There are so many fad diets that come and go, but now there is a common and somewhat alarming trend where entire food groups are eliminated without any solid medical or health reason. One particular food group gets a lot of the blame for our poor health, due in large part to a couple of popular diets, a great many books being written on the same subject and an absolutely colossal amount of blogs, websites and Facebook pages all devoted to this popular myth. The myth that is: grains are just bad for you. That they are toxic and the cause of western ill health. That we aren’t designed to eat them. Some people have a particular problem with grains, and as with anything, if it doesn’t agree with you, you are best to avoid it. But an outright ban on grains, I believe, is unnecessary and an extreme reaction to our increased knowledge of what we eat.
The only thing I truly have a problem with is processed or heavily refined foods. But even then, if you ate a shop bought biscuit once a month you’re not going to get IBS ( Irritable Bowel Syndrome ) or cancer. Let’s get some perspective. Refined grains, devoid of all of its fibre and much of its nutrient value really isn’t a good thing. That’s just common sense. But what causes a reaction for one person, can be perfectly fine for another. In actual fact, only about 6% of the population has a gluten intolerance or sensitivity. So how have we jumped from some people having allergies and needing to avoid certain foods, to labelling ALL grains as toxic? This post gets a bit more complicated than I would like but I felt it was unavoidable. So if you have been living in blissful ignorance of the anti-grain movement and want to just follow recipes and tips then look away now!
Lets first look at what grains are. Grains are the small hard seeds of plants, these plants are known as grain crops. Examples of grains are, oats, barley, buckwheat, millet, quinoa, rice, wheat including spelt, rye and kamut. For a full list go here. Legumes are often thought to be as toxic as grains for the same reasons, so I will refer to them in this post also. Legumes are from plants which bear fruit as pods, also sometimes referred to as pulses. They are made up of beans, peas, lentils and peanuts, and include popular foods such as chickpeas, soya beans and red kidney beans. Legumes are high in protein and are popular with vegans.
There are 3 compounds found in grains, legumes and nuts that are the main cause for the anti-grain attitudes. They are phytates ( phytic acid ), lectins and the more widely known gluten.
Phytates (or phytic acid) are an antioxidant compound found in whole grains, legumes, nuts & seeds. What concerns some people is that they can bind to certain minerals and slow or reduce their absorption, namely iron, zinc, manganese and to a much lesser extent, calcium. However, there are benefits to phytic acid that we shouldn’t ignore. It is anti-inflammatory, lowers glycemic load, and may help to inhibit some cancer growths (1). There is also evidence to show that vitamin C (absorbic acid) is strong enough to overcome the negative effects (2). It is also true that in some cases, the foods containing phytic acid happen to be very high in the mineral that it reduces, such as nuts which are high in manganese. Cooking, soaking and fermenting may also break down phytic acid. Phytase, an enzyme present in grains and plant foods, reduces the negative effects by freeing the minerals bound to the phytic acid (3). A well balanced diet, high in fruit and vegetables, will prevent any negative effect that the naturally occurring phytic acid has.
Lectins are carbohydrate binding proteins present in most plants, dairy and some vegetables. They are resistant to human digestion and enter the bloodstream unchanged. They play a role in immune function, cell growth, cell death and body fat regulation. The perceived problems are food poisoning and damage to intestinal lining in people with leaky gut. However, the claims about leaky gut and auto immune responses are based on in vitro and animal data and have been poorly studied in humans ( 4 ). The problems that may be associated with lectins, can be reduced or eliminated by soaking, sprouting, cooking, or fermenting. It appears that some people have a particular problem with lectins. If you are adversely affected by something and it is relieved by eliminating certain foods then you should do so. However, it is also clear that the possible negative effects can be reduced by proper preparation and eating a wide variety of fruit, vegetables and fermented foods.
I think everyone has heard of gluten intolerance, but may not know what gluten is or what it does. Gluten is a mixture of two proteins present in cereal grains and effects the elasticity of dough. Some people have gluten intolerance, which causes symptoms in the digestive system. Celiac disease is an immune reaction, causing damage to the intestines and prevention of the absorption of essential nutrients. The solution to both is a gluten free diet. There are plenty of non-gluten grains such as buckwheat, corn, millet, gluten free oats, quinoa and rice. Do the rest of us need to avoid it too? There is no evidence to support this.
I’ll end this post on what is so great about grains and why you should eat them. Whole grains are defined as such when the entire grain seed is retained. They are wonderfully rich in fibre, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and healthy fats. Our bodies need complex carbohydrates and research has shown whole grains beneficial to our health in many ways. They significantly reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke (5), type 2 diabetes (6), and possibly colorectal cancer although more study is needed. It helps prevent some digestive disorders due to the fiber content. Besides these wonderful benefits they are a tasty addition to your plate, offer diversity, fill us up, fuel our bodies for a great workout and are a reliable and easy source of carbohydrates. Eliminating them from your diet is complicated, and I hope I’ve shown it to be totally unnecessary unless you have one of the mentioned intolerances or allergies. What you choose to eat is your business, but eliminating an entire food group based on misinterpreted science or poorly researched diets may cause you more problems and create an unhealthy relationship to food.
One final note, because this gets mentioned a lot and I was loathe to write too much on it. Carbohydrates and whole grains DO NOT MAKE YOU FAT! Eliminating them is not the primary reason for weight loss. Guess what causes weight loss? A calorie deficit! How you achieve a calorie deficit need not include a special diet, unnecessarily avoiding whole grains.
For the best information on grains and nutrition, please visit Nutrition Facts.org
- Carrera‐Bastos P, et al. The western diet and lifestyle and diseases of civilization. Research Reports in Clinical Cardiology. 2001;2:15‐35.