paleo grains

The Grain Manifesto

From Whole9, as a preface to our Manifesto series:

manifesto-definition1
As we wrote in It Starts With Food, “We have a theory about food that directly influences the rest of this book. The food that you eat either makes you more healthy or less healthy. Those are your options.”

Of course, we spend the rest of the book explaining why a concept that sounds so simple is not that simple at all in practice. That’s why our Good Food recommendations are based on not just one foundation, but a combination of three:

Nutrition-Pyramid-Web-NEW

Based on the science as we understand it today, and our vast clinical experience with the tens of thousands of people who have completed our Whole30 program, we make some general recommendations as to which food groups may make you less healthy—including grains. Below, we’ll outline the basics of our case against consumption of grains as part of your daily diet. But until you undertake your own self-experiment (via the Whole30) for yourself, you’ll never know for sure how consumption of grains are affecting how you look, how you feel, and your quality of life.

Our general nutritional recommendations don’t include grains of any kind—no breads, cereals, pasta, rice, not even gluten-free grains or pseudo-cereal. No, not even whole grains.* While grains are technically seeds of plants in the grass family, for our purposes we’re going to lump similarly-structured pseudo-cereals in this category as well. This list includes wheat, oats, barley, rye, millet, corn (maize), rice (including wild rice), sorghum, teff, triticale, spelt, kamut, buckwheat, amaranth, and quinoa.

*Note, we are well aware that this information may run counter to everything you’ve ever been told by your parents, doctors, personal trainers, government agencies and TV advertisements. For that, however, we make no apologies… because all the people who have been selling you Whole Grains for Health all these years have been just. Plain. Wrong. We understand if this makes you kind of angry. It makes us angry too.. but that’s a topic for another post.

Refined Grains

During the refining process, the bran and the germ portion of the grain seed are removed—and so are the fiber, vitamins, and minerals present in those two layers. Any nutrients added to “fortified” grains don’t make up for what is removed during the refining process. These grains (usually refined wheat and corn) are then turned into junk and snack foods.

As critical satiety factors are missing (fiber, water, and complete protein),and calories are concentrated (making them easier for our bodies to absorb), these foods are easy to overconsume, and tend to promote cravings, blood sugar dysregulation, and unhealthy metabolic effects.

Whole Grains

While whole grains leave the bran and germ portion intact (increasing the fiber and micronutrition content compared to refined grains), they are far from nutrient-dense when you compare them to vegetables and fruit.

In a comparison* done in our New York Times bestselling book, It Starts With Food, a daily diet based on “healthy” whole grains provided more than three times the sugar and sodium as a diet featuring vegetables and fruit, but provided less fiber, potassium, and substantially less magnesium, iron, zinc, and vitamins A, B6, B12, C, D, E, and K.

*Refer to p. 109 in It Starts With Food. 

In addition, many of the minerals technically present in whole grains are not accessible to the body, thanks to anti-nutrients called “phytates” found in the bran.  These phytates grab hold of minerals like calcium, iron, zinc, and magnesium found in the whole grain, creating an insoluble and undigestible complex. As these nutrients are no longer in a usable form, they are not absorbed into the body—and you don’t get the benefits. (If you can’t use the minerals, they may as well not even be there.)

Problematic Proteins 

There are different protein structures in grains that have been found to create transient increases in gut permeability. These problematic proteins are particularly resistant to digestion, meaning they arrive in the gut largely intact. They can improperly cross the gut barrier, and may allow other substances (like incompletely-digested food particles, bacteria, or viruses) through the gut and into the body, all of which triggers an immune response and promotes systemic inflammation.

One such class of profoundly problematic proteins belongs to a group called prolamins. Gluten, a protein found in the wheat, rye, and barley, is partly made up of prolamins (in wheat, for example, that prolamin is called gliadin).

Non-gluten grains (like corn and oats) contain different prolamins (and other compounds) that may be similarly irritating. While these protein fractions and compounds have not yet been as well studied as gluten, it’s fair to say that they have a significant potential to create similar undesirable effects on your gut function and immune status.

The interaction between foreign proteins and immune cells triggers an inflammatory response of varying degrees of severity, depending on the individual. (There is considerable person-to-person variation, though the research on individual sensitivity is still fairly incomplete.)

The inflammatory effects can show up anywhere, as anything: allergies, arthritis, asthma; autoimmune diseases like celiac, Crohn’s, lupus, multiple sclerosis, and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis; chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, ulcerative colitis, diverticulitis, psoriasis, eczema, rosacea, endometriosis; these effects can even be seen in the brain. (Inflammatory messengers in the brain are associated with depression, anxiety, and even conditions like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.)

What About Soaking, Sprouting, and Fermenting?

Ancient cultures reliant on grains for survival figured out ways to prepare them to mitigate some of the inflammatory and anti-nutrient downsides. Prolonged soaking, extended cooking, rinsing, sprouting, and fermenting have been shown to partly break down some of the phytates and some of the inflammatory proteins in certain grains. But note the words “partly” and “some.”

These preparation methods don’t guarantee a safe food product in your gut, and vegetables and fruit still provide far more nutritious benefits with none of the downsides of grains.

What About Gluten-Free Products?

Please refer to our articles on gluten-free grains and products:

It Starts With Food

These manifestos are not intended to be a comprehensive dissertation of our research or recommendations. For more information on the psychological impact of our food choices, the effects of grains on health, and scientific references used to support our position, please refer to our book, It Starts With Food.

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Comments

  1. Annette says

    I totally understand and agree with this. I am ready to give up the grains but I want to have great veggie recipes ready to replace what our family of 5 is use to eating. Where can I get these recipes?I also struggle with what my daughter is learning in school with nutrition. I want her to have good grades and listen to her teachers but I also want her to know the truth. I don’t want to create confusion or anxiety for her. Thanks!

  2. says

    Sharing this immediately. I get a lot of challenges from people when I tell them I don’t eat grains. Many that do sort of understand think it’s some form of weight loss goal that drives this. That’s when things get awkward and I have to thank them kindly for assuming my goal in life is to lose weight and clarify that I don’t eat what they eat because it’s toxic to my body (and theirs).

  3. says

    I used to believe this too, and went grain free (whole 30) after being very low carb for quite some time. Following this I looked like shit, had huge dark circles under my eyes and an existing pain in my hip joints that refused to budge. After reading Matt Stone’s 180 degree health site I put lots of carbs including grains back into my diet. My skin improved, I felt much more energy and within 24-48 hours my hip pain disappeared. I no longer obsess about food all the time or stress when I go out whether there is anything I can eat or not. I don’t believe that grains are the devil incarnate. But I do believe in balance, reasoned thought (how many billions of people live mainly off grains without any major health issues) and looking within myself and my own experience for answers rather than blindly trusting outside sources – many of whom have vested interested.

  4. pbo says

    Good article. Just one question: Doesn’t this line of thinking lead us to not consume any nuts either? I mean they contain a lot of the same anti-nutrients and digestion problems for many individuals.

    A lot of foods contain toxins and probably have something good and not so good for us. I think gluten grains or make sense to remove as I believe the bad out way the good plus there is more science to back it, but eliminating something, for most, like rice may not be the best option, and might cause many to fall off the wagon.

    Just something to think about. Would love you thoughts.

  5. Tyler Healey says

    I generally agree that I diet **based** on grains is probably sub-optimal nutritionally, but I’m not yet sure that they’re as bad as they’re made out to be. I’m sure people with sensitive digestion or gluten intolerance would absolutely be better served to avoid them entirely. But for people without such problems it seems the argument against grains is much weaker. At that point it seems to be reduced to the idea that they *could* cause some inflammation problems (although you might not be able to measure it for sure) and that the nutrient density is low relative to vegetables.

    But now we’re getting into optimizations of individual meals. What if I had a meal comprised of a heap of vegetables, some good meat, and some quality fresh bread from a local bakery? At that point it seems like the only argument is something like “the bread is just adding extra calories without much nutrition”, which might be an adequate reason for a person trying to lose weight, but what if I’m not? It’s not like the bread is completely devoid of nutrition or that it erases the nutrition in the rest of the food I just ate. For that matter the endorphins released from the enjoyment of the bread might yield a net positive health result.

    I just wish the science was more clear cut on the gut permeability, inflammation, auto-immune issues, especially for people with no known gluten intolerance. If the “grains are harmful” argument proves not to be true, or to be very small, then it seems like a lot of fuss based on purely a “grains are sub-optimal” argument. If that’s the case then it seems like a reasonable recommendation would be “don’t base your meals and your overall diet around grains” not “avoid grains completely”.

  6. Jackie says

    We are all experiments of one. I, my husband, my family, my friends and scores of patients have seen unbelievable health improvement getting grains (and all the rest of the stuff you let go in the Whole 30 program) out of our diets, but hey, there are so many people with differing opinions. If you can’t seem to give them up for whatever reason, don’t worry, keeping eating them. We’ll all enjoy our lives and you can enjoy yours.

  7. says

    Great article! I have already been trying to cut grains from my diet and eat more fruit. They are very hard for me to give up. Thank you for the great article! This gives me a little more motivation to give up grains and increase my fruit intake.

  8. Whitefox says

    Tyler,

    Certainly in some form of moderation grains may not cause physiologically noticable problems for some people. As long as a grain forms a fairly insignificant amount of your normal caloric intake, it’s likely not a problem from a nutrient-density perspective. Perhaps it’s not even a problem from an inflammatory perspective if you’re eating grains on rare occasions like a dessert option. I can, however, highlight some extra info that may make those bread-servings a little less frequent.

    1. 1/3 of people are gluten sensitive = subconscious autoimmune reaction = not good
    2. 100% of people –> gluten –> zonulin release –> increased intestinal permeability = autoimmune potential (continuum of time = longer for gluten intolerant, then gluten sensitive, brief for non-sensitive people, on the scale of minutes). Still, not a great thing especially if sick etc.
    3. Gluten’s effects can remain for up to 15 days (read this in Robb Wolf’s book, don’t know what exactly he meant by it – perhaps he’s talking about gluten –> transglutaminase antibodies, which is the broad method by which gluten can cause/exacerbate autoimmune disorders).

    Lastly, endorphins can be released more by other compounds like dark chocolate – there is some evidence that gluten fragments may have an opioid effect on humans, though it’s not proven, but why risk bread addiction when you can just eat dark chocolate?

    That being said, nobody’s making me give up molten chocolate lava cakes when I go out to restaurants. Ain’t nobody got time for that. So enjoy the moderation bread etc, just space it out adequately and keep it short and “sweet”. Good luck

  9. says

    This is a great article. Any article that provides information on the truth behind grains is awesome. I gave up grains about 2 years ago and have noticed amazing results. When I quit eating grains it wasn’t because I was overweight but because I read similar articles and it just made sense to me. In my first 6 months of eating a Paleo diet I only lost 5 pounds but my body was transformed. The most noticeable difference was in my face. I no longer had a puffy face. I was ecstatic. I also always had an irritable stomach, especially after a hard workout. This is also a thing of the past. Doctors told me for years that everything was normal. I’m a firm believer that everyone owes to themselves to question conventional wisdom and test things out for themselves. Results are results.

  10. says

    @Ricky, you can check out Melissa and Dallas’ book, It Starts With Food, for a boatload of references from the scientific literature.

  11. Saranya says

    What about if you play a sport? I play tennis and my coach always says to eat a large carb meal (pasta, spaghetti, etc) the night before so that you will use it when you play the next day. I definitely noticed an improvement in my stamina when I followed his advice. The day of, I usually eat fruits and veggies and a small amount of protein (peanut butter, etc.) What is a good replacement for carbs from bread or pasta for athletes?

  12. Hajar says

    Actually phytate in the bran can be broken down by natural yeast …… yeast from the air n everywhere around us, not from the “lab”. Traditional cultures survived on sourdough breads, once industries started producing yeast then problems came. Bread that has been made properly is more nutritious and there is no problems in the gut. I used to believe that bread was evil, but it didn’t make sense cuz we have been eating it for thousands of years then i found a website thebreadgeek.com and everything makes sense. I like the concept of the paleo but its seems almost like the “real foods” diet but without the bread.

  13. Katie N says

    I’m very curious about this. I have slowly been eliminating foods from my diet to be healthier and just last week really began being strict about my diet. I have eliminated sugar, dairy, most processed foods and flour from my diet. In the past when I have given up all flour and done a low carb diet, my body did not respond well. In the numerous times that I’ve tried it, I have had chronic night time leg cramps, so bad that I do not sleep well. I decided this time around to allow myself sprouted grain bread in the morning with avocado and an egg. I have a salad for lunch then a reasonable dinner of protein and vegetables. So far I feel great. And as a side note, I’ve been dealing with chronic plantar fasciitis for 3+ years, which seems to be going away (I’ve had two days with little to no pain in the past week). Would you know what is missing from my diet with past low carb diets that would cause the cramps?

  14. says

    Where is the science behind this? You speak of science and “clinical experience” then don’t back up those claims with actual data. The fact is, the largest and best clinical studies we have to date show that eating a diet that includes whole grains is a healthy way to eat. There’s just no large-scale clinical study to back up your grain-free claims.

    Do I think an excessive amount of carbs and sugars makes people fat? Absolutely. Do I advocate a “real food” diet? You betcha. But if you’re going to tout the science of “no grains” to market your program, at least do people a favor and tell the whole story. This is a good place to start: http://www.annualreviews.org/doi/full/10.1146/annurev-publhealth-032013-182351

  15. Julie says

    I am trying the AIP diet in ernest to try to manage a subclinical autoimmune diseas (Hashimotos Thyroiditis). I took about a month slowly weening myself off of various foods until I went completely AIP about about 1.5 weeks ago.

    During the weening process I felt pretty good alternating eliminating one food group one week and another the next. Now on the 100% AIP diet I feel really lousy. The last 2 days I had stomach upset and a lot of bloating. For some reason my body doesnt respond well to eating large portions of non-starchy vegatables as a meal with or without protein. Additionally, when I eat a lot of protein it just sits there like a rock. I also feel more lithargic the last few days.

    Honestly, I dont know if its doing anything for my sub-clinical Hashimotos since my only symptom is hair thinning, dry skin and a diminished ovarian reserve (I know I have it due to results of antibody test). I hope its doing something because I feel MUCH worse then I did when I was occassional eating grains, and frequent dairy and legumes.

  16. Jennifer says

    For nursing moms, I do think soaked oats is really helpful. I put 1 cup of organic oats in 4 cups of water and 2 TBSP of whey, let sit in a crockpot overnight with a timer that cooks it 4 hours on low so it is ready when I wake up. It really seems to boost my milk supply and does not bother my stomach like oatmeal used to; not to mention having no time to prepare anything, this is a godsend. Also, everyone (and your book) attends to extra calories when pregnant, which is only 100-200, but NO ONE addresses that you need 500-700 extra when nursing. A higher protein diet helps a lot, but the addition of oats seems to help, too. I found being pregnant EASY to the difficulties of nursing in terms of needing more food, less time to prepare it, blood sugar levels, etc.