Grains are fixtures of modern life. Pastrami on rye, spaghetti dinners, corn on the cob, birthday cake, apple pie, endless breadsticks, pizza parties, taco nights.
Studies about “heart-healthy whole grains” in the news. “AHA Approved” icons affixed to any concoction in the grocery store that contains a few grams of wheat—never mind all the sugar and seed oils.
Grains are “staples,” bread is the “staff of life,” and most people can’t imagine a meal without some type of grain on the table.
Yes, grains are solidly etched into our modern Western psyche—just not so much into our physiology. For the vast majority of human evolution, we were hunter-gatherers eating meats, nuts, bitter wild greens, regional veggies, tubers and roots, and fruits and berries. We ate what nature provided. If we ate any grains at all, they were wild and scarce—never staples.
You could be having a fairly routine conversation about health and nutrition where everything discussed is familiar. You hear things like “carbs” and “medium chain triglycerides” and “fructose” and “macros” and “gluten” and “PUFAs,” thinking nothing of it. Like I said, routine. Then someone mentions FODMAPs. Huh? What the heck is that? Quite possibly one of the strangest, seemingly contrived acronyms in existence, FODMAPs represents a collection of foods to which a surprisingly large number of people are highly sensitive. To them, paying attention to the FODMAPs in their diets is very real and very serious if they hope to avoid debilitating, embarrassing, and painful digestive issues.
What is a FODMAP?
FODMAPs are carbohydrates and fibers that gut bacteria can ferment in the gut and cause excessive gas, intestinal discomfort, diarrhea, and/or constipation. In other words, FODMAPs are a potential source of digestive distress in susceptible people.
You talk a lot about the evils of grains. I follow your logic on why a grain free diet is best, and I have seen weight loss and just feel better overall since heeding your advice. But there is one thing (well, more than one) that I don’t understand but hear about often. Could you explain what gluten intolerance is and why you should avoid gluten?
Excellent question. Even though we’re seeing gluten-free labeling more and more, it’s not always clear why gluten can be problematic. Because of cross-contamination, it’s not always obvious whether a food contains gluten or not. Further, gluten intolerance symptoms can masquerade as other conditions. Let’s break it all down.
What is Gluten?
Gluten is a large, water-soluble protein that creates the elasticity in dough. It’s found in grains such as wheat, rye, barley, triticale, and oats. These days it’s also found in additives like thickeners and fillers used in everything from lunch meat to soup to candy. You can also find gluten in beers and vinegars that have been fermented from gluten-containing grains.
Inflammation gets a bad rap in the alternative health world: “Inflammation causes heart disease, cancer, and autoimmune disease! It’s at the root of depression.” These are all true—to some extent.
Name a disease, and inflammation is involved.
Crohn’s disease is inflammatory.
Major depression is inflammatory.
Heart disease is inflammatory.
Autoimmune diseases, which involve an inflammatory response directed at your own tissues, are inflammatory.
Arthritis is inflammatory.
Even obesity is inflammatory, with fat cells literally secreting inflammatory cytokines.
Yes, but the story is more complicated than that. Inflammation, after all, is a natural process developed through millions of years of evolution. It can’t be wholly negative. Just like our bodies didn’t evolve to manufacture cholesterol to give us heart disease, inflammation isn’t there to give us degenerative diseases.
I’ve been lucky enough to travel to interesting places. The trips I’ve taken in the last 10-15 years, during my “Primal period,” have been the most meaningful, rewarding, and downright enjoyable because I’ve been able to view other cultures and customs through the prism of health, nutrition, and human evolution. I bring something back every trip—a tip, an insight, an alteration of an existing conviction. Travel abroad isn’t just a good time. It’s educational.
What have I learned eating abroad?
While I don’t recommend making Primalized versions of grain-based foods a staple, the fact remains that people love them. They’re going to want them. There’s not much you can do about that. And if we want to incorporate pancakes, muffins, cookies, and other flour-based items into our diets without ruining everything we’ve worked toward, we need the healthiest, most Primal flours.
The alternative flour market has exploded in recent years. A decade ago, you had gritty almond flour and fibrous coconut flour, and that was about it. Today, there are many more flours to sift through. But what are the best ones? Which ones fit best into a Primal way of eating, and why?
Wheat gets a bad rap in the alternative health sphere, receiving blame from all sides. Today, I’m here to provide the other side. Today, I’m going to give you seven solid reasons to love wheat, ranging from its effects on the environment, its role in the foundation of the American republic, its effect on gut bacteria and your health, its ability to stamp out hatred, its protective role in the lives of Bronze Age Chinese women, and its status as an enduring symbol of human rights and prosperity.
Let’s get right to it.
For today’s edition of Dear Mark, I’m answering two questions from readers. The first one concerns the reduction in testosterone men experience with marriage. Is it a feature? A flaw? Is it inevitable? After that, I get into a pair of new studies that question the safety of gluten-free diets in the absence of celiac disease. Is your gluten-free diet going to kill you?
First, non-celiac wheat/gluten sensitivity was a sham and everyone claimed its participants were in a collective mass delusion. Then some actual studies came out, and it appeared to be a real condition. Soon after, researchers offered different theories. Maybe it was FODMAP intolerance. Maybe it was all that wheat fiber messing up the gut. Maybe it was too little fiber and other fermentable substrate, and we were actually starving our gut bugs and compromising our intestinal health. Maybe it wasn’t even the gluten. And maybe it was actually some kind of a placebo. One of the most recent findings was that gluten sensitivity might not even exist. What’s the truth?
For today’s edition of Dear Mark, I’m answering two reader questions. First, I answer a very specific question about blackstrap molasses, that nutrient-dense sweetener with the distinctive taste. How can a person who hates molasses work it into their diet? Next, I address concerns surrounding a set of healthy whole grain studies that I’m sure you’ve been hearing about. Are whole grains really healthy? Will they make you live long and prosper? Is there something unique to whole grains we’re missing out on?