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. Credentials please? Are you a nutrition MD? PHD? Really? The world is not so black and white. I hear people screaming, All carbs, no carbs, no fats, all fats, it is ridiculous! Have you even considered grains (without gluten) like buckwheat (which has no wheat or gluten), amaranth, and quinoa, with extremely different nutritional profiles. There are a reason people have been using these grains since the beginning of time. No carb is created equal. Just like fats, unlike the name fat implies we need healthy fats for brain function, our brains are in fact 80% fat. Want to know why people are obese and sick? Because of 1. processed foods and the addictions they cause, 2. pesticides from non organic products 3. not enough macronutrients from veggies and fruit.. not because of grains.

    Alexa wrote on January 25th, 2012
    • People are obese and sick because of their diets, lack of exercise and stress reduction. Diets for many people include handy processed or fast food with many addictive additives added and low nutritional density. Even foods grown today are deficient in minerals unless the farmer replaces them into the soil, add pesticides and herbicides that are now incorporated into the food itself instead of just on the plant. Corn for instance has no similarity nutritionally to corn grown 50 years ago because of hybridization and being genitically modified. We farm and grow our own organic gardens, freeze and can our produce and give it away. It is canned in glass jars opposed to the BPA lined cans used by mfg. I grow many heirloom vegetables–the taste is phenomenol. Farmer grows corn, soy beans and wheat. Wheat is another product that is not at all similar to what it was 50 yrs ago and soy in my opinion should not be eaten unless it is in fermented form due to its estrogenic promoting effects. Another huge area to research is fats! Canola oil made from rapeseed was originally made as a lubricant for machinery, it is also one of the most touted “good” oils–I never use it! My fats are organic butter, limited use, virgin cold pressed olive oil, pure organic cocoanut oil for higher heat use, also walnut or hemp oil for salad dressings. Coconut oil is high in saturated fats which many MD’s think is “bad”; however
      it is composed of medium chain fatty acids needed by every cell in our body and for energy. Bruce Fife’s book Coconut Cures in packed with info on the many uses for this oil which also has a long shelf life. Excellent for skin care all over the body, enhances the immune system and dozens of other benefits. I have been using it almost exclusively (sometimes mixed with honey) as a spread on whole grain toast eaten only occasionally and when I need an energy boost 1 tablespoonful just to eat. Farmer is 80, I am 75, no pharm meds, wt normal, travel worldwide and eat to survive–feed our bodies. And as said before, we are not all alike, thank goodness so part of our life journey is to learn what enhances it and what to leave behind.

      grace wrote on July 4th, 2012
  2. HELP!!! I’ve given up grains an feel pretty darn good, but I cant lose any weight. I cant figure out what I am doing wrong!

    cindy wrote on January 26th, 2012
  3. I’m glad this article referenced so many scientific studies otherwise I might of assumed the author was just making it up from his limited laymans knowledge…oh wait

    What a load of rubbish while grains are definitely not the most micronutrient rich food there is no evidence to suggest that Grain based foods eaten in moderation are detrimental to human health in fact the opposite is true especially for those performing exercise.

    The argument that humans havent been eating grains through most of their recent history suffers from the fallacy that throughout most of our recent history we have been eating leaves and fruit and living in trees. We had much shorter life expectancies than today and drunk alcohol long before the invention of agriculture and just try telling me that’s healthy.

    What there is evidence for is that giving up meat is actually a far healthier choice than giving up grains

    If anyone wants to know my sources or studies referenced please email me, if anyone wants to know the reputable sources referenced in this article I can list them now if you like:…

    Tom wrote on February 2nd, 2012
  4. Thank you for posting this. I first learned about gluten and what it was about three years ago. My sister was having some really unpleasant IBS-like symptoms, and after visiting a doctor, he suggested she abstain from gluten and see if it helped. It did help her, so I started looking up info for myself. I am not gluten intolerant or anything like that, but since then, I have more or less abstained from gluten and I find that it not only has helped me loose weight, but I generally just feel an overall sense of well being.

    Many people still do know about gluten, what it is, what foods you find it in, and what it does to your body, so I think it is great that more and more people are trying to get the word out.

    Becca wrote on February 2nd, 2012
  5. There is no gluten in rye… to make rye bread rye flour is mixed with other grains to develop gluten. Get your facts straight; also it seems you are reading 1 or 2 informative research projects and drawing you own askew and drastically different conclusion. For every article out there agreeing with your argument there are an insane amount of research articles that could give information to disagree with you. It is important to combine all the research and weigh the pros and cons and you have not done this. I feel terrible knowing there are people taking your opinion (yes opinion) as fact instead of doing their own research and making up their own minds based on pros and cons.

    Nicole wrote on February 4th, 2012
  6. if grains are bad, why didn’t we all die by the time of the egyptians?

    jeanbab wrote on February 20th, 2012
    • Many of us did and others had shorter lives. The non agriculturalist peoples had stronger bones and taller bodies, which is a reason that less civilized tribes could sometimes overpower civilizations. Usually ten farmers could defeat one non agriculturalist.

      Basically grains enabled people to live in a state of ill health.

      WalterB wrote on July 4th, 2012
  7. “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?”

    Yes, advancing human evolution. It’s not my fault all you grain/carb-intolerant folks have been too slow to catch up genetically.

    VoiceOfTruth wrote on February 21st, 2012
  8. I was wondering if Mark or anyone else commenting 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
  9. Hi everyone:

    I’m on day four (who’s counting, right?) of eliminating grains. I just realized I am making a morning smoothie that does contain rice and pea protein, but other than that, no grains at all. I feel good emotionally, the gut is not as distended, but I feel pretty tired and hungry pretty much all the time. I’m enjoying my meals very much (grass fed burger last night, no bun, avocado/tomato salad, some fermented cabbage and marinated pickles) but I’m just wondering if there’s a sort of “breaking point” where it becomes easier? I’m really feeling like this is the lifestyle for me, due to the nagging health issues (sinus headaches, bad digestion, achy joints) but I have to say, I usually feel much better in the morning after a bowl of cereal for dinner (i.e. no meat) instead of the meat heavy meal I had last night. Anyone willing to share their experience?

    Kirsten wrote on February 25th, 2012
  10. its the same with nuts and seeds dopey ..soak and dry and store

    sjr wrote on February 29th, 2012
  11. Being disatisfied with all the overprocessed muesli that’s made available to us in supermarkets I’ve been looking up recipes all evening to make my own, minus the sugar and unnecessary fats etc…and lo, here i find myself in the midst of a very intelligent debate on the curse of the grain, the main components of muesli :) The last few hours have been spent researching the benefits of each grain with the emphasis on those gluten free. I’m enlightened further by all the info written on here. I can see how it all gets confusing but clearly some arguments are well presented and others are, well, not so…it doesn’t mean they’re wrong in their ramblings tho. Personally, at the age of 47 and about to hit the menopause, i’m interested in being the healthiest i can be before i go beyond redemption and thus hurtling into old age with a host of ailments. I also have narcolepsy. I can probably, if i really put my mind (and pen) to it, list certain foods that will definately fatigue you all, and some that boost energy thru the roof. My diet is a major factor in my present stability and since being diagnosed a few years ago i’ve lost 6 stone thru careful planning and experimentation. I concur It’s all in the balance and as someone said earlier….I would advise that all concerns are researched and work out what’s best for YOU. Fact is, we are not all the same. We each have our own genetic makeup aswell as other factors such as inherited disorders, lifestyle factors such as finance, demographics, social inconvenience and personal tastes and preferences. I’m only slightly overweight…but i have quit smoking recently and gained about 6lb instead of some likely lung disease that will rob me of my dignity, my looks and eventually my life :) I’ve been smoking since i was 8 years old…so this was my biggest health issue…and now i’m onto the next. I am fairly versed in good/bad foods….food is also my passion, if i have to eat it to survive then im gonna enjoy it! Right? So…back to the muesli debate. I eat a very balanced diet that works for me…this includes grains such as oats, chia, quinoa and also i need to eat physillium husk for fibre. Trust me…nothing else works for me. If i don’t have these grains, i back up quicker than the worlds biggest semi trailer and it’s not pretty!!! My skin also goes to ratshit…and that’s when i cut all the grains/carbs out. I panicked after losing 9lb in 2 days on a high lean protein/green veg/eggs diet…my neck was scrawnier than a prized turkeys! I don’t eat white rice, white potatoes, white bread (rarely eat bread at all actually). I eat low fat, hardly any dairy or alcohol, nothing excessively. I do eat the occassional cake, cookie, dessert, prime steak, lots of vegetable (mainly greens) and certain fruits. A contradiction of a diet?? hell yeah…and guess what? I feel ok, i look pretty good too apparently (for my age). So what’s my problem…well, i just wanna cut out the crap that’s being poured into our groceries, the processed stuff….i wanna be able to make my own healthier but tastier muesli for my breakfast, my own healthy soups for my lunch…varied, satisfying and tasty abut not poisoned out of my control. I’m STILL taking charge of my own health, i’m still learning what works best for me and what i can do without. I’ll die anyway, and THAT my friends, is THE only single certainty in this life. No-one is wrong on here…not in my opinion anyway. We all have different experiences, we all have valid points and it’s all because we all have different things going on in our very different bodies. As i’m sure Mark intended….let’s keep it informative, debatable and worthy….not personal, sarcastic and proud. Each to his own….as they say. Love, Laugh, Live….healthily balanced. Oh, and this is what triggered my recent concern with grains: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-mark-hyman/wheat-gluten_b_1274872.html

    Nuttybird wrote on March 4th, 2012
  12. I have recently opened my eyes to the grain filled existence that most of us live. I remain an addict but have vastly reduced my intake while eating far more veggies, nuts and fruit ! I have to say, i do feel better with far more energy, less stomach problems etc. There are many opinions here on what we should consuming for reasons of either nutrition or also sustainability ….. I wonder has anyone here turned towards eating more insects, most are not only edible but also rich in nutrients and plentiful.

    Dee wrote on March 5th, 2012

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