Why you don’t need grains in your diet

Why you don’t need grains in your diet

I was asked to write an article titled "Why You Don't Need Grains in Your Diet". Were I actually choosing the title of this article, it would have read something like: “Why You Should Avoid Grains In Your Diet At All Costs”.

I was asked to write an article titled “Why You Don’t Need Grains in Your Diet”. Were I actually choosing the title of this article, it would have read something […]

The reasons for avoiding dietary grains are beyond innumerable and far more extensive and well documented in the literature than can possibly be listed here. The “health-essential” reasons to actually consume them (as is invariably promoted by nearly all government guidelines and food pyramids) are quite literally nonexistent. Although there may be some individuals that may (read: “may”) seemingly tolerate dietary grains–until the day they don’t anymore– it is not difficult to demonstrate that there is quite literally no one for whom grains are a “health food”. And the numbers of individuals suffering from various forms of “grain intolerance”, including gluten immune reactivity, obesity, diabetes, autoimmunity, neurological disorders, inflammatory bowel disease, diverticulitis, IBS…and on and on… are increasing at an exponential rate.

Whole books and an avalanche of peer reviewed research are being published on this very topic every day (and more and more are coming), so condensing this critical topic down to a small handful of bullet points is tough to do, but hopefully the reader will be sufficiently motivated by at least some of these points to dig a little deeper down this well-established and exhaustively documented rabbit hole. I promise you, the deeper you go down the path of honest and open exploration of this subject the more unthinkable that next slice of bread will be.

Let’s start at the beginning and take a look at the evolutionary basis (or lack of) for the consumption of grains:

  • For starters, there is simply no evidence for a grain/legume-based diet anywhere in the pre-agricultural human fossil record, or for any significant amount of grains consumed during our prehistory, period. This has been thoroughly established through extensive research using stable isotopic analysis of human bone collagen remains (at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany). Samples taken from fossil evidence representing multiple periods of human evolutionary history confirm this.[1] Therefore–based on this fact, alone–grains simply cannot be essential to us in any way. The hunter-gatherer diet our ancestors subsisted upon for over 2.5 million years is far more deeply and indelibly imprinted into our DNA than our agricultural habits of the last few thousand years (amounting to a fraction of a heartbeat in human evolutionary time). The adoption of agriculture and the shift toward a dependence on foods to which our genome is ill-adapted was and is a setup for innumerable problems for our health, including a progressively shrinking brain. Quoting anthropologist, John Hawks from the Journal of Human Biology:Human populations during the last 10,000 years have undergone rapid decreases in average brain size as measured by endocranial volume or as estimated from linear measurements of the cranium.”[2] I don’t know about anyone reading this, but I would personally hesitate to refer to this trend as “evolutionary”. The most obvious and far-reaching dietary change during the last 10,000 years is, of course, the enormous drop in consumption of high-energy, fat-rich foods of animal origin (essential to our brain’s development) which formed easily 90% of our diet in Paleolithic times, to as little as 10% today, coupled with a large rise in less energy-dense grain consumption. All this dumbing down is clearly benefitting someone but it is hardly benefitting the average grain-eating consumer.
  • The notion that we are somehow endangering ourselves by “eliminating a food group” (or perhaps more to the point, a food group promoted by a particular profit-oriented food lobby) is patently absurd. The smattering of actual “nutrients” contained within grains and legumes are readily available through the consumption of many, many other more “Paleo-friendly” foods and are always better gotten elsewhere.   The pronounced phytic acid/phytate content in grains and legumes, for instance, tends to bind the minerals contained within them and make them largely unavailable to those consuming them. Mineral deficiencies, in fact, were a common consequence of those adopting the early agricultural lifestyle[3].
  • Grains are used to fatten cattle in feedlots. We could all take a hint from that fact alone.
  • According to renowned Celiac researcher, Dr. Alessio Fasano, MD (professor, researcher with over 200 peer reviewed publications and founder of the University of Maryland School of Medicine’s Division of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition) no human being alive is even capable of actually digesting the protein found in grains (gluten)—even those having healthy GI tracts! Immune reactivity and gut/blood-brain barrier compromise associated with the ingestion of gluten, however, is extremely commonplace. This further suggests that not only is gluten literally not any sort of food for any of us, but instead amounts to being no more for us than a damaging dietary contaminant.



“Although we’ve been eating wheat for thousands of years, we are not engineered to digest gluten. We are able to completely digest every protein we put in our mouths with the exception of one—and that’s gluten. Gluten is a weird protein. We don’t have the enzymes to dismantle it completely, leaving undigested peptides that can be harmful. The immune system may perceive them as an enemy and mount an immune response.”  Alessio Fasano, MD[4]

Both celiac disease and not-celiac gluten immune reactivity are becoming virtually epidemic problems in the general populace. In a study published in the journal Gastroenterology it was found that in just the last 50 years alone there has been an over 400% increase in the incidence of celiac disease.[5] They did this by testing 10,000 blood samples available from 50 years ago (carefully stored at military hospitals) and then comparing them from 10,000 blood samples from today.   What seems to be an inescapable reality is that we are not becoming more adapted to these foods as time goes by as one might reasonably otherwise expect (I discuss several reasons why in my book, Primal Body, Primal Mind), we are actually becoming increasingly LESS adapted. Anyone who tells you this study result was due to “improved modern testing techniques” either simply hasn’t read the study or is being intentionally misleading. Or both. According to Alessio Fasano, “We know the prevalence (of gluten immune reactivity) is rising and we’re in the midst of an epidemic.   Based on our study it seems the prevalence has doubled every 15 years in North America. Why? I think it goes back to the microbiome. There are antibiotics, our diet has changed, we travel more. There have been so many changes in the last 50 years.”[6] In the American Journal of Gastroenterology in 2012 the authors stated that “the incidence of CD increased five-fold from 1.3 per 100,000 in 1999 to 6.5 per 100,000 in 2008, with the highest rates of increase among those over 34 years of age.” [7] Finally, in the Annals of Medicine in 2010 researchers stated: “The prevalence of Celiac Disease has increased five-fold overall since 1974. This increase was not due to increased sensitivity of testing, but rather due to an increasing number of subjects that lost the immunological tolerance to gluten in their adulthood.” [8] (bold emphasis added)

  • According to the New England Journal of Medicine, Celiac Disease is one of the most common lifelong disorders in both Europe and the US.[9] It can be the root–the very trigger for what amounts to over 100 Auto-Immune Diseases.  Gluten immune reactivity can literally affect any area of the body.  The latest numbers indicate that as many as one in every 5 people (yes, that’s right) have some form of gluten-sensitivity. [10]
  • A peer-reviewed article all the way back in 2002 listed 55 conditions that were known to be associated with gluten immune reactivity[11]. Today this number easily exceeds 200 conditions potentially generated or exacerbated by gluten consumption–with or even without actual associated immune reactivity[12]

Autoimmune diseases—now numbering upwards of 100 different types —with 40 additional diseases that are thought to have an autoimmune component– are recognized to be the number three cause of morbidity and mortality in the industrialized world, right behind cancer and heart disease. However, a very large study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2009 found that people with diagnosed, undiagnosed, and “latent” celiac disease or gluten sensitivity had a higher risk of death, mostly from heart disease and cancer[13]. Other findings in this study were both important and dramatic: There was a 39 percent increased risk of death in those with celiac disease, 72 percent increased risk in those with gut inflammation related to gluten, and 35 percent increased risk in those with gluten sensitivity but no celiac disease. In effect, all forms of gluten immune reactivity have comparable adverse effects when it comes to impacts upon health and longevity. Celiac disease is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to the totality of what may be termed “gluten immune reactivity”. According to world-class immunologist and researcher, Aristo Vojdani, PhD, “Celiac disease and gluten-sensitive enteropathy are terms that have been used to refer to a disease process affecting the small bowel. However, evidence has been accumulated in literature demonstrating that gluten sensitivity or celiac disease can exist even in the absence of enteropathy, but affecting many organs. Based on overwhelming evidence, immunological pathogenesis has been demonstrated in the joint, the heart, thyroid, bone, and, in particular, the brain cerebellum and neuronal synapsin I.”[14]

  • According to the World Health Organization, in 20 years depression will be the biggest health burden in the world. It also turns out that gluten immune reactivity and celiac disease are each highly correlated with depressive symptoms (along with anxiety and other serious mood and cognitive-related issues). According to a study in the peer reviewed journal, Alimentary Pharmacology & Therapeutics: Depression is reported to be a feature of coeliac disease and is ranked as its most common neuropsychiatric disturbance”[15]. In a study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Gastroenterology the authors stated that “children and adolescents with silent Celiac Disease (gluten sensitivity), we found a significant increase in disruptive behavioral and depressive disorders.[16] Celiac disease diagnosed in childhood was associated with a 40% increase in suicide risk. [17] Also, Schizophrenia is frequently found in people with Celiac Disease and Celiac Disease is frequently found in people with schizophrenia. In cultures where gluten grains are rarely eaten, schizophrenia is rare or non-existent.[18] This barely scratches the surface of what potential impact grain consumption can cost your emotional, cognitive and brain health.
  • 70% of children with untreated gluten sensitivity/celiac disease show exactly the same abnormal brainwave patterns as those with ADD. Also, “Mood disorders are also common with gluten intolerances – including aggressive, angry, bullying, and irritable behavior.” [19]. Gluten sensitivity is known to affect frontal/prefrontal lobe perfusion (blood flow) and subsequently impaired mood, memory, planning and judgment faculties, inhibitory capacity and cognitive functioning.

In The Journal Of Attention Disorders in March 2006, an ADD study was undertaken to determine the impact of gluten immune reactivity on this condition. The results were nothing short of astonishing: “In 132 participants all clinically diagnosed with ADHD, after at least 6 months on a gluten-free diet, all patients or their parents reported a significant improvement in their behavior and functioning compared to the immediate period before diagnosis and dietetic treatment.” [20] That’s 100% folks. No medication comes even close to replicating this effect!

  • “Cognitive decline and underachievement in post-secondary education is 400% more likely with gluten sensitivity.”[21]
  • Cerebral hypoperfusion (poor blood flow in the brain) as a result of the persistent inflammation associated with gluten immune reactivity can readily lead to white matter lesions in the brain (–in other words, brain damage and adverse neurological changes consistent with the later development of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia).[22]
  • In what was likely the largest epidemiological study related to celiac disease in the U.S. to date, more than 13,000 subjects in 32 states were screened for the associated antibodies. Those who tested positive underwent further blood tests and, when possible, a small-bowel biopsy to confirm the presence of celiac disease. The results, published in 2003, were stunning: 1 in every 133 people had celiac disease. And among those related to celiac patients, the rates were as high as 1 in 22. [23] These statistics relate solely to enteropathic celiac disease, now recognized to be a mere fraction of those suffering the impact of non-enteropathic (i.e., non gut-related) celiac-related tissue damage. [24] And celiac disease comprises only about 12% of what actually constitutes a broader issue of gluten immune reactivity.[25]

“Gluten sensitivity affects 6 to 7 times more people than celiac disease, so the impact is tremendous." Alessio Fasano, MD[26]

  • Gluten-sensitive individuals, particularly those with celiac disease, also commonly have an unhealthy imbalance in their gut flora.[27] Another peer-reviewed article published in 2012 linked this same type of microbiota (gut bacteria) imbalance with increased rates of obesity, and leptin resistance.[28]

A new study published in FEMS Microbiology Ecology titled,Diversity of the cultivable human gut microbiome involved in gluten metabolism: isolation of microorganisms with potential interest for coeliac disease” showed disturbing evidence that proteomes in gluten additionally seem to feed pathogenic strains of bacteria, such as Clostridium spp (Note that this pathogen has shown itself to be nearly absent in hunter-gatherer populations such as the Hadza).[29]

To quote Sayer Ji, founder of GreenMedInfo (the world’s largest and most referenced science-based health resource), “One must also account for the “invisible thorn,” which is wheat lectin – known more technically as Wheat Germ Agglutinin (WGA) — and which can cause a broad range of adverse health effects, even while being undetected through conventional screenings. “ and “What is unique about WGA is that it can do direct damage to the majority of tissues in the human body without requiring a specific set of genetic susceptibilities and/or immune-mediated articulations. This may explain why chronic inflammatory and degenerative conditions are endemic to wheat-consuming populations even when overt allergies or intolerances to wheat gluten appear exceedingly rare.”[30] WGA can—all on its own with no associated immune reactivity—cross the human blood-brain barrier, attach itself to myelin and block nerve growth factor, effectively damaging the brain without any immune modulated reactivity. This is a wake-up call for anyone consuming wheat—regardless of genetic susceptibility or immunologic vulnerability to grains. The richest source of WGA, by the way, lies in the supposedly “healthy” sprouted grain breads. Also, all persons consuming gluten generate the enzyme, zonulin in response to eating it, adversely impacting both gut permeability and blood-brain barrier permeability over a matter of hours following the meal. This always poses a certain degree of risk with respect to immune reactivity of any type related to dietary exposure, as well as potential cognitive, mood and neurologically related issues. According to Fasano, discoverer zonulin and the mechanisms of its action, “Dysregulation of this conceptual zonulin model may contribute to disease states that involve disordered intercellular communication, including developmental and intestinal disorders leading to autoimmune disease (that is, CD and type 1 diabetes), tissue inflammation, malignant transformation, and metastasis. [31]

Even non-gluten grains can commonly be a source of immune reactivity for many people, as they are rich in adversely immune-provoking lectins and proteins foreign to the human genome. Many even non-gluten containing grains have a known cross-reactive effect with gluten sensitivity, unknowingly at times yielding a “gluten-like effect” on those eating what might otherwise be defined as a “gluten-free grain”. The storage and processing of all forms of grain additionally present frequent dangers of gluten cross-contamination. Additionally, all grains, despite their questionably utilizable protein content are a predominantly starch-based food high in lectins, potentially immune-reactive proteomes, mineral-depleting phytates, and other antinutrients potentially leading to metabolic dysregulation, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancers, autoimmunity and gastrointestinal disorders (to name just a few potential issues).

In conclusion:

I think this article neatly establishes the fact that eliminating grains from anyone’s diet at the very least isn’t likely to pose any manner of health-related risk or deficiency. In fact, avoiding grains altogether is a worthwhile means of avoiding one of the most common causative and aggravating factors in diseases of Western civilization. You really have to ask yourself: Is that slice of bread, forkful of tasteless limp pasta or spoonful of cereal really worth it? Are we really putting ourselves at “risk” by avoiding grains? Really??? Or are we merely endangering the enormous profits of big agribusiness and the food industry (and those they educate) by prioritizing our own health over their bottom line?

A peer reviewed article in Diabetes, Metabolic Syndrome and Obesity: Targets and Therapy (titled “Comparison with ancestral diets suggests dense acellular carbohydrates [i.e., grains] promote an inflammatory microbiota, and may be the primary dietary cause of leptin resistance and obesity”[32]) stated in its conclusions:We should not settle for the meager improvements attainable from the consensus dietary advice when it is already clear that so much more might be achieved. Our sights should be set high, to see how close we can move levels of industrialized metabolic health toward those enjoyed by non-Westernized populations. While many will resist making dietary changes of such magnitude, official advice must nonetheless point in the correct direction, allowing individuals to make informed decisions…A dietary pattern with carbohydrates exclusively from cellular low-density sources may remove the root cause of a range of our most prevalent diseases. The potential savings in health-care costs should be borne in mind, and the hypothesis tested.”

Here, here. Beautifully said.

I have personally never met any person anywhere suffering from a “grain deficiency” (or legume deficiency, for that matter) and I never will. There literally is no such thing. I have, however, met plenty of desperate people suffering the devastating effects of a grain-based diet—and the ill effects of even supposedly “moderate” grain consumption. For all too many individuals today even a crumb of bread is too much. And the frightening part of all this is that the majority of sufferers never know the underlying source of their various symptoms (i.e., gluten immune reactivity). In fact, Celiac Disease (CD) is one of the most common lifelong disorders in both Europe and the US. [33] It “(CD) is also a much greater problem than has been previously been appreciated.”[34] In fact, “in the past 7 years, 1 in 4 children were diagnosed as having Celiac Disease as a result of case-finding of associated conditions.”[35] The fact is, no more than about 1-3% of gluten immune reactivity sufferers are ever even diagnosed (which pro-grain pundits repeatedly cite as evidence of there being little real issue to be concerned about).

Is it really worth the risk?

The previous study also stated that:The increased storage life and convenience of some of our oldest agricultural products may come with a hitherto unrecognized metabolic cost. The foods eaten by hunter- gatherers, non-cereal horticulturalists, and those following a modern Paleolithic or “primal” diet are sharply delineated from modern foods by their lower carbohydrate densities. Consumption of exclusively low-density carbohydrates is suggested to produce a less inflammatory GI microbiota, and may explain the apparent absence of overweight and metabolic disease in two of these groups, and the promising early data from the third.”

The consumption of grains is little more than a game of Russian roulette we can all ill-afford to play in these perilous modern times and one that a healthy Paleo-oriented diet naturally avoids.

I’ll personally stick with the latter.

[1] Michael Richards’ publications: http://www.eva.mpg.de/evolution/staff/richards/publications.htm

Katzenburg MA (2008) Stable isotope analysis: a tool for studying past diet, demography, and life history. In Katzenburg MA, Saunders SR (eds) Biological Anthropology of the Human Skeleton. (Hoboken, Wiley-Liss) 2nd Edition pp 413-441

Schoeninger MJ, DeNiro M (1984) Nitrogen and carbon isotopic composition of bone collagen from marine and terrestrial animals.  Geochim Cosmochim Acta 48:635-639.

Schoeninger MJ (1995) Stable isotope studies in human evolution. Evolutionary Anthropology 4(3): 83-98.

[2] Hawks, John. “Selection for smaller brains in Holocene human evolution” Journal of Human Biology 28 Feb 2011, arXiv:1102.5604.

[3] Cheryan, M., 1980. “Phytic acid interactions in food systems.” Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition 13(4), 297-335.

[4] http://www.humanholistics.com/who-we-see/gluten-sensitivity-and-celiac-disease

[5] Alberto Rubio–Tapia, Robert A. Kyle, Edward L. Kaplan., et al., “Increased Prevalence and Mortality in Undiagnosed Celiac Disease” Gastroenterology (July;137(1):88-93) DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1053/j.gastro.2009.03.059

[6] http://www.foodnavigator-usa.com/R-D/The-lowdown-on-celiac-disease-gluten-sensitivity-and-celebrity-wheat-bashing-In-conversation-with-Dr-Alessio-Fasano

[7] Am J Gastroenterol. 2012 August:107(8):1248-55.

[8] Ann Med. 2010 Oct;42(7):530-8

[9] NEJM 348;25 June 19, 2003

[10] Eur Rev Med Pharmacol Sci. 2010 Jun;14(6):567:72.

[11] Richard J. Farrell, M.D., and Ciarán P. Kelly, M.D. “Current Concepts: Celiac Sprue” N Engl J Med 2002; 346:180-188 January 17, 2002 DOI: 10.1056/NEJMra010852.

[12] http://www.greenmedinfo.com/blog/200-clinically-confirmed-reasons-not-eat-wheat.

[13] Ludvigsson JF, Montgomery SM, Ekbom A, Brandt L, Granath F. Small-intestinal histopathology and mortality risk in celiac disease. JAMA. 2009 Sep 16;302(11):1171-8.


[15] Alimentary Pharmacology & Therapeutics, 2002; 16: 1333-1339. DOI: 10.1046/j.1365-2036.2002.01283.x

[16] Scan. J. Gastro, 2005; 40:1407-1412.

[17] Dig Liver Dis 2011 Auf;43(8):616-22

[18] BMJ Volume 328, 21 February 2004.

[19] Braly, James and Ron Hoggan. Dangerous Grains: Why Gluten Cereal Grains May Be Hazardous to Your Health. Penguin Putnam, Inc. New York, New York: 2002

[20] The Journal Of Attention Disorders, March 2006, 1-5.

[21] Verkasalo, M. “Undiagnosed Celiac Disease: A Risk for Underachievement.” Scandanavian Journal of Gastroenterology, 40:1407-12

[22] Pediatrics Vol.108 No. 2, Aug 2001.

[23] Fasano A, Berti I, Gerarduzzi T, Not T, Colletti RB, et. al. “Prevalence of celiac disease in at-risk and not-at-risk groups in the United States: a large multicenter study.”   Arch Intern Med. 2003 Feb 10;163(3):286-92.

[24] O’Bryan, T. “The Immunology of Gluten Sensitivity Beyond the Intestinal Tract”, European Journal of Inflammation (Vol. 6 no. 3; 1-8, 2008

[25] Hadjivassiliou, M., Sanders, David S, Grünewald, Richard A., et al. “Gluten sensitivity: from gut to brain.” Lancet Neurol 2010; 9: 318–30

[26] http://www.humanholistics.com/who-we-see/gluten-sensitivity-and-celiac-disease

[27] Collado MC, Donat E, Ribes-Koninckx C, Calabuig M, Sanz Y. Specific duodenal and faecal bacterial groups associated with paediatric coeliac disease. J Clin Pathol. 2009;62 (3):264-269.

Tursi A, Brandimarte G, Giorgetti G. High prevalence of small intestinal bacterial overgrowth in celiac patients with persistence of gastrointestinal symptoms after gluten withdrawal. Am J Gastroenterol. 2003;98 (4):839-843.

Sanchez E, Nadal I, Donat E, Ribes-Koninckx C, Calabuig M, Sanz Y. Reduced diversity and increased virulence-gene carriage in intestinal enterobacteria of coeliac children. BMC Gastroenterol. 2008;8 50.

Nadal I, Donat E, Ribes-Koninckx C, Calabuig M, Sanz Y. Imbalance in the composition of the duodenal microbiota of children with coeliac disease. J Med Microbiol. 2007;56 (Pt 12):1669-1674.

[28] Spreadbury, Ian. “Comparison with ancestral diets suggests dense acellular carbohydrates promote an inflammatory microbiota, and may be the primary dietary cause of leptin resistance and obesity” Diabetes, Metabolic Syndrome and Obesity: Targets and Therapy. 4 July 2012

[29] Stephanie L. Candela, Marco Rampelli, Simone, et. al., “Gut microbiome of the Hadza hunter-gatherers.” Nature Communications 5, Article number: 3654 , 15 April 2014 doi:10.1038/ncomms4654

[30] (http://www.greenmedinfo.com/page/opening-pandoras-bread-box-critical-role-wheat-lectin-human-disease)

[31] Fasano, A. “Intestinal zonulin: open sesame!” Gut 2001;49:159-162 doi:10.1136/gut.49.2.159

[32] Spreadbury, Ian. “Comparison with ancestral diets suggests dense acellular carbohydrates promote an inflammatory microbiota, and may be the primary dietary cause of leptin resistance and obesity” Diabetes, Metabolic Syndrome and Obesity: Targets and Therapy. 4 July 2012

[33] NEJM 348;25 June 19, 2003

[34] Arch Intern Med. Vol 163, Feb 2003.

[35] Pediatrics 2009; 124; 1572-1578.

By n

You Might Also Like

Back to Blog Home

Unlock the secrets to a happier, healthier life

Our experts are here to share with you some enlightening thoughts and viewpoints to help you on your own personal journey to become the best version of you. Discover more with our 10 Week Activation Program.

We would love you to join the Tribe!

Join Our 10wk Program