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. Why does everyone keep referring to Taubes GCBC as gospel. Do a little research people, his science in more than one instance has been proven wrong. Does he have some good points? Yes. It’s amazing how people get so full of themselves that ‘THEIR’ diet or lifestyle is right and everyone else is wrong. It’s also interesting to note that most people from what I have read on different Paleo forums cheat. The 80/20 rule. Seems to me though of us that eat ‘normal healthy’ diets with limited grains and limited meats with lots of fruit and veggies, we’re all pretty much in the same place.
    Just my opinion.

    John wrote on December 4th, 2011
  2. People can decide whatever they want to eat. I myself am a vegan- no animal products (meat, eggs, dairy, honey)- and I am trying to wean myself off of flours, sugar, and refined oils. Basically, I want to eat fruits and vegetables the rest of my life. I’m not arguing that anyone should be like me, and I don’t want anyone else to try and persuade me to be like them.

    In general, our society eats too MUCH of EVERYTHING. Most cancers, health problems are simply caused by that alone. If a person starts eating a healthy amount of calories, however, there are still health problems related to eating certain things. There are certain foods which I would consider poisons to the body.

    – Refined sugars and breads/flours (all forms) – send blood sugar into a hyper- and hypo-glycemic states, provide fuel for cancer cells.

    – Meat with high saturated fat (beef, veal, pork, ham, chicken-yes it is just as high as beef- ) – high LDL sat. fat which is the only fat known to clog arteries (therefore strokes, heart-attacks, biological erectile dysfunction – all blood related disorders).

    – Refined oils – too much fat. Unless you’re stocking up for winter- which even Minnesotans try to avoid- it’s better to get fat from nuts and seeds (not butters).

    – Dairy – why would I drink from a cow’s teet? Crossing species, and age groups, is really weird.

    – Eggs – again, I really don’t enjoy the idea of eating the baby juice of a different species.. kinda gross.

    Mara wrote on December 9th, 2011
  3. I live in a 3rd world country, India, so it’s amusing to see all the concern about the harm that grains may do. Looks as tho’ a statiscally insignificant part of the US population (pl correct me if I’m wrong) has suffered reactions to gluten, and other similar consequences. But please, folks, look at the larger picture of the world.

    Sure we’ve been on grains and agri-products only for the last 10000 yrs out of a million or two on the planet, but in this period a large part of the planet’s population has survived and thrived reasonably well on a grain-centric diet. Can we claim that as a species we are unsuited to digestion of grains and legumes? Not if you ask the zillions below the poverty line world-wide, to whom grains are survival and meat a luxury.

    Agreed that animal protein may be better, but is it a realistic proposition for the world’s population as it is today. It’s well-known that a veg diet takes less of the planet’s resources than breeding animals for food. And with today’s emphasis on grass-fed beef et al it’s even more unrealistic to expect the bulk of homo sapiens to switch to healthy animal protein. A miniscule proportion may be able to do it at gradually increasing cost (the US probably still has a lot of wide open spaces), but is this what we should be propagating? Food for thought?

    K.Gopal Rao wrote on December 12th, 2011
  4. I agree with you mark I always feel unsatisfied after a grain loaded meal…

    Nothing beats a good steak with veggies.

    Aaron wrote on December 15th, 2011
  5. Grains give you amazing sleep, and are the most powerful anti-stress nutrient

    That’s why mark complains all the time he he hasn’t figured out how to control stress

    They won’t make you fat if you exercise and eat them post workout

    Aaron wrote on December 15th, 2011
  6. great stop eating grains….and the world would starve in a week…by the way eating whole grains in moderation will help keep a healthy gut and promote an active and alert lifestyle…better than living on salad and pesticide covered root vegetables all day……who wants to live to 100 and shit and piss yourself in a corner of a nursing home being bathed by minimum wage paid pissed off staff..

    bozo wrote on December 16th, 2011
  7. listen to you all babble. let ppl eat what they want and worry about yourself. your not going to change the average americans mind on nutrition. the paleo lifestyle needs to be left alone to “evolve” just like everything else in this world.

    plante wrote on December 21st, 2011
  8. “On the Internet, inside information is currency, and there will always be counterfeiters among us”

    demosthenes wrote on December 22nd, 2011
  9. Ha! Very first “Related Posts” is “Now You Can Drink Your Grains” We can’t win!

    lgcamp wrote on December 27th, 2011
  10. Ha! Very first “Related Posts” is “Now You Can Drink Your Grains.” We can’t win.

    lgcamp wrote on December 27th, 2011
  11. There are many things Science can’t explain. All doctors say that it is necessary to wear sunscreen to block UV rays. We know how wrong that is and we need sun’s rays for vitamin D. Similarly, dissecting foods into its basic nutrients and arguing that grains are unhealthy or we don’t need grains isn’t the right approach. We need all kinds of wholesome plant based foods to achieve the right nutrition and optimum health. I always take Scientific result with a pinch of salt.

    Madhur wrote on December 28th, 2011
  12. Lots of good information on Mark’s blog…

    …and a lot of people who sound like their chosen lifestyle is making them tense, judgmental, hostile, mean, and socially primitive/narcissistic.

    Is this an effect of the paleo diet?

    Rupert Picklefeather wrote on January 1st, 2012
  13. I call BS

    Hhmmmmm wrote on January 17th, 2012
  14. Actually, eating grains without proper preparation is bad. I’ve been researching this a lot lately and I found that soaking the grains breaks down phytic acid and helps the nutrients and minerals to absorb in our body; whereas the phytic acid was killing them. I’ve been baking my own bread for years, but began soaking the grains recently. Now my bread makes me feel fuller and is so tasty. Since I’ve been soaking my grains I feel better, don’t need as much coffee and I don’t feel the need to eat as much. Grains unsoaked are like poison. So either find a company that soaks their grains prior to baking or invest your time in making your own bread. It’s worth it!

    Lorie wrote on January 18th, 2012
  15. Frick. My friend was right

    tori wrote on January 19th, 2012

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