What’s the problem with grains?

What’s the problem with grains?

If you have read ‘Wheat Belly’ by Dr. William Davis then you’ll know all about the problems with wheat and gluten. However, it’s not just wheat that is detrimental to our health. Other grains contain many similar compounds to those that are problematic in wheat.


Through our own research, we feel the following are the most compelling reasons to remove wheat and other grains from your diet:


  1. Grains have low vitamin, mineral and antioxidant density.
    Grains cannot be considered a nutrient-dense food. Compared to organ meats, meat, seafood, vegetables and fruits, grains are low in bioavailable nutrients. Grains also contain large amounts of phytic acid, which stop you absorbing many of the vitamins and minerals in the grains. (Note: phytic acid reduces the absorption of a mineral in the food that it’s in, but it’s not chelating minerals from your body). Phytic acid makes a not particularly nutritious food even less nutritious. We believe you should eat the most nutrient-dense diet available to you, and replacing grains on your plate with meat, seafood, eggs or vegetables will help you achieve this goal.
  2. Grains contribute to weight gain.
    Grains contain hard to digest and incomplete protein (plant protein is typically more difficult to digest than animal protein). Most grains we eat today are highly refined such as flour, bread, pasta, couscous, cereal etc which are easy to overeat and have little nutritional content. They are also high in carbohydrate and have a high glycemic load which can contribute to weight gain. There is a big difference between completely unrefined whole grains such as oats and barley (which studies have shown do have benefits), and grain products made from refined white flour.
  3. Grains and pulses may contribute to a leaky gut.
    Gluten (the protein present in wheat and many other cereal grains) damages the intestinal lining and makes it more permeable. There are peptides derived from the digestion of gliadin, which is a part of gluten, that increase intestinal permeability. And that increase in intestinal permeability can lead to a wide variety of problems. This is called leaky gut. Leaky gut is a serious problem as it is one of the major pre-disposing factors for many modern diseases, particularly auto-immune diseases. According to Sarah Ballantyne (The Paleo Approach), some doctors and researchers are beginning to believe that gluten sensitivity may be a factor in every auto-immune disease. Even if you are not overweight but slim and feel healthy, you can still be suffering from a leaky gut that can be setting you up for health problems in the future. Lectins are a class of protein found in grains and pulses. Many other foods contain lectins but the ones in grains and pulses can be problematic as they are hard to digest, can cause gut dysbiosis, damage the cells that line the gut, open up the junctions between the cells in the gut (contributing to leaky gut) and stimulate the immune system in a negative way (inflammation). Some lectins are not broken down in the normal digestive process. There are some lectins that are not deactivated by heat that survive digestion, make their way into the bloodstream, and are likely very allergenic (one of those is peanut lectin). Lectins can also affect the type of bacteria that grow in the gut in a negative way as well as crossing the gut barrier and interacting with the immune system in a negative way (inflammation). Grains and pulses contain another substance called saponins which may also make the gut more permeable. Psuedo-cereals like quinoa and amaranth (the seeds of broadleaf plants) also contain high levels of saponins which is why they should possibly be avoided too.
  4. Grains and pseudo-cereals contain protease inhibitors and allergenic proteins.
    Protease inhibitors prevent the proteins in the grains from being digested properly. If you already have a leaky gut, then the undigested proteins that can leak through into the bloodstream will stimulate the immune system in a negative way (inflammation). There are also proteins in grains, legumes and in dairy that are very immunogenic (activating parts of the immune system) and/or allergenic (activating immunoglobulin E).
  5. FODMAPs in grains such as wheat, barley and rye, and in pulses (legumes) could be causing you a problem.
    FODMAPs is an acronym (abbreviation) referring to Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides and Polyols. These are complex names for a collection of molecules found in food, that can be poorly absorbed by some people. When the molecules are poorly absorbed in the small intestine of the digestive tract, these molecules then continue along the digestive tract, arriving at the large intestine, where they act as a food source to the bacteria that live there normally. The bacteria then digest/ferment these FODMAPs and can cause symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). Symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome include abdominal bloating and distension, excess wind (flatulence), abdominal pain, nausea, changes in bowel habits (diarrhoea, constipation, or a combination of both), and other gastrointestinal symptoms. Honey, certain fruits and vegetables and milk can also be a problem for those who have an issue with FODMAPs – see our detailed post here.
  6. Grains contain a lot of omega-6. 
    Omega-6 fatty acids are pro-inflammatory and at the root of many modern diseases. Balancing out omega-6 to omega-3 in our diet should be a goal for all of us if we want to improve our health and removing grains from our diets is one step to achieving that balance.
  7. Grains are usually farmed unsustainably.
    The agriculture of most grains (corn and wheat in particular), is not sustainable as currently practiced. These grains are grown as monocrops in a way that is destroying biodiversity and destroying the health of the soil.
  8. There is no evidence that any traditional groups ate unfermented, unprepared grains as a regular part of their diet.
    All traditional groups that ate grains went to extensive lengths to prepare them. If you want to reduce the phytic acid content and make some of the minerals more bioavailable in grains, the amount of time or the extensiveness of the preparation that you have to go through depends on how much phytase is present in the grain. Certain grains will need much more preparation than others in order to reduce the phytic acid content. Oats, for example, happen to need a lot of preparation, as does brown rice. These grains are high in phytic acid and low in phytase. Whereas something like buckwheat has a significant amount of phytase in it and may not need as much preparation.


In summary grains, pulses and psuedo-cereals may lead to the condition of leaky gut via the action of various compounds in them, which leads to inflammation in the body. Inflammation is the root cause of most modern diseases. Grains also contain anti-nutrients such as phytic acid, pro-inflammatory compounds and can contribute to weight gain. We would advise most people to avoid too many grains – especially anyone suffering from digestive issues, autoimmune disease or nutrient deficiencies. If you are healthy then whether or not you include grains is a personal choice, but they certainly should not make up the bulk of your diet, and be aware of the potential problems they can cause. If you do include whole grains in your diet, we would recommend you prepare them properly.


I don’t usually use the evolutionary argument to support this way of eating because you will read a lot of criticisms online about the paleo diet saying this is not how our ancestors ate. However, two people who I really respect have this to say:


Chris Kresser “Given the long human generation time and the fact that agriculture represents less than 1% of our evolutionary history, it’s unlikely that we’ve evolved any complex adaptations to an agricultural or industrial way of life.”


Mat Lalonde “There has been insufficient time and evolutionary pressure for complete adaptation to seed consumption to arise in homosapiens” (grains are the seeds of grasses).


What this means is that many of us will be intolerant to grains to some degree and may well feel better without grains in our diets. If you want to try eliminating grains and don’t know where to start, consider signing up to our 30 day paleo diet plan. You get 30 days of paleo meal plans, breakfast, lunch and dinner recipes, shopping lists tailored to the UK supermarkets plus lots more!


*Note: Anti-nutrients in grains and pulses (legumes)

Mat Lalonde, an Harvard educated organic chemist, doesn’t think anti-nutrients are a big problem. You can listen to a talk he gave at the Ancestral Health Symposium (AHS) in 2014 here (it’s missing the slides though) and his conclusions are interesting.


White Rice

White rice is considered by many a “safe starch”. It contains no anti-nutrients and is pure starch, it also contains no nutrients. Most people can therefore eat white rice with no detrimental effects but it is certainly not a nutrient-dense food.