Huge debates are raging in health and food communities, on blogs, books, medical and health journals, other publications, and on message boards about whether grains are healthy or unhealthy to consume. Nutritional experts devote seminars, e-courses, and workshops, to this controversial topic.
For years, our government (FDA and USDA) and many other health sources have recommended not only consumption of grains, but that we increase our intake of grains, vegetables and fruits, and avoid eating saturated fat and cholesterol (that’s another topic entirely). And yet in spite of this “healthy” low-fat diet that we are told to consume, our disease and obesity rates continue to rise.
So what’s the truth? Are grains are okay to consume or not? Unfortunately, the answer is not a simple yes or no. In this post I’ll explain the reasons grains are harmful to consume, and the conditions under which you can more safely consume them.
Why grains make people sick
A lot of people talk about how their bodies are made irritated or diseased by grains. For many years, I was one of these people. I used to consume a lot of grains (wheat in particular), but didn’t understand the connection between just how much these substances caused many of my health issues. When I found out that wheat could be a problem, I eliminated it and immediately started experiencing better health. As time went on, I heard more stories about how others experienced the same issues.
From my research, I discovered that various issues in our food supply are causing these problems: farming methods, pesticides and other chemicals, GMOs, hybridization of grains, and industrial processing by food companies. When I realized I had issues with wheat, I tried substituting properly prepared gluten-free grains to see if I had any improvement. Sometimes I could eat these foods, and sometimes not. My conclusion was that I largely needed to avoid gluten-containing AND gluten-free grains as well.
Then I heard that if I detoxed my digestive tract, I could eat grains again. Over the last 7 years, I’ve done various protocols such as a lengthy candida cleanse, detoxes such as liver/gallbladder cleanses, homeopathic detox, and healing strategies like GAPS (which I started in May of 2011 and am still doing) to heal my gut and allow my body able to normally digest food again. For the most part, I’ve avoided “offending” foods: wheat, corn and other grains, soy, refined sugar and carbohydrates. I only occasionally consume fermented soy, real sourdough bread, alcoholic beverages, caffeine, and starches like rice or potatoes.
I keep reading that once I finish GAPS, I’ll be able to consume grains again. Dr. McBride’s book Gut and Psychology Syndrome tells us that the healing period of GAPS can take anywhere from 1-3 years due to the extent of digestive and health damage most people have in their bodies. The reality is, because of our processed diets, most people in the world today living in developed countries have GAPS syndrome. It’s just a fact of modern life.
When you come off GAPS, it is not advised to eat the foods you ate once before since, doing so would inevitably put you back where we were before starting the protocol. This is where foods like whole, sprouted/soaked and fermented grains come in.
Grains, nuts, legumes, and other foods should be properly prepared and dairy should be raw. We should eat as many live foods with real enzymes and bacteria as possible including naturally cultured and fermented foods, and all foods should be unprocessed, just how our ancestors used to eat them.
Grains contain nutrients like B vitamins and magnesium – important nutrients many people in this country are deficient in due to the over-processing of foods, poor gut health, and also because grains are usually not properly prepared. Like most nutrients, they don’t work in isolation. Taking supplements doesn’t often work well, and to absorb Vitamin D we need magnesium AND calcium (these work together in synergy), and also members of the Vitamin B family. Magnesium and B Vitamins are both found in grains as well as other foods.
Will I eat grains again someday? That all depends on my body. For years I have done better on a low or no-grain diet. But I’ve also been told by my naturopath that if I heal my digestion with healthy foods, mineral supplements, and digestive enzymes, I can then eat clean grains from a non-GMO source that are properly prepared.
Another problem she mentioned is that if a person has weak adrenals and/or blood sugar issues (which I’ve had for years), eating a high-carb diet can cause a great deal of problems. And ironically enough, weak adrenals and blood sugar issues are caused by years of eating processed foods with no nutritional value – including processed grains that come from GMO sources. So when I resolve these issues, I may be able to eat grains again, in moderation. I can tell you one thing…if I do, it won’t be the way I used to eat them.
Now I’d like to set the record straight about why grains have gotten such a bad reputation and have wreaked so much havoc on our health. Grains are not necessarily “the bad guys” across the board, but here are some significant reasons/conditions which make them harmful to consume.
5 reasons grains are unhealthy to consume:
- People have never, in the history of the world consumed the volume of grains they do now. Up until recently, the FDA Food Pyramid recommended we eat 6-11 servings a day. Consuming that many grains daily led me to a variety of health problems: insulin-resistance, thyroid problems, irregular menstrual cycles, depression, and panic disorder.
I ate plenty of commercial breads, bagels, crackers, English Muffins, pancakes, pita bread, muffins, croissants, pasta, rice, and other similar foods. Although I ate other things, most of the animal products were commercial, lean, or low-fat, and my vegetable intake wasn’t very high.
The Food Pyramid has now become My Plate, but the emphasis continues to be eating more vegetables, fruits, and grains. My Plate entirely omits fats as a category, and uses the term “protein” which can include a variety of unhealthy, processed products which aren’t real, nourishing proteins; two grave nutritional mistakes. The foods recommended to us by the FDA and USDA are not natural, healthy foods. They are commercially processed, full of toxins, pesticides, GMOs, antibiotics, preservatives, fillers, MSG, and other undesirable substances, not soaked, sprouted, nor fermented, and largely devoid of nutrition, including grains.
If you follow these recommendations, roughly half of your diet amounts to grains. The result is blood sugar highs and lows, which will negatively impact your weight, energy levels, and cause auto-immune disorders like thyroid and/or low adrenal function. It’s no wonder the markers of metabolic disorder are so common in our popluation: heart disease, diabetes, hypoglycemia, high blood pressure, obesity, and others are so common.
- The way we process and consume grains is totally changed from how they were traditionally prepared and eaten. It’s no secret that grains are a cheap, convenient food source. However, since the Industrial Revolution, food companies and merchants have found ways to mass produce grain products, using the cheapest ingredients and most convenient processing. Grains are ground, extruded (subjected to high temperatures and pushed through holes in machinery which molds the grains into shape, rendering the nutrients in grains damaged and altered), and otherwise highly processed to make most foods found on the consumer market.
Many people don’t realize that throughout time, people have prepared grains properly by soaking, sprouting, and fermenting them to neutralize naturally-occurring phytic acid. Phytic acid is a nutrient inhibitor and not only prevents uptake of minerals zinc, magnesium, calcium, and others in the body, but also leeches many of these same elements from the stores your body keeps.
- Due to hybridization or selective-trait breeding in wheat, there is nearly 75 percent more gluten in wheat today than in the historical past. Although gluten is desirable because of its elasticity for baking, it is also highly indigestible and is responsible for contributing to many health issues in humans including food allergies, celiac, IBS, Crohn’s Disease, diverticulitis and colitis, among others.
Like other foods, wheat has been engineered to increase crop yields, “improve” wheat quality, require less pesticides and herbicides (with other issues cropping up such as the creation of pathogenic bacteria in the soil which encourages the growth of disease and pesticide resistant super-weed). The result has contributed to many health and environmental issues. Last week I talked to a naturopathic doctor who said she didn’t think it was the fact that people were eating grains, she thinks it’s due to the fact that many of these grains are from GMOs (genetically modified substances). Even though GMO wheat has not been approved by the USDA in the U.S., Monsanto and other seed companies have test plots in various locations. Contamination is eminent, and if you eat wheat, you are likely consuming GMOs.
- Over-consumption of grains and gluten in particular, due to the reasons I described above, has caused many people to have compromised digestive tracts. A person with a sick digestive tract cannot properly digest grains – even properly prepared ones that are soaked and sprouted, and/or fermented – or any other food for that matter. People with compromised digestion often experience a variety of symptoms such as: gas, bloating, indigestion, diarrhea, constipation, or chronic problems like IBS, Crohn’s Disease, colitis, food allergies, asthma, eczema, physiological disorders, auto-immune problems, and more. The intestinal tract becomes permeable and undigested foods pass through, entering the blood stream causing distress on the whole body.
- If you have a gluten intolerance or celiac disease, it is now possible to buy the same things you once ate in just about every gluten-free variety you can imagine on the consumer market. It’s a big mistake to trade your gluten-consuming habits of 3-4 times a day into gluten-free consuming habits of the same frequency. Most of those products are just as highly processed and cause the same type of gut damage, nutrient loss in the body, weight problems, metabolic syndrome, and auto-immune disorders. Read here about the big gluten-free lie.
- Grains were still traditionally prepared with soaking/sprouting and/or fermentation
- We weren’t consuming them in their processed forms in such large quantities and with such frequency
- People’s digestive tracts were healthy and functional
- Grains were not altered or hybridized away from how they appeared in nature in their heirloom states, and we NOT contaminated by GMO test plot sites
- Gluten-free foods were not consumed at such alarming rates
Since most of the time, most of these things are not true, most people who consume grains are causing damage to their health. However, due to changes in our soil, water, air, farming methods, chemicals, pollution, and other factors, it’s also true that no foods we eat today are the same as what our ancestors ate. Therefore, consuming any food should be done with careful consideration about its source, how it is grown or raised, how processed it is, and whether it is sustainable or not.
So, does that mean you shouldn’t consume grains, and that if you do, your health will suffer?
Currently, a large number of the population don’t pay attention to where their food comes from, aren’t properly preparing grains before eating, eat grains more than is advisable for good health, and don’t have healthy digestive tracts. If you follow a mindful approach to consuming grains, as I’ve discussed above, you could maintain your health and possibly even benefit from nutrients in the grains you eat. Since consuming grains in any other way besides what I’ve mentioned here is not advisable for health, my conclusion is that grains:
- Should be eaten in moderation
- Should be properly prepared when consumed
- Should come from an organic or truly sustainable source
- Should be freshly ground and little processed as possible, and
- Should be consumed by someone who has a healthy digestive tract to enable the best digestion and absorption of any nutrients in properly prepared grains, and also minimal damage done to the body
Ultimately, you have to decide whether you need a grain-free diet, a low-grain diet, or your body does fine with grains. But, if you are having health issues, whether you think they are connected to grains or not, it’s very important to at least consider whether you are affected by any of the factors discussed here.
More information on grains:
Go grain-free and still eat delicious, healthy meals
The big gluten-free lie