Grains: Healthy or Not??

Often with my clients, I ask them to avoid grains or at least limit them to a certain few or a limited amount per day and that is a request for a variety of reasons, not just because of the extra (often uneccesary) carb load but because of the other health detrimental effects that they can cause.  This is in fairly stark contrast to the “Eat More Whole Grains” sentiment spoken by the USDA….but since you know me by now, you probably already know that most of my beliefs about nutrition are in stark contrast to that outdated model that is based upon bad science.  If I had my way, many people would be grain free and most would be near to, for the sake of their own health!

Here is a sum up of why….

Grains and legumes (yes beans too) typically contain very high levels of a substance known as phytic acid….an anti-nutrient. What is an anti-nutrient?  Diane Sanfilippo describs it well:  “They are primarily plant based-defense mechanisms that are concentrated around the reproductive force in a seed or grain.”  Consider this: every living thing has a defense mechanism.  Plants can’t run away when they are under attack, so to ensure that they continue to thrive and grow, they have internal defenses to fight against predators.  To the plant, or more specifically the seed or the grain of a plant, your digestive system is just such a predator.  These defense mechanisms in the plant fight against your digestion, blocking it’s ability to fully break the food down into harmless amino acids that are easily absorbed into your cells….big proteins or non-broken down amino acids are seen as foreign and dangerous to your body. In other words, anti-nutrients are elements within a food that either prevent or disrupt the proper digestion and absorption of the nutrients contained in that food.  Phytic acid is the plant’s main anti-nutrient.   “While ruminant animals like cows, sheep, and goats have adequate enzymes in their digestive system to break down phytates, non-ruminants, like humans, do not”. It actively binds to minerals and eliminates them from the body, which results, with increased grain consumption, in widespread deficiencies of minerals, including calcium, iron, magnesium and zinc.  These minerals are very important and when we don’t absorb them….the ripple effects of poor health begin.  Magnesium alone is required to complete over 300 enzymatic processes in your body….hmmm, I wonder what those other nutrients we are not absorbing properly are useful for?!

The foods richest in these anti-nutrients are:

  • Whole grains, whole grain products, grain like seeds and legumes that include, but is not limited to, wheat, rye, barley, oats, spelt, corn, soy, lentils, red beans, black beans, pinto beans, navy beans, brown rice and quinoa. (some of these are more concentrated than others)
  • Refined grains and refined grain products, including white rice, flour, bread, cereal, crackers, cookies or pasta.


Yes beans too….We all know that beans are famous for causing gas.  “This is due to the presence of a starchy carbohydrate that we can’t properly break down in our bodies.  If your experiencing gas symtpoms, you have eaten a food you don’t digest well”.  Instead of forcing your body to “deal” with it by using beano etc….stop eating the food…it means something is not right.  Legumes typically contain 60% starch and only relatively small amounts of incomplete protein and they also contain potent protease inhibitors which can effect one’s ability to properly digest and use the dietary protein you think you are getting anyway.

Our culture’s diet is centered around these anti-nutrient foods….Again Diane asks: “if I told you I had an omelet for breakfast, a slice of quiche for lunch and an egg souffle for dinner, you might say “isn’t that alot of eggs?” but if I had eaten cereal for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch and past for dinner you probably wouldn’t ask “isn’t that alot of grains?”

Grains and legumes also contain goitrogens, or thyroid inhibiting substances, as well as “foreign proteins” like gluten and gliadin and as you may know, these “foreign” proteins are an extremely common source of allergies and sensitivities that can lead to a wide range of problems, both physical and emotional.  We now know that chronic carbohydrate consumption, in general, ultimately depletes serotonin (our bodies natural happy ‘pill’/neurotransmitter) stores and greatly depletes the B vitamins required to convert amino acids into needed neurotransmitters.  There is much research being done now on just how severely grains account for the rampant serotonin deficiencies in our society leading to clinical depression, anxiety, and some forms of ADD/ADHD; one hypothesis suggests that it is because of the lack of L-tryptophan (a crucial amino acid) in grains.

Careful preparation by pre-soaking, sprouting or fermenting these foods can greatly minimize their phytic acid, or ‘anti-nutrient’, content but nonetheless, they are still a very high carbohydrate food source, which brings with it the blood sugar and insulin issues.  Not to mention, many grains are also a source of an extremely damaging protein that has increasingly become a source of serious health problems for millions of people:  gluten.

When you consume foods that your body is not able to properly digest and assimilate – either because your body isn’t functioning properly or because the foods themselves initiate the damage – food particles that are too large “slip” intact through the weakened and compromised lining of the small intestine and are seen by your body as invaders. When these “invaders” (phytic acid and gluten) enter your body, they interact with the immune layer on the other side of the lining of your small intestine (70% of our immune system resides in the digestive system!).  It is at this immune layer that inflammatory molecules (called cytokines) respond to these intact food particle proteins and tell your white blood cells to launch an attack! The by-products of the action of your white blood cells are called “oxidants”…I am sure you all have heard about the importance of “anti-oxidants”…this is why, they are needed to combat these oxidants that are created in part when you eat foods that your body interprets as harmful.
This is the same type of response that happens in your immune system when any other allergen or invader like a bacteria or virus enters your body.  In an effort to fix the problem, your body reads this scenario as disease and react with an inflammatory response.   Inflammation is a whole different topic for a blog post…my belief is that inflammation is at the root of most all disease.  Chronic inflammatory conditions that can all be related to poor digestive function includes so many things from acne, anemia, arthritis and ADD to bone disease, celiac disease, chronic fatigue, Crohn’s disease and depression to eczema, endometriosis, fibromyalgia, gallbladder disease and IBS to infertility, lupus, migraines, mood disorders, parkinson’s disease and PCOS to thyroid disorders and weight gain.

As Nora Gedgaudes points out…..”Since there is no human dietary requirement and since the consumption of grains causes so many known health problems due to their gluten content, anti-nutrient content, poor L-tryptophan profile, as well as high omega 6 levles and mainly starch based content, as well as their allergy and sensitivity potential, there is little reason to include grains in the diet of anyone seeking optimal health or at least little reason to include them regularly.”

What did she just say?  No health redeeming reason to eat grains?!!  That goes against so many things we hear about in the conventional day to day nutrition advice!  Remember; we know alot more now than we ever have, we have a ton of rampant health issues in our society (of which nutrition is rarely looked at), the research takes many years to reach the public let alone be published in a nutrition book and we have large governmental subsidies paid out to the grain industry, so of course they want us eating the cheapest food stuff available, the ones that our ancestors would have scoffed at and called “poor man’s food or starvation food”.

So, I know I said this was going to be a “sum up” but I think it is important to look at some of that research a bit deeper and dive into the perils of gluten…

Gluten is a substance found in numerous grains such as wheat (durum, semolina, graham, spelt, kamut), rye and barley. It is typically present in oats too but that is mainly do to modern processing methods (and easy contamination). Gluten is almost everywhere and laws do not require labeling on all products.  For us humans, we have spent nearly all of the past 2.6 million years as hunter-gatherers; gluten is a very new inclusion to the diet and is very difficult for us to digest. To say that gluten can add complications to your health is putting things mildly. Problems with gluten are becoming epidemic, and although public awareness about this issue is certainly growing, there is more that is poorly understood by most people (including those in the medical field) than not.  The weight of the scientific evidence supporting concerns associated with gluten is suffocating. ***

Although it is commonly associated with Celiac Disease, many people do not realize the broad and very real impact that non-celiac gluten sensitivity can have on people and that is often masked as something else. All celiac disease is a form of gluten sensitivity but not all gluten sensitivity is celiac disease.

Gluten is rarely suspected to be the underlying culprit in many health problems, even by medical authorities, because too much has gone unknown for so long and because our medical industry does a great job at looking at how the body works but not necessarily what really influences it. Gluten sensitivity and celiac disease results in chronic and severe malabsorption of nutrients, commonly leading to other disease states and degenerative processes.***

Celiac disease and gluten sensitivity are generally defined as states of heightened immunologic responsiveness to ingested gluten proteins (remember that when our body is exposed to a foreign protein, alarm signals go off creating a cascade of events to occur within).   A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association states that it has been estimated that 1 in every 200 people has full blown celiac disease.  Some researchers from this prestigious journal hypothesize that this number may be closer to 1 in 30 people…especially considering that the way in which is is diagnosed is not until there is actual full blown internal structural damage (at that point, it’s too late). In an article in the Archives of Internal Medicine, the authors wrote, “celiac disease is a mush greater problem than has previously been appreciated”.  And in an article in Pediatrics, the authors stated, “In the past 7 years, 1 in 4 children was diagnosed as having celiac disease”!! ***

Meanwhile, gluten sensitivity (not included in these statistics) is considerably more common than full blown celiac disease and is currently viewed as ‘near epidemic’. So what is going on??  Look to the culprit.

Both of these situations are autoimmune conditions that create inflammation and immune system effects throughout.  Gluten can affect all organ systems (including your brain, heart and kidneys), your extended nervous system, your moods, your immunological functioning, your digestive system, and even your musculoskeletal system, truly almost all of you.

The Brain:  When it comes to effects of gluten in the brain, exposure to gluten in a sensitive individual shuts down blood flow to the frontal and pre-frontal cortex…this is the part of our brain that allows us to focus, to manage emotional states, to plan and organize, to consider the consequences of our actions and to use our short term memory.  The decreased blood flow to this part of the brain is commonly associated with conditions such as depression, anxiety and ADHD. ***

The Digestive System: Gluten wrecks havoc on our digestive system as mentioned above and it’s proper permeability through a very specific stimulation of the enzyme “zonulin”.  Without getting detailed, this allows for a flood gate of food sensitivity to open.  This is basically, a total setup for autoimmune disorders as well as decreases absorption of vital nutrients, which has many ripple effects.***

Autoimmune disorders are the number 3 killer, behind heart disease and cancer in the US.  Of course gluten is not always the culprit but food sensitivities rank in the top 5 causes of autoimmune disorders.  Even where gluten is not the cause of the disorder, it almost always acts as an exacerbating factor. ** Let’s just say it never helps.  Is that one piece of bread really worth the risk, especially considering the fact that only 1 percent of people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity have ever been properly diagnosed?***

Unfortunately the wheat we are eating these days, is no where near the same wheat our grandmothers were eating let alone our great grandmothers.  It is genetically modified, and grown and processed differently creating an entirely different species/food.

People often think that the symptoms to watch for when it comes to gluten issues are typically gastrointestinal, when gluten sensitivity can, in fact profoundly impact your brain, nervous system, emotional states, endocrine functioning, neurotransmitters, immune system, bones, joints, and skeletal system….your body.  If you experience regular issues with digestion whether it is gas and bloating or pain and cramping or if you are depressed, anxious, angry, suffer from arthritis or any other chronic issue…experiment with your diet.  Cut gluten out for 30 days and see how you feel….you have to cut it out entirely (basically try a paleo diet for 30 days) and then decide whether you need it back in your life or not.

If you are interested in testing, let me know, I will point you in the right direction as far as the proper tests to get done.  The standard “gluten sensitivity” testing DOES NOT cut it….too many people are being missed!


  • Diane Sanfilippo, author of Practical Paleo
  • Nora T Gedgaudas, CNS, CNT  ***
  • Journal of the American Medical Association
  • Archives of Internal Medicine
  • Pediatrics journal
  • C.B. Allan and W Lutz:  Life without Bread: Excess Carbohydrates as the Underlying Cause of Disease
  • M.N. Cohen:  Health and the Rise of Civilization