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

Why Grains Are Unhealthy

grainsI 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.

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. Ummm, Jane…I’ll bypass the “beyond ignorant” diss. Did you not read any of the 211 comments prior? Did you not read the post itself? Your suggesting wheat germ is “one of the most healthful things you can eat” tells me you either work for a wheat germ company or drank heavily their KoolAid somewhere along the line. This is perhaps the most anti-grain site you will ever find. I doubt I’ll change your mind. Rest assured you won’t change mine.

    Mark Sisson wrote on November 18th, 2009
  2. Meantime, I’ve cut out all grains and all beans, and all processed carbohydrates, and my fasting blood sugar has dropped from 198 to 98, and my HbA1c has dropped from an 8.1 to a 5.4, while my triglycerides have gone from over 200 down to 84, and my arthritis, migraines and IBS have completely disappeared. Not to mention that I’ve dropped 55 pounds since August 13th. Or that my doctor is in awe and scratching his head because he can’t figure out how I managed to do all this in just three months.

    But you keep telling yourself that Mark doesn’t know what he’s talking about and that this is dangerous for my health, you doubters. Just keep telling yourself that while I keep getting healthier and thinner, and you keep getting sicker and fatter. I’m sure your belief system will stand you in good stead when we’re both in our 80s and I’m still strong and athletic and hiking mountains while you’re in wheelchairs and walkers in nursing homes.

    Do have a nice day now.

    Griff wrote on December 4th, 2009
  3. You need to take a real nutrition course, whole grains are needed in the diet.

    Rachel wrote on December 17th, 2009
  4. But after losing all that weight and regaining vitality it must really suck to still be so ugly. Just funnin’ thats the proof right there.

    bobstoufus wrote on July 27th, 2010
  5. My high-carb low fat vegetarian grandmother lived to be 97 and was healthy enough to live by herself. She was baking her bread from scratch the entire time and I literally NEVER saw her just sitting around knitting and she didn’t even own a rocking chair. My Grandpa, who ate all of her cooking (he was not vegetarian, as he did eat meat during the holidays) lived to be 94.

    Laura wrote on January 22nd, 2013
  6. You need to look at the science. Whole grains are toxic to human beings.

    Griff wrote on January 22nd, 2010
  7. A standard nutrition course tells you no such thing.

    It wouldn’t say grains are bad (it would say they’re good for you) but it wouldn’t say they’re essential either. Methinks you haven’t taken a nutrition course, and if you have, not recently.

    DavidC wrote on May 6th, 2010
  8. The “science” of nutrition is bogus. You can get all of the vitamins and fiber you need from vegetables.

    Adriana G wrote on September 16th, 2011
  9. That’s like saying “meat is needed in the diet” on a vegetarian/vegan forum.

    My troll alarm is going off.

    Kleo wrote on November 6th, 2011
  10. You should try to chill out. I’ve read all your comments in this thread and you are extremely aggressive about your beliefs. I’m glad you’re doing well and feeling so great implementing Mark’s ideas, but you’d do well to respect the viewpoints of others. I think the reason you are so zealous about this is that you are losing weight and feeling better more than any science. I’ve read the papers Mark has posted and I’ve drawn a different conclusion. I’ve “looked at the science”, and I do in every area of my life. I’m an liberal atheist who likes to learn about everything and do my own research on nutrition and other sciences in my free time, so I’m no stranger to people telling me that my opinions on everything are wrong and horrible. If you simply argued convincingly and allowed people to draw their own conclusions a lot of them might end up agreeing with you. By violently insisting they are wrong, wrong, wrong and preaching to them about how grains will kill them and everyone they love, they’re just going to close the thread and go make a pizza.

    jessica wrote on February 4th, 2010
  11. ok there

    Alexandrea Busnello wrote on June 12th, 2013
  12. Jessica, I’d say you’re the one who needs to look at your beliefs. They’re beliefs and unsupported by facts. Your arguments are in no way convincing. They’re just more of the same spouts of conventional wisdom (i.e. nonsense that people believe when they don’t know what they’re talking about) that all of us have been subjected to over the years.

    If you had really looked at the science, you’d be convinced. Your weak arguments about “Well you’d have to give up normal food” and “nobody can really do this in the long-term” are just that, weak. Look at the forums here on MDA and you’ll find many people who do both and don’t look back, either.

    You’re simply trying to deny reality, and frankly, it’s pathetic. But believe what you like – and enjoy your pizza (and your eventual heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure), dearie. Meantime, I’ll be getting healthier, stronger, and fitter.

    I won’t say it’s been nice conversing with you, but it’s definitely been an experience.

    Griff wrote on February 4th, 2010
  13. Do you really believe that someone needs to try a religion before they can decide that it isn’t for them/doesn’t make any logical sense at all? Have you tried Zoroastrianism or Jainism? If not, then how do you know that one of those are not the one true faith? It’s because they are ridiculous and don’t mesh with what we know is factual and true.

    Similarly, one can criticize the primal diet based upon science which has been tested over and again and is reasonably reliable. There is no (scientific) evidence at all suggesting that grains are unhealthy or even poisonous.

    Just because an opinion exists doesn’t mean that it is valid or that it should be given the same amount of consideration as more plausible ideas.

    Ray wrote on March 24th, 2010
  14. 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
  15. I think this comment really sums up this article well.

    “I doubt I’ll change your mind. Rest assured you won’t change mine.”

    No matter the evidence against me, I won’t change my mind because I’m right and anything else is wrong.

    Ray wrote on February 14th, 2010
  16. you sell pills, that is why you must spread misinformation. if you told the truth about you really know, bye bye product sales right? and also, why all the nasty rhetoric?

    what what wrote on November 22nd, 2011
  17. I know I’m right. So you can take your doubt and eat your grains and beans and vegetable oils, and when you’re dying of diabetes and heart disease while I’m still hale and healthy, well… what a shame it’ll be for you.

    Have a nice day, “Ray.”

    Griff wrote on February 14th, 2010
  18. Ray, I am so glad I am not of your arrogant mindset. Nutritionally, what you know as “factual and true” is what has been pounded into your head since you were a child.
    Look at where the proven Government recommendations of low fat and lots of grains has gotten us. Our nation is filled with fatness and unhealth. I almost want to throw up when I go down the typical supermarket aisles at the foods that people consider/are told are healthy for them.
    Best of luck to you, Ray. Now go back to gobbling up that grain.

    James wrote on October 16th, 2010
  19. wow, did you miss the point or what?
    I am saying that to fully understand and criticize something you must first experience it first hand.
    Do you understand how flawed modern science can be?
    Do you truly understand how much influence corporations have over what is released to the public?
    All the time in science it takes somebody who is a rebel, who doesn’t partake in modern science to really make strides for science as a whole, it’s been proven throughout history.
    Besides, independent studies have proven grains to be dangerous, you know why you don’t know this?
    Because corporations that are making millions selling you this junk don’t want you too.
    Sometimes you just have to say “f@#$ science” and do your own experimenting.
    Don’t be ignorant

    Aaron wrote on March 25th, 2010
  20. A Google search would reveal the information you keep demanding. But that’s not as fun as trolling is it?

    Many books were listed which contain references to peer review research. Do you wish for me to type these up for you? I’m not going to. Look them up. There are plenty of such studies.

    You could find them yourself, but you don’t want to because you’re here with an agenda. You’re probably afraid to look for this research because it might prove you wrong.

    DavidC wrote on May 6th, 2010
  21. Wow Ray, you just keep getting more and more pathetic, don’t you? Last I looked this was about nutrition, not religion. But then, obviously your opinions are religion to you and you simply won’t look at anything that might threaten them (like any good fanatic).

    The science suggesting (and more than suggesting) that grains are not good for us is there – and Mark has based sections of this website on it. Just because you refuse to check it out (even when it is handed to you) does NOT mean it doesn’t exist.

    Peachy wrote on July 22nd, 2010
  22. “Similarly, one can criticize the primal diet based upon science which has been tested over and again and is reasonably reliable. There is no (scientific) evidence at all suggesting that grains are unhealthy or even poisonous.”

    Science is based on induction (that over and over again thing..) and over and over again a variety of studies have started to indicate the grains cause humans health issues.

    I challenge you to try to live like us for 3 months and I guarantee that you will experience the following:

    you won’t break wind in public (a blessing)
    you won’t have headaches bought on by excessive sugar intake
    you won’t have any skin complaints
    any inflamation issues will either get radically better or disappear completely.

    And many more…

    This isn’t brain washing. The people on the website found out the info then they tried it for themselves with open minds and because it worked they support it whole-heartedly…

    Aigmeister wrote on August 18th, 2010
  23. My comment was aimed at Ray.

    DavidC wrote on May 6th, 2010
  24. I appreciate your information. I am happy that your health has improved- however is it necessary to be so self righteous and mean spirited? This should be a forum for open minds and healthy debate.

    I am interested in what you have to say – but your insults to others are mean spirited and a turn off. Health and wellness is also about mental and emotional health. A person who is happy about their lifestyle would want the best for others regardless if another persons eating and lifestyle habits differs from their own. It isn’t necessary to be offended b/c someone disagrees with you.

    But you should wish them the best whatever their choice is. Telling people how wonderful you will be in your 80’s while they are in a wheelchair is mean.

    A truly healthy person is also healthy minded.

    You are discrediting your self by your vicious retaliation.

    I just posted my situation a little earlier- hesitantly.

    Like I said I have an open mind and enjoy hearing and learning from others experiences.

    But berating others b/c they are questioning you, challenging you and starting a conversation – doesn’t do you any service.

    This should be a friendly discussion.

    Challenging the topic is how we learn and grow.

    I think you are taking it personally.

    Regardless I am still curious.

    Thank You.

    Vivian wrote on October 14th, 2011
  25. lmfao you’re too funny.

    You need to realise that everyone is different. what works for you may not work for someone else. Someone else can eat grains, oils, vegetables, beans, and be perfectly fine and healthy. But apparently someone like you cannot have those things for some reason. Your body doesn’t agree with them so YOU don’t eat them. Stop telling other people what is good for them or what is bad for them. Only they would know that and everyone should listen to THEIR OWN bodies.

    Alexandrea Busnello wrote on June 12th, 2013
  26. Griff get over your self. Apparently lack of grains and beans has made you irritable, joyless and self righteous. People are here to learn, share and discuss. They are not here to insult each other b/c people have different viewpoints. We need to wish the best for each other. Let people know what works for you and why you believe what you do – however, if someone has a different opinion you need to respect it. If you want people to respect you stop bullying and bashing.

    Vivi wrote on October 24th, 2011
  27. Humans aren’t the only living things on earth, and we’re quickly overpopulating the planet and destroying natural habitats. Access to grains for humans as a staple is fairly recent and has contributed to the popoulation explosion the last 10,000 years.

    You are correct, the worlds population today couldn’t be fed off grains, but should our population be this large in the first place? Obviously that question is an opinion, but my take is that as far as the planet is concerned and all other life on earth, we should not be trying to feed every human face out there.

    My take is that we should be establishing a harmony with the rest of the planet instead of acting as if we own the earth and can do whatever we please.

    Jon wrote on November 18th, 2011
  28. …google translate fail? ;-)

    Milla wrote on January 8th, 2012
  29. I was hoping someone here can help me:

    I eat very minimal meat (chicken and fish once a week if anything), avoid milk, eggs, and processed foods. Now after reading this I’m considering removing bread and rice to the extent possible from my diet as well. However, I can’t live off of fruits and vegetables (+nuts) my entire life. Are lentils a grain? And pasta? I’m wondering what other variety I can add to my diet.

    Teresa wrote on February 25th, 2012
  30. I guess it depends on what you want to achieve by altering your diet?? Are you trying to reduce bloating, lose weight, prevent wind, eat healthier?? Pasta is made from flour, flour from wheat (there are other variations such as rice flour) and wheat IS a grain. So far as I know A lentil is a pulse, a bean?? There are many alternatives to rice…such as quinoa and whole grains are better than processed ones. There’s a lot of debate about the sources of our grains but we also have to consider our own personal limits such as funds and availablity. I’d rather eat crap than starve to death as i’m sure almost everyone else would. Like i said, decide why you need to make the changes then my best advice would be to experiment with all the choices you have at your disposal…research and discover for yourself, try and test everything….and keep a diary!! Good luck.

    Nuttybird wrote on March 4th, 2012
  31. That was helpful, thank you!

    Teresa wrote on April 16th, 2012
  32. I’m with you….all these nuts and seeds on Paleo are upsetting my digestive system something chronic! I do believe that a reduction in carbs is necessary and have removed all grains but I am thinking I have to rethink some of the guidelines for Paleo and see what total Primal has to offer. All this talk of anti-nutrients and so much conflicting information and opinion on pretty much everything is doing my head in!

    Rhondalee wrote on March 3rd, 2014
  33. Right on.

    BillP wrote on July 4th, 2012
  34. Nutrition courses are developed by medical associations and the USDA which is heavily invested in by grain producers and manufacturers whose products depend on grain. Haven’t you ever wondered why an organization that was developed to support farmers and ranchers are now telling us what to eat? Just because it’s good for the economy doesn’t mean it’s good for us. Ethically, it’s called a Conflict of Interest. Please re-read Mark’s post, you obviously missed many points.

    Sandra wrote on January 26th, 2014
  35. Perry, How bad does it have to get?

    According to the CDC, “More than one-third of U.S. adults (35.7%) are obese. Obesity-related conditions include heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer, some of the leading causes of preventable death.”

    That just the stats on obesity, then you have to add-in the overweight folks and the totals are somewhere around 60%.

    I’m sixty-seven years old, I know first hand what people looked like 30 years ago. Fat was an oddity. What’s the difference? It’s diet. We didn’t gorge daily on pizza, subs, and pasta (which, by the way, IS bread). And if you follow the USDA recommendation you’ll consume more than half your daily calories in grain before you even put anything on it to make it palatable. I don’t think that all grains are bad. At least they aren’t IF they are consumed in moderation but most people can’t do that because when they think grain, they think wheat, and modern wheat has been proven to be addictive, which is why pizza, subs and pasta make you feel good.

    Sandra wrote on March 20th, 2014

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