In the food pyramid and other standardized forms of dietary recommendations such as MyPlate, grains have made up the foundation of the recommended diet for a few decades now, encouraging people to eat 6-11 servings of “healthy whole grains” every day.
However, in contrast to the reported health benefits of grains, they are actually quite detrimental to your overall health and well-being. Rather than supporting the efforts you’re making to heal your body, grains can actually prevent you from healing, and do a considerable amount of harm to your body and overall health.
Let’s take a closer look at what grains are, why they’re so damaging to your health, and how you can begin making the necessary adjustments to your diet to achieve more optimal health and a better quality of life.
What Are Grains?
There are four classes of grain plants that produce the “edible” seeds that we typically refer to as grains, and from which many common (and problematic) foods are derived.
- Cereal Grains: These are seeds from grasses in the Poaceae family, and include:
- Triticale (Wheat-Rye hybrid)
- Wild Rice
- Pseudograins: Not true grains, these seeds come from broadleaf plants rather than grasses, but they are still detrimental in nature, largely due to their high carbohydrate and inflammatory compounds such as saponins. Pseudograins include:
- Legumes: The broader family of legumes includes thousands of different species of beans and peas, but for the purposes of today’s discussion about grains, we’ll be focused solely on pulses, which are edible grain seeds in pods. Pulses include:
- Aduki/Adzuki Beans
- Black Soybeans
- Black Turtle Beans
- Black-Eyed Peas
- Chickpeas (aka garbanzo beans)
- Cranberry Beans
- Fava Beans
- Hyacinth Beans
- Kidney Beans
- Lima Beans
- Mung Beans
- Navy Beans
- Painted Pony Bean
- Peas (Green/Garden/English)
- Pinto Beans
- Runner Beans
- Split Peas (green, yellow)
- Oilseeds: Aptly named, oilseeds are seeds that are high in oil content, and are commonly used to produce “edible” oils. Many oilseeds are problematic for our overall health* because they:
- are high in inflammatory Omega-6 fatty acids
- are often high-heat processed, destroying nutrients
- must be treated with chemicals and bleaches to be at all palatable
- easily go rancid, causing oxidative damage (ie. accelerated aging) to our bodies
- Harmful oils from grain-based oilseeds (aka “vegetable oils”) include:
*For more on this important topic, check out my post The Problem With Vegetable Oils.
If you are like most people, then you are probably consuming some of the above items. After all, many grains like quinoa and whole wheat, and many vegetable oils, are touted as healthy. But is this really the case?
Understanding The Impact Of Grains
Whether the conversation centers around grain-based products that are perceived as less healthy (such as white bread), or ones that are commonly considered healthy, such as whole grains (and all products made from them), grains as a whole are actually quite unhealthy and should be eliminated by anyone wishing to improve their health.
Why is that?
Grains contribute to nutritional deficiencies in your diet.
An insightful report on cereal grains produced by Dr. Loren Cordain at Colorado State University entitled Cereal Grains: Humanity’s Double-Edged Sword discusses in detail the nutritional shortcomings of cereal grains and how they take up space in your diet that should be reserved for healthier, less inflammatory, more nutrient-dense foods.
Cereal grains contain no vitamin A, beta-carotene (except corn), vitamin C, vitamin B12, and no sodium or calcium. And, given that grains often play a major role in the modern diet, because of these nutrient deficiencies, they often leave nutritional gaps and cause deficiencies that prevent you from getting the essential vitamins and nutrients your body needs to stay healthy and strong. And this brings us to our next point…
Grains contain anti-nutrients that impact your health and wellness.
Like all living things, plants have developed many survival traits over time. In fact, you’re probably familiar with some of the defense mechanisms plants use to ward off herbivores and other organisms. Whether it’s the burning spice employed by hot peppers or the sharp thorns of berry bushes, plants employ a variety of methods to deter animals from consuming them. This is certainly the case for cereal grains as well. To ward off being eaten, grains contain something called anti-nutrients, which make animals feel unwell when they eat them. In the interest of optimizing human health, there are two anti-nutrients that we especially need to be aware of: phytic acid and lectins.
Phytic acid, or phytate, plays a role in helping cereal grains store phosphorous, which is crucial to their development. However, phytic acid is harmful for humans.
When introduced into the human body, phytic acid binds with nutrients, preventing us from properly absorbing them, and leaving us nutrient deficient. Phytates especially interfere with the absorption of calcium, copper, iron, and magnesium, interfere with proper digestion, and cause a range of mineral-deficiency-based health problems like reduced immune function, anemia, weakness and fatigue, poor memory and concentration, hair loss, low bone mass, and more. Any of those sound familiar?
The second anti-nutrient of particular concern to us is lectins. Lectins are a protein and another protective compound in grains designed to upset the digestive system of animals that consume them.
Lectins can be particularly nasty for humans, as these proteins bind to the lining of your intestines, causing and exacerbating intestinal hyperpermeability (aka leaky gut), which leads to impaired digestion and nutrient absorption, immune system hyper-reactivity, and systemic inflammation.
Leaky gut is a condition where continued damage to the intestinal lining produces holes in that lining. Bacteria, large (improperly digested) proteins, and lectins then escape into your bloodstream, where they can cause increased food sensitivities, allergies, immune weakness, and autoimmune conditions like arthritis, IBS, and colitis.
And like phytates, lectins can also interrupt cellular repair, and upset the balance of your beneficial gut flora (causing gut dysbiosis, which leads to a whole host of other problems, including depression, anxiety, brain fog, fatigue, and much more).
Put simply, all grains are inflammatory, and avoiding these foods (and replacing them with anti-inflammatory nutrient-dense foods) is key to improving your overall health.
Grains stimulate your appetite rather than satisfying it.
It’s not uncommon to hear about the supposed benefits of grains in regards to their ability to fill you up quickly to help you avoid eating more over the course of your day. But have you ever eaten grains, only to experience continued or even worsened carb cravings, or still felt hungry despite having eaten until you felt quite full?
This phenomenon is due to compounds in grains known as prolamin proteins. These proteins are chemically similar in nature to opioids, and they tend to cause an increased appetite and cravings. Additionally, those who cut out grains completely in pursuit of a keto (low carb) and/or paleo diet may at first feel more fatigued as a result, causing them to return to eating grains to cope with these effects.
Shifting away from grains – and then continuing to stay away from them – will counteract these issues over time, helping you achieve better energy and mood, optimal weight and much better health. Avoiding grains will also make room on your plate for truly nutritious and health-enhancing foods, rather than the inflammatory grain-based foods that increase your appetite and stimulate you to eat yet more carbohydrates.
The gluten and sugars in grains can exacerbate a wide range of diseases.
While the antinutrients listed above are certainly a cause for concern, they’re not the only compounds present within grains that are problematic. We also need to address two more: gluten and sugar (carbohydrates).
The popularization of the gluten-free diet and the flooding of the market with gluten-free products allows those with gluten allergies or those with diseases like celiac disease to avoid triggering their symptoms.
But what about people who don’t have overt gluten allergies or celiac disease? Is it ok for them to be consuming gluten?
Anyone with digestive or immune issues (ie. most people) should avoid gluten (and all grains). One way to determine the need for this measure is to have your stool tested for anti-gliadin IgAs. These antibodies react to gluten components, and while celiac disease is the most commonly known disease exacerbated by gluten, many health problems, including those listed above, are triggered and exacerbated by exposure to gluten-containing foods, without knowing that gluten is the real culprit.
Additionally, gluten especially – and grains in general – can spike zonulin levels. Zonulin is a protein in the intestines that regulates our intestinal permeability. Higher zonulin levels cause and exacerbate leaky gut syndrome, and other gastrointestinal problems as well. Research also indicates that grains can lead to an increased risk of obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes.
Finally, it’s important to talk about carbohydrates, aka sugars. Grains contain large quantities of carbohydrates, and pose a major health issue; they stimulate the body to produce extra insulin to try to move all that sugar into our cells for use as energy (or for storage as fat, for later use in energy production); this is how our bodies control the amount of sugar in our bloodstream, which must be carefully managed, since high blood sugar is very damaging to our bodies.
Over time, with repeated consumption of carbohydrate-rich foods, the body starts to ignore insulin’s signal to move sugar out of the blood and into cells, which leads to insulin resistance. This is a root cause of many of our modern health problems, including prediabetes and Type 2 diabetes, along with a range of other dangerous and related conditions like obesity, metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease, polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD).
Reducing carbohydrates in general, especially those from inflammatory, nutrient-poor grains and grain products, is a key step towards optimizing health.
The Staff of Life?
Now you might be thinking, wait a minute, Dr. Emily, humans have been eating grains for 1,000s of years. Why should we stop now?
And yes, it is true – grains have long been a part of the human diet, for at least 30,000 years, with wild grains being harvested and laboriously hand-pounded into flour to make foodstuffs. But there is evidence across the globe that the advent of agriculture and the domestication of grain crops at about 10,000 years ago was coupled with an increase in grain consumption worldwide, and a concurrent decline in overall human health and vitality, with higher rates of malnutrition and infections, shorter stature, worse dental health, and a “general reduction in robusticity”.
Before that decline, back when we were still foraging (hunting and gathering) for our food, grain consumption was fairly limited due to the labor-intensive nature of ancient, natural varieties, with the bulk of the human diet coming from animal foods, green leafy plants, tubers, and fruits.
So grains weren’t consumed throughout human history to the extent that they are in modern times, and especially not in the highly processed, super-inflammatory forms like machine-made flour products that are commonplace now, since they weren’t readily available until recently. (For a concise and interesting timeline on the introduction of various processed foods in the U.S., check out Processed Food History: 1910s to 1950s).
Another thing to consider is that, throughout human history, people took great care to prepare grains (including legumes) in ways that helped to minimize their negative effects, such as long soaking, fermenting and sprouting.
But even those careful preparations don’t negate many of the harmful aspects of modern grains, for several reasons. Most grains have been selectively bred and genetically altered over many decades (and even millennia, in the case of corn) for higher production, improved disease resistance, and increased palatability (ie. higher sugar content), all of which have changed their composition to be less nutritious and more harmful for human consumption.
Modern wheat, for instance, is now higher in immuno-reactive proteins and other inflammatory compounds, and is much more gut irritating than older varieties. (For more on this, see Modern Wheat Is More Toxic.) And modern corn is 3.5 times higher in sugar than ancient corn, and contains proteins which cause cross-reactivity with those who are sensitive to gluten (which, based on my 25 years of research and clinical experience, I believe is pretty much everybody!)
And, finally, modern grains are grown on modern soils (ie. nutrient-depleted), with modern growing methods including monocropping (ie. lacking in biodiversity, which makes for less healthy plants and therefore less nutritious and more inflammatory food products), and spraying of petroleum-based fertilizers and chemical herbicides (such as glyphosate, aka Roundup), pesticides and fungicides. All of these factors exacerbate grains’ already-inherent health-damaging impacts (and are, btw, also very harmful to creatures large and small, and the environment.) Oy vey!
Eliminate Grains to Improve Your Overall Health
So, grains are very problematic, for many reasons. And decades of pushing grains as a supposed healthy food staple has proven very detrimental to our overall health.
It’s time for a different path.
Are you ready to experience vastly better health and quality of life? Then it’s time to cut grains out of your diet and fill your plate with anti-inflammatory, nutrient-dense, health-enhancing foods. In my many years as a holistic doctor, working with 1,000s of people, I have seen this one change make an enormous difference in the health of every single person who has made this bold move! It never ceases to amaze people, how much better they feel when they finally, completely cut grains out of their life.
But how to begin?
A great first (or next) step is to check out my Roadmap to Optimal Health, to begin (or enhance) your journey to outstanding health.
You can also check out my articles and podcasts that are chock-full of holistic health information that will educate and inspire you to make positive changes!
Every journey begins with a single step. Start yours right here, right now, with me. 🙂