With the paleo diet recently taking headlines amongst the health conscious, grain-free diets have certainly become very popular. But why do some individuals consider grains to be so bad for us? We have been consuming these grains for thousands of years, so surely they are fine to eat? The truth about grains, however, is not so simple.
A glimpse at grains in history
Although it may seem that we humans have always eaten grains as the bulk of our diet, this is not actually the case. Humans have not always lived predominantly on grains; indeed, pre-agriculture, foraged or hunted seasonal fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, meat and fish would have made up the diet. Regular human consumption of grains began around 10,000 years ago with the introduction and spread of agriculture. Although this is certainly a very long time, this is only the tip of the iceberg of our evolutionary history. As humans, we may have slowly begun to genetically adapt to consumption of grains, however this is not universal and, as a result, coeliac disease and gluten intolerance are common. Coeliac disease presents a severe adverse reaction to gluten, often resulting in malnutrition if gluten is not completely excluded from the diet.
Although many people assume that grains were not present at all in our Palaeolithic ancestors’ diets, there is evidence to suggest otherwise. Archaeological findings have included remains of grains on teeth of people from over 30,000 years ago in Europe (1) and even in Neanderthals over 50,000 years ago (2). Although this evidence tells us that grains were available in Palaeolithic times, they would have been wild and foraged only seasonally. This is vastly different from our common habits of cereal for breakfast, followed by a sandwich for lunch and pasta for dinner, not to mention those wheat-based biscuits as snacks. The actual type of grain consumed today, compared to 10,000 years ago has also changed immeasurably. You might consider wheat is wheat no matter when it was grown, but the relatively recent selective breeding of plants to withstand adverse weather and pests has resulted in very tough and harder to digest grains.
The introduction of grain consumption
Grains did not gain popularity for their health benefits, but for practical reasons including shelf life. Advances in farming techniques and food processing have enabled us to produce flour which can be stored for long periods of time, providing a staple food. In times when famine may have been an issue, such foods would have been, quite literally, life savers, and even around a hundred years ago it was actually considered quite a luxury to have bread made from white flour.
Since grain consumption has increased considerably over the last hundred years or so, our health status doesn’t seem to have improved. We have always been told that whole grains are healthy, good for your heart and full of fibre, but is this all true? It is difficult to pinpoint grains as a contributing factor to our modern health conditions due to diet and lifestyle complexities, and studies present contradictory findings. On the one hand, high intake of whole grains is associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes (3), but on the other hand, refined grains including white rice are associated with increased risk of diabetes (4). Wheat consumption in particular has been shown to contribute to the development of chronic inflammation and autoimmune diseases (5).
Current recommendations for high grain consumption are often based on the extremely outdated food pyramid, or eat well plate, still (surprisingly) used by some health professionals. Such guidelines that grains, including bread, should make up the bulk of our diets, are considered by many scientists to be a misrepresentation of a healthy diet.
What is gluten and which grains contain it?
Getting your head around which foods contain gluten can initially be quite confusing, with common misperceptions that gluten is found in high carbohydrate foods, or that it is found in all grains. This is incorrect, as gluten is a type of protein found only in grains of wheat, barley and rye. Other grains such as oats may not be considered strictly gluten free as they are often processed and packaged in the same vicinity as other grains containing gluten; such oats may therefore be contaminated with small amounts of gluten. Oats which are grown and packaged in isolation are classed as gluten free ‘uncontaminated oats’. Having said this, the protein found in oats, avenin, is fairly similar in structure to gluten and can also cause problems for some sensitive individuals, though this is often a different reaction to that of gluten, or a cross-reactivity due to structural similarities. Keep an eye out for grains which are a subspecies of wheat, such as spelt, thus a type of wheat with a different name, containing gluten.
Gluten allergies and intolerances
Gluten is one of the main reasons people are put off eating grains. An allergy or intolerance to gluten is quite common and can cause many unwanted symptoms, particularly digestive complaints such as bloating, pain and wind. Gluten allergy or intolerance is not limited to digestive complaints, however. An immune reaction to gluten can also present itself as inflamed joints, skin flare-ups and much more. It can often be quite hard to identify the cause of such symptoms, which may only be evident from a blood test to measure your immune system antibody reaction to certain foods.
Although a huge number of people have some kind of gluten intolerance, it is common for people to have an allergy test for gluten and after a receiving a negative result, will carry on eating gluten whilst searching for other possible reasons for their symptoms. You may not necessarily have a typical IgE allergic reaction to gluten (IgE is the antibody produced in the body causing immediate allergic reaction, tested in skin-prick allergy tests). Other immune reactions can also occur in the body, including antibodies IgG (typically tested for in intolerance blood tests), IgM and IgA, any of which can cause symptoms. It is easy to question the validity of the commonly heard ”I have a gluten intolerance” with such a high number of individuals claiming this complaint, however it really is a real problem, and often undiagnosed.
The ability for us to properly digest grains and avoid immune reactions depends greatly on not only digestive enzymes and the immune system, but also on the integrity of the digestive tract. A semi-permeable intestine can allow undigested food particles to cross into the bloodstream, interfering with all sorts of bodily functions. Healing the gut is therefore often a priority when considering a gluten intolerance. Digestive health is strongly linked to intolerances, so if you would like to read about this in further detail: signs of a leaky gut and how to deal with it.
Other negative traits of grains
Grains contain phytic acid, useful energy storage for plants, but an indigestible toxin for humans. Phytic acid is found in the bran of grains (the outer tough section); consequently, wholegrain bread will contain high levels. The issue with phytic acid in grains is not the fact that we can’t break it down, but that it interferes with our absorption of important minerals such as calcium, iron and zinc (6). If your diet is high in grains as the traditional food pyramid suggests, this strongly increases your risk of developing deficiencies, low bone density and possibility of anaemia.
Lectins are also found in grains, particularly high levels in whole grains. Lectins are a type of protein produced by grains as a defence mechanism, and to allow seeds to pass through the digestive tract intact. Lectins bind to cell membranes, are indigestible, and pass through the body, often aggravating the gut lining on their way through. Some people can develop immune reactions to lectins, whereas others may use certain lectins to their benefit by their effects of regulating a healthy cell cycle. For most people lectins cause flatulence and damage the digestive tract, causing IBS (irritable bowel syndrome)-type symptoms. Lectins are considered to be one of the contributing factors in the inflammatory effects of wheat, by increasing intestinal permeability (5).
So should we be eating refined grains instead?
Refined grains such as white bread may not contain as much phytic acid or lectins, but they do cause havoc with our health in many other ways. As the outer husk of grains contains the majority of nutrients and fibre, processed refined grains are essentially ‘empty calories’ using energy and nutrients from your body in order to be able to be digested, whilst simultaneously stimulating an insulin response. The fast speed and high level of insulin released after eating refined grains negatively affects blood glucose levels and is likely to encourage fat storage around the middle and increase inflammation in the body, leading to a whole host of diseases. Regular fluctuations in blood glucose levels also give your body some dependence on refined grains; with blood sugar levels dropping low after eating them, cravings become stronger.
How to eat grains in the healthiest way possible
When choosing your grains, keep in mind that rice and oats are tolerated best compared to grains such as wheat. If you choose to eat wheat, opting for ancient varieties such as spelt and khorasan wheat may be easier to digest.
Cooking with whole grains from scratch, i.e. cooking brown rice with a meal or using rolled oats to make porridge, is always preferable to eating processed foods containing these ingredients. More often than not, nasty ingredients such as preservatives, etc are added in, making these processed whole grain foods an unhealthy option.
Taking grains to another level of health is all in the preparation. Grains were traditionally soaked, sprouted and fermented, causing phytic acid and lectins to reduce. For grains to germinate, they fuel their growth by using up starch contained in the grain, resulting in a more nutrient-dense grain, higher in protein and lower in starches (7). These treatment methods also enable easier digestion of grains. To save yourself the long and complicated process, sprouted bread is actually sold in most health food shops.
If you have mild symptoms from eating grains, or none at all but you still want to include grains in your diet, it may be worth regulating your inflammatory levels. As grains often increase inflammation in the body (5), if you are prone to inflammatory conditions such as aching joints or skin flare-ups, you may wish to take an omega-3 EPA supplement such as Pharmepa RESTORE, to reduce your inflammation. Omega-3 EPA produces hormone-like substances in the body called eicosanoids which effectively calm inflammation in the body, allowing tissues to heal properly, reducing risk of inflammatory diseases (8).
Diet tips for going grain / gluten free
Avoiding gluten often results in people going straight for the over-processed refined ‘free from’ unhealthy alternatives filled with overly refined starchy foods, nutrient-lacking ingredients, and overly processed heat-damaged oils and preservatives.
If you are going gluten free for health reasons, replacement options are often worse for health, so although there are a couple of reasonable gluten-free breads out there, ensure that you read the labels and scrutinise the ingredients. If you are delving into a life without gluten, this does not mean that you will be eating a sandwich filler without the bread for lunch, this means that you are opening your plate (and palate) up to a whole new world of interesting nutritious foods. Add more to your meals and you won’t miss the bread eventually.
On the whole, I would say that grains are not necessarily the healthiest addition to our modern diets; however, they are not exactly enemy number one if eaten in moderation for most people, especially if sprouted beforehand. If you are coeliac or if you have adverse reactions to eating grains, then, of course, you should avoid grains and/or gluten without question. If you have no obvious reactions to eating grains, and you are consuming grains every now and then, this is unlikely to have detrimental effects on your health.
(1) Revedin A, Aranguren B, Becattini R, Longo L, Marconi E, Lippi MM, et al. Thirty thousand-year-old evidence of plant food processing. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 2010 Nov 2;107(44):18815-9.
(2) Henry AG, Brooks AS, Piperno DR. Microfossils in calculus demonstrate consumption of plants and cooked foods in Neanderthal diets (Shanidar III, Iraq; Spy I and II, Belgium). Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 2011 Jan 11;108(2):486-91.
(3) Cho SS, Qi L, Fahey GC, Jr., Klurfeld DM. Consumption of cereal fiber, mixtures of whole grains and bran, and whole grains and risk reduction in type 2 diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease. Am J Clin Nutr 2013 Aug;98(2):594-619.
(4) Aune D, Norat T, Romundstad P, Vatten LJ. Whole grain and refined grain consumption and the risk of type 2 diabetes: a systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of cohort studies. Eur J Epidemiol 2013 Nov;28(11):845-58.
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(6) Gibson RS, Bailey KB, Gibbs M, Ferguson EL. A review of phytate, iron, zinc, and calcium concentrations in plant-based complementary foods used in low-income countries and implications for bioavailability. Food Nutr Bull 2010 Jun;31(2 Suppl):S134-S146.
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(8) Wall R, Ross RP, Fitzgerald GF, Stanton C. Fatty acids from fish: the anti-inflammatory potential of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids. Nutr Rev 2010 May;68(5):280-9.