Part I: Are Grains Healthy for You?
Caveman Doctor recently received several questions regarding grains and if they were healthy. One person even referred to quinoa as a “superfood.” Caveman doctor was really confused as to what a grain was since he never ate them during his time on Earth. He was also really confused by the term superfood and remembered that the last time he ate a superfood, he got supersick and was in his cave bathroom for an entire day. After he asked around, he got his hands on some oats and wheat and figured he would give them a try. At first, he didn’t believe they were food as they were lacking the bold color, smell, and feel of foods he was used to eating. He tasted the oats and wheat, but immediately spit them out due to their bland taste. Caveman Doctor is used to colorful, flavorful foods and was very confused as to why anyone would eat these things known as grains.
What Led to Caveman Doctor’s Confusion?
The answer to this question lies in the time period that Caveman Doctor existed. The earliest fossil remains of humans put us at over 2 million years old, and it’s likely we are older, perhaps even 3 million years old.1 Agriculture, or the domestication of plants that were previously gathered in the wild, only started over 10,000 years ago.2 At the end of the ice age the glaciers receded, exposing more land for grazing animals and plant life.3 This allowed the spread and increase of both wild vegetation and plants that previously existed in only small amounts. Wild animals migrated from their homes to new areas, leaving the human inhabitants searching for new types of food. The domestication of grains was the solution in the Middle East. Prior to this time period, grains were rarely eaten in large amounts, if at all. Therefore, humans have only been exposed to eating grains for a fraction of our history.
The harvesting of crops first started around Western Asia in the Fertile Crescent, and spread accordingly. Prior to the development of agriculture, or for roughly two million years, humans only ate foods that were hunted and gathered.4 Of note, our ancestors did not eat cereal grains, wheat, bread, pasta, etc. Caveman Doctor and his people only ate animal and wild plant sources of food. These plant sources included bold-colored fruits and vegetables picked in nature (which caught the eye of cavemen as delicious, nutritious, and tasty). The lack of such characteristics in oats and grains left Caveman Doctor confused, and he doubted them to be food at all.
A common reason people often eat oats and other grains is because they have been told their entire life of grain’s health benefits. It’s worth examining whether grains are healthy, unhealthy, or somewhat neutral and can be consumed in moderation without detriment. I have always been told they are extremely healthy (including during my medical training). Unfortunately, I also believed it for most of my life, often eating them by the bowl-full and suggesting them to others.
Grains have also been heavily subsidized by the government, resulting in astronomical production levels. However, this is a different can of worms and is much too large for a post on this site (many books are written on this topic if you’re interested).
The other reason people often consume large amounts of grains is the physiologic response within our body. When we start eating wheat, bread, and other grains, it is no different to our body than consuming pure white sugar, as these simple carbohydrates get quickly digested and cause insulin levels to shoot through the roof. This causes severe drops in our blood sugar levels (as insulin pulls sugar out of our blood and into our cells), causing us to crave and eat more sources of sugar to bring our glucose level back up. How many times have you sworn (either to yourself or your loved one) I’ll only have one more piece of bread, or one more cookie, only to eat five more?
Again, this happens because those simple carbs spike your insulin levels (which over time can cause weight gain5 and many chronic diseases including diabetes and cancer6, 7). This rise in insulin eventually bottoms out your glucose level, which makes you crave more glucose (i.e., bread, pasta, and cookies). This also makes you tired, cranky, and depressed. Is that really what food is supposed to do to us? Are these grains truly then “food” in the sense that they provide us with health and nutrition?
Well first and foremost, grains have a small amount of antioxidants and fiber, both paramount to nutrition. The amount of protein in grains is minimal, so Caveman Doctor doesn’t even consider them as a meaningful source of protein. According to the USDA, grains may reduce heart disease, may help with weight management, and are part of a healthy diet. Unlike Caveman Doctor’s website, though, the USDA doesn’t cite a single source to back up these big claims.
While the reduction in heart disease comment is tough to prove or disprove, I have yet to meet someone who cuts grains out of their diet and doesn’t lose weight. In fact, cutting grains is an easy way to shed pounds for many people (if you don’t believe me – try it!). Grains also contain enormous amounts of insulin-raising carbohydrates, and in fact, they have much less vitamins, nutrients, and antioxidants than vegetables and most fruits (which also have fewer amounts of carbohydrates than grains). Also, the carbohydrate content of fruits and vegetables is often accompanied with a high content of fiber, which helps slow their digestion and results in fewer insulin spikes.
Besides lacking the health benefits of the increased fiber and antioxidants found in vegetables and fruits, there are several chemicals in grains that can potentially wreck havoc on your health and most grain adversaries quote these substances incessantly. Knowledge of these compounds alone should make you question the health benefits of grains (and also second guess any diet that promotes them) and seriously consider their possible detrimental effects on your health.
That being said, the topic of grains is enormous, and Caveman Doctor can only concentrate for about a page and a half, so he will address further grain topics in the future. This will be the first of several posts on grains that will be posted over the coming days. Tune into my next post, Grains Part Deux, which will continue our discussion.
1. Grains were not around for most of human history, and our bodies were not built (or evolved) to use them as food.
2. When you eat grains, it spikes your insulin, which can lead to obesity, diabetes, and cancer.
3. This insulin spike also causes your blood sugar to plummet, making you hungry and crave more carbohydrates and grains, resulting in a vicious cycle of excessive caloric intake. Not to mention mood swings and fatigue.
4. We have all been told by our government and the grain industry how healthy grains are for us, yet there are a lack of conclusive studies to support these claims.
Stay healthy and stay informed!
1. Asfaw B, White T, Lovejoy O, Latimer B, Simpson S, Suwa G. Australopithecus garhi: a new species of early hominid from Ethiopia. Science 1999;284(5414): 629-35.
2. Rindos D. The Origins of Agriculture: An Evolutionary Perspective. Academic Press, 1987.
3. Pielou EC. After the Ice Age: The Return of Life to Glaciated North America. The University of Chicago Press, 1991.
4. Eaton SB. The ancestral human diet: what was it and should it be a paradigm for contemporary nutrition? The Proceedings of the Nutrition Society 2006;65(1): 1-6.
5. Bianchini F, Kaaks R, Vainio H. Overweight, obesity, and cancer risk. The lancet oncology 2002;3(9): 565-74.
6. Macaulay VM. Insulin-like growth factors and cancer. British journal of cancer 1992;65(3): 311-20.
7. Rubin R, Baserga R. Insulin-like growth factor-I receptor. Its role in cell proliferation, apoptosis, and tumorigenicity. Laboratory investigation; a journal of technical methods and pathology 1995;73(3): 311-31.
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