Recently, the news feed on my iPhone was bombarded with articles like this one, this one, and this one, claiming the gluten-free diet is just a craze.
Taking it a step further, some sources were claiming going gluten-free is actually bad for your health.
As a fitness enthusiast or a consumer interested a healthy lifestyle, it can be overwhelming. Do grains save lives — or will they kill you?
In this article, I will walk you through both sides of the issue. I will also give you some practical ways to eat better as soon as you are done reading.
Can wheat and other grains be included in a healthy diet?
How do you feel about grains?
Pick a side.
Are grains the foundation of a healthy diet because they are an essential food group? Alternatively, are grains toxic carbs that cause inflammation, weight gain, and eventually, lead to an early death?
You do not want to be left out of one the biggest nutrition debates of all time.
There are two camps:
- People who eat a lot of grains (macrobiotic, vegans, and vegetarians) who believe benefits include longevity and health.
- People who either limit or avoid grains altogether (Atkins, Paleo, Whole30 advocates) because they believe not eating grains leads to a longer, healthier life
On the one hand, Harvard did connect grains with a lower risk of death in a study. Moreover, anti-gluten advocates dominate the blogs, news, and social media.
It was the first time I became aware of the rise of celiac disease over the past 60 years and joined the subculture or camp that restricted grain consumption. Yes, I went Paleo for about 18 months. However, that is not what I am talking about here, and no, I am no longer following that or any diet at the moment.
What started off as a blog post led to a self-experiment and an entirely new lifestyle. Like myself, tens of millions of Americans are conducting similar grain-free experiments after reading New York Times bestselling books like Wheat Belly.
As a result, I started my garden (which I kept up for two years before moving), joined a group of guys loosely following the CrossFit football protocol, and leaned out noticeably.
Overall, I felt good. Many other people self-report feeling too after dropping the bread and pasta.
Was I right then? Alternatively, am I right now?
More importantly, what is right for you? Should you eat grains – or not?
Let’s hash this out
There’s history between us.
Humans and grains.
Grains are ancient and still the primary source of calories for people on this planet.
While there are the common names that most person will recognize like barley, buckwheat, corn, oats, and rye, there are even more lesser-known varieties like amaranth, kamut, millet, sorghum, spelt, teff, and quinoa.
If you do not know this, the media can lead you to believe grains are a new trend or worst – a fad. Humans, even the real Paleos, have been eating some type of grain for millions of years. The cultivation of wheat was intricate in our transition from nomads who had to always be on the move to find food to what we call civilizations today.
Grain are more than gluten. They have fiber, minerals, phytonutrients, and vitamins. To be clear – when I say “grains” I am talking about the whole seed. See here:
Whole vs. refined grains
The interchange between “grains” and “carbs” fuels this debate like gas on fire.
Carbohydrates, or carbs, are sugar-based molecules found in a wide array of foods, including bread, beans, desserts, pasta, potatoes, sodas, and – yup – whole grains too.
Refined grains are stripped of their bran and germ through milling. The problem with that is all of the nutrients found in whole grains is lost, while all of the carbs are provided with added fat and salt for taste.
Great taste couple with less filling makes processed grains a danger because it is easy to eat too much, which can lead to weight gain and chronic disease.
However, you are wondering about whole grains, right?
You want to know if they are bad for you too.
The “negative” effects of grain
Some people think grains are bad for your health because they cause inflammation, intestinal damage, obesity, and more.
What does scientific research say?
A big part of the anti-grain issue claims that grains contribute to low-level inflammation as a constant immune response that causes the body to attack itself, leading to cell damage.
There are studies used to prove the point of view that grains cause inflammation.
The problem is that 44 out of 67 participants dropped out before the study was completed. The date from this study is suspect at best.
Especially when multiple notable epidemiological studies have linked consuming whole grains lower inflammation.
Understand this; a link is not proof of a causal relationship. Only controlled trials can prove this, but other controlled trials show findings either a neutral or support of the epidemiological studies mentioned. Whole grains either decrease inflammation or have no effect.
There has never been one controlled trial has shown grains increase inflammation.
The idea that inflammation is the root of all disease, and, therefore, all disease can be linked to your diet; specifically, your gut is a false premise.
It is true; food sensitivities can lead to inflammation, which eventually, along with many other factors, can cause disease.
What probably happens more times than not is: a disease causes inflammation, that amplifies other conditions or states of illness that have already begun to affect the body.
The scientific research is plentiful. We know what inflammatory markers to test.
Moreover, still, no one, not one person fully understands what this all means.
Understand this: inflammation, most likely, is not the cause of most diseases (even if there is an inflammatory component).
Followers of the anti-grain movement believe anti-nutrients and other compounds in grains damage your intestines because they block the absorption of minerals.
The research does not back up this claim. It has been found that eating various amounts of oat bran, wheat bran, and/or whole wheat flour had no significant effects of absorption or levels of calcium, iron, or zinc in the blood.
Wondering what anti-nutrients are?
- Lectins: Proteins that bind to cell membranes can cause intestinal tissue damage if consumed in large amounts or uncooked. These proteins also aid the body in specific functions like cell-to-cell adherence, controlling inflammation, cell death programming. Lectins also may reduce tumor growth and lower the chances of certain diseases.
- Phytic acid: The storage form of phosphorus, binds minerals in the digestive tract, hindering absorption. It can cause a nutrient deficiency in really large amounts. However, this would call for massive amounts of unleavened bread to be a reason for alarm. Again, in normal amounts, phytic acid may have some health benefits.
- Protease inhibitors: When raw or undercooked grains may have significant amounts, enzymes that break down protein are blocked interfering with protein absorption. If cooked appropriately, grains have little protease inhibitors, and the remaining have anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory properties.
So, when eating in very large amount or not cooked properly, anti-nutrients can be a problem. However, if you eat a variety of foods and vary your sources of carbohydrates, you are most likely fine.
The studies on gluten that show it causes permeation in the intestinal lining have all been conducted ex vivo, meaning outside the body in an unnatural environment.
When studied in vivo, in the body, which is more practical, sufferers of Crohn’s, IBS, and ulcerative colitis saw GI symptoms improve when consuming grains.
To be clear, those are the people who are most susceptible to the alleged intestinal damage caused by grains.
Another thing, all plants like broccoli and spinach, contain anti-nutrients. Moreover, if you are still worried, so does dark chocolate, green tea, nuts, seeds, and red wine. Yes, it is true.
Did you know fiber is also an anti-nutrient?
Do you like seafood? Me too. I do not stop eating crab legs because the shell is designed to make it hard for me digest. All things in nature resist being eaten.Anti-nutrients are not a sound argument for not eating grains.
Anti-nutrients are not a sound argument for not eating grains.
Gluten is a protein with viscoelasticity properties in grains like barley, rye, and wheat.
Gluten exposure stimulates the body’s immune system to attack cells in the small intestine in people with celiac disease.
If consumed, over time, the gut becomes more permeable, bacteria, toxins, and undigested food find their way through the organ’s lining. This can cause cancer, diarrhea, nutrient deficiencies, and osteoporosis.
Living gluten-free is the only remedy for people with celiac disease.
The current challenge with celiac is the diagnosis. None of the blood screens or intestinal biopsies are 100 percent accurate. It is the reason estimates on the rate of celiac range from 0.3-1.2 percent of the population and estimates range has high as 3 percent.
1 percent of the American population is quoted most by experts.
Then there’s another 10-20 percent of people who may have some degree of gluten intolerance. Initially, the condition, non-celiac gluten sensitivity or NCGS, seemed to result in a lot of the same symptoms seen in celiac like bloating, diarrhea, and pain. The difference: there is no intestinal damage or biological markers of an autoimmune disease.
However, after performing more rigorous tests, the researcher who coined NCGS and his colleagues concluded NCGS does not exist.
Without confirmation, you have little evidence to encourage the elimination of gluten from your diet.
If you do get rid of gluten, you have to be careful not to fall into the unhealthy side effects you were trying to get away from. Packaged food promoting gluten-free are laden with extra fat and sugar to make up for the tastes that are lost when gluten is removed.
When people experience gluten sensitivity symptoms like bloating, gas, and pain, it is real. It is just not called NCGS. Researchers now think it’s “FODMAPs,” or fermentable, oligo-, di-, monosaccharides and polyols.
FODMAPs are carbohydrates found in some grains and also in dairy, fruits, vegetables, and many other foods. Some people cannot digest them properly in the small or large intestine.
When this happens, water enters the gut and bacteria ferments in your colon; hydrogen is produced instead of methane (causing undesirable GI symptoms).
We cannot say that 10-20 percent of people suffer from FODMAP, yet.
What I can say is removing wheat from your diet if you suffer from NCGS-type symptoms may be wise.
Otherwise, don’t worry about it. If you can tolerate FODMAPs, the fructans in wheat may have benefits of a prebiotic.
Grains and body weight is not just in the media; research backs it. The problem is most of the research is epidemiological.
Researchers use various types of studies to understand our world. Unfortunately, in the field of nutrition, epidemiological studies are the most common as well as the weakest and least reliable of all methods.
Even still, these studies show consuming higher amounts of whole grains are linked to lower body weight.
While controlled trials have been less consistent in showing that eating whole grains lead to more fat loss, weight gain has is not reflected either.
Let’s step out of the lab, or inconclusive controlled trial data, and look at people who eat many grains.
I know this is not perfect. There are lots of variations in this data. However, we will be able to see trends that can paint a picture of how consuming grains affect weight management, for real.
Why aren’t vegans, vegetarians, and people living in less-industrialized countries (where grains are a diet staple) more overweight and obese if grains are so fattening?
The research shows the opposite. Plant-based eaters (grains are a plant) and people in regions where grains like sorghum or rice or a staple, have lower rates of obesity.
I cannot say these correlations are proof, but isn’t it likely that the trends and correlations would result in grains causing weight gain if it were true?
To be bluntly clear: Buckwheat, oats, and quinoa do not make you fat.
Originally, these whole grains and other like them are bland, high in fiber, with moderate calories and overall satisfying.
When people speak ill of carbohydrates, they are thinking about refined grains.
Corn syrup comes from whole kernel corn. Refined white flour used in pizza dough and sweets comes from whole wheat grains. Rice noodles and Rice Krispies come from Whole grain rice (before sugar or sauce in the form of corn syrup is added).
Processing foods make carbs taste really good to the point where you “can’t just eat one,” you have to have them all. Carbs are then added to cheese, condiments, meats and sauces that are all high in calories. Does this mean carbs are the problem?
Now, let’s get to it. Are whole grains good for you?
Here are the benefits of whole grains:
- High in fiber (nutrient known to help maintain a healthy GI tract)
- Helps regulate blood sugar because it is slow digesting
- Tons vitamins and minerals
- Satisfying, which helps you feel fuller, longer
Moreover, the benefits get more specific too.
Ultimately, research in variations of success shows whole grains seem to lower risk of cardiovascular disease, colorectal cancer, and diabetes. Other benefits may include improving blood sugar control, insulin sensitivity, and high blood pressure.
Do you need to eat grains?
No. No one particular food is necessarily crucial for your health.
What you do need are carbs. Your amount of carbs needed is based on your activity level.
The more you move, the more likely you do better with at least a moderate carb intake. If you do not get enough your metabolism, muscle-building hormones, and stress hormones will be affected.
If you do not move that much, have blood sugar problems, and/or are overweight/obese, then lowering your carb intake is better for you.
Start with replace carbs instead of rejecting them. Choose high-quality carbs like legumes, fruit, potatoes, sweet potatoes, squash, yams or yuca. This will give your body the carb it needs, with the added benefit of fiber and phytonutrients.
Eliminating grains all together is hard even when you have the best intentions.
Real people have work events, birthday celebrations, and family functions. When you are in a situation where someone else prepares food, not eating grains if you do not suffer from celiac or sensitivity, is not worth the trouble.
A perspective on grains for real people who want to be fit
We have become reductionist in our thinking about food. Think about what you see and hear.
“THIS FOOD is awesome because it does this.”
“THAT FOOD is bad because it does that.”
In the real world, nutrition does not work like that at all. The reality is food are a combination of both good and bad, where the outcomes are based on the whole diet, including the amount of THIS or THAT, and the person eating them.
A good general rule of thumb: avoid extremes like the position that all grains are bad.
This also goes for the idea that grains are “superfoods and you should eat a lot of them.
You will find your balance somewhere in the middle.
Most people can be healthy and fit eating a diet mix that includes whole grains (even a few refined carbs can be all good).
Determine the reward your want and compare that to the risks.
It is possible that eating wheat has a low-level of risk. It is also possible the benefits of eating whole-grain wheat outweighs those risk.
When it comes to whole foods, in general, you will find the benefits outweigh the risks.
Whenever you are trying to decide whether or not to eat food:
- Be objective and evaluate the research
- Review opinions of qualified experts on both sides with an open mind
- Self-test to know what works best for YOU
- Understand what is best for you may change over time
What to do next?
I know. I just hit you with a lot. Process it and then use this as your guide:
Eat whole, nutrient-rich foods that are minimally processed. Do this by eating lots of plants, including grains, and lean sources of proteins. You also want to limit the amount of refined grains you consume.
Cook your grains thoroughly. Lectins, phytic acid, and protease inhibitors are remarkably reduced when food is cooked well. Kidney beans, for example, have a lectin count of 20,000-70,000 units. After cooking that goes down to 200-400. Also, don’t eat too much unleavened bread.
Experiment with fermented and sprouted bread. Ezekiel bread (sprouted) and sourdough bread (fermented) have lower levels of lectins, phytates, and protease inhibitors. This increases the bioavailability of minerals and protein quality of these bread.
Think you have a problem with gluten – get tested. Make an appointment with you doctor to get help transitioning to a gluten-free diet if you are in fact suffering from celiac disease.
Focus on wheat. This seems to be the grain that causes people the most problems and has the fewest benefits. If you are GI symptoms, it makes sense to avoid wheat. However, talk to your doctor for help.
Switch it up and try other grains. Variety is not only the spice of life. It is ideal for a well-balanced diet too. Check back up at the top for the list of whole grains you can choose from. Find one you do not usually eat. Food should be fun.
Do an elimination diet challenge. Even though it is hard to pinpoint frequency of food sensitivities, they do exist. The cause GI issues and other health conditions in the body. An effective way to test for food sensitivity (grains and in general): elimination diets, where you systematically remove and reintroduce foods into the diet. Along they way, you keep track of your symptoms, looking for any changes.
Live well. By that I mean sensibly. Extreme dieting is stressful. Stress cause unhappiness, weight gain, and overall bad health. The great grain debate will go on, unfortunately. However, you have the facts. Tune it out. Eat good food with better people.