Get rid of grains in your diet. You’ve probably heard your trainers at CrossFit Impulse talk about this topic hundreds of times. But do you know the nitty gritty details of what grains do to your body and why they are only one step up from eating poop?
First, when you see “grains,” that means wheat, rice, corn, barley, rye, oats, millet, or sorghum. Grains are killing you. Literally. Very slowly, from the inside out—but they are killing you. I’m going to tell you about the four major ways grains are killing you. It would take Mr. Wizard and Bill Nye the Science Guy combined to fully explain this, so I’m just going to hit the high points. But first, I want you to buckle down and put on your big girl panties. It’s going to get a little complex in a couple places, but you can understand this—I promise. I can barely remember where I park my car and I understand it, so there’s hope for anyone.
Many plants and animals have defense mechanisms so they don’t get eaten, trampled, or otherwise prevented from reproducing. Roses have thorns. A rhinoceros has a big mother’effin horn. Poison Ivy has chemicals that make you itch if you get too close. Grains have an Al-Qaeda like defense mechanism called lectins. Now many foods have lectins, but grains have nasty lectins that harm us. Here’s how.
Lectins are proteins that we can’t digest. We normally digest proteins into amino acids where they are absorbed by our intestines (our gut). Since we can’t digest lectins, they pass through the wall of our gut undigested as complete proteins. This damages the gut, inflames our bodies, and makes them unable to absorb many of the good proteins that we get from other foods. But that’s not all. The worst part is that our body’s immune system is at a high state of readiness around our gut. After all, the gut can be a nasty place. See what’s in the bowl after you take a dump? Thirty minutes ago, that was inside your body, and your body’s immune system had to fight off the bacteria and other microbes you might have been exposed to. Now, when lectins pass through the gut as a complete, undigested protein, our body mistakes them for foreign invaders and attacks with the immune system.
After repeated attacks from lectins (your daily bowl of Special K) your body gets smart and makes antibodies to automatically attack these nasty proteins. It builds immunity. The problem? Sometimes part of the lectin looks a lot like normal body tissue. You don’t want your immune system attacking your normal body tissue, but that’s exactly what can happen. Check out why: Lectins are proteins. Proteins are made of particular arrangements of amino acids, stacked just like Legos. Let’s take a look at a hypothetical lectin that has a little piece of it made from an arrangement of amino acids A, B, C, and D.
Now let’s take a look at another protein in your body. As an example, we’ll use a protein in your Pancreas, but there are countless examples. This protein is much longer than the lectin, but it happens to have a little segment of amino acids with the same Lego pattern as the lectin.
That particular lectin looks a lot like an important protein in your pancreas, and now your immune system attacks that protein in your pancreas, rendering your pancreas unable of producing insulin. This is Type 1 Diabetes. What if the lectin looks like myelin basic protein (MBP) in your brain? Multiple Sclerosis. An important kidney protein? Nephropathy. The list goes on. Grains turn your body’s immune system against you. This phenomenon is called auto-immune disease. It’s very real. We haven’t even made it to #2 and grains are already killing us—quite literally.
So you’ve been eating grains all your life and you’re not dead yet, right? Why haven’t you been stricken with something described above? The human body is an incredibly resilient biological machine. That’s the only way we’ve been able to survive, not thrive, with grains for the last 10,000 years. After grains were introduced to humans, we lost an average of six inches in height. Do you think that’s coincidence, or that we’re trying to feed our bodies with material that we’re not genetically equipped to handle? But yes, you could go all your life eating grains and never get one of the many auto-immune diseases. In the end, you may be lucky. I suppose it depends on whether you’re a gambler. But remember, about 18 sides of that 20-sided die look pretty ugly.
2. Insulin Response
We’ve documented the importance of hormonal balance between insulin and glucagon in our article “The Zone Diet Explained.” Grain-based foods cause huge, nasty insulin spikes, making it almost impossible to achieve hormonal balance. This means that as long as you eat grains you’re going to experience inflammation in your muscles, joints, and other tissues because you’re not in hormonal balance. Your body is also going to stay in fat storage mode instead of fat release mode, and you won’t be able to achieve the body composition you want.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, insulin is a hormone that promotes tissue growth. Do you know what we call uncontrolled tissue growth because a little piece of DNA gets damaged? Cancer. Yep, the medical community is finding high insulin levels linked to cancer.
3. Protease Inhibitors
In addition to those nasty lectins and elevated insulin response, grains find yet another way to pour gasoline on the fire. Protease inhibitors further block the digestion of proteins in your gut. That includes lectins, so they compound the lectin problem. But that also includes good proteins that you are getting from quality foods. Grains aren’t content to just stand in a corner and be anti-social. They’re going to piss in the punch bowl and ruin the party for everybody! So you are eating plenty of chicken breast, grass-fed beef, and lamb in addition to the grains in your diet? You’re not getting as much of those proteins as you think, because grains are blocking their absorption by your gut. Just eating something doesn’t mean you’ll absorb it and actually put it to use in your body. Grains are masters of that fact.
Grains want to reproduce. You can’t blame them for that. All plants and animals down to the smallest virus are hard wired to reproduce. A whole grain contains all the pieces necessary for reproduction. The bran is the hard outer covering that protects the rest. The brown part of brown rice is the bran. The germ is the actual reproductive organ of the grain. The endosperm is a neat little package of starch and some protein that will feed the baby germ. And one thing the baby germ will need is trace amounts of nutrients like iron, zinc, magnesium, and calcium. So the grain contains chemicals called phytates that help it collect these precious resources. The phytates bind to these metals saying, “They’re mine! All mine!” trying to save them for the germ. Unfortunately, their selfish behavior doesn’t stop once they’re in your gut. And guess what, you need those nutrients too! But if phytates are in the picture then your gut doesn’t stand a chance. The phytates bind to the nutrients first, and you aren’t able to absorb them! Once again, simply eating something does not guarantee it is absorbed. No zinc for you! Phytates and lectins are sometimes referred to as “anti-nutrients.”
Ladies and gentlemen, that’s the short course on why grains don’t fit into a healthy lifestyle. I know it hurts to find out that our beloved Bunny Bread is out to kill us, but it really is true. We didn’t grow up thinking that, did we? But why does that matter? My parents grew up when sexism was accepted. My grandparents grew up when racism and smoking was commonplace. My great, great grandparents might have thought that bleeding yourself with leaches would cure disease. They were all equally wrong, and equally comfortable with those ideas, because they were accepted as the status quo. The point is that facts and reality are completely irreverent of the ideas you grew up with or are comfortable with. If the facts about health point a certain way, I think we are obligated to ourselves and our loved ones to explore those facts regardless of how uncomfortable they might be.
So here’s my challenge to you: Eat grain-free for a month. But to reap the benefits, you have to be totally grain free. No flour tortillas on weekends. No yeast rolls at Logans. No eating toast at breakfast just because the rest of your family likes it and has seen you eat toast for 30 years. Totally grain free, for an entire month. A word of warning: You’re going to have a period of about two weeks where you will constantly feel tired and “foggy.” This is normal. It’s you getting off the crack, and it will pass by the end of the month, leaving you feeling great!. That’s right, if you truly go grain free for a month then you’ll be 5-10 lbs lighter, have more energy, and look better than you can ever remember. After that, if you want to go back to eating grains—do it. Because you won’t want to go back. You’ll be happy and energetic, full after meals, performing better at your workouts, and shopping for new clothes. Oh, and you’ll be less likely to die from one of the 3,000 diseases of affluence that were unknown to our ancestors that didn’t eat grains. Did I mention that part? Folks, if I’m lying, I’m dying. Try it. You won’t be sorry.
The Paleo Solution by Robb Wolf, Chapter 6. Published by Victory Belt Publishing, 2010
Do Dietary Lectins Cause Disease? by David L. J. Freed. Published by the British Medical Journal, 1999
Cereal Grains: Humanity’s Double Edged Sword by Loren Cordain. Published by the World Review of Nutrition and Dietetics, 1999
Reflections on the Diet and Reinfarcation Trial by M.L. Burr. Published by European Heart Journal Supplements, 2001
Agrarian Diet and Diseases of Affluence– Do evolutionary novel dietary lectins cause leptin resistance? by Tommy Jonsson et. al. Published by BMC Endocrine Disorders, 2005