“99.99% of our genes were formed before the development of agriculture.” – Dr. S. Boyd Eaton, MD, Medical Anthropologist
It’s really that simple. There is zero human dietary requirement for grains. Most (if not all) people would be better off without them. It was their introduction into the human diet by way of the Agricultural Revolution that shifted us away from the healthful animal-based diet that we survived and thrived on for 99.99% of our history. With this change came reductions in stature and brain size, chronic degenerative diseases, and much longer work days. Many anthropologists agree that the advent of agriculture was one of the worst events in human history. Despite the evidence of such agriculturally-induced human decline, we continue to perpetuate this event with our USDA dietary recommendations and our errant fears of animal fats.
Let’s set aside the whole “are grains fit for human consumption?” debate and just focus on the nuts and bolts of what they do within the human body. First of all, grains are living organisms. And like all living organisms, they have defense mechanisms to discourage predators from eating them. One such mechanism is called phytic acid, which binds to the important minerals in the grain such as calcium, magnesium, iron, and zinc. So even though the label on the loaf of bread says that it is loaded with these minerals, you’re not really absorbing them. In addition, phytic acid can leach minerals from your body, causing mineral deficiencies. Not good.
You can eliminate or significantly reduce the phytic acid by way of soaking, sprouting, or fermenting the grain. This is cool and all, but it doesn’t take care of the fact that grains are 70-80% starch, which eventually converts to sugar and cranks up your blood glucose and insulin. Last night, I read in Primal Body-Primal Mind that one bagel or two slices of bread contain 5 times more sugar than your bloodstream requires. Any sugar that your bloodstream does not need gets stored away as either glycogen or fat. Imagine how much fat you store when you’re eating multiple servings of the stuff because the USDA told you to. You can’t burn fat when your pancreas is always cranking out insulin to counter your almost hourly grain binges!
Next up, we have goitrogens. These guys are also in grains. They work by suppressing thyroid function. Definitely a no-no. You don’t wanna eff with your metabolism!
If you follow my radio shows, you’re familiar with the damage that gluten can do. Most grains contain gluten, which can not only be damaging to the intestinal tract, but also to almost every other organ, tissue, or gland in your body. According to Dr. Thomas O’Bryan, by next year, autoimmunity will be the leading cause of morbidity and mortality in the industrialized world. One of the predominant triggers for autoimmunity is gluten. Ouch!
But what about the gluten-free grains like corn, rice, or quinoa (not really a grain, but close enough)? Well, they have their own problems. All grains contain lectins, which are proteins that are extremely hard to digest. These lectins like to stick to your intestinal lining and sneak their way into your bloodstream. This causes inflammation and destruction to the intestinal wall. This destruction can lead to a hyper-permeable gut that literally can no longer tell the difference between the good and bad guys. In other words, the gate is wide open for all kinds of bacteria, fungus, toxins, undigested food particles, and poop to cross over into the bloodstream, the last place they should be. The immune system sees lectins (and all of the other crap I just mentioned) as invaders and mounts a response against them. This can lead to multiple food sensitivities and allergies. To make matters worse, the immune system can get a little paranoid and start to have problems with mistaken identity. Since the lectins or undigested food particles can look very similar to your organs, tissues, or glands, it can start to attack them as well. This is how autoimmunity works. Your body is attacking itself. The breakdown of the intestinal wall is a huge player in this process. Don’t you think you’d be better off getting rid of the foods that cause this breakdown in the first place? Adios, grains!
I mentioned quinoa above. Now, I haven’t done as much research on this non-grain as I would like to. But according to Robb Wolf in his book The Paleo Solution, quinoa contains soap-like molecules called saponins. These guys punch holes in your microvillii, which are critical for proper breakdown of peptide and saccharide chains. Believe me, you don’t want to punch holes in your microvilli. Definitely not a good idea. But again, this deserves more research.
So there you have it, the case against grains in a nutshell. I can go on and on, but I’m trying to keep these blogs pretty short. Be sure to listen to UW Radio TONIGHT at 5pm PT/8pm ET. Nora Gedgaudas, CNS, CNT, author of Primal Body-Primal Mind, will be digging deeper into this topic, including why she differs with the Weston A. Price Foundation’s stance on the healthfulness of grains. Gonna be a good one!
Author, The Dark Side of Fat Loss
One thing on the issue of Agriculture leading to a decline. In the time-frame you are talking about. Agriculture was essential to setting up permanent settlements. Before that you had to follow the heard. Remember not to look at it in terms of transportation, refrigeration, storage, etc… we have today. I’m not saying that Grains are good, I just want to make sure we remember what the situation was when farming first started and is actually still true in some areas of the world today. You can make drought resistant crops a lot easier than drought resistant animals.
Outstanding write, We are viewing back again usually to look around for improvements.
I just don’t get how there are so many polar opposite views on things. Some health experts say grains are great, eat em up and then you have this blog. The more I study nutrition the more crazy it all becomes. Madness yo!! I do appreciate you work, Sean even though it confuses the hell out of me. I don’t know that you’re “right” and I don’t know that “the other guy” is “wrong.” End rant. I know I enjoy organic, sprouted breads, but they are not good for me, why should I eat them. Yet, you yourself have talked about the 20/80 rules so, perhaps they are a 20 thing. Peace.
I was wondering if you could clear something up with me!
I am an avid consumer of your radio show (I tune in all the way from Australia!) The shows that have spoken to me the most regarding diets, have been the shows with William Wollcott on metabolic typing. What he had to say rang so true with my own experiences! The problem I find with my diet is that I am a CLEAR slow oxidiser (personality is the only place where I stray from the typical Slow oxidiser ‘stereotype’ if you will) yet several of your guests, including yourself, are very wary of grains and several presumably healthy forms of carbohydrates. What you say and several other leading health practitioners (Sally Fallon for one, Cate Shepard being another…the list goes on!) regarding grains makes absolute sense and I completely agree with the potential long term problems associated with eating even properly prepared grains. The problem for me now lies with what do I eat if I REALLY only feel nourished on a higher carb ratio diet? For the last two years I have eaten a strict Protein type diet. I have eliminated all gluten, dairy, sugar (including most fruit) and other typical allergens in our modern day diet and stuck to good wholesome forms of protein along with non-starchy veggies (albeit at breakfast I would eat some form of gluten free grain which makes me feel great). Apart from my breakfast… I FEEL TERRIBLE! My gut is in havoc and I am moody, irritable and depressed all the time. I stuck to this diet as this is what I felt was right according to so many principles and practitioners I had read about and had rung true with me. ( I too like you read a wide variety of health related books and articles and constantly crave new pearls of wisdom!) Only recently (try last week) have I embraced eating wholesome grains (prepared according to nourishing traditions) and starchy vegetables (sweet potato and squash). I now, finally, have that elevated sense of natural energy that truly allows me to live my day to the max. Eating most protein with non starchy veggies and no carbs, as advocated by so many, leaves me feeling heavy, down and super foggy.
I am confused!
As a slow oxidiser who essentially agrees with the paleo lifestyle, how do I come to terms with what my body clearly needs vs what I see makes perfect sense according to our genetic makeup?
This is not very good news- I love oatmeal! Shamefully, it’s the worst kind of oatmeal to… instant oats mircowaved with rice milk! Are you sure they did not have mirocwaves in the iceage? …Anyway, deep down inside I have this gut feeling (get it?) that I could probably be eating foods that will serve my body better.
I really love grains and eat them often. I do not eat much meat or animal products because I cannot support the industry in good conscience- organic meats are a different story. I’ll eat a local, grass-fed bison, raised by a passionate and well paid farmer anytime (surprisingly, in Norwestern Ontario there are few sources of this).
Your article made me think more critically about my grain-obsessed diet. I am iron deficienct and have been for a while- I know, oxidative lesions. Perhaps grains have played a small part in this.
Thanks for the information Sean!
Not convinced nor do I think your arguments in this video are very good. Sure grains have and cause problems, but so does everything else. There are lots of reasons for believing that grains can be part of a good diet.
1.) There are many cultures documented with great health that eat grains(rural Swiss in Weston Price’s book for example) suggesting that they aren’t always bad
2.) The starch/insulin argument seems waaaaay overrated. Firstly Glucose is the basic fuel of cellular respiration. Why would the body burn glucose first if fatty acids as fuel are the optimal source? Secondly, empirically speaking in my own personal experience and the simple fact that the healthiest leanest most long lived people eat starch. Americans are eating less starch than when they were healthy.
3.) There is evidence that the genome can change rapidly in a short period of time. It is quite plausible that modern peoples are descended from those HG that could handle grains better.
4.) Humans everywhere eat and have eaten plants, and there are nasty toxins in all plants, so obviously we are adapted to handle them to some extent. For grains we process them to one extent or another further reducing toxins.
More pragmatically speaking, what happens when you tell people to eat less grains? What do they replace grains with? No doubt lots of different things, but quite frequently it is PUFA filled nuts, fructose filled fruits, Iron filled muscle meats, tryptophan and cysteine filled, glycine and proline deficient muscle meats. Oh, that is paleo right? Ha, sure.
One other point – some change is epigentically inherited from parents – that is we were born and bred by people eating grains and starch. No doubt our bodies developed in ways that help us handle grains and starch better. It doesn’t seem wise to try to change that and I would find it hard to believe anyone could find truly optimal health eating a diet that differed so radically from our parents. Not in one generation.
I could go on and on about this, I was just a little disappointed to see you making these weak fact-devoid arguments.
This is such a great, concise post. I was super-thrilled to find it and share it with a someone who could use it. Who knows if it will help, but it’s good to know that bite-sized pieces of this information are available for people who need it. I myself have benefitted greatly since forgoing vegetarianism, adding healthy meat and eliminating grains—increased energy, diminished anxiety and mood swings, decreased back pain…the list goes on. Thank you Sean!
I agree, I love your work Sean but you gotta stop reading books off amazon for information and start looking at the world around you.
1) This is correct all large populations of people have THRIVED on starch based diets. They THRIVED so much that they took over large areas and made empires. I guess all those grains they were eating were really slowing down there domination of Europe and asia.
2) Once again, Correct. Spiking insulin does not = insulin resistance this a common misconception on the paleo world. However refined sugar mixed with Omega 6 oils ( a dorito) will do this but gradually for most of us.
3) not sire about this one but we do produce An enzyme for breaking down starch, so being th ebad scientists that I am I guess that means we are meant to to eat starch. people will argue enzymes and palatable foods for days. I like potatoes.
4) Yup and this quote is great “we have goitrogens. These guys are also in grains. They work by suppressing thyroid function. Definitely a no-no. You don’t wanna eff with your metabolism!” There are WORSE things that can do this then grains brosif. Also eating tons of cruciferoius vegetables has been shown to do the same.
Your last paragraph sounds like you stole something from ray peat. But yes the paleo world is EXTREMELY Flawed and here is the kicker:
Are ancestors ate a diet devoid of grains, legumes and dairy and were free of disease thus we should eats the same diet. This is establishes Correlation NOT Causation.
Yea for free speech and debate
I am also confused after reading that grains are not good at all, however I will still include beans in my diet. Beans, especially black beans and of course a lot of corn, gave the Aztecs the necessary energy to rule a great part of Mesoamerica. It is possible that they had fart attacks every once in a while because of the beans intake but have you ever visited Teotihuacan or Tenochtitlan? This bite-sized grains gave the Aztecs and many other civilizations the energy to built great cities, to walk long distances and more. I believe most people surrender to the feroucious Aztecs not because of the fart attacks delivered by eagle warriors but beacuse of their energy and smartness they showed.
I do love refried beans!