Yet Another Half-Baked Grain Study

If you’re anything like me you get a little tired of staring at a monitor for hours on end. I spend a good deal of my time reading the major health and science journals, so I often print out the latest studies and work through them while catching some sun and fresh air in the backyard. (It’s a nicer vista than Vista…)

It was early Saturday that I read a study so obscenely stupid and so ridiculously far-fetched in its conclusion, I nearly choked on my coffee. PLoS posted a cohort study and review (a meta-analysis) of dietary intake of whole grains vs. refined grains and the corresponding impact upon type 2 diabetes. Unfortunately, it’s yet another half-baked study, and possibly one of the least intelligent conclusions on grains that I’ve seen to date. Not only are there at least a half-dozen glaring problems en route to the conclusion, but the entire study works from an internally flawed premise.

I’ll explain the study and the inherent problems momentarily, but first, allow me to offer you an analogy for the sake of comparison.

Take cigarettes. Unfiltered. The government conducts a study (or several thousand, if you like) and finds – no surprise here – that tobacco is toxic and increases the risk of lung cancer. From this study, the government’s research team concludes that the problem is the lack of filtering – not the tobacco. New studies of filtered cigarettes are conducted, and a meta-analysis comes next. (By now I hope you see where I am going with this.) Our team finds that filtered cigarettes are marginally safer than unfiltered cigarettes, reducing the risk by – say – a statistically significant 20%. The government concludes that filtered cigarettes are healthy, and makes the according recommendations. …Ludicrous, to be sure.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what’s going on with our federal government’s role in making dietary recommendations in regard to grains and our type 2 diabetes epidemic.

The review drew information from the Nurses’ Health Studies and several other cohort studies (for a total of 268,125 participants). The conclusion just baffles me: consuming whole grains prevents type 2 diabetes. Nothing could be further from the truth. Even if you make the assumption and take on good faith that all the findings from the different cohorts and the nurses’ questionnaires are accurate, the entire study is based on a fallacy.

First, the major issues with drawing any sort of conclusion here:

Everyone in the low-whole grain quintile had:

– a high BMI (let’s accept that metric for the sake of this post)

– a family history of diabetes

– virtually zero exercise expenditure

– further, twice the alcohol consumption, twice the processed meat consumption, and twice the incidence of tobacco abuse

…as the higher whole grain group! I don’t know how you could possibly extrapolate from all these glaring risk factors that the type of grain consumed has the greater bearing on whether or not a person is going to be at a greater risk for diabetes. I’m hard-pressed to see how anyone free of the behaviors and risk factors of the above list would escape the clutches of diabetes simply because he or she ate 2 extra servings of whole grain a day. And it’s just nuts to conclude that individuals who do fit the above list could possibly avoid diabetes simply by switching the type of grain consumed. The conclusion ought to be clear enough: couple an unhealthy lifestyle with an established family history of type 2 and you’re quite likely to get it. I want to know how, specifically, the authors corrected for these differences and were able to ascertain that the consumption of whole grain by the higher quintile – and not the absence of these other factors – mitigates the risk of type 2 effectively.

To quote Mark Twain who was quoting Benjamin Disraeli: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

I’ll make this even simpler. If what the researchers are saying is correct, for every five people who got diabetes consuming whole grains, there would be six people who got diabetes not consuming whole grains. Doesn’t anyone think we might want to consider not consuming grains, period? It just gets better. The authors admit that calculating accuracy of the whole grain intake, and the actual effect of the whole grain intake, “was hard”. Awww. They “reassure” us, of course, by stating that they really don’t think this affected anything too seriously. Though they do concede that the people who ate whole grains were probably healthier in general – it is funny how exercising, not smoking, not being an alcoholic, not eating carcinogenic cured meats, and not being obese will do that.

Another quote: “Follow the money.” (Bob Woodward, of course.)

This study was funded by research grants from the National Institutes of Health. The authors declared no bias and the study explicitly states that the NIH did not design or influence the study. And yet…the initial assumption upon which the study rests belies this. Maybe I’m just cynical, but it’s well known that the NIH are partial to policies that favor Big Agra and the FDA. And how could it not be? The food pyramid – the one that recommends eating 6-11 grain-based foods every single day – is under no serious scrutiny. If you conduct a review with the prior assumption that grains are healthy, then certainly, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that grains containing a little fiber and protein by way of the bran or germ (or both) would be better than, oh, pure crap.

But what if we turn this entire thing on its head and conduct a study comparing minimal grain consumption with whole grain consumption? I’ll be the first man in line to lay good money on the outcome of that study. Grains are not great, folks.

Grain silos. What we need more of.

Further Reading:

The Definitive Guide to Insulin, Blood Sugar and Type 2 Diabetes

Want to Develop Type 2 Diabetes? Just Follow the Diabetes Pyramid

My Carb Pyramid

Flickr Photo Credit (CC)

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About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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18 thoughts on “Yet Another Half-Baked Grain Study”

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  1. Thanks for the photo credit! Feel free to use any of my photos for your future posting needs.

  2. This morning on the news, a nutritionist was once again preaching the health benefits of whole grains. School started and it’s time to sell all the processed grain products.

  3. I shuddered as I looked at that picture of a grain silo, flashing back to that year I spent in the monoculture hell of soybean fields and cornfields in Illinois. Whenever I had to drive to another city, I’d put on some 70s classic rock and crank the volume up extra loud to keep me awake. Two major rail lines crisscrossed through town: one heading south from Chicago and the other coming from Kansas City in the west. Trains on both tracks hauled huge black tank cars filled with corn oil and soybean oil. If there’s anything worse for your health than refined grains, it’s refined vegetable oil.

  4. I have fond memories of my summers among the soybean silos. My friends and I would climb to the top of the silos and chuck watermelons and cantaloupes over the edge. Usually this was at night, so we couldn’t actually see the impact, but we could hear a big splat followed by many little splats as the watermelon chunks would ricochet off the corrugated silo walls.

  5. Bradford, those are great memories. I have some great memories like that myself. Growing up in Central Illinois. Great great memories until the men came.

  6. I will have to show this study to my father. At the beginning of the summer (2010) he said he heard or read about a large study that proved whole grains will decrease your chances of getting diabetes or heart disease, etc. (not sure which sickness it was).

    I will simply print this article out, lay it on his desk and just ask him very nicely to read it and ask for his comments.

    I will also print out the study so he can read that too if he wishes.

    Thanks Mark!

  7. Mark

    Thanks for your article. I have been looking at several of these studies on grain intake by quintile. I am amazed by the conlusions that seem to me the oppisite of the data. As a retired CPA I like to look at the data— If refined grain is 80% of grain intake then look at all grain intake– Opps grain intake by quintile shows more grain is shorter lifespan (Heart disease, cancer, all causes) better not say that. More grain is more medical cost– Opps better not report that.

    Let the data speak for itself– To me it is clear that higher grain intake is good for Higher medical bills and an early inheriatance for those of the high grain eaters.

  8. Whole grains preventing Type 2 Diabetes!?! I don’t think so: I spent my whole adult life eating high fiber, low fat, whole grain etc. And the results? At age 59 Type 2 Diabetes diagnosed and 7 months later a heart attack.

    Well – off to cook up some Salmon with fresh greens from my garden. 🙂

  9. BTW – the costume and wig are from a production of Bye Bye Birdie during the rehearsal weeks of which I had a heart attack that wasn’t even diagnosed correctly.

  10. We spent years learning to make cleaner grains and learning to polish rice quickly. Some efficiency expert asks why are we throwing all this garbage away, can’t we feed it to people as well; think of the profits? Frankly, the bran is the most toxic part of the grain, it keeps the grain safe from insects. I think if you want fiber and vitamins you should just eat your vegitables. I know it’s not safe, because when I eat rice bran, wheat, flax, or corn, I have blindness, fatigue, drowsiness, failure to heal. Listen to your local autoimmune affected person. Poison is poison even if you’re healthy and strong, you shouldn’t ask for illness so a grain consultant can make more money.

  11. I stumbled on Primal about 2.5 years ago. At first I did some experimenting with the business of gluten & gluten-free stuff. What I found out, is that for my body, I need to leave ALL grain alone. Sugar & corn syrup et al, I had already known about being detrimental to health. So I don’t eat grain, legumes, or sugars (except for very small amounts of honey or maple). I do wonder what effect all the genetic modification on grains has had. There are indigenous peoples who ate grains and were healthy, but those grains are nearly impossible to find these days. So much for science improving on Mother Nature!