At one time it was fat and cholesterol, then it was yeast, and then salt. Today, wheat is considered the “villain” and the cause of many health problems. In the popular press, wheat is blamed for everything from brain fog, to dementia, to obesity and cancer. How can a grain once considered “the staff of life” that has helped to sustain humanity since approximately 10,000 BC now be considered detrimental to health?
Why Grains Are Not The Problem
Fueling this trend are so-called experts who are vehemently anti-grain, and in particular, anti-wheat. They profess that wheat is the root of all disease, and cite a great deal of research in support of their theory—but in my opinion, they are overly simplifying the complex science of nutrition, and are picking and choosing research (and misinterpreting studies) simply to support their platform. The internet is a great resource for disseminating information, and that includes misinformation. In my practice, I often hear statements such as “I’ve heard that eating grains causes cancer,” or “Everything I read on the internet says that the healthiest way to eat is to avoid grains.” As a result, I spend a great deal of time helping to correct these misperceptions and to provide my patients with a more balanced perspective.
It’s true that some people report feeling better when they eliminate grains from their diets. Obviously if someone is diagnosed with celiac disease, they must strictly avoid wheat and other gluten-containing grains (barley, rye, and grains closely related to wheat such as kamut and spelt). But even for those with celiac disease, there’s no reason to avoid non-gluten grains such as corn, quinoa, and rice.
I find that people who choose to avoid all grains often feel better because their diets have improved, not because they’re abstaining from grains. Many junk foods, such as cookies, crackers, and baked goods are made from refined, non-organic, GMO, rancid flours that are fortified with synthetic nutrient isolates. These commercially made products are far from healthful. But they’re not bad because they’re made from grains—they’re unhealthful because the grain has been highly refined and processed. I encourage people to eliminate or drastically reduce the consumption of all refined grains and grain products, and to consume a balanced plant-based diet that includes whole grains. I believe this dietary approach is the healthiest in the long-term not only for personal health, but is better for our planet as well.
I have studied diet and nutrition for more than thirty-five years, and consider myself an expert in the medicinal aspects of food and the role of the “dietary toolbox” in health promotion and disease prevention. I’ve seen many diet crazes come and go, including the fat-free Pritikin diet, low sodium, macrobiotic, raw foods, high protein, and yeast free. The current craze is the Paleolithic diet, a meat-centric diet “cave man” diet. All of these diets contain elements of truth, but all are greatly flawed. I believe that contemporary diet trends must include some study of historical perspective together with extensive well-designed modern clinical research. Yet, this is not usually the case. Most diet trends are created without the benefit of traditional wisdom and modern science. Modern science by itself gives us more problems than solutions—for example, pesticides and other chemicals that contaminate our food supply, and pharmaceutical drugs for treating our modern day diseases—often made by the same company and always touted as safe. It seems ludicrous now, but in the 1940’s, DDT was heavily promoted as completely safe to humans (I recently came across this clip advertising the safety of DDT: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nP3ZLNSJu5g).
Consuming more organic whole grains and generally eating a plant-based diet not only benefits our health, but also contributes to a cost-effective way to feed the planet while having little negative impact on the environment. This may be the single most effective way to reduce “green house emissions” pollution of water and air, while reducing deforestation and global warming. Most people are not aware of the environmental consequences of a meat-eating diet. The production of beef and other animal protein consumes huge amounts of natural resources such as water, fossil fuels, and topsoil, while polluting our water and air.
I will make one specific point and give an example. Methane, the most serious gas produced by livestock, is released into the environment in excess of 100 million tons a year. Methane traps heat in the atmosphere and causes the earth’s temperature to rise. In his report on global warming, physicist Noam Mohr says, “methane is 21 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.” I believe, and so do many others, that by reducing the amount of meat consumption worldwide we could slow down methane production and thereby slow global warming.
My Personal Dietary Approach
A low animal protein diet (which includes meat and dairy products) is the healthiest diet you can eat. I personally do not eat meat, but do eat dairy products, (including mostly organic goat, sheep, and cow dairy) as well as eggs and fish. I believe animal protein foods should comprise about 15% of our diet, and the rest should be plant-based, including a variety of grains in the form of whole grains like brown rice, buckwheat, and quinoa; sprouted grains; and baked goods made with whole grain flours. At home we have a German stone flourmill and I grind all my flour fresh, which makes a world of difference in terms of health and flavor. I believe that much of the flour we buy off the shelves of stores is at least partially rancid because of the natural oils contained in grains. Rancid foods should never be consumed.
I describe my family’s diet as Pescetarian (“one whose diet includes fish but no other meat). The foundation of our diet is organic Mediterranean, with some pan Asian and Middle Eastern influences to add variety and additional healthful ingredients. The Mediterranean diet includes locally grown wild vegetables; a variety of leafy and root vegetables; bitter greens including arugula, radicchio, and endive; mushrooms; tomatoes and other fruiting vegetables; grapes and berries; fish; a moderate intake of hard cheeses; grains; and plenty of olive oil.
Many studies have demonstrated that the Mediterranean diet offers significant protection from heart disease, neurological diseases, obesity, and cancer, and substantially increases lifespan. A Mediterranean diet includes whole grain products, which contribute to its protective effects against chronic diseases. In a recent study, researchers found that consuming a diet rich in fish, produce, olive oil and whole grains could decrease two markers of inflammation. The research shows an association between following a Mediterranean diet and correspondingly lower levels of platelets and white blood cells. High platelet levels are associated with vascular disease and cancer, while high white blood cell levels are associated with ischemic vascular disease (Bonaccio, et al. 2013).
Some of the populations of the world that enjoy the highest quality and longest lives include the island of Ikaria in Greece, Sardina in Italy, and the Sicani Mounts (Sicily, Italy); the unusual longevity is attributed to a close adherence to the Mediterranean diet. Centenarians living in these villages (more than 6 times the national average of Italy) enjoy anthropometric measurements within normal limits and moderate sensory disability without any sign of age-related diseases, including cognitive deterioration or dementia. Both Sicily and Sardinia also share low mortality from cancers and cardiovascular diseases.
The traditional diet of Okinawa, Japan is also a health promoting diet based on root vegetables (principally sweet potatoes), green and yellow vegetables, soybean-based foods, and medicinal plants. Marine foods, lean meats, fruit, medicinal garnishes and spices, tea, and alcohol are also moderately consumed. Many characteristics of the traditional Okinawan diet are shared with the traditional Mediterranean diet. The residents of Okinawa are known for their long average life expectancy, high numbers of centenarians, and accompanying low risk of age-associated diseases.
One more example of an unusually healthy population that relies primarily on a plant-based diet is a Seventh Day Adventist community in Loma Linda, California. The Seventh-Day Adventists’ diet includes whole grain breads, cereals, liberal amounts of fresh vegetables and fruits, and a moderate use of legumes, nuts, and seeds. The Adventist Mortality Study (AMS) conducted from 1960–66, and the first Adventist Health Study (AHS-1) from 1974–88 found that Adventists had lower risks for most cancers, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Females lived 4.4 years and males 7.3 years longer when compared with the general California population. These studies also showed the advantage of a vegetarian diet among Adventists, found strong evidence that meat increased the risk of colon cancer and coronary heart disease, and found that nut consumption reduced the risk of coronary heart disease.
I love the flexibility of an organically based, well-rounded diet. I’m of Italian descent and enjoy eating wheat products, including homemade vegetable pizzas made with our own freshly ground flour. However, I do not have a problem with people avoiding wheat. If you think that avoiding wheat is beneficial for you, I certainly don’t think you need to eat it. Most important is that you approach life with gratitude, joy, and love in your heart, and that includes the food you take for nourishment.
I do believe that eating healthy whole-grains as part of a balanced diet can not only contribute to an optimal state of health and longevity, but can also help to save our planet. In my next post, I’ll delve more in-depth into the research behind whole grains and health.
Bonaccio, et al. Adherence to the Mediterranean diet is associated with lower platelet and leukocyte counts: results from the Moli-sani study Blood blood-2013-12-541672)
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Fraser G, Sabate J, Beeson W, Strahan T. A possible protective effect of nut consumption on risk of coronary heart disease. The Adventist Health Study. Arch Int Med 1992;152:1416-24.
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Panico S, Mattiello A, Panico C, Chiodini P. Mediterranean dietary pattern and chronic diseases. Cancer Treat Res. 2014;159:69-81. doi: 10.1007/978-3-642-38007-5_5.
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Vasto S1, Scapagnini G, Rizzo C, Monastero R, Marchese A, Caruso C. Rejuvenation Res. 2012 Apr;15(2):184-8. Mediterranean diet and longevity in Sicily: survey in a Sicani Mountains population, Curr Vasc Pharmacol. 2013 Dec 18.
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2 Replies to “The Truth About Grains, Part 1”
Thanks for your balanced perspective. In addition to freshly ground grains, I would also point out that most traditional cultures were eating some of their grains in a fermented form (for example: sour dough). Do you have any thoughts on this?
Hi Stephen – Thanks for your comment. I agree fermented foods are important and I have previously blogged on them. Fermented grains increase the lactic acid, and alters the gluten to break down differently for better digestion.