Settling the Grain Debate

Can wheat and other grains fit into a healthy – and sane – diet?

Are grains saving your life, or are they silently destroying it? This article aims to discuss both sides of the debate and offer some actionable steps for you to start eating better.

Quick – How do you feel about grains?

Do you think they’re an essential food group that makes up the foundation of a nutritious diet? Or are they evil little packages of carbs that are all out to really make you fat and inflamed, and slowly kill you?

This discussion is one of the great nutrition debates of our time right now.

In one camp are vegans, vegetarians, and macrobiotic dieters, who eat a ton of whole grains. They say grains will help them live longer and healthier, free of chronic disease. Indeed, recent news seized on a Harvard study connecting grains with lower risk of death.

In the opposing camp, you’ve got the Paleo, Whole30, and Atkins advocates, who strictly limit or even completely avoid grains. They  say not eating grains will help them live longer and healthier, free of  chronic disease. They dominate plenty of news, too.

The Facts:

Celiac disease has gone up over the last 60 years, which has given rise to a gluten-fearing food subculture (and the booming gluten-free marketplace to match).

Tens of millions of North Americans now conduct grain-free experiments on themselves and read bestsellers like Wheat Belly.

There is a definitive way of determining your level of intolerance to grains. If you really want to know whether or not you should be eating grains (and not base it on an opinion or belief system), then consider getting the appropriate testing done.

Certainly there are people who simply cut out grains and say they feel better, but who’s right?

And, most importantly, should you eat grains?  Let’s iron it out once and for all.

Grains Are And Ancient Food

Considering ancestral nutrition and diet… grains, the seeds of grasses, are still the main source of calories for people all over the world.

Along with the familiar wheat, rice, oats, corn, barley, buckwheat and rye, there are lots of lesser-known grains such as triticale, quinoa, teff, amaranth, sorghum, millet, spelt, and kamut.

The raging debate about grains can make it seem like they’re a relatively new addition to the human diet, but we’ve actually been consuming them in some shape or fashion for millions of years (yes,  the real Paleos ate grains, too). Learning to cultivate wheat helped us give up the nomad life and create civilization as we know it today.

Grains provide a wide array of nutrients, including vitamins, minerals, fiber, and phytonutrients.

Of course, when it comes to grains’ nutrients, we’re talking about

whole grains. As in the whole seed. Like this:

Whole vs Refined Grains

First off, many people get weirded out with grains because they confuse them with “carbs”.

Carbohydrates are sugar-based molecules found in a range of foods including bread, pasta, potatoes, beans, desserts, soft drinks, and – yes… whole grains.

Refined grains – those that have had their brain and germ stripped away through milling – provide all the carbohydrates with hardly any of the nutrients found in whole grains. They’re often packaged with large amounts of fat and salt.

As a result, these processed grains are really tasty, easy to consume, but way less satiating — a deadly combo that leads many people to overeat, setting them on the path toward weight gain and chronic disease.

But what about whole grains?  Aren’t they bad for you, too?

The (supposed) ill effects of grains goes like this… 

“Grains can really mess up your health by causing inflammation, intestinal damage and obesity.”

Is this true?

Do Grains Cause Inflammation? (For Some People, Yes!)

A huge contingent in the grain-hating world claim these plants contribute to low-level inflammation, an ongoing immune response in which your body attacks its own tissue, causing cell damage.

They use a few studies to prove their point.

However, these studies need to be taken into context. In other words, one study had people add 19 grams of wheat bran — the equivalent of about three cups of bran flakes — to their daily intake.

Three months later, the subjects had slightly increased levels of oxidized LDL cholesterol, a possible marker of increased inflammation.

A problem with this study is that they didn’t evaluate for gluten intolerance or sensitivity. Some people are flat out intolerant to gluten and thus will produce inflammation when consumed whereas other people may have no problem whatsoever.

Another fallacy of this experiment was that by the end of the experiment, 44 of the 67 subjects had dropped out! This makes the final data sketchy at best.

On the other hand…

What’s more, several large epidemiological studies have actually  linked whole grain intake to lower levels of inflammation.

Of course, these are just links. You need controlled trials to prove any causal relationship and overall... Not one single controlled trial has shown that grains increase inflammation.

What About Intestinal Problems & Grains?

Another common conversation brought up with grain consumption is the increased incidence of intestinal damage due to anti-nutrients and other compounds that interfere with how the human body absorbs minerals.

Let’s look at a few anti-nutrient players…

Lectins: These proteins bind to cell membranes which cause damage to intestinal tissue if you consume very large amounts or don’t cook the plant first. That said, the body also uses lectins for basic functions such as cell-to-cell adherence, inflammation control and programmed cell death. Lectins may even reduce tumor growht and decrease incidence of certain diseases.

Phytic Acid: The storage of phosphorus, phytic acid can bind minerals in the digestive tract, preventing their absorption. In really large doses, it can cause nutrient deficiency and related problems (it’s been blamed for short stature throughout Egypt’s  history). But you’d have to eat copious amounts of bread that hasn’t gone through leavening — a  standard process that significantly reduces phytic acid levels — for this stuff to be a threat. In fact, in reasonable amounts, phytic acid has a number of possible health benefits.

Protease inhibitors: When raw or lightly cooked, grains still contain large amounts of protease inhibitors, which block the action of protein-digesting enzymes, interfering with your protein absorption. But once appropriately cooked, grains contain very few protease inhibitors — and those that remain actually have anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties.

Gluten: Wheat contains several different classes of proteins. Gliadins and glutenins are the two main components of the gluten fraction of the wheat seed. (They’re essential for giving bread the ability to rise properly during baking.) Within the gliadin class, there are four different epitopes (i.e. types): alpha-, beta-, gamma- and omega-gliadin. Wheat also contains agglutinins (proteins that bind to sugar) and prodynorphins (proteins involved with cellular communication). Once wheat is consumed, enzymes in the digestive tract called tissue transglutaminases (tTG) help to break down the wheat compound. In this process, additional proteins are formed, including deamidated gliadin and gliadorphins (aka gluteomorphins). In order to determine your sensitivity to gluten, you should consider getting tested for all the classes of gluten proteins!

Thus, these anti-nutrients can be a problem if you eat way too much of them, or don’t cook the foods that contain them properly. But if you eat like most people do — consuming a variety of foods and carbohydrate sources — you’ll probably be just fine.

Yes, grains contain anti-nutrients — because all plants contains anti- nutrients. Broccoli, spinach, and other green leafy veggies. Red wine.  Dark chocolate. Nuts. Seeds. Green tea.

Heck, fiber itself is an anti-nutrient.

Not eating plant foods because they have compounds designed to resist their digestion would be like not eating a lobster because it has a shell and claws.

All living systems come up with a way to protect themselves… this is one of those examples. The idea is to figure out your personal tolerance to these anti-nutrients.


Grains Make You Fat

There’s been a lot of research on grains and body weight.  Unfortunately, most of this research is, you guessed it, epidemiological.

These epidemiological studies are unanimous in showing that higher whole grain consumption is associated with lower body weight.

Controlled trials have been less consistent in their results. In these tests, whole grains don’t consistently lead to superior fat loss —  though the studies didn’t show the grains caused people to gain weight, either.

To go beyond the inconclusive controlled-trial data, we can look at how real people do on grain-heavy diets.

These aren’t perfect data, because there are many variables. But it can suggest possible trends and give us an idea of how grain consumption affects body weight in the real world, during real life.

If grains were inherently fattening, vegetarians and vegans, as well as many eaters in less-industrialized countries (where grains like rice or sorghum are usually a staple) would likely be more overweight or obese.

No literature exists showing that plant-based eaters, or those folks in regions for whom grains are a staple, have a higher incidence of overweight or obesity. In fact, the research shows just the opposite.

While these correlations certainly don’t prove anything, it’s likely that if grains really did cause obesity, we would see some trends and correlations to reflect it.

But here’s the crux of the issue: Buckwheat, oats, and quinoa aren’t making anyone fat.

In their original form, these and other whole grains are relatively bland foods, not overly calorie-dense, not unusually delicious, high in fiber and relatively satisfying.

But refined grains are a different story.

Whole kernel corn becomes corn syrup. Whole wheat grains become refined white flours for cookies and muffins, pizza dough or toaster pastries. Whole grain rice becomes Rice Krispies and rice noodles that we can then slather with Pad Thai sauce (potentially containing the aforementioned corn syrup).

With processed foods, “carbs” are just a way to deliver hyper-palatable, “can’t-eat-just-one” enjoyment as well as calorie-dense fatty meats, cheeses, sauces, and condiments. But are the “carbs”  themselves really the main problem here?

Do you need to eat grains?

No. You don’t need to eat any one particular food — be it grains, apples, kale, or fish.

But you need carbs. The amount of carbs you need depends on your activity level.

If you exercise fairly frequently, then you’ll likely do best with a moderate carb intake. Not getting enough could mess with your metabolism, stress hormones, and muscle-building hormones.

If you’re sedentary, have blood sugar issues, and/or need to lose a bunch of weight, then you’ll likely do best by lowering your carbohydrate intake [at first].

You could replace whole grains with a variety of other high-quality carbs, like potatoes, sweet potatoes, fruit, legumes, squash, yuca, and yams. You’d be able to get all the carbs you need, in addition to plenty of fiber and a wide array of beneficial phytonutrients.

But trying to eliminate grains entirely is going to be difficult in even the  best of circumstances.

In a life that involves family holidays, birthday parties, work functions — any instance where others are preparing the food — completely cutting out grains if you’re not suffering from celiac or a sensitivity becomes way, way more trouble than it’s worth.


What to do next

Focus on whole, minimally processed, nutrient-rich foods. This means you’ll be eating plenty of lean protein and plants — including  grains. It’ll also help you limit refined grains (those don’t hit the  “whole” mark). Remember that what’s on top of the potato skin  affects your health more than that sad, maligned tuber does itself.

Make sure your grains are thoroughly cooked. Cooking food drastically reduces its lectin, phytic acid, and protease inhibitor content. For example, fully cooking kidney beans knocks their lectin content from 20,000-70,000 units down to 200-400. Don’t eat a lot of unleavened bread.

Try sprouted and fermented breads. To take it further, grains that have been sprouted (e.g. Ezekiel bread) or fermented (e.g. sourdough) have even lower levels of phytates, lectins, and protease inhibitors. This increases mineral bioavailability and also tends to boost the protein quality of the bread.

If you suspect a problem with gluten, get tested. Go see your doctor, and get help implementing a gluten-free diet if you test  positive for celiac disease. I recommend the Cyrex Array 3 Gluten Test.

Zero in on wheat. While whole-grain wheat is likely still mildly beneficial for most (sprouted wheat might be even better), this appears to be the grain with the most problems and fewest advantages. If you’re having GI issues, it’s reasonable to see if avoiding wheat helps. Here again, talk to your doctor.

Try other grain options. Variety is good. We’ve given you a list of  whole grains in the beginning of this article. Try some others you don’t normally eat. Have fun expanding your horizons.

Consider an elimination diet. Food sensitivities do exist, though we don’t know with what frequency. They’re linked to GI problems and a host of other conditions throughout the body. The gold  standard for uncovering a food sensitivity (grain-related or otherwise): elimination diets, in which you systematically remove and then reintroduce foods in your diet, making note of any  changes in symptoms.

Stay sane. Diet extremism leads to stress, unhappiness, and, unfortunately, weight gain and health problems. Tune out the “great grain debate” and use that energy to cook delicious food — and eat it with beloved friends — instead.