Will whole grains make you sick? What you need to know
At Alchemist Eating, I work with quite a few people who don’t have an urgent medical complaint – they “just” want to eat healthier in order to look and feel better. Many have tried “doing the right thing” on their own but feel stuck or overwhelmed.
No surprise there! For one, everybody and their sister has an opinion about what, exactly, healthy eating means. What’s more, conventional myths and misperceptions around diet lead many astray. For this reason, I expect – and encourage – questions and even a bit of push back.
A common question (whether talking to new clients or family and friends) is:
What’s wrong with whole grains?
I thought they were healthy!
I’ll get to the answer in a moment. But first, a story.
For years (basically my entire 20s and a good part of my 30s), I slept on the thinnest, lumpiest, most uncomfortable mattresses you can imagine.
I moved homes a lot – sometimes across countries and continents – and made do with whatever was cheap, free or already in place. One year, while living in northern Thailand, I actually slept on my Thai massage mat – a piece of foam about 1-inch thick.
Sleeping was neither particularly sound nor particularly comfortable. Drifting in and out of consciousness, I tried to navigate the bumpiest, thinnest spots to minimize next-day repercussions for my back and neck.
I didn’t consider the situation optimal...but I also didn’t really care and tolerated it without too much thought. My priorities and attention were elsewhere.
Then, five years ago, I found myself in a relationship with someone who had the BIGGEST, BEST...mattress possible. So I married him.
Well, there were also other reasons.
The point is, at age 38, I unexpectedly discovered what sleeping on a good mattress feels like. The lumps, bumps and discomfort I had long taken as “normal” were completely unnecessary. Only after finally sleeping in comfort did I realize what a BIG deal that is...and how much getting sound sleep affects, well, everything.
Just because we can tolerate something doesn’t make it optimal.
That in mind, let’s get back to whole grains.
First, consider grains generally, which we’ve only been eating the last 10,000 years of our 2.5 million years of evolution. Now, I realize 10,000 years sounds like a long time, but our genes have adapted to ingest a fairly narrow range of nutrients: fatty acids, amino acids, glucose, fibre, vitamins and minerals. They have not evolved to digest the “lectins” found in grains.
Lectins are natural toxins plants use to protect themselves from predators. When we ingest them, they can damage the delicate lining of the small intestine, allowing undigested particles to enter the bloodstream and trigger inflammation and an autoimmune response (where the body attacks itself).
For some, this might look like a mild inflammatory reaction (bloating, perhaps, or nasal congestion). For others, there may be more severe symptoms (diarrhea, heartburn, allergies, skin conditions, migraines, joint pain, or impaired organ function, for instance).
And that’s just part of the problem. There’s also the matter of sugar.
Perhaps you’ve heard how a quick sugar spike (from eating a candy bar or fruit smoothie, for instance) promotes inflammation and compromises immune function?
Well, grains – like the Standard American Diet generally – are super-high in carbs...and carbs are converted to glucose in the bloodstream. While they may burn slower than other sugars, they still create the same rise in insulin production over time.
Unsurprising then, that excess grain consumption is strongly associated with weight gain, high cholesterol, diabetes, cognitive decline, and other widespread, modern-day diseases.
We could also talk about how different grain is nowadays compared to what our great-grandparents use to eat.
Most of today’s wheat, for example, is a highly engineered variety cultivated 50 years ago for improved yield and drought resistance. It greatly exacerbates health problems that can arise from eating wheat, in part because of the gliaden and wheat germ agglutinin (WGA) it contains.
Each of these sneaky guys warrants a post in itself. But for now, let’s just say gliaden is a protein that can greatly stimulate appetite. Indeed, when food manufacturers discovered this 25 years ago, they made a deliberate effort to include wheat in all sorts of processed foods (about the time we started seeing obesity and diabetes rates soar).
Meanwhile, WGA helps bring things that are supposed to stay inside the gut out, through the gut wall and into the bloodstream. Inside the gut, WGA creates an inflammatory response. Outside, it promotes inflammation and can disrupt endocrine function, binding to the thyroid and interfering with hormone production and secretion from the pancreas. WGA can also cross the blood-brain barrier, attach to myelin sheathes and damage nerve cells.
Still want that whole wheat sandwich?
That’s not even the whole (>sigh<, couldn’t resist) story. But this science-y stuff can get a bit dense...so let’s take it there for today and skip to the big picture.
Grains are a cheap source of calories easily converted to sugar in the body.
They have minimal nutritional value and stimulate excess insulin production. They also contain “anti-nutrients” that compromise digestive, endocrine and immune function; promote systemic inflammation; and inhibit absorption of vitamins and minerals.
What about whole grains? Those too?
Yep. Don’t let the good-guy guise fool you. Remember that nefarious WGA I mentioned? The highest levels are found in whole wheat, and sprouted whole wheat has the highest of all.
Compared to refined grains, whole grains are also higher in anti-nutrients generally (and can be more problematic for sensitive individuals).
And like refined grains, they convert to glucose and promote excess insulin production while offering minimal nutritional value compared to primal foods (veggies and high-quality animal products, for instance).
Eating a grain-based diet can have a mild, long-term immune-compromising effect...or produce more obvious symptoms.
Poison...or no big thing?
Here’s the deal, many people can – and do – tolerate grains to varying degrees. Some might not perceive any ill effects at all.
And yet, remember my story about the mattress? Well, one of the most common “revelations” I hear from clients after they’ve eliminated grains goes this way:
"Wow! I just took my bloating (or heartburn or joint pain or nasal congestion or acne or eczema or allergies or migraines or energy crashes) as normal...or as part of getting older.”
Only by ditching grains (usually along with processed food and refined sugar) did they realize their previous “normal” was kind of miserable.
Only by cutting the hitherto unsuspected culprits did they find out how much better they could feel.
Not sure about this? Or thinking, "That’s not me."
Well, definitely don’t take my word for it! The gold-standard test in knowing how a particular food affects a particular individual is something you can do at home: self-experiment.
At Alchemist Eating, I work with clients closely, guiding and supporting the self-experimentation process. But if you’re wondering how grains affect you, give this simple test a go:
For one week, eliminate grains completely from your diet.
This includes the usual suspects (wheat, rice, quinoa, millet, spelt, barley, rye, oats and such). It also includes “pseudo-cereals” with a similar structure and similar effects on many people (corn, for instance).
For the sake of making your research findings clearer and eliminating confusing variables, for this week also avoid grain-free flours and baked goods (almond flour, coconut flour and such). Basically, if it looks and acts like grain, don’t eat it.
Now (though it may seem like forever), a week isn’t really enough time to experience the full benefits of going grain-free.
For starters, it takes many people at least a week to get past common side effects of wheat withdrawal (fatigue, irritability, headaches, cravings). Your body and mind are hooked on something and you’re taking it away.
They will reset and recover...just not overnight. For this reason, 30 days is a better measure, and getting trained support is a great idea.
Yet, a week does offer a doable starting point for self-experimentation.
Through the duration, keep watch for any shifts in body and mind.
Write them down. Track how they change. See how you feel without grains in your life. And if you’re game, let us know in the comments!