Pain in the grain: It’s not just the gluten

14 July 2011

As my friend Venus said recently, “Gluten-free is the new organic.”

It’s true: gluten-free, once a fringe health concern, has gone mainstream. Gluten-free products are at regular supermarkets, and gluten-free menus are available at national eateries like Chili’s and P.F. Chang’s. Gluten intolerance, a problem on the rise, is a serious concern.

It’s also a sign of a bigger problem: we’re all eating too much grain.

Corn lurks everywhere

The grain we consciously eat – cereal, bread, pastas, baked goods – is certainly part of the issue. But the real culprit is the grain that hides in everything else. Sodas and juice-based drinks are largely corn syrup. The fat in packaged foods, fried foods and “heart healthy” margarine is hydrogenated corn or soybean oil. Even the meat we eat has been fattened on corn – chickens, cows, pigs, even farmed fish. So directly or indirectly, what we eat is overwhelmingly grains.

Factory farmers know that to fatten up animals quickly, you feed them a lot of corn. It makes them sick, which is why 80% of antibiotics in this country are used on feed animals. But it also makes them huge fast (euphamistically known as “production efficiency”).

Turns out the same is true for us: an overload of grains is making us huge, and it’s making many of us sick.

Variety has virtually disappeared from our diets. Cane sugar, butter and even lard look positively wholesome compared with their manufactured grain substitutes.

Grains, which require a lot of processing to make them fit for consumption, are not man’s natural fuel source. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate what they could find in the wild: meat, fish, fruits, vegetables, tubers and nuts. The cultivation of grains and its ability to produce a surplus of food set the foundation for non-nomadic life. Nutrient-rich, storable and portable, grains are the basis of many ancient civilizations: rice in China, corn in Mesoamerica, wheat in the Fertile Crescent of Western Asia. The advent of manufacturing eased the processing of grains, making large-quantity consumption possible. We’ve now taken that to an extreme.

The problem with seeds

Grains, beans and legumes are the seeds of plants, and the function of seeds is reproduction: to grow a new plant. Seeds are happy to be eaten so that they can be deposited with some nice animal fertilizer in a location away from the parent plant.

Seeds do not want to be digested and take precautions to protect future generations. They may be rich in nutrients, but those nutrients are well and often dangerously guarded.

Seeds have a protective seed coat that protects them from harsh animal digestive tracts. But for clever animals that penetrate the hard coat, seeds teach those animals a lesson with some nasty surprises, among them

  • Gastric distress: Seeds contain lectins, which are proteins that bind to other molecules and can cause gastric distress or in extreme cases even death. Ricin, a potent and deadly poison, is a castor seed lectin.
  • Mineral deficiency: Phytic acid is a substance that binds to minerals and prevents them from being absorbed in the intestines. So even though grains may contain minerals, their phytic acid prevents animals from accessing them and may even block the absorption of minerals from other food sources.

Disarming seeds

Traditional methods for preparing grains are designed to make them more digestible. Soaking grains and legumes in water activates the sprouting process, in which the seed disarms its defenses so that the emerging sprout can access the seed’s stored energy. The heat of cooking also helps to break down some of its toxins, with the notable exception of wheat germ agglutinin, a lectin in wheat that is impervious to heat.

Fermentation, another traditional method, cultivates enzymes that help break down the seed’s barriers. Long yeast fermentation can reduce the seed’s toxins, and one study demonstrated that bread made with a long sourdough fermentation could be tolerated even by celiac sufferers.

To our detriment food manufacturers bypass these traditional methods in favor of efficiency, and even busy home cooks are focused on quick meal preparation. Changing these mindsets will take time.

Intestinal health implications

A primary function of the digestive system is to absorb beneficial elements from food and discard the harmful or unnecessary. When this function is compromised, irritable bowel syndrome or other issues can result. There are many theories – unfortunately hard research is lacking – that say that a grain-heavy diet can contribute to a variety of gut-related disorders:

  • An imbalance of good and bad bacteria (known as intestinal dysbiosis)
  • Poor nutrient absorption
  • Leaky gut – a condition where the intestinal lining is compromised, allowing harmful elements intended for elimination instead to circulate in the body, causing a variety of autoimmune disorders.

A Scientific American article linked celiac disease and other autoimmune disorders to “an unusually permeable intestinal wall.” Whether or not lectins or other plant anti-nutrients play a role in causing unusual permeability is debatable but worth considering.

Inflammation and autoimmune disorders

An excess of grain has led to a chronic and severe imbalance of essential fatty acids. When we ate more green leaves as well as animals that ate green leaves, our ratio of inflammation-causing omega 6 to inflammation-reducing omega 3 fatty acids was close to 1:1. In today’s modern diet it may be as high as 16:1.

Increasing anti-inflammatory omega 3 fatty acid consumption has been shown to alleviate host of inflammatory and autoimmune diseases, such as arthritis, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, psoriasis, lupus, multiple sclerosis and migraine headaches.

From a Science Daily article, reporting on a Yale study:

Anthropological evidence suggests that human ancestors maintained a 2:1 w6[omega 6]/w3[omega 3] ratio for much of history, but in Western countries today the ratio has spiked to as high as 10:1. Since these omega fatty acids can be converted into inflammatory molecules, this dietary change is believed to also disrupt the proper balance of pro- and anti- inflammatory agents, resulting in increased systemic inflammation and a higher incidence of problems including asthma, allergies, diabetes, and arthritis.

Politics of food

As a sign of a sign of the heavy influence of lobbyists over nutritionists, the USDA’s nutritional guidelines continue to emphasize grain intake, when in fact most Americans would be better off with less grain in their diets.

Worse than that, we as taxpayers have funded this grain invasion through billions of dollars annually in farm subsidies. I support farms, but the truth is that farm subsidies fund commodity crops such as corn, wheat and soy, not fruits and vegetables. Through subsidies we’ve made corn so cheap that it now forms the basis for virtually every item in the supermarket. And now we pay again – dearly – in poor health and the exploding costs of healthcare to manage our chronic conditions.

Balancing our diet

I think it’s important to be educated about where our food comes from so that we can make conscious decisions for good health. It seems misguided to me that nutritional choices are geared toward reduction of “bad” foods: fat-free, low sodium, low carbs, sugar-free. More often than not, what they replace these “bad” foods with is just as bad or worse (artificial sweetener, more sugar, more salt, more junk fat). Even gluten-free options, while critically important for those with celiac disease, are merely the same filler foods with other flours in place of wheat.

The essential question is this: are we getting the good food our bodies need? As journalist Michael Pollan says, “Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.”

Much of the food that is sold is filler. What we need is food with real nutrition.

Nutrient-rich foods include greens, vegetables, fruits and animals that eat real food (grass-fed beef, range-fed chicken, wild seafood). This is the food we need in quantity. Filler food is fine in small amounts.

I’ve never been a big protein eater, and grains have always held a central place in my diet. I used to have a pasta and a large salad for dinner. But these days I’ll make a cooked vegetable (roasted asparagus or cauliflower, sauteed zucchini or green beans) along with a truly enormous salad. That leaves a small corner of my plate for something else – salmon, stir fry or chicken. I’ll still have pasta, but I take a page from the Italians, for whom pasta is a small first course, not an entire meal.

I’ve also been playing with substitutions in some of my favorite recipes, and I love that many of you have commented with your own substitutions. Will post a follow-up on that in the near future. In the meantime, here are some interesting links:

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Derek Isetti 14 July 2011 at 3:19 pm

So informative! I love that I get to read your postings on my phone as I ride the bus to my classes. 🙂 Hope you guys are doing well!


cg 15 July 2011 at 1:59 am

love thinking of you reading on the bus! that is awesome.


Jason Kong 14 July 2011 at 3:35 pm

The absence of grains and a focus on freshly sourced meat and vegetables is the basis for the Paleo diet. I’ve read about people who swear by it.


cg 15 July 2011 at 2:03 am

definitely! i didn’t mention it just because as a philosophy i’m into common sense over prescriptive food choices. but i also know people who have seen big health improvements with paleo. i gave up grains, sugar, caffeine and most dairy for six weeks, and i don’t ever want to feel that deprived again. a wee bit of cake here and there is worth it in my book. =)


Heather 16 July 2011 at 10:06 am

The Primal Diet suggests a 90/10 balance which allows for the occassional treat. After about six months of following the primal diet I know what treats I can handle and how often. I have never felt healthier and in fact nearly eliminated my Rheumatoid Arthritis. At my annual check up my Doctor thought there had been a mistake when my blood work came back with a very low RA factor (a factor that was very high last year). I explained my new diet. Grains cause inflammation. I no longer eat them.


cg 16 July 2011 at 10:12 am

heather, that is amazing. there’s a ton of anecdotal support – my ob recommended Dr. Gundry’s Diet Evolution, by a heart surgeon that has put many patients on a grain-free diet with incredible results like yours. congratulations on taking control so successfully of your own health. i’m inspired!


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