GRAIN – The Devil or Not?
Let’s talk about grain. This is a touchy subject for many, including those in the health community. However, this is an important topic, and we must look at the information logically. What I wish to convey to you here is that it is not as simple as good versus evil.
The three most commonly consumed types of grain are wheat, rice, and corn. While cheap, the truth is that they are not exactly nutritious, and this includes whole grain. Since I have discussed sugar in various articles before, it might be wise to point out that high fructose corn syrup is made from corn (sort of a clue for our purposes here).
Just like sugars, not all grains are created equal; some are decent, and some are really bad for us. This is because there is a world of difference between the various grains and how they are processed. Interestingly enough, when it comes to health, both sugar and grain are connected. Let’s see if we can correct some of the confusion.
The Official Recommendation
In the US, the health authorities recommend that women eat 5-6 servings of grains per day and that men eat 6-8 servings. The question you should be asking yourself is, “why?” Why is it important?
Some might argue that it is because of the nutrients or fiber. However, each of these could be addressed separately with various other foods. In fact, you might want to consider doing just that.
Why would we want to do that? That’s a great question! What if I told you that some experts believe we should avoid grains altogether, or at least as much as possible?
A Solid Point to Consider
Dr. Loren Cordain, a professor at Colorado State University and an expert on Paleolithic lifestyles, says that humans are NOT designed to eat grains, and doing so may damage your gut (Cordain, 2011). Does this resonate with you?
Dr. Cordain says that “There’s no human requirement for grains. That’s the problem with the USDA recommendations. They think we’re hardwired as a species to eat grains. You can get by just fine and meet every single nutrient requirement that humans have without eating grains. And grains are absolutely poor sources of vitamins and minerals compared to fruits and vegetables and meat and fish.” Think about that for a moment. What would that mean for your diet?
Cordain goes on to say that “Grains are the seeds of a plant. They’re its reproductive material, and plants don’t make their reproductive material to give away for free to other animals. If they did, they’d become extinct, and so the evolutionary strategy that many plants, particularly cereal grains, have taken to prevent predation is to evolve toxic compounds so that the predator of the seeds can’t eat them so that they can put their seeds in the soil where they’re meant to be to grow a new plant and not in the gut of an animal to feed it.” That’s a true statement, but have you heard any of this before?
Granted, that was just one expert, but I want you to understand that plenty of others are saying similar things. Of course, none of this is to say that grains have nothing to offer because some do. Accordingly, some health professionals will tell you that you need them. The question I have for you is, can you tell me which ones those might be? Statistically speaking, most couldn’t. Don’t worry; I’ll provide some recommendations later.
It is true that some whole grains are rich in fiber, B vitamins, magnesium, iron, phosphorus, manganese, and selenium. It seems logical that these nutrients are in place to ensure the growth of the plant. But are those seeds okay for our consumption? To fully understand this, we need to take a walk through the science of it all.
First, let us take it back to sugar for a moment. It is no secret that elevated insulin levels are our number one problem in the United States. As you may already know, chronic disease and death are often associated. You might already know that insulin resistance is associated with diabetes, but you may not know that insulin resistance and inflammation can also lead to and predict adverse cardiovascular events. So let’s start with that process.
Insulin regulates how the body uses and stores glucose and fat. Essentially, insulin helps the cells absorb glucose. Many of the body’s cells rely on insulin to take glucose from the blood to the cell for their energy (Diabetes.co, 2016). However, when too much glucose is present, insulin stores that excess glucose as fat. After you eat a lot of carbs, your blood sugar (glucose) rises. This rise in glucose activates your pancreas to release more insulin into the bloodstream, which ultimately makes storing fat/sugar easier.
People who consume a high carbohydrate diet run the risk of being overweight and having insulin resistance. If they continue to eat such foods, it could become a terrible cycle known as Metabolic Syndrome. Metabolic Syndrome is an array of issues that increase the risk of stroke, heart disease, and diabetes. Important to note is that the metabolic consequences of carbohydrate consumption largely depend on the quantity and quality of the carbohydrates consumed. In other words, keep the quantity in check and ensure that your consumption is high quality. So then, what are carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates (carbs) are the sugars, starches, and fibers found in fruits, grains, vegetables, and milk products. When you think about it in these terms, we can logically narrow down the field of issue. We know that fruits and vegetables are generally good. Fiber is pretty good for us as well. Dairy can be good depending on how it is processed. But what about the sugars and starches?
Have you been told to avoid processed foods? Think about the major ingredient in bread, rolls, ice cream cones, pizza, cakes, donuts, muffins, crackers, cookies, biscuits, pancakes, waffles, noodles, pie crusts, pasta, and cereals. Are these good for us? Why are these considered junk food? Well, it’s because most of these comprise refined (processed) wheat flour (grain) and sugar. As you may or may not know, these foods can make us fat and sick.
Some are quick to suggest that it is the sugar that is doing harm and not the grain. That’s really six of one and half a dozen of the other. Our bodies process all carbs (including sugar and grain) into glucose. So, with sugar or grain, the result is basically the same. When I look at the list of products I previously mentioned, I see their ingredients as sugar (cane) and sugar (grain). That’s how our bodies see it too.
Basically, if you’re consuming a lot of carbohydrates via refined grains and sugars, you’re not doing your body any favors. As we discussed earlier, it often results in weight gain, and you may be setting yourself up for some hard times in the near future (metabolic syndrome). Remember, quantity and quality. Keep the quantity low and the quality high.
Refined grains are especially bad, but only because you’re not getting much good in exchange for the bad your body endures. And I’m not even hitting on the low-grade inflammation that sugar consumption can result in. When you refine grain, the truth is that you eliminate the richest source of nutrients, including proteins, vitamins, lipids, and minerals. So what’s the point of that?
In fact, according to the Weston A. Price Foundation, there is a laundry list of nutrients lost by modern industrial processing.
- Thiamine (B1) 77%
- Riboflavin (B2) 80%
- Niacin 81%
- Pyridoxine (B6) 72%
- Pantothenic acid 50%
- Vitamin E 86%
- Calcium 60%
- Phosphorous 71%
- Magnesium 84%
- Potassium 77%
- Sodium 78%
- Chromium 40%
- Manganese 86%
- Iron 76%
- Cobalt 89%
- Zinc 78%
- Copper 68%
- Selenium 16%
- Molybdenum 48%
Food makers know this, which is why products made with refined grains are often enriched with nutrients like iron, folate, and B vitamins. This is their attempt to replace some of the nutrients lost during processing (FDA, 2015). But these enrichments are not exactly solid replacements. This is because nature is complex, and food science is clearly not perfect. Thus, even enriched foods are less nutritious than the original whole grain.
Let’s stop and critically reflect for a moment. We now know that consuming too many carbs can be bad, that our body turns carbs into glucose (sugar), and that processed grains are bad because they lose so many nutrients. Now let’s add in the fact that many convenience foods are simply a mixture of grain sugar and cane sugar, and all that sugar results in systemic inflammation, the potential for metabolic syndrome, and a lot of weight gain. We are looking at a pretty nasty picture. Unfortunately, this story gets a little grimmer.
I know some are worried about gluten. Indeed, it can be bad for some. But since most of us have already heard that, let us talk about lectins for a moment.
Lectins are a family of proteins found in pretty much all foods, especially legumes and grains. Unfortunately, frequent consumption of large amounts of lectins has been shown to damage the digestive system (Vojdani, 2015). As it turns out, “lectins are a key mechanism through which plants protect themselves against being eaten, and are found in highest concentrations in their seed form (Mercola, 2012).” So if your gut is damaged, your digestion is hindered, and we begin terrible cycles, as previously addressed.
What is important to note is that lectins are actually found in higher concentrations in whole wheat. Let me reiterate that studies show that consuming foods containing lectins results in digestive irritation and sometimes even leaky gut, which contributes to a slew of other health problems. For clarity, I’m often more concerned with lectins than gluten.
So, when it comes to most traditional grains, it seems you have a choice: 1) grains that are not very nutritious or 2) grains that are simply not worth it. Of course, that is not just my opinion. An increasing number of scientists and medical professionals are beginning to sound the alarm on grains while also warning of possible chronic digestive and inflammatory illnesses that come with their consumption. Here are just a few:
- Dr. William Davis, author of Wheat Belly: “This thing being sold to us called wheat is this stocky little high-yield plant, a distant relative of the wheat our mothers used to bake muffins, biochemically light-years removed from the wheat of just 40 years ago.“
- Neurologist Dr. David Permutter, author of Grain Brain: “The problem with gluten is far more serious than anyone ever imagined. Modern…structurally modified, hybridized grains contain gluten that’s less tolerable than the gluten that was found in grains cultivated just a few decades ago“.
- Dr. Mark Hyman, author of The Blood Sugar Solution: “This new modern wheat may look like wheat, but it is different in three important ways that all drive obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, dementia and more. It contains a super starch, amylopectin A, that is super fattening, a form of super gluten that is super inflammatory, and acts like a super drug that is super addictive and makes you crave and eat more.”
So is grain the devil? Not all of them, but some of them are just not worth the consumption. If you ignore everything else in this article, then at least make logical conclusions based on the results you see and feel. Also, dig in and do some research based on some of what I have provided. Listen to your body. Keep the carb consumption in check and ensure that whatever you consume is of higher quality.
Putting in Practice
You definitely need to do what you feel is right but try not to go overboard or stress out about it. Also, please note that I am not telling you to avoid grains entirely. I am aware of how difficult that would be for most. However, I am telling you that you might think about how you structure your diet and be VERY selective about which grains you consume, and this is especially true if you’re dealing with a chronic issue of some type. This recommendation will require some research on your part.
For me, I tend to avoid grains. However, if I do consume them, they may include gluten-free and pseudo-grains such as millet, buckwheat, amaranth, and quinoa. Of course, I’m not so strict that I will ruin anybody’s night if something else is the offering. Moreover, the only traditional grains that I will consume are real brown (unprocessed) rice and occasionally some Scottish oats.
Of course, my position doesn’t end with food. The alcohol I tend to consume is derived from fruit. I have been doing it for years, and my blood work is spot on.
Interested in diet ideas? You might like my article titled, “So Many Diets to Choose From – Which is best?”
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This article was originally published as a chapter in the book Natural Health Made Easy: The Briobiotic Protocol (2016). It has been altered and updated.
Dr. Robertson is a health researcher and educator, not a physician. The information provided here is not medical advice, a professional diagnosis, opinion, treatment, or service to you or any other individual. The information provided is for educational and anecdotal purposes only and is not a substitute for medical or professional care. You should not use the information in place of a visit, call consultation, or the advice of your physician or other healthcare providers. Dr. Robertson is not liable or responsible for any advice, course of treatment, diagnosis, or additional information, services, or product you obtain or utilize. IF YOU BELIEVE YOU HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY, YOU SHOULD IMMEDIATELY CALL 911 OR YOUR PHYSICIAN.