I’ve been duped. We all have.
For me, it started innocently in a college food science course in 1995. At the time we still had the first iteration of the food pyramid guide recommended by the USDA. We were essentially taught that this food pyramid was the pinnacle of nutrition; where breads and cereal grains were supposed to constitute nearly half of your caloric intake. The term “healthy whole grains” was barely starting to catch on.
Fast forward to 2011 when, for the first time since that college course, I started researching nutrition and came across Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes.
Imagine the oh-no-they-di’int look on my face when I found out my food science course was anything but science (actually more like bad science). That fats, especially saturated fat, was innocent all along, wrongly accused of causing heart disease. And that the refined carbs, including the breads and cereal grains that the USDA continues to recommend with impunity, are the more likely culprit. Taubes goes on to implicate refined carbs as the most likely cause of modern diseases including heart disease, Alzheimer’s and cancer.
(As an aside, Good Calories, Bad Calories is not an easy read. It’s not a book you curl up with on a rainy day. No, this is a book that you keep on your porcelain bookshelf precisely for the days when you’re hunkering down for a tussle with a high-friction stool. For a more accessible book covering mostly the same ground, check out his sequel, Why We Get Fat: And What To Do About It. Though I haven’t read it, I understand it was written with a more general audience in mind.)
Grains Can Bite Me
The reasons are three-fold:
Grains have chemical defense systems, including lectins, that irritate and can ultimately “bite” holes in the intestinal lining. A damaged gut lining not only makes it impossible to absorb nutrients in food, it puts us at exceptionally high risk for many autoimmune diseases and disorders including type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, lupus, depression, infertility, and some cancers.
Grains contain antinutrients such as phytates which bind powerfully to metal ions like calcium, zinc, iron calcium and copper. When phytates attach to these minerals in our body, they are unavailable for absorption. Osteoporosis is one of many health problems that can result.
Grains are addictive which makes it all the more difficult to kick the habit. Wolf writes:
Grains, particularly the gluten-containing grains, contain molecules that fit into the opiate receptors in our brain. You know, the same receptors that work with heroin, morphine, and Vicodin?
Gluten-ey, A Cardinal Sin
Then there’s the gluten problem. Many grains (including wheat, rye, barley, spelt, millet & kamut) contain gluten which is known to illicit systemic inflammation throughout the body. Chronic inflammation opens the door for a number of diseases that can affect all organs. Dr. Mark Hyman wrote a great overview of the dangers of gluten. He says:
A review paper in The New England Journal of Medicine listed 55 “diseases” that can be caused by eating gluten. These include osteoporosis, irritable bowel disease, inflammatory bowel disease, anemia, cancer, fatigue, canker sores, and rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis, and almost all other autoimmune diseases. Gluten is also linked to many psychiatric and neurological diseases, including anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, dementia, migraines, epilepsy, and neuropathy (nerve damage). It has also been linked to autism.
Later, he adds:
American strains of wheat have a much higher gluten content (which is needed to make light, fluffy Wonder Bread and giant bagels) than those traditionally found in Europe. This super-gluten was recently introduced into our agricultural food supply and now has “infected” nearly all wheat strains in America.
A Conspiracy, C-O-N…spiracy
So given this information on grains, why would the current USDA Dietary Guidelines For Americans continue to recommend whole grains?
For starters, the agriculture and health care industries have their big profits at stake. You can bet they put a lot of money into lobbying the government and its agencies to keep promoting grains. As we blindly comply by eating processed (typically grain-filled) foods, and as disease starts to set in, the pharmaceutical industry is right there to peddle their drugs to us.
If any of this is new to you, it likely sounds very conspiracy-theory-ish. But that doesn’t make it any less true. Dr. Kurt Harris sums it up nicely:
Our cultural veneration of grains literally amounts to making a virtue of necessity, as 55% of world calories consumed is from grains. A paradigm shift is possible, though, if you are willing to read some more and adopt a radical skepticism of current government, mainstream media and industry supported nutritional dogma. I was initially as skeptical as you might be, and only came to my conclusions through investigation.
Going Against The Grain
So what’s the alternative to grains? Simply eat whole foods. Real foods like fruits, vegetables, and animal proteins don’t contain any grains or gluten. Shop on the outskirts of your grocery store where all the real food is. The grain-based Frankenfood is typically in the middle of the store in boxes, bags and cans. Better yet, shop at your local farmers market where you can often find cheaper, higher quality foods.
And ween yourself off of the cereal. Being a former lifelong cereal junky, there were many days I ate it for breakfast, lunch and dinner. My personal record was 47 boxes of cereal in my pantry at one time! If I was able to kick the habit, anyone can.
If you must indulge yourself in an occasional grain fix, make it white rice. Of all grain and grain-like products, white rice is one of the most benign since the bran is removed. The anti-nutritive factors like phytates and lectins are concentrated in the bran. And rice is naturally gluten-free.
But perhaps going completely grain-free is too big of a leap for you right now. At the very least, eliminate gluten from your diet, if only to test for sensitivity as Dr. Hyman suggests. You can find a list of gluten-free foods here and here. But always check food labels for gluten-containing ingredients.
You know the old adage… Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Think twice the next time you hear the term “healthy whole grains”.
(Photo by: Peter Castleton)