Should you eat grains – or, should you avoid them?
Like most things in the world of health, it depends. Both on the grain—and you, which we like to call bioindividuality around here.
True be told, throughout the more recent controversy surrounding grain consumption, grains have been an innocent bystander. Mostly because it has nothing to do with the grain, and everything to do with what humans have done to it.
Even with the bad press surrounding them, we still love to eat grains. Americans consume on average 11 servings per day, which is well above the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommendation to eat 8 servings a day.
But, let’s explore that for a second. Before industrial grain processing was introduced in the 1800s, humans were not able to consume grains in the doses prescribed to us by the USDA. Yet, grain products were placed at the bottom of the Food Guide Pyramid since it was first introduce in 1992.
Many assume grains were assigned such prominence because they are packed with the most nutrients. If that’s so, then how did we progress as a human race without the ability to consume grains in such tremendous proportions? Are grains really more nutritious than all the other foods available to us? And, why are people now saying grains are bad to eat?
You can feel the curiosity in the air. Lucky for you, in a short amount of time, you’ll know whether you should eat grains or not. Pinky swear.
Progression, or Regression?
No matter what you eat, it’s painfully clear that chronic diseases have skyrocketed over the last 130 years, and overall health has plummeted. According to the CDC, 70% of the people in the USA are now considered overweight, and almost 50% are obese. In addition, 1 in 3 people suffer from insulin insensitivity, and the percentage of those diagnosed with diabetes each year continues to increase in epidemic proportions.
While successfully regressing mortality associated with infectious diseases over the years, we’ve simultaneously progressed ourselves to record high mortality rates caused by chronic disease.2 In fact, 7 out of 10 deaths among Americans are from chronic diseases, and treatment for chronic diseases accounts for 75% of all heath care costs.
To figure out if you should eat grains, we first need to know what the heck grain is.
A grain is the small, dry, hard seed that is harvest from various types of plants. The grain is the reproductive force of the plant, so it’s got a lot of responsibility, including the life cycle of the plant. Grain in its raw state is toxic to the human digestive track, meaning it has to be processed in some way before we are able to consume it.
Before the industrial revolution, our ancestors gathered and carefully prepared grains by soaking, sprouting or fermenting them in order to make the grain and its nutrients digestible. They typically ground them by hand, and combined them with water and cooked it. These grains were always whole grains. Most grain products available to us today are created from processed or refined grain, meaning the grain has been broken down through a high-heat machinery processes in order to make it digestible.
Where’s the Nutrients?
The first misconception about grains is that whole grains are the holy grail of human food. In reality, a calorie by calorie comparison shows that grains stack up far behind fruits, vegetables, seafood and meats.
The second misconception, which is more popular in the conventional nutrition world, is that the nutrients available or fortified into grain products are actually absorbed in the body. Unfortunately, this just isn’t so. Grains contain concentrated amounts of phytic acid that keep nutrients from being absorbed in the digestive tract. Phytic acid has been shown to bind to minerals like calcium, iron, magnesium and zinc, and turn them into an indigestible complex. This means many of those minerals will be excreted and put right into the potty.
Although phytic acid has been shown to have some potential antioxidant and anti-cancer effects, research in humans isn’t conclusive.5
To add to this complexity, almost all grain products like breads, cereals, and pasta are “fortified” with synthetic vitamins and minerals. Recent evidence shows that synthetic forms of vitamins aren’t absorbed or assimilated well because nutrients need other nutrients in very specific ratios to be properly digested and absorbed.6 These ratios are found perfectly in nature in whole foods, which can’t be reproduced in a lab.
The manufacturers of flaky corn cereal don’t want you to know that, which is why many cereal boxes are adorned with claims of containing “100% nutrition” and the American Heart Association’s “heart seal” of approval. What’s actually in the box is nothing more than highly processed genetically-modified wheat, sugar, corn syrup, and preservatives. And sometimes – vitamins and minerals derived from coal tar.
Should You Eat Grains?
Put simply, there are two ways grain may be a problem for people. This is going to get a little scientific, but stick it out with me and you’ll reap some major points. (Prizes later!)
When we eat food, the body has to covert the food we eat into a form that can be used in the body. Carbohydrates are turned into glucose. Fats are broken down into fatty acids. Proteins are broken down into amino acids.
When we eat a refined carbohydrates (like bread, cereal, or pasta), this sends a large amount of glucose into the bloodstream. All of the glucose from the food we eat must be stored into cells, so the pancreas (that cute little guy in yellow) sends insulin to take care of it. Insulin is a hormone that takes glucose out of the bloodstream and stores it into muscle, liver and fat cells as energy.
Take a deep breath, check your twitter feed, and come back. Almost done.
Glucose is very necessary for our body, but if provided in too high of a dose regularly, it can create problems. Overtime, if a person continues to eat refined carbohydrate foods in excess, energy is stored in fat cells, which can cause weight gain, and cells can become less responsive to insulin.
Because too much glucose in your bloodstream is toxic, the pancreas is forced to produce even more insulin when cells become less responsive to insulin to get glucose stored away. Eventually, cells can become completely insulin resistant. Unfortunately, insulin resistance is linked to heart disease, diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, thyroid issues, PCOS, infertility, and more. 
Constant high levels of insulin is also seen by the body as a stressor, and has been linked to increased inflammation.14
Research shows that those with type 2 diabetes, a disease caused by impaired pancreas function and insulin resistance, have a 65% increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s.15 Alzheimer’s is now being referred to as “Type III Diabetes” because the brain basically starves due to brain cells becoming insulin resistant.
The second reason grains may not be the best choice for you is because of the anti-nutrients they contain. I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but plants don’t have arms or feet to help them escape predators. (Except for Mr. Peanut, of course.) Because of this, plants pull out all the stops to make sure its seeds can reproduce and make more babies.
These anti-nutrients, specifically gluten and lectins are built-in defense mechanisms for plants. Gluten and lectins are like barbed-wire wrapped around the grain in order to resist overconsumption, contamination, or digestion altogether so it can be excreted and fertilized by the host (yes, through poop.)
For some people, these anti-nutrients can disrupt the villi that are on the border of our intestines, which is what we use to absorb nutrients. Studies show that through certain mechanisms, certain grains can cause the tight junctions that hold our gut together become loose and food can actually permeate the gut lining without being properly broken down and absorbed, which is most widely known as Leaky Gut Syndrome.16
When undigested food “leaks” through the gut lining, our immune system launches an attack on it because it sees it as an invader.
These invaders can interact with other cells in the body, causing the immune system to launch an attack on harmless tissue associated with the skin, hair, hormones, liver, bones, thyroid and more. In fact, although the cause of autoimmune diseases (Rheumatoid Arthritis, Hashimoto’s, Psoriasis, etc.) is complex and still being researched, leaky gut has been shown to activate autoimmunity, and all autoimmune diseases that have been tested show the presence of intestinal permeability. 16
Leaky gut can also cause systemic inflammation throughout the body, which can manifest in many different ways, including: acne, allergies, Alzheimer’s, anemia, ADD, bloating, calcium deficiency, cancer, Celiac, chronic fatigue syndrome, endometriosis, fibromyalagia, irritable bowel syndrome, infertility, joint pain, liver disease, PCOS, thyroid disorders, and more. 17
The Proper Preparation of Grains
Soaking, sprouting and fermenting grain makes it digestible because it “tricks” the grain into thinking it’s been planted – causing it to release the anti-nutrients it contains. As a result, properly prepared, whole organic grains can be consumed by many people – including those who are prone to digestive distress (like me!) In my experience, soaking also helps grain like rice cook quicker and taste better. (See a simple way to get started with soaking here!)
Well, obvs – the answer to “Should you eat grains?” is BIG NO. PEACE grains, nice knowing ya. JK.
Dogmatic approaches that shun all grains of all kinds aren’t proven to be necessary for health in the scientific literature. Of course, the removal of grains may improve some disease states, so doing so with the help of your doctor can be incredibly valuable in certain situations. However, when talking about health – everyone has different needs, and therefore there is no one diet for everyone. As a solid takeaway, I do think it’s pretty clear that grains should not be the basis of the human diet, rather a supplement to a well balance, nutrient-dense diet.
So, where do you go from here? If you’re new to a real foods lifestyle, I recommend starting by simply adjusting your breakfast so that it includes less refined foods. Eat good sources of fat instead like eggs and vegetables cooked in a saturated fat like coconut oil or grass-fed butter. Then, change your mid-afternoon snack to carrots tossed in olive oil, or an apple with almond butter. Next, adjust your dinner so that you eat less refined foods like bread, and add in real food sources of carbohydrate like potatoes. You can also experiment with properly preparing whole, organic grain at meals. I recommend starting with rice, as it’s super easy to do.
Small shifts will make the transition easier on you and your stress levels, which is just as important.
I do recommend all people to take out gluten containing grains for 30 days to see how you look, feel and perform without them. Many people who struggle with unresolved issues find relief removing gluten. When your immune system is suppressed and systemic inflammation is in your body at all times, you don’t know what a true, healthy “normal” feels like. After 30 days, reintroduce them, and see how you feel.
What will you do from here? Have you decided if you should eat grains or not? Let me know below!