Whole Grains - Really A Health Food?

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Since the blossoming of the health food movement in the 1960's, the unquestioned mantra was "refined grains bad, whole grains good." It seemed obvious at the time. I was happy to explain to friends, family and clients, that much of the nutrition in wheat, for example, was in the bran and the germ. Fiber, B-vitamins, vitamin E, were all stripped out in the making of white flour, leaving only the starch, which was then chemically bleached, to make it even whiter. By hand, I ground bags of whole wheat kernels to make whole wheat flour for home made bread. It was delicious. Many of us replaced white rice with brown rice.It was just so wholesome and natural.

Then thirty years ago I came across this piece of information: the nutrients in white rice were more available than in brown rice, even though white rice had less nutrients to begin with. I thought -- "that's interesting," but kept on eating my brown rice. But that piece of information didn't go away, it stayed stuck in the corner of my mind for all these years. Then about ten years ago, I heard a lecture by Loren Cordain, Ph.D., a researcher at Colorado State University, speak on a scientific paper that he had published, called "Cereal Grains: Humanity's Doubled Edged Sword." He freely acknowledged that civilization might never have started without cereal grains, and that we could not feed the worlds population without them. He went on to say that cereal grains were not only low in many essential nutrients, but high in anti-nutrients.

Low in nutrients? That's not what I and millions of others believed. But, compared to broccoli, or collards, on a per calorie basis, the vegetables had two and one half times the protein of wheat, five times that of brown rice. Up to twenty times the B-vitamins, 100-200 times the minerals, that whole wheat and brown rice had.

Then Dr. Cordain went on to explain the anti-nutrients. In the bran of grains, there are phytates, which bind in the digestive system with key minerals, such as calcium, magnesium, iron and zinc, to prevent their absorption. He cited a study done in Lebanon, where significant numbers of 17 year old young men entering the army, had hypogonadism, genital development of 7 year old boys. Their diet was about 50% tanoc, a whole wheat bread, which blocked the absorption of zinc which is essential for normal sexual development.

There are also enzyme inhibitors, which decrease the production of stomach produced pepsin and hydrochloric acid -- essential for the digestion of proteins and minerals. These enzyme inhibitors also suppress pancreatic enzymes, essential for digestion and assimilation.

Other anti-nutrients include alka-resorcinals which is about 1% of wheat. This substance causes DNA damage, liver and kidney damage in animal studies and has an inflammatory effect.

Also present in wheat and other grains are enzyme inhibitors. One is called alpha amylase inhibitor, which decreases the secretion of amylase, needed to digest starch. This is also about 1% of the weight in whole wheat flour. This is known to be one cause of wheat allergy.

Another enzyme inhibitor is called pyridoxine glucosides. Pyradoxine is vitamin B6. This enzyme inhibitor prevents assimilation of up to 80% of the vitamin B6 in wheat, and from any other sources of B6 in the gut at that time.

Then there are lectins. One of the most studied lectins is called wheat germ agglutinin, WGA for short. WGA is known to breech openings in the normally tight junctions of the epithelial cells lining the small intestine, causing a condition called permeable bowel, or leaky gut, which allows undigested food, yeasts and other pathogens normally killed in the gut to enter the bloodstream, potentially causing all sorts of havoc and stresses to the immune system, which can lead to countless health problems, and inflammatory conditions.

Is that enough? Sorry, we're not done yet. What about gluten? All of us are seeing more items on the grocery store shelves labeled "gluten free." Even some restaurants label certain selections as "gluten free."

What is gluten? It is a significant protein in wheat, spelt, rye, barley, kamut and triticale (a hybrid of wheat and rye). The word "glue" is derived from gluten. Some of us are old enough to remember making paste from flour and water. It was as hard as a rock when it dried. Think of how stretchy bread dough or pizza dough is. When my daughter was little and wanted chewing gum, I didn't want her to have sugary chewing gum, so I would soak whole wheat berries overnight in water until they were soft, and I would give her a big spoonful and say, "Aimee, chew these, and keep chewing them." Soon the starch, bran and germ would break down, resulting in a marble sized ball of gluten, very gum-like, which could be chewed for hours without breaking down.

Gluten is hard to digest. When it enters the bloodstream, enhanced by the permeable bowel caused by the lectins, it is in the form of gluten peptides. These are chains of amino acids that the body cannot use like other proteins which are broken down into amino acids. The immune system looks at the gluten peptides and says "We can't use you for things that amino acids are usually used for-you must be invaders." So, macrophages- a type of white blood cell of the immune system, gobble up these unusable gluten peptides, and each time that happens, antibodies to gluten are created. Anti-bodies are another type of white blood cell that signal to the macrophages that these gluten peptides need to be taken out.

In time, more and more of the immune system is diverted to scavenging for gluten peptides and other debris allowed into the bloodstream by permeable bowel caused by wheat germ agglutinin. So, the immune system may be too busy to deal with low grade infections, and inflammations like tendonitis, or developing cancer cells.

Another disabling situation that can then develop is the immune system may look at our own healthy body tissues that resemble these gluten peptides -- such as synovial tissue of the joints, intestinal villi-essential for nutrient absorption, or nervous tissue -- like the myelin sheath that surrounds nerves, or brain tissue -- and attack these otherwise normally healthy tissues that just happen to resemble these gluten peptides. this is called molecular mimicry -- a significant cause of auto-immune disorders such as, Crohn's disease, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis and fibromyalgia.

Dr. Tom O'Bryan, an expert on gluten sensitivity says that up to 75% of the population has some degree of sensitivity to gluten. It is very difficult to trace these diseases, especially cancer, back to consumption of wheat. Gluten may play a major role, or a minor role in hundreds of health problems. But it is likely playing some role.

After years of research on cereal grains, Dr. Cordain took his family off grains completely. His bottom line -- if you are a healthy person, you may be able to tolerate some cereal grains. If there is any kind of health problem you are dealing with -- including psychological, emotional issues -- you will have much better success improving these by using no cereal grains at all.

The human genome, our DNA, our anatomy, physiology and our nutritional needs, are virtually unchanged in the last 40,000 years. Another way of looking at that is if you compressed all of human history into one year, we have only been eating grains the past day. We have not evolved, like other organisms with shorter lifespans, to be able to counteract these antinutrients in grains.

Here's another issue to look at. We call whole grains "complex carbs," refined grains and sugar as "simple carbs." The mantra -- complex carbs good -- the starch turns to sugar slower than in refined carbs -- making them more desirable. The concept of complex carbs vs. simple carbs is now outdated. The more current language is high glycemic vs. low glycemic carbs. This is the ultimate sugar effect that any food has on the body. For example, the glycemic index is based on glucose equaling the number 100. White bread is 70, pretty high. But whole wheat bread, the most common choice of people wanting to use whole grains in their diet, is 69, the same as Wonder bread. Whenever a whole grain is powdered, popped, puffed, flaked or extruded into some kind of shape, it has the same effect on the body as sugar.

Sally Fallon's cookbook and nutrition book, Nourishing Traditions, describes an unpublished experiment using 3 groups of rats. The control group received the usual lab rat chow, the other two groups received either corn flakes, or the box the corn flakes came in. One by one, all the box-eating rats grew lethargic and died. But all the cornflake eating rats were dead before any of the cardboard eating rats died.

On autopsy, the cornflake eating rats had enlarged pancreas. Because of the pancreatic enzyme inhibiting effects, their pancreas enlarged to try to overcome the effects of the high glycemic grains. . . to no avail. They all soon died. Breakfast of champions? More like breakfast of chumps.

When I gave up grains, I lost 15 pounds in three months and dropped my blood pressure 20 points. Time and again in my practice I see people lose weight, reduce digestive problems, improve other health problems and in general feel healthier and happier, when they give up grains, especially the gluten bearing grains such as wheat.

Even if we don't consider all these anti-nutritional properties of grains, they are displacement foods. Calorically, they take the place of more nutrient-dense foods such as vegetables and animal proteins, and essential fats.

A case may be made for some more seed-like traditional grains such as quinoa or amaranth or wild rice. But even these fall far short of green leafy vegetables for nutritional content. And like all grains, beans, seeds and nuts, they have anti-nutrients. Why? All grains, beans, seeds and nuts are designed to sprout and grow into mature plants. Unlike animals, they can't run from predators. So they have built in mechanisms to discourage pathogens and herbivorous predators. These seeds and grains have just as strong a desire to propagate and spread their DNA as humans and animals do. These built in anti-nutrients are part of their survival package to ensure their propagation.

Some insects, mammals and birds that have much shorter lifespans than humans have evolved strategies to circumvent these built in antinutrients. But humans have had only 200-250 generations to adapt to grains -- not enough time to adapt to these nutrient challenges. While antinutrients can be reduced by soaking, sprouting, fermentation or long cooking times, we can't increase the paltry nutritional content of these foods.

Here's another problem with gluten. Perhaps you've heard of endorphins. These are substances our bodies produce from exercise and positive emotional experiences that make us feel good. These are actually opiate-like biochemicals. We are "hard-wired" to experience pleasure and wellbeing. Some foods, most notably wheat, corn and dairy products, contain similar molecules called exorphins. Gluten contains 15 distinct exorphins that produce the "comfort food" effect and are literally addictive. That is part of the reason some people have such a difficult time getting off wheat. They are addicted to their daily "fix" of opiates. One negative consequence is that these exorphins attach to the endorphin receptors on our natural killer cells, or Nk cells, that are a first line of defense for our immune system against infection and cancer. This down-regulates these cells so that they are impaired. They are literally too "stoned" to operate effectively.

Give grain free a try, or at least gluten free, for at least 30 days. It is a short time compared to the rest of your life. You may be surprised by the benefits you feel.

So, what do you eat if you don't have bread, toast, pasta, rice, crackers, cookies or pastries? Have vegetables, put tomato sauce over steamed or sauted vegetables instead of pasta. Have modest amounts of wild caught fish and grass fed meats and high omega three eggs. Eat low glycemic fruits such as berries. Have healthy fats from fish, fish oils, butter, animal fats and coconut oil. For baked goods, use coconut flour -- 90% of the carbs are in the form of fiber.

I used to be a dairy farmer. Every farmer knows that if you want to fatten an animal, you feed it grains. If you want lean meat with good essential fats, you feed them grass -- the animal version of vegetables.

Give it a try. Try a no grain or low grain diet. See for yourself how you feel. You might be surprised.