A new craze has been sweeping the blogosphere as of late, and it’s decidedly anti-grain. Naturally, after all the good things you’ve heard about whole-grains and their wealth of benefits, this came as a bit of a surprise. I wanted to know, why are people saying this? Is there any truth to it? Are grains bad for you? Is gluten bad for you? Is there any scientific evidence to corroborate this new way of thinking? In my quest to find out, I put together a detailed article examining where this myth came from, who’s spreading it, what they’re saying, and the the scientific evidence that ultimately proves them to be wrong.
Be forewarned. I’ll be going against the grain of current popularity in this article. (Ha! You like what I did there?… No? Awkward.)
After exhaustive research, it became exceedingly obvious that nearly all the anti-grain rhetoric found online came from the pro-Paleo crowd (if you’re unfamiliar with Paleo, have a look at my take on it here). This is unsurprising of course, because one of the very foundations of the Paleo philosophy is that grains are evil and to be avoided at all costs. I found it quite difficult, however, to actually find any scientific data which conclusively supported this Paleo-centered approach to grains.
Sure, there was the odd scientific publication that had a word here or a word there that, when taken out of context, could be used to further this anti-grain propaganda. But as for an overwhelming amount of peer-reviewed research that decisively and definitively axe grains as a healthy or even acceptable food group? It doesn’t exist. Not even close.
Have a look for yourself. Google “are grains bad for you.” Lo and behold, the first 3 results that pop up are Paleo. The first results that pops up for me? Marks Daily Apple. This is a blog run by Mark Sisson, one of the more famous pro-Paleo bloggers. He has written a book called the Primal Blueprint, and he makes his living by promoting the Paleo ideology.
Of the following 9 results on the first page, 7 of them are bonafide grain-bashers. Of those 7, all of them are personal blogs, run by one person, that support or promote the Paleo or raw/whole food diet. They all share a common belief that if the caveman didn’t eat it, it must be inherently bad for humans. Again, you can read why this theory just doesn’t hold up in my article, here. All of those websites either promote one of the main pro-Paleo books (like The Primal Blueprint, The Paleo Diet, or The Paleo Solution) which they make a commission on, or they sell their very own self-published book that promotes a Paleo-style diet which forbids grains.
Here is a batch of results that came up when I googled “are grains bad for you”:
What Types of Sites are These?
It’s definitely interesting and important to note that none of these pages are from reliable, trusted institutions of research. These are websites created by one person, edited by one person, and written by one person. Legally, what they say is nothing more than opinion, it doesn’t have to be correct and they are accountable to no one. They don’t need to have evidence to support their claims because there’s no one forcing them to do so (in the interest of full-transparency, I am no different from the above sites, except of course in the fact that I don’t profit in any way from what I say in this article).
Even when a scientific claim slaps them in the face, straight from the mouth of the researcher himself, they often decide to ignore it. Want an example? Of course you do. Feast your eyes on this exert from Mark Sisson’s post on why “grains are unhealthy.”
“A few years back, scientists found that high-fiber foods ‘bang up against the cells lining the gastrointestinal tract, rupturing their outer covering” which “increases the level of lubricating mucus.’ Err, that sounds positively awful. Banging and tearing? Rupturing? These are not the words I like to hear. But wait! The study’s authors say, ‘It’s a good thing.’ Fantastic! So when all those sticks and twigs rub up against my fleshy interior and literally rupture my intestinal lining, I’ve got nothing to worry about. It’s all part of the plan, right?”
What Mark did here was link to this article published in Science Daily based on research done by Dr. Paul L. McNeil, a cell biologist at the Medical College of Georgia. What McNeil, the expert, the researcher, and the authority in this instance said was this:
“When you eat high-fiber foods, they bang up against the cells lining the gastrointestinal tract, rupturing their outer covering. What we are saying is this banging and tearing increases the level of lubricating mucus. It’s a good thing.” He goes on to say, “It’s a bit of a paradox, but what we are saying is an injury at the cell level can promote health of the GI tract as a whole.”
… But Mark took this and twisted it around. He then, without any evidence whatsoever, made his own conclusions about the matter. Worse still, he published these thoughts on his website, only to perpetuate these make-believe facts that have no basis in science. This, ladies and gentleman, is how rumors begin, and in my opinion, is ethically questionable. In case you missed it, you can find the article he’s referencing here (it’s always best to go straight to the source).
Granted, this is just one example of a Paleo-guru ignoring the facts. However, in my experience, it is representative of the attitude of many grain-bashing folk out there. They’ll take bits of information from here and there, combine it with a little bit of theory and pseudoscience, and whip it up into their latest argument against the evil little grains.
I can’t stress enough that this stuff is very much from the fringe of the pseudoscience community. Any talk about grains being bad for you is not from the experts, the researchers, the scientists, or the P.H.D.’s in the field. No, it’s from the lone Paleo bloggers, looking to buy his or her next Mercedes, bike, horse, or Flintstones-mobile.
Let’s take a closer look at what the grain-bashers have to say about grains. After all, if we didn’t analyze the facts, we’d be just like them now wouldn’t we. I’ll use Mark Sisson’s rant against grains as a framework to mount my rebuttal.
Science and Evidence
Mark states in this article that you do not need Grains for the following reasons:
Statement #1: You don’t need fiber, he uses this website as his proof.
Statement #2: You can get the vitamins and minerals from other foods.
Statement #3: They are “completely and utterly pointless in the context of a healthy diet”.
Statement #4: The Cavemen didn’t eat them.
Statement #5: Humans “cannot” handle grain consumption, because “we simply do not have the wiring necessary to mitigate the harmful affects of lectins, gluten, and phytate”. He cites about half a dozen articles that supposedly support his claim.
My responses to these statements are listed below:
Response #1: WebMD, The Mayo Clinic, the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, the University of California system, the Canadian Diabetes Association, Netdoctor, the National Institues for Health, The New York Times, ehealthMD, and the Harvard School of Public Health disagree with you. Just to name a few… off the top of my head. Peer-reviewed research more your style? Have a gander: Health Benefits of Dietary Fiber.
Response #2: This is true. You can in fact get pretty much all of your vitamins and minerals from other sources. However, this puts a fair bit of pressure on you to eat a wide range of food items on a daily basis. It’s much more nutritionally sound to include grains in your diet, to make sure you have a wide range of vitamins and minerals at your disposal. This goes with all food groups. It’s best not to eliminate an entire food group from your diet without due cause because it puts a great deal of pressure on the remaining food groups to try to fill in the nutritional gaps.
That said, just because you can get the vitamins and minerals found in grains from other foods, is not cause in and of itself to cut grains out of your diet. Just because we may not need something in one particular light, does not make it inherently unhealthy.
Response #3: Thanks for the opinion, champ. Please refer to the sources in response #1 for my thoughts on the issue.
Response #4: Actually, that’s not necessarily true. A publication by the Oxford University Press called People, Plants, and Genes: The Story of Crops and Humanity tells us that there is indeed evidence that cereal grain has been processed and consumed by early humans as early as 200,000 years ago.
For the sake of argument, lets just assume that grains weren’t part of the diet of an average human being until around 10,000 years ago. Who says that’s not enough time to warrant an evolutionary change? On the flip side, who said grains are badass enough to require the human body to change at all? Where is the proof that grains are too much for the normal human digestive system to handle? Oh right, there isn’t any.
Response #5: So this is the big one. Gluten, Lectins, and Phytates have been vilified by the anti-grain and pro-Paleo communities viciously and without rest. These three molecules are the backbone of their argument against grains, and have hence been singled out to be proverbially hung on the gallows. Not surprisingly, maybe, because without a little bit of scientific jargon to confuse the more gullible Paleo follower, the Paleo guru’s money making machine would crumble at their feet. I’m going to tackle Gluten, Lectins, and Phytates one by one.
Gluten is a protein complex of the two proteins, gliadin and glutelin. They are bound together by starch, and found predominantly in nature in the seeds of various grasses. Gluten-sensitive enterophathy, more commonly known as celiac disease, is an autoimmune inflammatory disease of the small intestine that is the result of eating gluten. In these individuals, the body treats gluten as if it were an invader, and subsequently mounts a significant immune response. It affects approximately 1 in every 250 people. It’s worth noting that the results of eating gluten in those with gluten-sensitive enterophathy are almost completely reversible.
There is also a growing number of people who have begun to label themselves as gluten-intolerant, or gluten-sensitive. The medical industry now refers to this condition as non-celiac gluten-intolerance. This is not the same as celiac disease in that eating gluten is potentially dangerous to gluten-sensitive individual, but much less worrisome for the gluten-intolerant person. There are no antibodies for gluten present in non-celiac gluten-intolerant individuals and there is no observed damage to the lining and architecture of the intestine, unlike their celiac counterparts.
If you are an individual who is sensitive to gluten, allergic to gluten, or if you have full blown celiac disease, then gluten will make you feel miserable. It’s responsible for a whole host of health problems in these individuals, from headaches to IBS. The affects of gluten on celiac individuals are not new, and medical professionals have been using a gluten-free diet to treat these individuals for over 40 years.
While there is no doubt that gluten causes problems in the minority of the population, there is no evidence whatsoever that gluten is problematic for the average, gluten-tolerant individual.
The Increasing Prevalence of Gluten-Intolerance
Still, it’s health affects have come under prominent scrutiny as of late, both from non-celiac gluten-intolerant folks and from those who believe that it is not “natural” to eat gluten. They point to the disputed fact that gluten wasn’t a major staple in the human diet until around 10,000 years ago, when agriculture underwent a major revolution.
Anti-gluten advocates also point to the growing prevalence of gluten-intolerant people in western cultures today. Indeed, some studies find that celiac disease and gluten-intolerance has increased four-fold in the last 50 years. Still, the problem affects the vast minority of the population, and there is no definitive answer as to why this increase in prevalence is occurring. Of course, there are many theories.
Something called “detection bias” may have something to do with the massive increase in diagnosed cases. The very fact that gluten is such a hot topic these days makes people (health care workers included) more aware of the condition. The more aware people are of a condition, the more people tend to look for it. The more people look for it, the more who find it. Before recently, non-celiac gluten-sensitivity had been under the proverbial medical radar.
Now granted, detection bias probably doesn’t account for the massive change in the amount of gluten-related illnesses in the past half-century. Another theory that potentially explains the increase is new-age genetic modifications and production techniques used within the food industry. Gluten is now widely used as a food texturizer, and can be found in everything from deli meat to candy to potato chips. The new nutrient combinations could be theoretically functioning as an immune trigger in some individuals. Still, the mystery remains, and as of 2013, there is no solid scientific evidence which definitively answers the question.
But Wait! Does Gluten Intolerance Even Exist?
Fast forward now to 2014, and the story has changed once again. Peter Gibson, the Professor of Gastroenterology whose original study in 2011 triggered the current gluten-free craze has went back to the drawing board. He wasn't satisfied with his original study as it left a whole host of triggers of gastrointestinal distress uncontrolled for. He devised a second study, one that controlled for these other triggers, known as FODMAPs, and came to the opposite conclusion of his initial study. He's quoted as saying, “in contrast to our first study… we could find absolutely no specific response to gluten.” In other words, when they controlled for every other substance that could possibly cause distress in the gut (the FODMAPs), gluten no longer remained a culprit. The lesson? Innocent until proven guilty, and gluten should be no exception to that.
This research leads to a particularly interesting finding, that is, that FODMAPs are a far more likely cause of the gastrointestinal problems normally attributed to gluten intolerance. Jessica Biesiekierski, a gastroenterologist at the Translational Research Center for Gastrointestinal Disorders was quoted talking about the participants in a recent study on the topic, “reduction of FODMAPs in their diets uniformly reduced gastrointestinal symptoms.” Generally, non-celiac gluten sensitivity is assumed to be the culprit when celiac disease is ruled out. But that is a “trap,” Biesiekierski says, one which could potentially lead to confirmation bias, thus blinding researchers, doctors, and patients to other possibilities. She goes onto say, “on current evidence the existence of the entity of non-celiac gluten sensitivity remains unsubstantiated. Much, much more research is needed.” The bottom line? Researchers aren't even sure if non-celiac gluten intolerance even exists anymore.
The Take Home Message About Gluten
As home-grown theories about the health affects of gluten abound, there is no credible scientific basis for it. As Dr. David Katz, director of the Yale Prevention Research Center so eloquently puts,
“The potential adverse health affects of gluten in those sensitive to it have reverberated in cyberspace, creating the impression that gluten is a bona fide toxin, harmful to all. This is false; gluten is not ‘bad’ for those tolerant of it, any more than peanuts are ‘bad’ for people free of peanut allergy.”
He goes on to point out that avoiding gluten is justified for some, but unnecessary for most.
“The effort is well-justified for those who are truly gluten-sensitive, but potentially much ado about nothing for others just caught up in the trend. In addition, the exclusion of whole grain wheat, rye, barley and potentially oats from the diet might reduce overall diet quality and fiber intake. Again, a price worth paying when gluten avoidance is clearly necessary, but cost without benefit for others,” Katz says.
I’m glad Katz brought this up, as the hyper-abundance of anti-grain material sweeps blogs and forums across the nation, little is being said about the negative health affects of gluten-free diets. Registered dietitian Wendy Marcason said in a 2009 issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association that a gluten-free diet presents “many negative features, including the high cost of the diet, the difficulty following the diet, and the risk for developing amino acid deficiencies and conditions of bone loss.”
This small study even shows preliminary evidence that a gluten-free diet may in fact decrease the count of beneficial bacteria in the gut, and increase enterobacterial counts, which are microbial features associated with disease. More research needs to be done on the issue before anything can be conclusively decided.
Ultimately, the recent fad can be summed up nicely by Dr. Alessio Fasano, direct of the University of Maryland’s Center for Celiac Research. “The bottom line for gluten-sensitivity,” Fasano says, “is there are very little facts and a lot of fantasy.”
Lectins are a naturally occurring phytonutrient that plants use as insecticides to protect themselves from insects and other potential predators. Mark Sisson states that Lectins are toxic “antinutrients,” that attack the stomach lining of insects, bind to human intestinal lining, and maybe even cause leptin resistance.
Before I say anything else, I want to mention that “antinutrient” isn’t really a word. It’s not used by the nutritional or medical communities and you won’t find it in the dictionary. I can only conclude that he refers to lectins in this assumably negative way due to the fact that lectins, in some circumstances, have been shown to act as a toxin in the human body. Now, learn this.
Lectin is in all foods. Read it again grain-bashers. Lectin is in everything you eat.
Most of the lectin we eat is rendered harmless by cooking, as the majority of lectins are deactivated by heat. However, some lectins, like those in carrots, apples, bananas, avocado, corn pumpkin seeds, wheat bran, wheat flour, dry-roasted peanuts, and more, are not deactivated easily by heat, so they’re often active when we eat them.
The lectins that do make it into our bodies in an activated state break down the membranes of cancer cells (reducing prostate, colon and other cancers), fungi, bacteria, and viruses (HIV-1 included).
Lectins only become a source of intestinal discomfort when they’re consumed in extremely large quantities. When you overload your system with lectin, it starts to affect your intestinal cells in the same way it does with cancer and virus cells. This affect is not new and is well documented in the medical community.
As with many things in life, too much of a good thing becomes a bad thing, and lectin is no different. Saying that a food is toxic or harmful to the human body because it contains lectin is a little like saying carrots or apples are toxic or harmful to the human body because they contain arsenic. Yes, arsenic is a toxin. Yes, it can kill you. No, the arsenic in an apple or a carrot is not unhealthy. It’s misleading to think like that, not to mention incorrect. Heck, even water will kill you if you drink too much of it in too short a time span. Life is all about balance, and lectin is no different. When ingested in its natural amounts, as part of whole foods, it is not something you need to actively fear or avoid.
It can become counterproductive when you try to micromanage the nutrients in foods by avoiding certain ones. Sure, if you isolate lectin and ingest a large dosage of pure lectin, it will cause an adverse reaction in the body. Often times when you take one constituent of a whole food and isolate it, you’ll indeed find that it’s detrimental to your health in large amounts. Fortunately, this isn’t a very useful or realistic analysis; lectin isn’t isolated when you eat it with food. When you eat lectin in food, with all it parts intact, you achieve balance and reap its health benefits.
The evidence accusing lectin of any ill-affects on the body simply isn’t there. Eat on, brethren.
Phyates (also known as phytic acids) are antioxidants found in legumes, nuts seeds, and whole grains. Phytate-bashers claim that phytates make minerals “biounavailable.” Again, this is not a real term. What the anti-phytate crowd is trying to say, is that phytates render all the nutritious minerals and vitamins you eat useless. At least, that’s what Mark Sisson says in his article.
What Mark is likely alluding to is that fact that phytates can bind to certain dietary minerals and subsequently slow their absorption into the body. While this is absolutely true, saying that by consuming phytates you’ll basically neglect the body of vitamins and minerals is complete and utter hogwash.
Phytates in your everyday meals are not something you need concern yourself with, so long as you’re eating a balanced diet. The average American gets enough minerals in their diet to more than make up for the relatively small amount of minerals that get bound to phytates.
The important thing here is to recognize that phytates are broken down by a large degree by cooking, and unless you’re eating a diet made up predominantly of grains, they pose no negative health risks.
The Benefits of Grains
Not only are any negative claims about grains untrue for the gluten-tolerant individual, the many proven benefits of grains have been completely ignored by those who spread these nutritional myths. In my hunt to discover the truth, I needed to seek out the opinions of recognized institutions in the health industry. This is what I found out.
Diets high in grain have been shown to significantly lower the risk of developing heart disease and stroke, increase IVF success in men, protect you from high blood pressure, improve insulin sensitivity by lowering insulin levels, significantly reduce heart failure risk, reduce risk for blood vessel disease and cancer, reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes, and help to lose and maintain weight. Indeed, the health benefits of whole grains are simply too good to ignore.
Do we need grains? No. Does evidence prove, barring any gluten-sensitivity, that including whole-grains in our diet is a healthier option than leaving them out? The answer is unequivocally, undeniably yes.
Now, where is my sandwich?