Whole-grains, are they healthy?
Updated: Jul 3
If you follow conventional dietary advice you will recognise the expression “Healthy Whole grains” and you have been bombarded by a stream of messages about how you need to include these in your diet. But do you really need these? They come with a whole bunch of baggage which for many people can cause serious health problems.
Looking back in history it seems our ancestors ate some grains, but there was no way they ate grains at the level that we do today. The grain seeds were smaller, they grew wild, so were sparse and were also eaten by animals, so may not have been very abundant. The exception to this is the Ancient Egyptians who planted, harvested wheat from the Nile river flood plain and ate lots of bread. Evidence from mummies shows they suffered from many of the same types of non-communicable diseases as today. Dental damage, caries, atherosclerosis, and bone abnormalities to name a few.
Refined grains such as corn meal and white flour, from which a huge number of “food” items are manufactured, are even less healthy because the nutrient level has been reduced by the refining. A high percentage of the following nutrients are stripped out by this refining process: calcium, potassium, zinc, copper, magnesium, iron, manganese, chromium. These are reduced to such an extent that in USA the Enrichment Act of 1942 requires that refined flour must be fortified with additions such as iron and B vitamins (folic acid, riboflavin, niacin, and thiamine). Calcium may also be supplemented. Clearly, not all the removed nutrients are returned which can result in gradual nutritional deficiencies over time.
If you think about your own diet, does it often resemble this:
Breakfast: toast or cereal, or maybe porridge with oats or a bagel.
Snack: donut, muffin, danish.
Lunch: a sandwich, bread roll, pastry, hamburger, soda drink (with HFCS)
Dinner: pasta, bread, tortilla, burrito, pizza, wraps, tacos, crumb coatings, etc
Maybe with crumble, cake, pie.
Supper: muffin, cookie, biscuit, perhaps even a beer or two.
Looking at the above meals, it is clearly very heavy on the grains and has very little resemblance to the ancestral diet that humans developed with. Often these grains are also combined with other unhealthy foods like sugar, trans fats and Omega-6 seed oils. Think about a donut or cookie with frosting or a cream filling. Refined flour, Omega-6 seed-oil, sugar, colouring and maybe some other chemicals to increase shelf life. Even the heavily used sweetener HFCS, (High Fructose Corn Syrup) is derived from corn which is a grain.
One of the greatest problems in conventional meals with high grain quantities, is the resulting high level of energy (calories) combined with low nutrition and low protein. Refined grains are a major part of this problem with the impact being that people either consciously or unconsciously eat but continue to feel hungry, until they get the required nutrients or protein their body wants. The result is regular excessive eating and the end point is excess energy resulting in excess fat or obesity.
Recent research has linked low levels of critical nutrients with some of our most prevalent mental disorders such as depression, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s disease and autism. More research is needed, but strong correlation is there.
Many people do not realise that grains particularly whole-grains have high levels of anti-nutrients. These are sneaky little compounds that bind up the nutrients in the food we eat, reducing their availability for us. So you think you are getting good nutrients because of the food choices you make, but these nutrients become unavailable as a result of these anti-nutrients. Let’s look at some examples:
Phytates: Grains contain phytates that bind to calcium, iron, copper and zinc, removing their availability and leading to lower immunity, frequent colds, low iron levels, leg cramps, etc. The result is low levels of these critical minerals in the body. This problem can be minimised by soaking, fermenting, or sprouting the grains before eating. Unfortunately cooking does not remove these and phytic acid is apparently a major cause of dental decay.
Lectins: Grains contain lectins that bind to sugars and cell nuclei, can exacerbate leaky gut problems, and can disrupt intestinal metabolism. Minimised by soaking, cooking or pressure cooking.
Saponins: Grains contain saponins that can weaken the gut lining, resulting in autoimmune diseases. These can be reduced by soaking or /and cooking.
Protease inhibitors: These are present in grains, and also in soy and can block the absorption of proteins. Boiling can remove these.
Gluten: This is the protein that gets all the attention. It can cause intestinal weakness and trigger an inflammatory reaction. Some are aware of this reaction, but sadly many people have no idea of the potential inflammatory reaction within their body as there is little external evidence For them. One result of long term inflammation is heart disease. In either case the long term impact of this can be a wide range of non-communicable diseases such as IBS, Arthritis, and celiac disease.
The grains, corn, wheat, oats, sugar, and a number of other heavily used crops are grown in the USA using Glyphosate weed killer to control the weeds and to desiccate the crop before harvest. Labeled “Roundup Ready”, these plants are genetically modified (GMO) to resist the active ingredient in “Roundup” thus enabling the farmer to spray the whole crop without killing the host plant. Monsanto says that Glyphosate is not dangerous to humans, but it does create problems in laboratory tests on rats and impacts the health of cows. This is now the most used weed killer in the world and some researchers are saying it is in our water and air as well as the soil. Shades of the DDT scare perhaps.
What to do? My advice is to take a critical look at the level of grains in your diet and reduce them over time. Replace them with more good fats, protein and vegetables, particularly above ground grown vegetables. You will still get some of the anti-nutrients but the impact will be reduced. You can also increase the level of good fats in your diet by using olive oil, coconut oil, avocados, nuts, etc in your diet. Good animal fats are full of nutrients and gram for gram, liver has the highest level of nutrients of any food. Small oily fish like sardines or anchovies in olive oil twice a week, are excellent choices as they boost the levels of Omega-3 in your diet.
Reducing you dependence on grains and making these suggested changes will improve your health and reduce your exposure to many serious and debilitating noncommunicable diseases. You might even lose some body fat in the process because of the overall reduction in carbohydrates in your diet.
George Elder, Author, “Take Back Your Health”, Amazon, $3.99.