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. Wait a minute I am a culinary student and i know a few things about grains and they are healthy for you. now they can become unhealthy if you eat too much of them. it is like anything else portion control. take this up with those who know grains and cook with them and see what the response would be.

    craig wrote on October 31st, 2011
  2. I’ve been looking into the no-grain thing since a colleague who follows the paleo diet talked about it. I’m in the process of phasing out the evil grains now. For the record I’m not paleo but organic veggie though still find this article very relevant and helpful. Thanks for posting
    :)

    chris wrote on November 3rd, 2011
  3. What about all those Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, and Indians eating rice since they established themselves? They only had obesity and diabetes since they became more international.

    Is there any explanation for this?

    Peter wrote on November 6th, 2011
  4. By the way, I read the article regarding how “Scientists Learn More About How Roughage Keeps You ‘Regular'”.

    According to that article, foods containing lots of fibre “make their way down the gastrointestinal tract, they run into cells, tearing them and freeing lubricating mucus within”

    Mr. Sisson says that this rupturing seems dangerous and unhealthy for the cells of the gastrointestinal tract.

    I have a question. Is rupturing of the cells necessarily unhealthy (aside from male circumcision which literally ruptures thousands of cells permanently). Because in order for humans to build muscle, we need to exert the muscle, and cause micro-tears on the muscle cells. Then as the muscle cells “heal” (with correct amino acids), it gets stronger.

    What I’m saying is that is the rupturing of the gastrointestinal cells from fiber to help us pass stool easier really that bad because the rupturing of the muscle cells during body-building is what makes us stronger?

    Peter wrote on November 6th, 2011
  5. Grains and omega6 oil will destroy the good bacteria in your gut. Since these bacteria provide the vitamin k2 that you need for healthy bones, loosing them leads to osteoporosis. Did I mention auto immune issues? Americans (I’m Dutch) suffer an all time high rate of auto-immune diseases and bowel cancer. And the rate has gone up ever since some braindead fool convinced everybody the SAD is healthy. So enjoy your grains; it’s your health.

    André wrote on November 7th, 2011
  6. maybe humans’ dietary requirements actually have changed since paleo times. maybe we have always been in a constant state of evolutionary flux ever since the only thing that existed on earth was single celled organisms in nutrient rich pools. it’s not like we humans all just popped up one day and ate lots of meat and berries and for some divine reason that will be the diet that we require until the end of our stay on this planet. diet is based on what mother nature has made available to us at that given time in history. the diet of the future is as ever changing as the diet of today, which is as ever changing as the diet of yesterday and so on. meat, grain, whatever. anyway that’s my logic for today lol (which might change tomorrow)

    rob wrote on November 7th, 2011
  7. I am really amazed so many people are falling for this crap. Grains are essential to the modern diet and are only hazardous to people who are unable to digest it, which is why there are alternatives for them. Why should the rest of us listen to some random guy with a blog and an agenda. Come on people, wise up, maybe you should take a nutrition class and decide for yourself. I recommend everyone look at the reasons why grains are good for you and those reasons will FAR outweigh the ones stated above.

    Really? wrote on November 9th, 2011
  8. Good day. I eat a high carb diet of mostly rice, fruits and vegetables. I’m not overweight. Yes grains probably have phytates, lectins etc but can we really conclude that the bulk of our calories should come from meat/fish/eggs instead? Grains aren’t perfect and they might have certain bad things about them that meat doesn’t but that doesn’t necessarily make meat a better option. Would you fuel your your unleaded petrol car with diesel if it was that or bad quality petrol? This is how I see it.

    It’s said here that our cells prefer fat. I haven’t seen enough reason to believe this but even if it were true, meat wouldn’t be the ideal source as it has tough fibres and proteins that your body needs to break down which uses a lot of energy. Fruit however is already broken down. Within minutes of eating it everything gets to where it needs to be (iron, b12, amino acids, EFAs, it’s all in there). Providing nothing’s causing insulin resistance such as fat, there’s little reasons for sugar to linger in the blood. I’ve experienced many diets and I believe fruit is a good dietary staple.

    Look at Asian countries such as Japan and China and see how traditionally they have high levels or grain in their diet yet little disease, even if you want to argue that their diets have reasonable amounts of animal fats also. What does it matter if they calorie restrict or not? It’s irrevelant. Believe and do what you wish but I’d just like to suggest that people look into both sides more deeply and try them before coming to conclusions. I’ve researched both sides heavily and am happy with my choices yet my mind still welcomes new arugments.

    Andy wrote on November 9th, 2011
  9. I’m sorry, but early man ate grains. Maybe not the same ones, but they ate grains.

    Erik wrote on November 10th, 2011
  10. here is a quote from the 100 year old man named fauja singh who recently completed the toronto marathon about his strict diet:

    “I never thought of running a Marathon then. But slowly it grew”. What surprises many is that he supports his eight stone and six feet tall body frame with a very simple vegetarian diet. “I am very careful about different foods. My diet is simple phulka (chappati), dal (lentils), green vegetables, yoghurt and milk. I do not touch parathas, pakoras, rice or any other fried food. I take lots of water and tea with ginger.”

    so….i will now await others to provide a list of people who are COMPLETING MARATHONS AT 100 YEARS OF AGE WHO DO NOT TOUCH GRAINS…..come on lets see ’em (he he he)

    rob wrote on November 11th, 2011
  11. You guys are so weird.

    Nathan wrote on November 11th, 2011
  12. I admittedly didn’t read the whole blog, but I still think he’s a bit of an idiot. Unless this whole page is just a joke, in which case my bad. The first paragraph lost any shred reliability that this guy has. The cells “rupture”. Oh no! Rupture is a bad word. The cells are designed to rupture you dumb ass. And release the lubricant for nutrients to be able to cross into our bodies and keep moving. That’s like saying skin growth is bad, because the cells die to form a protective layer. Anyways, it is an interesting thought though that grains are all great for you. I’ve already known that about simple carbs and potatoes and stuff. But then again where else do we get energy? It sounds like a lot of hard work and will put our diets way out of balance if we have to get all our calories from meat dairy and salad. 😛

    Kyle Diggins wrote on November 12th, 2011
  13. “They are a distinctly Neolithic food that the human animal has yet to adapt to consuming.” tell me this. how are humans going to adapt to eating wheat if people do not eat it? Grain food will be more important than ever when the veggie and animal farming fails.

    dedlyk91 wrote on November 13th, 2011
  14. Im just a little confused about the rice idea….native americans have eaten rice for centuries, as have the chinese and japanese, who have among the longest life expectancies on earth. While I do agree that there are a lot of negatives with grains, I don’t feel that they are all created equally. Oatmeal has been shown to have numerous health benefits, while other things endorsed on this site, such as red meat, has been shown to contain carcinogens if cooked to a certain temperature. As I scientist, I am skeptical and quite frankly, I think grains in moderation are perfectly fine.

    Cheryl wrote on November 13th, 2011
  15. no need for grains?
    what a load of crap!!
    seriously!

    just to let you know , i am from a country
    80% of our daily food is grains
    15% is vegetables and fruits
    5% milk and eggs

    we eat meat 2-3 times a week (small amount)

    our bodies are so strong and tough
    + our sexual life is beyond amazing!
    we don’t know Viagra lol

    now after i moved to canada , i see people here are so WEAK , seriously , you look bigger but you have no real strength

    you got all kind of diseases from caner to diabetes !

    to the people who believed this article
    don’t let others fool you !

    please read about the benefits of lentils and whole wheat , other grains before start attacking little things

    every food has it’s good and bad , just eat the right amount

    al wrote on November 14th, 2011
  16. I would just like more in the way of scientific evidence for your rant. I have no doubt you believe what you say… but belief doesn’t convince people. You basically call me an idiot for eating grains and base it mostly on personal opinion… you need more links to reference your points, that way your rant can be calm and productive… not resorting to negativity to try to validate your point insulting.

    Sean wrote on November 15th, 2011
  17. I will right away grab your rss as I can not find your e-mail subscription link or e-newsletter service. Do you have any? Please let me know so that I could subscribe. Thanks.

    rouoosoz wrote on November 17th, 2011
  18. grains = famine food.

    zephaniah wrote on November 22nd, 2011
  19. Why are so many people stating so much speculation as fact. Things like, “cavemen ate this….” or statements like “Eliminating grains from my diet made me healthy…”
    really? How do we know exactly what cavemen ate? Did they keep a journal of all their meals on the walls of every cave around the world? No. Is it possible that those claiming they are healthy now perhaps lost weight and that is why you are healthy? I have read many scientific studies that show high occurances of cancer and heart disease with the consumption of dairy and animal protein (meat). Has anyone seen “Forks over Knives”? I decided to do some research after watching it because I was skeptical. Well long story short… I’m convinced that dairy and high consumption of meat leads to heart disease and maybe some cancers as well. Why are we suppossed to eat like a caveman, especially when nobody really knows every last thing they ate. So in conclusion I’ve decided to go vegan for a month and see how I feel. I try to keep an open mind to things. I will keep you updated on my new vegan progress. I am on day 3 of no animal products and the biggest difference I notice is I don’t feel lethargic like I used to. If you want to know more look up “Forks over Knives” very interesting to say the least.

    Will wrote on November 22nd, 2011
  20. You are ignorant about the proper cooking methods needed to obtain the nutrition from legumes and grains. I hope you like colon cancer cause that is what your future may look like on a high animal protein diet.

    whoanelly wrote on November 23rd, 2011
  21. People, really, when you say that steak causes cholesterol, what about people who never eat it yet have high bad cholesterol? The cause is unknown. Eat steaks if you enjoy them. Listen to your body. For example I not a steak fan, I eat meat once a week and not always read meat, it is chicken or pork.

    marie lasatta wrote on November 24th, 2011
    • and herein lies the rub. if everyone on the planet who is eating the typical ‘meat n potatoes’ at every meal were to get some common sense and cut the meat down to once a week like you stated, we’d be 50% of the way towards a better planet. saving the fact that the other 50% percent would require the same type of reduction of heavily processed ‘junk’ foods. if the modernized countries began to eat like this, the vegetarians and vegans wouldn’t even feel the need to preach their philosophy anymore either. win win. high bad cholesterol can be caused both by over consuming not only fatty meats, but processed foods, nuts, sugars, oils etc. meat is part of the list, especially high amounts of red meat, but you are right it is not the only culprit

      what what wrote on November 26th, 2011
  22. Lectins are bad?? All foods have lectins in them, why are grain lectins bad? Hmmm, cows eat grain?, but meat good?? Kind of seems like you are picking and choosing? I totally agree we don’t need to eat grains or the amount we do, but let’s at least be consistent, you can’t have it both ways.

    John wrote on November 25th, 2011
    • Cows are not supposed to eat grains, and if you read Mark’s book or read any halfway decent book on nutrition, you’ll see that they DON’T recommend eating grain fed beef. You should be eating grass fed beef and pastured chickens.

      Julie wrote on November 26th, 2011
      • Umm the reality is, in my opinion, that most people on these diets eat meat from the local store and not grass fed beef. Just sayin’

        John wrote on December 4th, 2011
  23. Yeah, forget grains. They only led to the DAWNING OF CIVILIZATION.

    Anne wrote on November 26th, 2011
  24. Reason to eat grains: they taste nice, and we don’t just eat for nutrition. There’s no reason to eat chocolate or drink alcohol either, but they’re nice too. Eating and drinking for pleasure as well as for pure nutritional benefit makes eating a lifestyle rather than a life sentence. Agree that most people eat too many grains, but going to the extreme of not allowing them at all can very easily lead to obsession with food which, let’s face it, we’re getting close to as a society.

    Tora wrote on November 29th, 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!