM GOING TO DEFINITELY RESEARCH THIS IDEA. THANKS FOR SHARING THIS ENLIGHTENING IDEA.

    ROBERT BARNES wrote on September 16th, 2011
  7. Pretty ridiculous if you ask me! There is no doctor, research, results, etc than can argue with a starch based, 100 percent plant based diet. There is not a stitch of evidence that proves any other diet will reverse / prevent heart disease and lower your risk of cancer.

    No one can argue that. It’s fact, backed up by clinical evidence and peer reviewed results.

    Ciao

    Chad wrote on September 19th, 2011
  8. Mark do you honestly believe that a slice of pizza, a bowl of cereal, or the bun covering a hamburger or hot dog will kill you? There’s been many studies showing that whole or wheat grains, or brown rice are actually quite good for you.

    My brother is a nutrition specialist, as was my grandfather. Switching to leaner meat, and eating a balanced, proportioned diet with a bit of everything is the key to health and happiness.

    Dave Schramm wrote on September 22nd, 2011
  9. As far as I understood, animals can eat meat/bone because their digestive juices are much much stronger than we homo sapiens. Their digestive tract is 7 times shorter, hence putrifaction does not occur before elimination. Their teeth and claws are designed for ripping and tearing at flesh. They can run faster and can catch their prey. We on the other hand have teeth more for grinding food, our legs and hands are designed for foraging and picking food on the ground. I am new to the grain theory being unhealthy for you, but do have times when, (for no apparent reason to me), I suffer bouts of bloat and digestive distress. Perhaps this can be related to grains. I have read lately that studies on the blood of people who eat meat is entirely different to those that don’t. The blood from the vegetarian was the clear winner.

    I am a vegan through choice because I have a conscience and love for every living animal. There is absolutely nothing related to the slaughter of animals, and the milk and dairy industry that does not involve unbelievable pain and suffering for all animals. Just look into it sometime and a lot of you would be so shocked at what goes on that it might cause you to stop eating any animal products ever again:)

    Gwen wrote on September 27th, 2011
  10. Your thoughts on Quinoa, Peruvian staple for several thousand years? It’s the only grain that contains 7 (I think) of the essential amino acids found in protein.

    Thanks

    William wrote on October 1st, 2011
  11. How can i say..this information is new for me..thanks for your info.. can i wrote this to my web?

    healthy information wrote on October 1st, 2011
  12. No comas esto, no comas el otro, bahhhhh! Yo como pan y que!!!

    Arrepientanse hippies, todo lo que comen les hace da~o porque viven en una vida llena de pecado y por eso tienen miedo de comer lo que Dios creo para nuestro bien….ustedes le dicen malo a lo que Dios dice bueno. Estan enfermos por pecadores NO por comer gluten o granos. Arrepientanse!

    Arrepentios!!!! wrote on October 1st, 2011
  13. Well, I’ve reached the limit of this type of stuff and it’s time to just go back to common sense. There are those who tell you to NEVER eat red meat. You aren’t supposed to eat too much (if any) fish because of mercury. Other’s will tell you that eggs and dairy products including cheese are the path to death. And don’t even think of eating legume. Nut’s have too much fat. Don’t eat fried food. Now we are warned that we should never eat grains! And oh! Don’t eat too much fruit because it has lots of sugar! And even though we have been told that water soluble fiber is good for use, now we are told that it tears our guts up. Nonsense!

    What can we eat! Should we just breathe air and eat nothing? Oh wait! The air is bad for use too.

    I do understand the argument that grain is not something that primitive man would have eaten and we did not evolve to eat grains but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are bad for you.

    You can talk to ten experts and get ten completely different recommendations about what we should and shouldn’t eat. Just do a search for “benefits of eating grains,” etc., and you will find all kinds of experts singing the praises and listing the benefits of eating grains.

    My oldest daughter (42), the director of the cardio unit and the drug and alcohol rehab unit of a major hospital in Chicago has been on all these diets because she has a weight problem and she has even stopped eating grains. She has seen no difference at all. Now she is on a truly radical diet where she can’t eat hardly anything except juices and she has gained weight and now has other health issues.

    I’m 62 and let myself get moderately over weight. I took a different path. I just cut down the volume of food I ate, virtually eliminated junk food (chips, etc.), cut down on fried food and meat and I eat a lot more fresh vegetables and fruits. My weight is going down steadily and I feel better. I’m about halfway to my ideal weight. And I eat grains. In fact, I eat oatmeal on most mornings. Some experts will tell you that it is good for you and helps reduce HDL cholesterol but, according to this article, I shouldn’t be eating that either. C’mon!

    When I got to the claim in this article that fiber tears your intestinal walls up, the nonsense bell went off and the whole article lost credibility. From the way he described it, you would think eating fiber is the equivalent of eating crushed glass. Does anyone actually believe that the fiber retains rough, scratchy texture by the time it reaches your intestines? Geez! It passes through your stomach and is broken down in acid.

    I think this problem of having so much conflicting information from so many “experts” is simply because they want to come up with something different to push or sell. After all, how can you sell something that everyone already knows? So the “expert” have to come up with something to distinguish themselves from all the other “experts.” Facts are ignored.

    There is so much contradictory information out there that anyone trying to truly learn how to eat healthy can go nuts in the pursuit of that info.

    Folks, I truly believe the real answer is simply moderation and greatly reducing your intake of those things that common sense tells you is bad for you. Most of us should probably cut back on sugar, for example. Most of us should probably increase our consumption of vegetables and fruits too. That’s what I’m doing and it’s working. Common sense.

    But we have to enjoy life too. How can you enjoy your life if you can’t eat meat, grains, fruits, etc. That’s not how I’m going to live. The people I know who stick to radical diets I(like not eating grains, etc.) are some of the most unhappy people I have known and I have never seen any sign that they are healthier either. In fact, some of the most sickly and unhealthy people I have ever known are vegetarians and vegans. Folks, we are meat eaters! We have meat-eating teeth. That should tell you that you evolved to eat meat. Sure! Many of us probably eat too much meat, especially fatty meat, but cutting it completely out is not going to make you healthier.

    It does seem that the one thing that everyone agrees on is that we should eat more fresh vegetables. That makes sense to me. But then we are told that we must only eat “organic” vegetables. That term is so misused. All vegetables and, in fact, everything we eat with the exception of salt (another thing we are warned to avoid!) s organic. Anything that was once alive is, by definition, organic. What the people who tell you to only eat organic products really mean to say is “organically grown,” that is, natural feed with no chemicals were fed to that animals we eat and chemical fertilizers and pesticides were not used with the crops that we eat. There is probably some truth to all of this but, from the best information I have read, it really doesn’t make that much difference. I have been an organic gardener for 35 years and but my source of manure has dried up in recent years so I use moderate amounts of chemical fertilizers and see no difference at all. However, my soil structure is not as good now and good soil structure does make for healthier plants but that’s another story. But the point is that I have seen reliable studies that show that there is virtually no difference in vegetables and fruit grown organically or with chemical fertilizers. I think many people are obsessing about this “organic” thing to the point of insanity.

    Now, do an internet search for something like “why eating grains is good for you” and you will find other experts that completely contradict this article.

    Think for yourself. Use common sense and moderation and don’t take everything you read from “experts” too seriously. And, most importantly, enjoy yourself.

    Bob wrote on October 4th, 2011
    • Excellent post. All of these nutrition theories are contradicting and confusing. Every food has been called bad by some group, except maybe vegetables. Who’s to say what’s right? I’m still in progress for losing weight, but I’m thinking that eating less processed food and less food overall should be sensible.

      Robert wrote on November 8th, 2011
  14. OMG I CAN’T READ THESE COMMENTS ANYMORE. Why so much arrogance and arguing? Let’s just share information to help each other become healthier! I’m going to a different website to read information from people that care about helping others, not just about proving they are smarter than the next person.

    ScoDal wrote on October 6th, 2011
    • I agree.

      Vivian wrote on October 14th, 2011
  15. most people have no problem digesting grains(hell the ukrainians eat a large grain diet & its common to see people in their 80s or 90s) & recieving their benefits.If original man came across ice cream on trees or bread in the forest,you sure as hell bet they would of eaten it,its called survival.The human body can digest & break down to use as fuel & energy almost anything let alone grains with its nutrients.To say man needs millions of years to properly digest a food is rubbish.Didn^t God feed his starving people manna(bread) in the wilderness? Didn^t God in Ezekiel tell Noah to bring with him foods like grains to store.How about Christ multiplying the fish & Loaves(bread) for the people to feed ?Grains ,dairy,meat ,fruits & vegetables,alcohol in moderation & yes the occasional treat(ice cream pies) a balanced diet can lead to health & happiness in conjunction to other lifestyle changes

    kim wrote on October 7th, 2011
  16. This blog does deserve some credit for tackling a legit question, but it’s still just a layman speculating selectively. It’s true that evolutionarily there’s no mandate for us to be eating grains. In a perfect world, we’d all be healthiest eating only wild game and fish and seafood, supplemented with some berries and other fruits as well as some wild greens, legumes and roots –– all from a pristine environment. But, sadly, it’s not really world we live in. In our lives, whole-grains-based foods –– which are complex foods –– do provide not only vitamins and roughage but some of the complex carbohydrates and, yes, protein that we might be getting from other sources. Taking these grain foods out of our diet makes us very dependant on meats (with all the issues that surround the quality of most meat available to us) and/or soy or other legumes (which are superb, but which most people have some upper limits in dealing with). So, it takes a lot of work and expense to dodge grain-based products.

    Still, it might be worth it for some. Certainly couldn’t hurt to try it as an experiment for a month or two. You just need to make sure you get good balance in what you’re putting in its place, which will be challenging.

    ruzzell wrote on October 9th, 2011
  17. I am so confused. I am 42 and trying to lose weight – for all the reasons it is good for one to do so.

    I have PCOS and my weight has gone up and down since puberty.

    I need to get off sugar and high carbs.

    Recently – my blood sugar was 101 and cholesterol was 248.

    I am 5 ‘5’ and was 213 pounds. (I am now 206).

    I am eating organic eggs, big ass salads, Wild Alaskan salmon, organic dairy (not a lot of dairy), avocados, nuts, olive oil, veggies, fruits, peanut butter, some whole grains, beans and the like.

    All this as organic and or as natural as possible.

    I have been doing a lot of research as well.

    I have tried many eating styles in my life.

    I do a lot of research each time – but the healthy community is so contradictory I don’t what is up or down anymore.

    Until recently I was sure whole grains were essential to a healthy diet.

    What do people think about soy? Tofu?

    Soybeans?

    I feel like everything is getting eliminated down to the wire and what is left to eat?

    For me I have the risk of diabetes and heart disease big time. I want to lose weight and get healthy and avoid my genetic predisposition.

    I have been eating well for over 3 wks now and definitely feel a lot better. I am slowly acquiescing to my new way of eating.

    I am willing to try cutting out grains as I never had a penchant for them anyway.

    My big addiction is sugar.

    I have cut way back on that as well. What do you think of Stevia?

    I have done a lot of research on Stevia as well and it seems like it’s a good thing when I weigh the debate over it.

    I suffer from PCOS and most of its symptoms.

    Distended belly, hirsutism, low metabolism, etc.

    Can a healthy low carb high protein diet help?

    I believe in balance and not being so extreme.

    I am also taking Salmon oil pills from a company called “Vital Choice”.

    I also ordered canned salmon from them.

    They have rave reviews from health experts and consumers.

    I just get confused sometimes-

    Vegan, Vegetarian, Pescoterian,(sp?) , low carb, high complex carb, gluten free, dairy free, sugar free, organic etc. Supplements or no supplements…

    It makes my head spin.

    Right now it seems like healthy fat low mercury fish such as salmon, vegetables, fruits, nuts, healthy oils, some grains? some dairy? and beans seems like the way to go.

    I am confused about beans- I thought they were supposed to be a diet staple. Garbanzo beans?

    I thought they were a real winner! And to think of giving up dairy is frightening me a little. I love it and am now doing my best to go all organic with the dairy.

    I don’t want to not ever have pizza and ice cream and the like ever again. Just not on a daily basis.

    But specialty indulgences I think are ‘good for you’ in moderation/special occasions.

    Any thoughts?

    Thanks!

    Vivian wrote on October 14th, 2011
  18. I’m puzzled that grains are wholehearted condemned, without the consideration of how early agrarian man (and up until the last 70 -80 years) prepared these grains. Could it be that modern processes, ultrafine milling and hurry-up preparation is part of the problem. Indigenous man always soaked (like sourdough) their grains – which neutralizes phytic acids, enzyme inhibitors, gluten, etc. Early agrarian man was not stupid and did not continue to eat home grown foods if it brought on ill health. Genuine sourdough breads and fermented/soaked grains are a completely different creature that raw grains or commercially prepared grains and breads.

    Kyle wrote on October 18th, 2011
    • Very interesting stuff Kyle. Thank You for the information. I am trying Paleo as closely as I can. I can do w/o grains so it’s neither here nor there for me. Beans and dairy are another matter. What do you think of tempeh? They are fermented soybeans.

      I just find it hard to believe that ancient man didn’t discover beans and grains.

      Vivi wrote on October 24th, 2011
  19. I’m gluten intolerant and agree.

    Diana wrote on October 20th, 2011
  20. So, I fell off the wagon 4 days ago when I went into a health food store with a bakery and a baker who makes portugese and other european freshly bakes goods…GAH !

    I bought a warm loaf of multi-grain bread, with a ton of raw sunflower seeds in it. My excuse was that sunflower seeds are possibly paleo and it went down hill from there LOL.

    Gotta get back on the primal wagon before the ticking bomb goes off (digestion).

    Issabeau wrote on October 29th, 2011

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