If that seems a bit OTT, stay with me.
Grain is the agricultural juggernaut of the planet. It is a cheap, easily-stored source of food. Consequently, grains have become the absolute foundation of the modern human diet and the pressure to eat grain will very likely increase as the human population continues to explode.
Before getting into the problems with grain, let’s consider why people today even eat grain in the first place.
- The government tells us to eat grain. Food guidelines across the world have put grain at the foundation of dietary advice. In Canada, the government began telling us to eat plenty of grain in 1942 as part of the “Food Rules” developed for wartime measures in a context of food rationing, poverty, malnutrition, and limited access to food. Over the decades, the increasing industrialization of our food supply has put pressure on governments worldwide to emphasize grain and grain-based products. While guidelines have done an excellent job of promoting the wealth of industries, they have failed miserably at promoting the health of humans. Our species is sick. We have a global pandemic of obesity and chronic disease. If you value your health, kick the government out of your kitchen.
- We are told we need grain for micronutrients. The idea that you’ll suffer malnutrition if you don’t eat grain is a popular one among dieticians. But the fact is, you do not need grain to get vitamins and minerals. Have you noticed how often grain products such as breakfast cereal are fortified? That’s because they are so poor in vitamins and minerals. If that weren’t bad enough, grains also contain anti-nutrients that rob us of nutrients — a *negative* impact on micronutrient absorption!
- We are told we need grain for fibre. Insoluble fibres are irritating and damaging to the gut lining, which is why our guts try to protect themselves from abrasive fibres by adding an extra thick layer of mucus. There is fibre in vegetables, nuts, and seeds, in reasonable quantities and in forms that our bodies know how to manage. We don’t need to mega-dose on fibre and assault our gut lining by eating grain. Many people with gut problems including constipation and IBS symptoms recover when they eliminate grain.
- Social pressure? Cheap source of sugar? These are not good reasons to eat grain when you consider the downsides.
There are no real reasons to eat grain, but there are plenty of reasons to NOT eat grain.
First, let’s look at the big picture. Grains are the seeds of the monocot grasses. Grain is grass seed. Humans did not evolve eating a diet of grass seed. Consequently, we are not biologically equipped to live on grass seed.
There’s a bunch of ways grain causes problems for us. Aside from the issues raised by modern GMOs, pesticide spraying, industrial processes, and environmental destruction, grains and grain-based foods come with innate problems …
- Poor Nutrient Density
The idea that grains are more nutrient dense (the nutrient density myth) is disproved by simply comparing micronutrient densities of foods. Grains are actually relatively low in micronutrients compared to our ancestral foods. Some of the most nutrient-dense foods are oysters, organ meats, berries, and leafy greens.By the way, did you know that malnutrition is common in people with obesity? The standard North American grain-based diet is calorie-rich and nutrient-poor.
- Carb Nightmare
One of the dire consequences of eating a grain-based diet is that it is ridiculously high in carbohydrates. Our bodies are constantly flooded with sugar (the starches in grain reduce to sugar in our bloodstream), which must be used or stored. Our bodies struggle to keep up, but once fat-storage reaches peak capacity, we get sick with the diseases of insulin resistance and fatty liver. It also promotes the development of advanced glycated endproducts, which accelerate aging.
- Dissing the Microbiome
The problems with eating a grain based diet instead of an ancestral diet are often focused on macronutrients and micronutrients, but lately we’ve discovered an unprecedented appreciation for our bugs – our microbiome. Our relationship with our hundred-trillion friends influences every aspect of health. Fibre is again a consideration here, since beneficial fibre feeds beneficial gut bugs. Our ancestral diet with a diversity of different types of fibre, from whole vegetables, fruit, seeds, and nuts comes in at about 30-50g of fibre per day. That’s what we’re adapted for, and that’s optimal for gut microbiome health. Respect your bugs.
- Gene Expression
Grain-based diets affect our gene expression. Switching to an ancestral diet causes a reprogramming of genetic expression that takes place over the course of about 21 days. Dropping grain from the diet is one of the most powerful ways to optimize gene expression.Grain-based diets also change gene expression in ways that are potentially heritable. The damage we do to ourselves doesn’t stop with us. Our modern lifestyle creates marks that influence our gene expression, and these marks can be passed down through generations. These changes are called epigenetic changes – happening outside the genome, the genes are still there but their expression is changed.
- Addictive Qualities
Grain is also a bit like crack. The chemistry of eating it makes us want to eat more. It triggers a blood-sugar rush and an opiate-like response in the pleasure and reward centres of the brain that drive us to overeat on it and to keep coming back for the next fix. Grain-based foods are also manufactured to be hyperpalatable (i.e., foods we overeat on). Grain is pretty bland and gross on its own, so you have to jazz it up so humans will want to eat it and eat it lots. It’s the difference between walking through a field of wheat and walking through a donut shop. These foods are manufactured to maximize the response from the brain’s pleasure centres, overriding our natural hormonal appetite cues. People are often surprised at how fast their urge to eat bagels, bread, and donuts disappears when they simply eliminate grain for a few days.
- Toxic Anti-nutrients
Humans did not evolve eating bunches of grain. Grains, on the other hand, have evolved defenses against animal digestion. Plants can’t run away from critters that want to eat them but they have magnificent ways of repelling, deceiving, or poisoning them … or, in the case of grains, of making the most of a bad situation. Grains are seeds – they want to be spread around so new plants can grow in rich, uncrowded soils. (Fruit is delicious because it is sugar-sweetened bait.) So for a seed, being eaten and carried off by an animal is ideal – if you survive long enough to emerge at the other end. So grains have come up with certain defenses. Birds, rodents, and certain bugs have done a good job of countering these defenses, but humans have not had as long to adapt.The grain antinutrients and defense chemicals (e.g., lectins, saponins, gluten, protease inhibitors, and phytates) actually have negative consequences when eaten by humans because they rob us of our nutrients, and harm our gut lining. You do not want anything doing damage to that all-important barrier between your intestinal contents and our bloodstream. (Blunt translation: you do not want your poop getting into your blood.) They also harm the blood-brain barrier – the barrier that keeps harmful substances from reaching your brain. Yes, your brain. Cognitive problems, mood problems, and dementia are wreaking havoc on our species and this epidemic is not caused by a deficiency of Prozac.
The bottom line?
Grains create chronic barrier breakdown, systemic inflammation, insidious weight gain, and chronic disease.
At best, grain makes us fat, sick, and stupid. At best.