Tipping Points No. 42

Part II: What’s wrong with grains?

By Louisa Enright | May 18, 2012

Paleo Diet advocates argue that humans are genetically wired to eat meat, foraged vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds. Paleo peoples, they argue, did not eat grains, legumes, or dairy and were, as described in Part I of this series, superbly healthy.

What is it about grains that makes so many, varied researchers (see Part I) forbid us to consume grains or caution us to prepare them properly if we do?

First, we’re eating too many grains on a daily basis. Luise Light, M.S., Ed.D., wrote “What To Eat,” in part, to make the case that Americans are eating way too many grains. As detailed in Tipping Points 12, Light was hired by the USDA to produce the 1980 food guide. Light’s team of scientists concurred that two (women/children) to three (men) daily servings of whole grains were optimal. A serving is usually one piece of bread or one-half cup. When Light sent the new food guide to the office of the Secretary of Agriculture (a political appointee), it came back changed: grain servings now numbered six to 11. Light was horrified, furious, and feared, especially, that the alteration would increase national risks of obesity and diabetes.

William David, M.D., a preventive cardiologist who recently published “Wheat Belly,” a New York Times bestseller, describes how many feet grain products occupy in the average grocery store. How much of your grocery store does the bread aisle, the cereal aisle, the pasta aisle, the cracker aisle, the cookie aisle, the chip aisle, the baking aisle, the wheat products in the fresh and frozen food cases, and the store bakery occupy? How many servings of grains are you eating daily?

Secondly, grains are mostly carbohydrate. Wheat, David writes, is “70 percent carbohydrate by weight, with protein and indigestible fiber each comprising 10 to 15 percent” and with a tiny bit of fat rounding out the package. Today, a host of American nutritional “experts” promote eating whole-grain products as they are complex carbohydrates, unlike simple sugars.

But, David writes that the carbohydrate in wheat is split between amylopectin A (75 percent) and amylose (25 percent). Amylopectin A is “efficiently digested by amylase to glucose, while amylose is much less efficiently digested, some of it making its way to the colon undigested.” Amylopectin A is the most digestible of the amylopectin forms found in plants, which means that wheat increases blood sugar more than other complex carbohydrates. In effect, “eating two slices of whole wheat bread is really little different, and often worse, than drinking a can of sugar-sweetened soda or eating a sugary candy bar.” Indeed, the glycemic index of whole grain bread (72) is higher than sucrose (59) or of a Mars bar (68).

Third, grains, like all plants, have developed powerful — and mostly underestimated — chemical properties in order to carry out their life agendas. Rob Wolf, in “The Paleo Solution,” notes that if you eat a grain, “that’s it for the grain.” But, grains don’t go down “without a fight” and grains are “remarkably well equipped for chemical warfare.”

Wolf does a really good job of explaining the adverse impact on humans of the chemicals in grains — information that is both widely available and, for the most part, ignored. This subject is complicated: I can only try to summarize the highlights. Hopefully, you will investigate more deeply, especially if you are having digestive problems, arthritis, diabetes, neurological problems, or infertility.

All grains, writes Wolf, contain a variety of proteins, called lectins. These proteins cause more damage when derived from the gluten-containing grains — wheat, rye, barley and oats. Lectins are “not broken down in the normal digestive process,” which leaves “large, intact proteins in the gut.” Grains also contain protease inhibitors, which “further block the digestion of dangerous lectins.”

Serious problems occur when undigested proteins “are transported intact through the intestinal lining.” For one thing “these large, intact protein molecules are easily mistaken by the body as foreign invaders like bacteria, viruses, or parasites,” so the body begins to create antibodies to attack them. In addition, the undigested lectins damage the intestinal lining during passage, which allows “other proteins to enter the system,” and the body creates antibodies for them. These antibodies can attach themselves to organs and, even, your brain. Attachment causes a “wholesale immune response” that destroys the tissue of that organ.

When the intestinal wall is damaged, writes Wolf, the “chemical messenger, cholecystokinin (CCK) is not released — so the gall bladder and the pancreas malfunction, which results in nondigestion of the fats and proteins we have eaten. Removing the gall bladder is the mainstream solution, but this procedure is akin to “killing the ‘canary in the coal mine.’” Wolf believes removing grains from the diet and allowing the gut to heal is a better solution.

Grains, notes Wolf, also contain antinutrients, like the phytates, which help prevent premature germination of the grain. Phytic acid, in humans, binds to calcium, magnesium, zinc and iron, which means your body can’t absorb these minerals. Malabsorption is one reason ancient peoples who started settled agricultural lives “lost an average of six inches in height.” To partially mitigate the impact of phytic acid, the Weston A. Price Foundation advocates grains be soaked, sprouted or fermented.

Nora T. Gedgaudas, CNS, CNT, in “Grains: Are They Really a Health Food?: Adverse Effects of Gluten Grains” (May/June 2012, Well Being Journal), notes that grains contain goitrogens, which are substances that inhibit the thyroid. She also notes that “chronic carbohydrate consumption, in general, depletes serotonin stores and greatly depletes the B Vitamins required to convert amino acids into many needed neurotransmitters” — which may be a cause of today’s “rampant serotonin deficiencies, clinical depression, anxiety, and some forms of ADD/ADHD in our populations.”

Fourth, grains are addictive. Wolf says grains “contain molecules that fit into the opiate receptors in our brain….the same receptors that work with heroin, morphine, and Vicodin.” Gedgaudas says the morphine-like compounds in gluten-containing grains, called exorphins, are “quite addictive” and leave “many in frank denial of the havoc that gluten can wreak.” She calls gluten a “cereal killer.” Davis agrees and writes that grains can produce the same vicious circle of addiction and withdrawal that crack cocaine does.

Fifth, and maybe the most important reason of all, as Davis explains in “Wheat Belly,” is how since the 1950s, the wheat that humans have eaten for the past several centuries has been radically changed by industry to increase yield and to allow patents. These changes have introduced gene changes that “are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of genes apart” from the pre-1950s wheat. Wheat now contains a new “protein/enzyme smorgasbord” that has never been tested on humans.

Davis warns that if you eliminate wheat for several weeks and try to eat it again, you will likely have extreme reactions. In his clinical practice, however, eliminating wheat has consistently produced weight loss, the loss of the dangerous “wheat belly,” and the cessation of many chronic conditions.

In Tipping Points 32, I discussed Konstantin Monastyrsky’s 2008 book, “Fiber Menace.” Monastyrsky believes one should eliminate grains gradually as the body has to adjust, which is what I am doing. Swedish Bitters, a tonic made from greens, helps with any constipation that ensues with the cessation of eating a lot of grain fiber.

Louisa Enright, Ph.D., cultural studies. The MainelyTipping Points essays are her blog http://louisaenright.wordpress.com.

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Comments (1)
Posted by: Lawrence Butler | May 20, 2012 15:41

Love this argument. Grains bad, Paleo diet good. Paleo humans healthy. Except they died on average at age 35, and few women made it past child bearing. That is if you believe research based on bones of people who died 10,000 years ago. But, point made and missed: too many carbs, too much sugar, and more importantly, too little exercise, is killing people today. Not grains.  But, what fun is life without carbonated malted barley beverages?  Or lobster mac and cheese? Sigh.

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