Food Freedom Friday Edition 151 - Grain Free
It appears that the love for grains is hardwired in our brains. Perfectly-looking brown crust that produces unmistakable crunching sound when you squeeze it and that seductive pastry aroma are enough to make most people succumb to the temptation.
No matter how it is prepared, grain, and specifically wheat, is perceived and often felt to be foods that fill you up and give you a lot of satisfaction. This is a generally universally accepted concept. These are the foods that you never tire of and could easily be (and, for many people – are) a daily staple.
Taming and growing grains in massive amounts has become an achievement in modern-day agriculture. The official reason for the grains’ prevalence is the need to feed large populations. Grains are most definitely satiating and an inexpensive source of calories. They can be quickly converted into glucose and consumed as energy.
But both modern grains themselves and modern grain consumption are vastly different from merely a few generations ago. Artificial selection has led to modern-day wheat being nutritionally quite different from its ancient ancestor comprising less nutrients, more anti-nutrients and, given modern agricultural practices, more residues of various chemicals.
Furthermore, the sheer volume of grain products that are consumed currently are significantly larger than in past generations. We are constantly consuming various forms of grains for breakfast, lunch, dinner and as snacks. These products have crowded out other types of foods.
The Nutritional Disaster of Grains
Baked goods and processed cereals have become breakfast staples resulting in many people eating desert for breakfast every day. Don’t be fooled, this is precisely what muffins, croissants, bagels, pancakes, flaked, puffed and popped grains and similar foods are!
What originally began as a measure against famine hundreds of years ago continues to this day even though we are now able to eat meals of higher nutritional quality. These products filled with anti-nutrients and resulting in many negative effects, such as joint pain, bloating, digestive disorders and other problems but can prevent starvation when no other food is available. Historically societies would go great lengths in devising methods to lower such anti-nutrient content and extract at least some nutrition from the grain. This is where sprouting, fermenting and soaking comes originated.
Grains should be avoided if you want to improve and maintain your health.
Grains are Carbohydrates
Plain and simple. No matter how hard cereal producers try to convince you that a specific box is rich in protein and fortified (artificially supplemented with whatever), 75% of a grain is made up of carbohydrates that spike your blood sugar almost immediately after you eat them. They are a primary contributor to obesity, diabetes and other metabolic disorders, periodontal disease, atherosclerotic disease and many more.
If you have been following my work for any amount of time you know that lowering your consumptions of high glycemic carbohydrates from levels typically consumed as a part of modern western diet is the first dietary intervention you should make. If you continue eating grains this will never happen.
Poor Nutritional Profile
For many years grain products and grain-based diets have been touted as heart-healthy nutritious and tasty. Grains have formed the foundation of different versions of food pyramids throughout the world. Lobbyists for grain-growing business have been trying to deliver a message that removing or even significantly reducing grain consumptions would lead to malnutrition and a myriad of negative consequences.
This, however, is very far from truth.
Furthermore, the wheat gets mixed with sugar and other carbohydrates to form dough to make bread and other bakery products, resulting in a total amount of sugars, anti-nutrients and carbohydrates in the final product which is significantly higher.
A quick comparison of vitamin and mineral content of wheat to that of, say, broccoli or kale confirms that wheat is, in fact, quite unremarkable.
Wheat has copious amounts of phytic acid (also called phytate when in salt form), which binds to calcium, zinc, magnesium, iron, and some other minerals preventing their absorption.
Ruminants use the enzyme phytase to digest phytates, but humans so not produce this in sufficient quantities. High consumption of phytic acid results in a failure to absorb minerals. Cultures that traditionally rely on grains as major source of their macronutrients are often deficient in these minerals. In extreme cases, such deficiencies may mean tooth decay and bone disorders.
The Fiber Myth
The implication that wheat contained high amounts of soluble fiber propelled whole wheat products to all new heights and introduced fiber-rich cereals into the diet. Insoluble fiber was said to be protective for the digestive tract, supportive of motility and behaving like an ‘intestinal broom’ to purge out undigested food and prevent colon cancer, polyps, food fermentation and a host of other digestive concerns.
Sadly, this is not exactly the case. A simplified explanation is that these fibers run into cells, tearing them and freeing a lubricating mucus. In essence, high-fiber foods collide with the cells lining the gastrointestinal tract, rupturing their outer covering. The ‘lubricating mucus’ is generated as a defense mechanism. This is unlikely to be a good thing.
A little fiber in your diet may be fine (and may even aid your gut bacteria in producing butyric acid, known to have numerous beneficial effects in humans). You can get sufficient amounts through eating vegetables (those same ones that have better nutritional profile than grains overall). It is largely your gut bacteria that play the most important role in determining how regular you are and how nutrient absorption is regulated). Eating too much fiber may actually lead to more issues than it is purported to prevent.
What is even more relevant, is that these whole grain healthier alternatives are consumed with the outer bran and the germ intact. It is in the bran and germ that you also find the highest concentration of lectins.
Lectins are natural plant toxins found in most plants but some, like grains and legumes contain them in higher concentrations. They serve as a defense mechanism against being eaten.
Lectins inhibit the natural repair system of the GI tract, potentially exacerbating the impact of other material in the digestive system (such as large undigested proteins that may sneak into the bloodstream through such impaired intestinal barriers). They may also promote leptin resistance which may be a precursor to metabolic disorders). Humans are not very well adapted to these anti-nutrients.
Technically, the concentration of lectins may be reduced if grains or beans are fermented or soaked for a long time prior to cooking (with the water then disposed). Such methods reduce but never fully remove the lectins resulting in certain grain lectins, like WGA (wheat germ agglutinin), continuing to exhibit toxic effects even in tiny doses.
Then, of course, there is gluten. Gluten is a composite of the proteins gliadin and glutenin and is found predominantly in wheat, barley and rye.
Most people believe that gluten is only bad for people with celiac disease. This is not necessarily the case. It is true that those with celiac disease are completely intolerant to gluten in any amount (to the point that consuming it not only leads to extremely uncomfortable symptoms, but can be life threatening). However, not having celiac disease does not mean gluten is OK for you. You may argue that most people eat gluten on a daily basis and nothing happens. It can be interesting to note that as the role of grains and grain derivatives in processed foods became really prominent, so did the incidence of chronic illness and inflammatory conditions.
The majority of the population exhibit some sort of a reaction to gluten. This may manifest as a wide variety of symptoms (these even have a collective name of non-celiac gluten sensitivity or NCGS).
A gluten intolerance or sensitivity is expressed as a perceptible inflammatory response. Symptoms of gluten intolerance may, over time, exhibit as a wide variety of medical conditions, including dermatitis, joint pain, reproductive problems and autoimmune disorders. Gluten sensitivity is correlated with diabetes and several studies suggest a relationship between non-celiac gluten sensitivity and neuropsychiatric disorders, particularly autism and schizophrenia. Symptoms of gluten sensitivity often do not depend on the amount of gluten consumed with small amounts having similar effects as large doses.
A lack of these symptoms does not mean you are not experiencing some negative effect on a smaller scale, whilst being relatively asymptomatic.
Ancient grains (older wheat varietals, with fewer chromosomes) usually have lower levels of gliadins, the type of gluten proteins that seem to cause most sensitivities. This is understandable, as modern wheat has been subject to artificial selection and breeding to exhibit certain qualities that are desirable from yield, convenience, taste and usability standpoint with little to no regard for nutritional value. Sprouting and certain types of fermentation may degrade gluten somewhat and, thus, reduce sensitivity to it.
The the effects of gluten may also be cumulative with small amounts consumed over an extended period of time eventually leading to adverse effects. Certain people may be genetically less sensitive than others, but the question remains as to whether even with the slightest risk of triggering inflammation and compromising various body systems is worth considering consumption of grain.
Going Gluten Free
You may wonder about switching to a gluten-free diet and consuming gluten-free grain varieties including buckwheat, quinoa, amaranth, millet, oats, rice and corn. This fundamentally defeats the purpose. The grains that are typically used as substitutes in a gluten-free diet may have a few problems of their own. Non-organic corn, for example is almost all genetically modified. Quinoa, while lacking gluten, contains saponins that are also considered anti nutrients and may also compromise mucosal permeability (that’s on top of also containing phytic acid). Most importantly, similar to wheat, none of these grains exhibit nutritional qualities that would make them worth your while.
If you absolutely cannot live without an occasional pancake or muffin, or a slice of bread gluten-free options are a better choice, but the emphasis is on occasional consumption. Make sure that you either prepare this gluten-free meal yourself or very carefully go through the list of ingredients in products you purchase. Many food manufacturers sneak in undesirable chemicals, gums, sugars, processed vegetable oils and the like. Gluten-free does not automatically mean good to eat.
It is perfectly acceptable to satisfy your palate, strictly from a nutritional value perspective, you would still be choosing inferior foods if you chose that route.
You have probably heard that giving up bread and baked goods is very hard. One theory regarding this challenge is that people who consume a lot of grains may have compromised intestinal lining. This is a highly plausible explanation given the effect of some anti-nutrients that disrupt digestion and promote inflammation and increased gut permeability. Your intestinal lining is supposed to keep undigested compounds (such as large protein molecules,) out of your blood, it actually fails to do so and lets those compounds through. Undigested proteins may trigger auto-immune diseases and inflammatory reactions. An interesting consequence is that included in the list of such compounds that can sneak through are opioid-like compounds formed during digestion of gluten known as gluteomorphins and prodynorphins. These compounds bind to opioid receptors in your brain and are believed to even cause addiction to these types of foods and withdrawal symptoms once you decide to remove them. Succumbing to the temptation can potentially continue to cause further gastrointestinal problems, continuing the vicious circle.
Is that guaranteed to happen to you? Maybe not. But once you drop the habit of eating grains, you stop having these cravings and, in the grand scheme of things it really is better for you. Even if you are not exhibiting any immediate symptoms.
The biggest benefit you will get from this is a reduction in quickly digesting carbohydrates. Removing grains from your diet is essential if you want to lose body fat, normalize your insulin sensitivity and improve your health. This is the quickest win, but you will score several others once you make that decision.
There are plenty of other more nutrient dense foods that you can eat instead.