Cereal Killer: Are Grains Really That Bad for You?

(note: I wrote this little throw-down a few years back in my pre-Fitness Nerd days. A lot of nerd herders have been asking me about grains lately, so I thought I’d dust it off, update it, put a posy on it, and share it with all y’all. Keep in mind that Wheat Belly hadn’t come out when I wrote this. I’m saving that gem of a tome–not to mention the gluten issue in general–for its own column.)

Everyone loves a good villain. Be it Darth Vader, Chris Christie, or Cruella De Vil, we feel better when we have someone to collectively hate. The same holds true for nutrition. It’s great to have one evil, toxic food out there to despise, because if we can avoid that food, all will be well in our world. Health, fitness, and longevity will fall into place, just like that.

Over the years, these supervillain foods have run the gamut from tomatoes to trans fat. Sometimes the hatred is founded, but other times, the food in question is the victim of a pointless witch hunt. For example,  the evildoer du jour, grains. While grain probably isn’t required eating, blaming America’s rising levels of obesity, diabetes, and general malaise on a little cereal is like blaming the sinking of the Titanic on an ice cube someone dropped off the promenade deck.

From what I can tell, this grain/cereal-based fear and loathing started in the Atkins “low-carb” years, when all things carbohydrate were determined to make you fat. Eventually, people started to figure out that you need carbs to survive, given they are the body’s primary source of fuel, so low-carb programs such as the South Beach Diet—and even Atkins—began putting emphasis on the reintroduction of fruits and vegetables into your eating plan.
But not so much with the grains. The superfood of the 1980s Pritikin era is today’s toxic enemy number one. My guess is that there are two reasons for this. First, celiac disease and other forms of gluten intolerance—the body’s unwillingness to process a certain kind of protein found in wheat, barley, and rye—had become a morning-show talking point. Second, paleo, or primal, diets had come into vogue. For those not in the know, paleo dieting stems from the theory that people should eat the way our hunter-gatherer ancestors did, which means mostly fruits, veggies, and meat, while avoiding agriculturally generated foods such as grains and dairy.
Although Atkins, gluten intolerance, and paleo dieting all work hard to instill the notion that grains are problem-causers with little nutritional value, I don’t buy it. Grain just doesn’t deserve the across-the-board vilification it’s getting. In moderation, for most people, it’s a healthy part of a balanced diet.
But before I explain my thinking, I want to make a few things clear.
  1. I don’t think grains are the be-all and end-all of nutrition. I wholeheartedly agree that the old USDA Food Pyramid, with its “6 or more servings of breads and cereals,” was completely absurd. The recently revised pyramid, however, with its “3 ounces of whole grains” per day is much more realistic.
  2. I concede that some people genuinely need to avoid grains—or at least gluten—but this is a small population and the fact that they’re gluten-intolerant doesn’t mean we all should go without. I, personally, have lactose issues and keep cow’s-milk products to a minimum, but that’s just my body. While I’m not a huge dairy advocate, for me to categorically rule out cheese and yogurt for the entire human race would be absurd. If you have a gluten intolerance or celiac disease or suspect you have one of these things, you certainly should be tested, but that doesn’t mean the rest of us should toss out our buckwheat pancake mix.
  3. If primal eating works for you, congratulations. Carry on! I don’t think people need grains, especially if they’re eating nuts and legumes, which can be extremely similar nutritionally. However, to pointlessly attack a perfectly nutritious food rankles me. This post isn’t intended as an attack on grain-free eating. It’s intended to defend grain. It may become a bit aggressive at times, but sometimes the best defense is a good offense.
With that in mind, let’s get started.
What is grain?
For the purposes of this post, grains—or cereals—are the seeds of certain types of grasses. Better-known grains include wheat, barley, rice, oats, rye, and corn. In their whole form, they can be rich in vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates (including fiber), and, to some degree, protein. Whole wheat is a great source of manganese, tryptophan, magnesium, and fiber. Brown rice has all that plus selenium. Whole-grain oats add vitamin B1 and phosphorus to that list.
There are also studies, such as this one in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showing that “whole-grain consumption was associated with a modest reduced risk” of colorectal cancer. And at least seven different studies also indicate that people who ate three servings of whole grains a day have a 20 to 30 percent lower risk of both cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes than those who ate less.
Presumably, the people in the “ate less” group consumed refined grains, which are bad news. To refine a grain, you strip it of its bran (the outer shell filled with fiber) and its germ (the little nubby thing inside filled with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants). You’re left with a nutrient-poor blob of un-fiber-regulated carbohydrates. The most common forms of refined grain are white flour and white rice. Without the fiber to slow absorption, refined grains can create insulin spikes, which in turn lead to excess body fat and diabetes. This is why eating whole grains is crucial. People opposed to eating grains often jumble whole and refined products together in their arguments, so in your research, please keep in mind that there is a vast nutritional difference between the two. In fact, some scientists theorize that Western societies’ prolonged use of refined grains, which are more gluten-dense than whole grains, could be the reason that celiac disease is on the rise. 
Why are these carbs so complex?
The main thing that separates grain from most fruit or veggies is that grain consists primarily of complex carbohydrates, whereas produce tends to be a combination of complex carbs and simple carbs.
Simple carbs, or sugars, are single molecules that break down into glucose (the body’s primary fuel) quicker. Complex carbs are three or more simple carbs linked together, so the body needs to break them down into simple carbs before it converts them into glucose. The benefit of this is that complex carbs can provide more of an energy slow drip because they take longer to enter the system.
Other primarily-complex-carb-based foods include legumes and tubers such as potatoes and yams, but even if you skip those, complex carbs are nearly impossible to avoid. They tend to show up in most carb-based foods. In broccoli, 50% of the digestible carbs are complex. Even a medium-sized banana contains 10 grams of digestible complex carbs.
Blame it on the farmers?
One of the main criticisms anti-grainers have of grain is that humans didn’t start eating the stuff until the Neolithic revolution. Their thinking is that we spent our first 190,000 years hunting and gathering and we’ve only been farming from the last 10,000 years. Therefore, our bodies aren’t suited for grains.
The problem is, grinding stones discovered in Italy, Russia, and the Czech Republic suggest that humans have actually been eating bread for more like 30,000 years, which technically gave us another 20,000 to get used to it. And even if you choose to discount this inconvenient discovery, if we apply the naughty farmer theory, this means we should also avoid all tropic fruit, given humans probably only got to Polynesia about 40,000 years ago. Furthermore, penicillin and various other medicines pioneered in the last couple centuries would be completely out of the question. And those heavily engineered tubs o’ sports powders and potions? Forgetaboutit! 
Also, as I previously stated, the parts of grains that we eat are seeds—and they’re strikingly similar to legumes and nuts, which Homo sapiens have been snacking on for millennia. And the argument that humankind became weaker and more prone to disease at the advent of grain-based agriculture grossly oversimplifies the situation. People were establishing permanent settlements, which they’d never done before, so there was a lot of trial and error, including reduced physical activity, a lack of sanitation know-how, and living in larger groups in close proximity to livestock, which is a far greater source of disease than barley. (Unless you convert it to beer, but that’s another article.)
But you still want to blame the seeds? Well, technically, you might have a point. Suddenly, humans had easy access to one food source but no knowledge of nutrition, so of course, they were going to eat too much of it. If apples and asparagus were as easy to grow and preserve as rice, wheat, and corn, we’d probably have eaten too much of those instead and all be suffering from pectin and sulfur issues.
Pooh-poohing fiber
Many anti-grainers claim that the body doesn’t really need as much fiber as you’d think, thus eliminating one of whole grain’s primary draws. The problem is, they have nothing to base this theory on. One popular primal-eating blogger, who I won’t mention by name except to say it rhythms with “Clark Grisson,” points to this article in Science Daily entitled “Scientists Learn More About How Roughage Keeps You ‘Regular.'” (5) He points out this quote: “When you eat high-fiber foods, they bang up against the cells lining the gastrointestinal tract, rupturing their outer covering. What we are saying is this banging and tearing increases the level of lubricating mucus. It’s a good thing.”
He then goes on to mock the scientist for claiming this is a “good thing,” basically because he doesn’t like the sound of having his precious little GI tract dinged up. Apparently, the fact that the breakdown of bodily tissue can occasionally be a good thing bothers this blogger. I wonder what he’d think if he found out that lifting kettlebells (and other heavy objects) actually tears down muscle tissue. Heaven forbid?
And if the tearing up of cell lining is categorically a bad thing, that means we’d have to cut out other high-fiber food as well, including avocados, legumes, parsnips, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and that evilest of all evil veggies, broccoli. Arguments regarding soluble fiber versus insoluble fiber don’t hold up either, considering you get a mixed bag of both kinds with the various fruits, vegetables, and grains out there.
If you’re still not sold on the benefits of fiber, have a look at this reference list for a rather pro-fiber entry in the Oregon State University’s Micronutrient Information Center. Good luck debating the relevance of 160 separate studies and scholarly papers.
Toxic shockers!
Another concern is that grains contain a number of toxins, including lectins and phytic acid. Let’s have a look at these two.
Phytic acid is a form of phosphorus found in many seeds, including grains, legumes, and nuts. It can be an antinutrient in that it binds to some minerals and prevents absorption. If that were the entire story, I could see why phytic acid would be viewed as a serious threat—but it’s not.
First off, there’s not as much phytic acid in grains as there is in almonds, Brazil nuts, or tofu—all considered healthy foods in many anti-grain circles.
Second, there are a host of potential benefits to phytic acid. It’s been shown to ward off osteoporosis. It’s an antioxidant that has prevented cancer in animal tests. It’s been shown to lower glucose response in diabetes patients.
Third, even if it were a serious threat, you have to have an incredibly nutrient-poor diet for the mineral-blocking to be an issue—like third-world poor. And phytic acid is neutralized by cooking, fermenting, or sprouting, so if it’s really an issue for you, you can eliminate it—and still get the nutritional benefits—by buying sprouted-grain breads and cereals.
Lectins are sugar-binding proteins present on most things we eat. True, they’re more prevalent in grains, legumes, and dairy, but they’re also highly evident in foods from the nightshade family, including tomatoes and eggplant, so if you decide lectins are the reason you want to stop eating grains, you’ll probably be eliminating a number of other foods.
Anti-grain types point to lectins as being toxic, and while this is true to some degree, I couldn’t find a single solid study or theory that justifies wiping out grains to solve the problem.
One study that gets pointed to a lot is “Lectin-Based Food Poisoning: A New Mechanism of Protein Toxicity” in the online journal PLoS ONE. It confirms “Lectins potently inhibit plasma membrane repair, and hence are toxic to wounded cells. This represents a novel form of protein-based toxicity, one that, we propose, is the basis of plant lectin food poisoning.” However, there are several different types of lectin and the thesis—as well as the execution—of this study centers around the notion that “certain improperly cooked vegetables” can cause the poisoning. It has nothing to do with grains.
Furthermore, although it’s never been scientifically proven, it is generally accepted that the toxic nature of lectins is curbed by cooking them. And while I don’t know many people who eat raw wheat, I know many people, primal eaters included, who chow down on lectin-heavy goodies such as raw nuts and tomatoes.
That said, in the same way people can have gluten intolerances, it’s highly likely that they can have lectin intolerances, so it is something to consider if you have one of the dozens of symptoms some anti-lectin people pin to the protein, including obesity, schizophrenia, ADD, and pretty much anything else you want to throw at it.
The Kitchen Sink of Miscellaneous Villainy
But these aren’t the only attacks made on grains. If there’s a flaw in the human condition, inevitably, someone will blame wheat, corn, or rice. Usually, the attack is based on, well, I’m not sure what it’s based on because relevant scientific research is a little thin when it comes to the evils of consuming a moderate amount of whole grains. However, when a study is cited, if you take the time to read it, you discover that it has nothing whatsoever to do with grains.
For example, one popular primal-eating Web site claims eating grains can cause “inflammation” and then points to an article in Science Daily titled, “Low-Carb Diet Reduces Inflammation and Blood Saturated Fat in Metabolic Syndrome.” 
The title alone explains that this is a study about how low-carbohydrate diets help to reduce inflammation in obese people. I’m not sure how that means grains in a healthy body will cause inflammation. Just because one nutrient has therapeutic properties in certain situations doesn’t mean another nutrient is toxic.It’s not just bad science, it’s stupid. Furthermore, if you do read the study, you’ll see it was a 12-week program, not a lifetime nutritional plan, in which low-fat and low-carb diets were compared. And even though the low-carb diet provided a greater decrease of inflammation, the low-fat diet, which contained 56% carbs, decreased some inflammation as well. So how could carbs be the problem?
And there’s no mention of grains—particular whole grains—whatsoever in the study.
There’s also this report in Science Daily about a study out of Sweden showing that type 2 diabetes patients showed more improvement on a paleo diet than a Mediterranean diet. That’s great news for diabetes sufferers out there and, again, I think paleo eating can be perfectly healthy, but once you’ve abused your system to the point that you have type 2 diabetes or you’re close to getting it, you’re playing by a whole different set of nutritional rules. The carbohydrates that a fit, active person needs to push their exercise regime can, admittedly, wreck havoc with someone whose ability to process glucose properly has been shot to pieces.
Anti-grainers also point to this review article in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition discussing “Low-carbohydrate nutrition and metabolism.” In truth, it does make some good points for lowering carb intake if you live a sedentary lifestyle. However, it makes no mention of grains and it features a large section on “Low-carbohydrate diets and exercise” in which it plainly states, “Therapeutic use of ketogenic (low carb) diets should not limit most forms of physical activity, with the caveat that anaerobic performance (i.e., weight lifting or sprinting) may be limited by lower-muscle glycogen concentrations.”
If this was the Real Lazy-Ass Nerd blog, I might let that slide, especially considering it says “therapeutic use,” meaning “temporary and controlled use,” but I’m not writing for a bunch of slackers. I’m writing for you, the ones who lift weights or run or jump around to One Direction or whatever else you do, so why on earth would I validate a way of eating that might limit your performance?
Americans got off to a bad start with grains. Lack of knowledge and an aggressive agriculture lobby arranged it so we ate too many of them in their worst possible form for too long. But we’re better informed now and, as usual, moderation seems to be the shining path. Should you go through half a loaf of Wonder Bread daily? No. Is it okay to have a sandwich on sprouted rye for lunch and maybe a handful of Triscuits with hummus for a snack? Of course. It’s important to do your own research and make your own nutritional choices, but just because you’re doing that, it doesn’t necessarily mean you always need to go against the grain.