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Are Grains Healthy to Eat?

Should you eat grains? The debate rages on in the diet community, and many people are still confused about the role of grains in the human diet.

Paleo folks say you should avoid grains because we’ve only been cultivating them for what, 10,000 years?

Raw foodists say to avoid grains because, well… grains have to be cooked!

And low-carb dieters also avoid grains because grains are a starchy food, full of carbs.

Even Mosseri, my first mentor, recommends avoiding grains.

On the other hand…

Advocates of most plant-based diets consume whole grains.

Author Dr. McDougall makes a compelling case that human beings should live on a starch-based diet, rather than a meat-based diet.

Most vegan doctors recommend whole grains.

And some more obscure health philosophies like Macrobiotics are based on whole grains like brown rice!

So, I think it’s worth revisiting the topic.

Arguments Against Grains

I will go quickly through the main arguments against grains that you find in many books and websites on the subject.

1) Humans are not biologically adapted to grains. Agriculture has existed for only 10,000 years, and home sapiens, our race, is at least 200,000 years old. Prior to the agricultural revolutions, we lived on a diet of fruits, vegetables, tubers and wild animal foods.

2) Grains are not complete in vitamins and minerals. For this reason, a grain-based diet must always contain vegetables to be nutritionally sufficient.

3) Grains contain lectins, a type of protein. Lectins are bad. They can cause immune reactions, nutritional deficiencies, and more.

4) Many grains contain gluten, another protein that is is even worse than lectins.

5) Grains contain phytates, an antioxidant compound. The problem? Phytates can bind with minerals such as iron, zinc, and manganese.

6) Grains contain carbohydrates! Lots of them. Mainly in the form of starch. If you believe that you should limit your intake of carbohydrates in favor of protein and fat, then grains are indeed very bad.

7) Because of the above, the intake of grains causes inflammation in the body.

Who’s Writing This Stuff?

The problem is that a lot of the information you find online comes from bloggers. They do not represent the cutting edge in scientific knowledge but are the opinions of ONE person, often twisted to make a point.

For example, when I type “Are Grains Healthy?” in Google, the first link that comes up is an anti-grain article by “Wellness Mama.”

The article goes into the usual anti-grain points I have already mentioned, but throwing in a few extra surprises for fun:

In the last 130 years of increased grain consumption, chronic disease rates have skyrocketed, fertility has fallen and the average weight of the population has steadily risen. The more consumption of grains rose, the more fertility rates fell. Research from the University of Missouri, the average sperm count of American males has dropped 50% since the 1930s. To add insult to impotence, testicle size tends to have an inverse relationship with grain consumption.

I have tried searching for some evidence to support Wellness Mama’s assertions, but all I could come up with were more people quoting her very article! That, and some vague references to Asian countries, where a lot of grains are consumed and the average size of certain parts of the human male anatomy tend to be smaller, on average, than in North America.

This seems to be a good example of bloggers making up stuff in order to sound interesting and have some contrarian philosophy to share. Yet, what is the truth about grains?

Counter Arguments

Alright, before we take a look at the role of grains in health, let’s see if we could debunk some of the arguments used against grains.

1) We’ve Only Be Eating Grains for 10,000 Years

I don’t know about you, but 10,000 years does not seem like a small chunk of time. Of course, I understand the assertion here that evolution works very slowly, and that humans did not have time to adapt physiologically to grain consumption in that period.

It only took 7000 years for 35% of the world population to adapt to dairy products and be able to digest them. (This is called lactase persistence).

But besides that, there’s growing evidence that grains have been part of the human diet for much longer than 10,000 years.

* People living in what is now Mozambique may have eaten a diet based on sorghum (a type of wild grain) as long as 105,000 years ago.
* Neanderthals appear to have consumed and cooked grains 44,000 years ago.
* Evidence suggests that grains and vegetable starch were processed and consumed in Europe over 30,000 years ago.

But ultimately… Does it actually matter what humans ate 100,000 years ago? The diet that worked best for them then will not work necessarily well for us now.

2) Long-Lived Cultures And Grains

It may be fun to look at extremely flimsy evidence on what humans ate thousands of years ago, and what their health might have been then. But there’s something more relevant that we can do… study the longest-lived cultures in the world today and look at what they eat.

Some researchers have called these spots in the world where an unusual percentage of the population reaches the age of 100 the Blue Zones. Here are the five zones:

The Island of Sardinia, in Italy. Their traditional diet is based on whole wheat bread, vegetables, a little goat cheese and wine. Meat is not consumed on a daily basis.

From the book “The Blue Zones”: “Bread is by far the main food. Peasants leave early in the morning to the fields with a kilogram of bread in their saddlebag… At noon their meal consists only of bread, with some cheese among wealthier families, while the majority of the workers are satisfied with an onion, a little fennel, or a bunch of radishes. At dinner, the reunited family eats a single meal consisting of a vegetable soup (minestrone) to which the richest add some pasta. In most areas, families ate meat only once a week, on Sunday.”

The tropical islands of Okinawa, in Japan. The diet is based on sweet potatoes, traditional soy products, rice, and vegetables.

When a 102-year old woman (who apparently looks like she’s in her 70’s) describes her routine, she says:

“I wake up at about 6 a.m. and make a pot of jasmine tea and eat my breakfast, usually miso soup with vegetables. (…) At noon, Kamada said, she wanders into the kitchen garden behind her house to harvest some herbs and vegetables for her lunch. “I’ll use mugwork to give my rice flavor or tumeric to spice my soup, she said. “I don’t eat much any more. Usually just stir-fried vegetables and maybe some tofu.” And meat, I asked. “Oh yes, I like meat, but not always. When I was a girl, I ate it only during the New Year festivals. I’m not in the habit of eating it every day.”

The Nicoya peninsula, in Costa Rica. They eat corn tortillas, beans, some animal protein such as eggs and some amount of pork or chicken. They also eat a lot of fruit.

The religious group of the 7th Day Adventists, living in Loma Linda, California. Their diet is more aligned with your typical health-food store enthusiast rather than a traditional diet forced by circumstances. Things like fresh fruit, oatmeal, salads and vegetarian foods are part of the menu.

The last blue zone is the island of Ikaria, in Greece. A New York Times article called it “The Island Where People Forget to Die.” Their diet consists of goat’s milk, bread, beans, potatoes, and greens, with some fish and occasionally, pork.

I really have a hard time believing that a a food, which is so central to the diet of the top-5 longest lived cultures in the world, is truly at the source of the “skyrocketing chronic disease rates” in North America.

3) My Observations

I’ve been to 30 countries or so, and spent a decent amount of time in many of them. I don’t buy the theory that “carbs and grains make you fat.”

For example: the Philippines.

I’ve been to places like Thailand where people eat a lot of rice, but it’s nothing compared to the Filipino portions. At the breakfast buffet table, the first thing Filipinos go for is a giant serving of rice that takes up most of their plate. Then after that they grab some of the other stuff, which occupies less space on their plate.

For lunch, the local Filipino guys eat the tallest pile of rice I’ve ever seen, along with smaller portions of meat or fish. I suspect it’s the same scenario for dinner. For dessert, they top it all off with more carbs in the form of fresh fruit, which they seem to devour eagerly. In spite of all this carb consumption, most people are fairly thin.

Any man working outside is downright ripped in the Philippines!

A simple look around the world shows that people who eat natural foods and exercise are ripped and healthy. Most of these people eat large quantities of grains (often because they are cheap and available year round).

4) Calories in Grains

A cup of rice is only 250 calories. How many cups of rice do you think you can eat in a day?

It’s so filling that even if you gorged on rice all day, it would be pretty hard to eat more calories than your body needs.

On the other hand, a tablespoon of oil is 120 calories. It’s quite easy to add extra calories without noticing it by adding some oil to your food like in fried rice, fried noodles, and fried meat. Also, the body can store the fat you eat as body fat with almost no effort.

5) The Rice Diet

White rice (along with fruit) is the basis of one of the most effective diet therapies ever created. It’s called the Rice Diet and was used by Dr Walter Kempner as a very effective treatment for hypertension, type-2 diabetes, diabetic eye damage, arthritis, heart failure (cardiomegaly and EKG changes), kidney disease, and obesity.

6) Phytates, Lectins, and Other “Toxins” In Grains

We’re told that grains contain too many toxins, and “anti-nutrients.” Ok, so eat potatoes instead? They contain toxins. Green veggies contain toxins. In fact, most foods contain naturally-occurring toxins. Let’s not even get started on the toxins in meat, dairy and seafood!

The question is not “does the food contain toxins” but rather “is the quantity of naturally occurring toxins enough to promote disease or malnutrition?”

Phytates are mostly broken down by cooking. Problems with deficiencies might occur if the diet is composed mainly of grains. It won’t be a problem if you add in fresh fruits and vegetables, and other foods.

As for lectins, they are in ALL foods. And again, they are deactivated by cooking. The lectins in the foods we eat raw only cause real discomfort if they are consumed in extremely large quantities.

It’s a mistake to try to isolate foods by breaking them into their micronutrients and micro toxins and recommend to eat or avoid certain foods because of one tiny element. It’s the WHOLE that matter. Does eating this food contribute to health or disease?

Which leads me to…

7) Scientific Evidence Supports Whole Grains for Health

You may be able to find some isolated papers on the harmful role of lectins in health, but when you look at the large picture, grains have never been linked to chronic disease.

Recently, a review was published that compiled the results of over 66 different reviews (including 21 randomized controlled trials), comparing people who rarely consume whole grains to those consuming several servings a day. A significantly lower risk of type-2 diabetes, heart disease and weight gain were found in the grain-consuming groups.

As for inflammation, the studies show that whole grains lower markers of inflammation and consumption of red meat increases it. You can take a look at all of the evidence I have provided in the footnotes if you are not convinced.

There are no studies of that scale suggesting that eating meat lowers inflammation or that consuming whole grains increases it.

Yes, Some People Should Avoid Grains

Some people are sensitive to gluten and should avoid grains containing it.

And some people don’t feel great when eating grains and prefer to eat other foods. Is that a problem? If a type of food doesn’t work for you, don’t eat it!

But what I’ve shown you is that the hysteria against grains is not based on solid evidence and that, for the most part, including some whole grains in your diet is a good thing.

I like to rotate my sources of carbohydrates between fruit, beans, grains and root vegetables. I consume more calories from the other three categories than I do from grains — but grains are part of my diet. They are not the foundation of it, but they are a part for sure.

We’ll discuss gluten and sugar in future articles, but for now… please leave your thoughts on grains below!

Further Research/Footnotes

On the evidence for grains being part of the human diet for more than 10,000 years, see the book The Starch Solution.
On the Blue Zones:  http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/28/magazine/the-island-where-people-forget-to-die.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
On the Rice Diet: Kempner W, Newborg BC, Peschel RL, Skyler JS.   Treatment of massive obesity with rice/reduction diet program. An analysis of 106 patients with at least a 45-kg weight loss. Arch Intern Med. 1975 Dec;135(12):1575-84.
On the Meta-Analysis Studies on Grainshttp://jn.nutrition.org/content/142/7/1304.full.pdf
Whole Grains and Inflammation:
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3549403/pdf/394_2012_Article_340.pdf
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24284436
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2924598/pdf/nut1401669.pdf
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22747841
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3658901/pdf/1475-2891-12-62.pdf
Frederic Patenaude
Frederic Patenaude
Frederic Patenaude has been an important influence in the raw food and natural health movement since he started writing and publishing in 1998, first by being the editor of Just Eat an Apple magazine. He is the author of over 20 books, including The Raw Secrets, the Sunfood Cuisine and Raw Food Controversies. Since 2013 he’s been the Editor-in-Chief of Renegade Health.

Frederic loves to relentlessly debunk nutritional myths. He advocates a low-fat, plant-based diet and has had over 10 years of experience with raw vegan diets. He lives in Montreal, Canada.