The FDA tells us that the biggest portion of our diet should consist of whole grains. But forward thinking nutritionists and scientists now say otherwise. Are whole grains bad for you? What is the truth?
Making Logical Sense of Paleo
Avoiding food groups purely because our prehistoric ancestors didn’t eat them is not logical. We should eat those foods that gives us the most robust health and vitality. We should eat the foods that bring us closer to our performance and body composition goals. We should avoid foods that give us gastric distress and other health problems. THAT should be our only consideration. It shouldn’t matter what cavemen ate. We should eat for ourselves.
Now with that said there is logic behind eating like a caveman. But it is much more complex then simply “don’t eat this because cavemen didn’t eat it.” Ten thousand years is how long humans have had agriculture. Ten thousand years in the perspective of evolutionary history is a very short time and proponents of the Paleo diet would argue that ten thousand years is not enough time for humans to have become fully adapted to grains, legumes, and dairy. Therefore they make the argument that we should avoid these foods because they cause gut irritation and other digestive problems within modern humans.
Are Whole Grains Bad for You?
Grains(especially whole grains) contain lectins, gluten, and phytates.
Lectins – Found in fruits, vegetables, and seafood but found in much higher concentrations in grains, beans, and seeds. Lectins are a defense system developed by plants through evolution. They come in a wide variety. Some lectins have beneficial effects in humans while others can be toxic and even fatal. Ricin, a lectin found in Castor beans is toxic to humans and it has been weaponized and used to commit murders. Lectins can bind to the sugar cells in the gut and blood cells which then initiate an inflammatory response.
In wheat, gliadin, a component of gluten and an iso-lectin of wheat germ agglutinin (WGA), is capable of activating NF kappa beta proteins which, when up-regulated, are involved in almost every acute and chronic inflammatory disorder including neurodegenerative disease, inflammatory bowel disease, infectious and autoimmune diseases.
There is an abundance of literature from the most prestigious journals that lectins such as WGA initiate allergic reactions in the gut causing the release of IL-4, IL-13, and histamine from human basophils producing noticeable allergic symptoms.8-9
In many people, lectins found in lentils, green peas, corn, potatoes but especially wheat germ agglutinin (WGA), are known to bind to the insulin receptor giving the fat cell the same message that insulin gives, namely to make fat. The lectin, however, due to a lack of feedback inhibition, remains indefinitely attached to the receptor giving the cell a constant message to make fat.20-25 This perhaps explains why many weight loss programs that include a moderate-to-high amount of carbohydrate (especially modern grain) fail.
One other point with regard to lectin contribution to weight gain is the fact that lectins have been shown to block digestive hormones. WGA can bind to the receptor for cholecystokinin (CCK), a hormone involved in appetite control, suppressing its function.26-27 This essentially leads to an increase in appetite and impairment in the release of digestive enzymes. Source
- Wheat lectin can cause inflammation and autoimmune disease.
- Wheat lectin can cause allergic reactions and the release of histamines leading to allergy symptoms.
- Wheat lectin can bind to insulin receptors which signals the fat cell to store fat and remains attached to the fat cell longer than insulin which causes the fat cell to constantly be in fat storing mode.
- Wheat lectin can block the digestive hormone CCK. CCK regulates appetite and thus wheat lectin can lead to an decrease in feelings of satiety and thus an increase in the amount of food and calories consumed.
Gluten – A protein found in grains. Gluten sensitivity is an autoimmune disease which creates inflammation throughout the body. It can be the cause of many different diseases including “osteoporosis, irritable bowel disease, inflammatory bowel disease, anemia, cancer, fatigue, canker sores, (v) and rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis, and almost all other autoimmune diseases. Gluten is also linked to many psychiatric (vi) and neurological diseases, including anxiety, depression, (vii) schizophrenia, (viii) dementia, (ix)migraines, epilepsy, and neuropathy (nerve damage).” – Source
A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that people with undiagnosed celiac disease or gluten sensitivity had a higher risk of death. The study followed 30,000 patients and found that there was a 39 percent increased risk of death in those with celiac disease and 72 percent increased risk of death in those with inflammation caused by gluten. Dr. Mark Hyman estimates that 99 percent of people with gluten intolerance don’t even realize that they are intolerant to gluten.
Symptoms of gluten intolerance:
- Uncontrolled weight loss or weight gain
- Gastro-intestinal bloating, pain, gas
- Aching joints
- Head aches
- Chronic fatigue
- Chronic irritability
- Can cause inflammation of the gut which can lead to autoimmune diseases.
- Can lead to malnutrition
- The cause of a wide variety of symptoms including depression, anxiety, and fatigue
Phytates – Found in grains and considered “anti-nutrients” because they prevent bind to essential minerals like magnesium and zinc and thus prevent our digestive system from absorbing these minerals. This can lead to mineral deficiencies. Why worry about mineral deficiencies? Minerals play a vital part in bodily functions, for example the mineral magnesium is a required for over 300 biochemical reactions in our body!
Generally, fiber and compounds associated with fiber in cereal products (e.g., phytates) have been found to reduce the apparent absorption of minerals (such as calcium, magnesium, zinc and manganese) in humans, livestock and animal models. Source
The inclusion of phytate (10 g/kg) in a purified diet containing zinc (15 mg/kg) fed to young male rats significantly reduced growth rate and food intake, and promoted a cyclic pattern of food intake characteristic of an uncomplicated Zn deficiency. Source
- Anti-nutrient. Binds to minerals(like calcium, magnesium, zinc) which prevents the body from absorbing and using those minerals.
You can read all of the scientific documents you want, but in the end what you eat should come down to your own personal experience. Try cutting out all grains from your diet for 30 days and see how it makes you feel. Then experiment by eating grain-heavy meals.
Personally, grains make me feel bloated, lethargic, and definitely cause a slight auto-immune response. They also cause me to store fat more easily and I’ve noticed that my two periods of prolonged depression coincided with my highest levels of grain consumption. Conversely since switching to a Paleo/Primal diet I have not experienced a single day of depression.
You can meet your carbohydrate needs with fruits and veggies which contain MORE nutrients without the possible negative effects of lectins, phytates, and glutens. Therefore I see no need to eat grains on a regular basis. I still indulge in a pizza or plate of pasta from time to time, but I think grains are a food group that should be eaten only in moderation and with full conscious awareness of their possible negative impacts on your health.