Part IV: 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.
Caveman Doctor recognizes this as food…
“From the data on the many chemicals and toxic substances in grains the message is clear: foods that cause inflammation and an immune system response when eaten can cause short and long-term damage to our bodies.”
This is the fourth and final posts on grains. So far, we have discussed the relatively recent introduction of grains into the human diet, and how our bodies have not adjusted to grains. We also discussed lectins and phytates, and the damage they exert on us.
Gluten seems to take the biggest shots when it comes to grain adversaries criticizing grain’s ill effects. Is this justified?
What is Gluten?
Gluten is a protein composed of gliaden and glutelin that is found in grains, including barley, rye and wheat. Wheat in particular contains a hefty amount of gluten. Gluten is frequently added to imitation meats and is in random foods like ice cream and ketchup, used as a stabilizing agent. It is what makes dough feel rubbery and also helps it to rise when forming bread, resulting in its spongy texture.
Like lectins, which you read about in Part III of my grains posts, gluten causes an immune reaction within the body. As I’ve pointed out before in previous posts, foods that cause an immune reaction are not good for the body. Also, like lectins, glutens cause severe damage to your GI tract1 by causing leaky gut and damage to the cells along the GI tract.
There are many studies that removed gluten from patients’ diets, resulting in resolution of a wide range of symptoms. Patients with dermatitis herpetiformis (DH), a disease that causes red and painful lesions to form on the skin, were placed on a gluten-free diet and their skin lesions resolved.2 DH is one of the many diseases where the body turns on itself after repeated immune system stimulation by the toxins in grains.
Celiac disease occurs in around 1% of the population, and results from intolerance to gluten with resulting gastrointestinal and other side effects. Like lectins, gluten ingestion causes severe inflammatory reactions and autoimmune disease, where the body starts to attack itself.3, 4 However, you don’t have to suffer from full blown celiac disease to suffer from consumption of gluten. Individuals with gluten sensitivity can also experience immunologic attacks on their nervous system, resulting in cerebellar ataxia (balance and walking issues) and peripheral neuropathy.5 These are basically difficulty walking and pain, numbness, tingling, and decreased ability to perform fine motor function in your extremities6. Gluten sensitivity has even been shown to cause seizures, epilepsy,7 and even schizophrenia8.
Just as gluten causes the neurological disorders listed above, there has recently been in increase in information that gluten may be partly responsible for the rise in autism. In fact, removing gluten form the diet has been shown to be a treatment for autism in randomized controlled trials,9 the gold standard in medicine. By ingesting grains, gluten sparks an autoimmune reaction that could be aimed at brain cells as well, potentially leading to disorders like autism. It is interesting, though certainly not conclusive, that autism diagnosis has continued to rise alongside rates of simple carbohydrate (and likely grain) consumption. This is especially crucial for young children, as their brains are developing at this life stage. I am typing this well aware of the fact that diagnosis criteria for autism has changed in the past couple years as well.10
However, the proof is in the pudding (gluten-free pudding in this case). Children who were already diagnosed with autism had gluten removed from their diet in a study, and the results showed a significant improvement in a number of behavioral measures.11 In fact, physiologic changes were even seen on SPECT scans, which measure metabolic activity of cells and tissues within the body. One study followed a patient with undiagnosed and untreated gluten intolerance and psychiatric symptoms. SPECT scan was performed, showing decreased activity in the frontal lobe of the brain. All gluten was removed from the diet and not only did the symptoms resolve, but repeat SPECT scan showed disappearance of the brain dysfunction.12
While gluten has been shown in many ways to directly damage the body, there are also indirect negative effects, including causing deficiencies in other vitamins and minerals (as often happens when we consume foods that are unnatural and indigestible in our system). Gluten consumption has been shown to potentially cause selenium deficiency, resulting in thyroid damage. Coincidently, gluten causes immune reactions that release harmful inflammatory chemicals that also damage the thyroid, resulting in a double whammy for your poor thyroid.13
From the data on the many chemicals and toxic substances in grains the message is clear: foods that cause inflammation and an immune system response when eaten can cause short and long-term damage to our bodies. Gluten is no exception to this rule. Its damage to the GI tract and nervous system is well documented, and its association with autism certainly deserves a closer look.
On a side note, compounds similar to gluten, called saponins, are found in some grains. Similar to lectins, they are a protective chemical for the plants that contain them as they cause adverse reactions in their plant’s predators when consumed.14 They don’t bind to receptors in your GI tract, but rather directly promote leaky gut syndrome, allowing pathogens to directly enter the blood stream and promoting a state of inflammation.15 They have even been used with vaccines to allow modified viruses to enter our system much easier through the gut.16
Interestingly, while gluten has received much attention in the media for all of the problems it causes, lectins and phytic acids are possibly even more harmful. Regardless of which feature of grains is the most harmful, in reviewing all four posts on grains, it is difficult to consider them a health food. While we often encounter foods that ride the line between healthy and unhealthy, grains are clearly on the unhealthy side, are damaging to the body, and as best as possible, should be avoided.
“The even bigger issue here is the large insulin spike and hunger response grains create (including quinoa).”
Grains in Summary:
Grains are substances that are relatively new in the history of humans, and as a result, the human body has not adjusted to them. Grains contain harmful substances, as discussed in all four posts. Some grains have fewer amounts of some toxic substances and more of others. Quinoa, although technically not a grain (as astutely pointed out by Dwayne, in Chicago), but often classified in the same group, doesn’t have gluten, but is full of phytates and saponins and the body likely responds to it similarly as with other grains.
The even bigger issue here is the large insulin spike and hunger response grains create (including quinoa). We avoid eating sweets and sugary candies for the same reason. This phenomenon, combined with the amount of harmful substances in grains, with only a scant amount of nutritional benefit through protein, fiber, antioxidants, and nutrients leaves grains on the “consume infrequently, if ever” list. If you eat a piece of bread infrequently, you won’t shrivel up and die. However, eating a piece of bread every once in a while is much different than purposely adding grains to your diet.
Anything that blocks the absorption of several important nutrients, including protein, and causes inflammation and damage to my immune system will be avoided as much as possible in my diet. As for the so-called health benefits of grains (mostly cited because of the fiber content in grain), I can get these in much higher doses from fruits and vegetables with much less detriment to my health. Once again, in terms of getting that “bang for your buck” from food, grains end up on the short end of things. Avoid the detrimental effects of grains and stick with fruits and vegetables, and if you really need to get your carbohydrate levels up (for athletics, etc.), eat yams or up your fruit content. Also, as a side note, remember that the same institutions and people who have drilled into our heads that grains are healthy are often the same institutions and people who benefit from the production and trade of grains.
With all the evidence, it seems that the question would be more appropriate as “How Unhealthy Are Grains?”
1. Frazer AC, Fletcher RF, Ross CA, Shaw B, Sammons HG, Schneider R. Gluten-induced enteropathy: the effect of partially digested gluten. Lancet 1959;2(7097): 252-5.
2. Fry L, Riches DJ, Seah PP, Hoffbrand AV. CLEARANCE OF SKIN LESIONS IN DERMATITIS HERPETIFORMIS AFTER GLUTEN WITHDRAWAL. The Lancet 1973;301(7798): 288-91.
3. Detlef S. Current Concepts of Celiac Disease Pathogenesis. Gastroenterology 2000;119(1): 234-42.
4. Fasano A. Systemic autoimmune disorders in celiac disease. Current Opinion in Gastroenterology 2006;22(6): 674-79 10.1097/01.mog.0000245543.72537.9e.
5. Hadjivassiliou M, Grünewald RA, Chattopadhyay AK, et al. Clinical, radiological, neurophysiological, and neuropathological characteristics of gluten ataxia. The Lancet 1998;352(9140): 1582-85.
6. Hernandez-Lahoz C, Mauri-Capdevila G, Vega-Villar J, Rodrigo L. [Neurological disorders associated with gluten sensitivity]. Revista de neurologia 2011;53(5): 287-300.
7. Briani C, Zara G, Alaedini A, et al. Neurological complications of celiac disease and autoimmune mechanisms: a prospective study. Journal of neuroimmunology 2008;195(1-2): 171-5.
8. Singh M, Kay. Wheat gluten as a pathogenic factor in schizophrenia. Science 1976;191(4225): 401-02.
9. Knivsberg AM, Reichelt KL, Hoien T, Nodland M. A randomised, controlled study of dietary intervention in autistic syndromes. Nutritional neuroscience 2002;5(4): 251-61.
10. King M, Bearman P. Diagnostic change and the increased prevalence of autism. International Journal of Epidemiology 2009;38(5): 1224-34.
11. Millward C, Ferriter M, Calver S, Connell-Jones G. Gluten- and casein-free diets for autistic spectrum disorder. Cochrane database of systematic reviews 2004(2): CD003498.
12. De Santis A, Addolorato G, Romito A, et al. Schizophrenic symptoms and SPECT abnormalities in a coeliac patient: regression after a gluten-free diet. Journal of internal medicine 1997;242(5): 421-3.
13. Stazi AV, Trinti B. Selenium status and over-expression of interleukin-15 in celiac disease and autoimmune thyroid diseases. Annali dell’Istituto Superiore di Sanità 2010;46: 389-99.
14. Price KR, Johnson IT, Fenwick GR. The chemistry and biological significance of saponins in foods and feedingstuffs. Critical reviews in food science and nutrition 1987;26(1): 27-135.
15. Johnson IT, Gee JM, Price K, Curl C, Fenwick GR. Influence of saponins on gut permeability and active nutrient transport in vitro. The Journal of nutrition 1986;116(11): 2270-7.
16. Maharaj I, Froh KJ, Campbell JB. Immune responses of mice to inactivated rabies vaccine administered orally: potentiation by Quillaja saponin. Canadian journal of microbiology 1986;32(5): 414-20.
© 2015 CDR Health and Nutrition, LLC. All Rights Reserved.