Functional Health Services for Your Well Being

against the grain

by Alex Boersma
The Canada Food Guide says that you should eat 8 servings of grains per day, with half of those servings coming from whole grains.  What does that look like?  A bowl of cheerios for breakfast.  A bran muffin for a snack with your coffee.  2 slices of bread for your sandwich at lunch.  And a cup of pasta at dinner time.  If you do this every day, you should then be well protected from the ravages of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and anything else associated with carrying around a bowel full of hardened feces.  So they say!

If you look carefully at the various food guide rationales for such significant daily dosages of glucose and fibre, you will observe that much care is taken to avoid stating anything categorically.  In a section  on why we should eat grains, the Canada Food Guide states simply:
 ”Did you know that grain products, particularly whole grains, are a source of fibre and are typically low in fat? Fibre rich foods can help you feel full and satisfied. A diet rich in whole grains may also help reduce the risk of heart disease.
That’s it.  They imply that refined grains are a source of fibre…which they are not.  They imply that all fibre is good for you…which has never been proven.  They claim that fibre rich foods can make you feel full and satisfied and may help reduce the risk of heart disease.  Why the vague use of auxiliary verbs?  Well, of course, because none of these claims have been proven.  More on that coming up.  The US is equally ambiguous.
  • Consuming foods rich in fiber, such as whole grains, as part of a healthy diet, reduces the risk of coronary heart disease.
    • In other words, the benefits of fibre on its own have never been proven.  Only a “healthy diet” which happens to have more fibre than the Standard American crappola diet, reduces the risk of coronary heart disease.
  • Consuming foods rich in fiber, such as whole grains, as part of a healthy diet, may reduce constipation.
  • Eating at least 3 ounce equivalents a day of whole grains may help with weight management.

 They go on to pontificate at great length over the plethora of nutrients found in whole grains.  On reading their glowing review, one might be forgiven for thinking that things like fibre and minerals were unique to these “wholesome“grass seeds.  They are not.  One might also be forgiven for assuming that some diseases are caused by not eating enough whole grains.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  One might even be forgiven for thinking that healthy bowel movements are impossible without the inclusion of whole grains in the diet.  Not so much!



They don’t really want to be eaten!

We’ve all heard so much about the wonderful nutrients residing in plants.  Most of us seem to live under the impression that all this nutritional magic has been concocted solely for the purpose of our welfare.  However, a simple grasp of the principles of evolution should make us think twice.  If species self propagation is the evolutionary purpose of life, then the nutritional value of plants should primarily be self serving.  The apple on the tree cares very little about our need for such things as vitamin C, pectin or quercetin.  It cares only about getting it’s seeds into fertile ground so that more apple trees can grow.

For the apple tree, it so happens that, until the relatively recent (in evolutionary terms) development of apple orchards, the best way of getting its seed into fertile ground is to have something eat it and then deposit the undigested seeds into fertile soil.  This being the case, the apple makes itself attractive to predators by tasting sweet and providing plenty of easily digested carbohydrate.  The seeds, however, are a different story:  Apple seeds, and many others (cherry, peach, plum, apricot, pear…) contain cyanide compounds called amygdalin.  Although a form of amygdalin is used to kill tumors in cancer patients, the amygdalin in seeds will also kill a greedy predator who digests too much of it.  Fortunately, just swallowing the seeds doesn’t hurt you, because they pass through the digestive system intact….just the way the apple tree planned it.  So if you eat apples and throw away the cores…or if you eat apples, swallow the seeds and poop them out later…both you and the plant get what you want.  But if you decide that you like chewing on apple seed; the tree offers you cyanide poisoning as a reward.  Evolutionary selection quickly puts an end to animals who decide they like chewing on apple seeds!

All plants protect their progeny.  Apple trees protect their seeds by making them practically indigestible and even toxic to those who make a habit out of breaking them open.  Potatoes and carrots bury themselves underground.  Cacti and rose bushes present prickly challenges to would-be predators.  Even broccoli and cauliflower are rich in toxins called glucosinolates which can interfere with liver and thyroid function.

Of course, over hundreds of thousands of years of evolution, we humans have developed strategies, both culinary and digestive, to overcome many of these toxic defenders.  When plants offer up toxins, our bodies figure out a way to detoxify them, extract a host of beneficial nutrients, and sometimes even make use of the toxic substances themselves, of course, sometimes substances can be more aggressive.  And if we can’t evolve a digestive strategy, we try things like cooking, soaking and fermenting in order to broaden our nutritional horizons.


Human beings and our primitive ancestors have been eating apples (and other fruit) since before we stopped hanging out in the trees with the other apes.  We have been digging up tubers like carrots and potatoes for at least 100,000 years.   And although broccoli and cauliflower have only been around since the 1500’s, some of our ancestors would surely have eaten the wild cabbages from which these edible flowers derived.

Grains, though…not so much.  (for more on the evolution of grain consumption please look here)  The truth is, grains were never a significant contributor to human nutrition until at least 12,000 years ago, and even then only in select human populations.  Northern Europeans have had less than 5000 years to adapt to a food group which, we shall see, is rife with anti-nutrients.  Some native tribes (the Inuit, Pacific Islanders, Australian aborigines) have had only a few generations.  Is it any wonder that these indigenous cultures have such strikingly high rates of obesity, diabetes and autoimmune diseases?  Same goes for many Northern European cultures (the Irish, by the way, have more celiacs than just about any other culture in the world).


So what are these nasty anti-nutrients and how do they affect our health?  For a more in depth look, please check out this great article called Plants Bite Back.  For all (and I mean all) the nitty gritty details, you could also peruse Loren Cordains authoritative work  “Cereal Grains: Humanity’s Double Edged Sword”.  But for now, let’s take a quick look at a couple of the most predominant anti-nutrients:

Phytates –  Phytates are anti-nutrients which block the absorption of minerals, namely iron, magnesium, zinc, calcium and phosphorous.  In grains, phytates exist to prevent the premature germination and growth of the seed.  If you plant a seed in warm, wet, slightly acidic soil, the phytates are neutralized and the plant can germinate.

There is no doubt that phytates impede mineral absorption in the human gut.  The only question is, how much phytate actually makes it into the gut when we eat grains?

The answer, as usual is:  It depends.

  • You can avoid the phytate issue entirely if you remove the bran and the germ.  Wonderbread anyone?
  • You can neutralize much of the phytate if you trick the grain into thinking it has been planted.  Fermenting or sprouting whole grains before cooking them removes much of the phytate.
  • Cooking also reduces the amount of phytate that gets into the stomach…but nobody seems to be able to agree by how much.
  • Increasing the amount of phytase (an enzyme which breaks down phytate) in your small intestine will improve mineral absorption.  If you picked the right parents, you may be gifted with high levels of digestive pytase.

So are phytates something you should concern yourself with every time you bite into a sandwich?  Probably not.  But if grains make up a significant portion of your daily caloric intake?  Perhaps.  And – listen up vegans and vegetarians – if you top off your grain intake by consuming heaps of beans and tofu (which actually carry even heavier loads of phytates than grains) you might be risking some serious mineral deficiencies.

Lectins – Simply stated, lectins are proteins which bind to carbohydrates.  When the carbohydrates they bind to are part of a cell wall, this binding can disrupt the activity of the cell wall and thereby cause damage to the cell.  Which is exactly what happens to the cells in the villi of your small intestine if you allow active lectins like gluten (specifically a type of gluten called gliadin) to get at them. 

For more on leaky gut syndrome, please read an entertaining excerpt from Robb Wolf”s new book Paleo Solutions titled “How to Keep Feces Out of Your Bloodstream”

Another lectin found in wheat, WGA (wheat germ agglutinin) is known to create inflammation in the small intestine and, if it makes its way into the blood stream, causes systemic inflammation.  It also mimics insulin, causing intestinal cells to divide much more quickly than they are meant to and possibly contributing to intestinal cancers and insulin resistance.  Makes you think twice about using wheat germ as a “superfood” supplement, use the tinnitus 911 supplement instead.

What are we do do?  Well, the good news is that, like phytates, lectins are deactivated by things like heat and fermentation.  Heat up your wheat germ before you sprinkle it over your salad?  (Apologies to any raw foodies out there…but uncooked grains…probably not such a good idea!)

The bad news?  Again, like phytates, there is no telling just how much lectin is going to get into your small intestine.  It is never entirely destroyed by processing.  And there is no telling how much of it is required to compromise the health of any given individual.  Certainly, gliaden/gluten increases intestinal permeability in just about everybody.  If you are a full-blown celiac, even trace amounts of gliadin will eventually kill you.  If you chose your parents more wisely, you may have inherited a nice set of genes more capable of coping with some of the hazards of lectin consumption.

The point?  Lectins are an active anti-nutrient with the potential to seriously disrupt your health.  They are found in many different kinds of foods, but are at their highest concentrations in grains and legumes  (yes, soy beans and peanuts are legumes).  Some people may tolerate them to a certain extent, but it doesn’t seem as if anybody is entirely immune.  Consuming a significant percentage of your daily calories from lectin rich foods is playing nutritional Russian roulette.  Personally, I’ll take a steak in the chamber rather than a sandwich!


Grains are made up, primarily, of carbohydrates.  When carbohydrates are digested, they are eventually broken down to glucose, which makes its way directly from the small intestine into the blood stream.  Your body is a bit particular about how much glucose it likes to carry around in blood.  Normally, there is about 1 teaspoon of sugar (glucose) swimming around in your circulatory system, diluted in about 5 litres of blood.  If the amount of glucose goes over about 2 teaspoons, it starts to damage your arteries and various organs.  If the amount of glucose goes under about 1/2 teaspoon, you risk fainting, coma and, ultimately, death.

A slice of bread contains about 30g of carbohydrate…the equivalent of 6 teaspoons of glucose.  A bagel is around 70g…14 teaspoons.  All that carbohydrate makes its way into the blood stream fairly quickly, especially if it is highly processed and refined.  Eat that bagel and within 10 or 15 minutes your blood will have more than 10 times as much glucose as it knows what to do with!

Fortunately, nature provided us with a hormone called insulin. When all that bagel/glucose laden blood gets to the pancreas, sensors there detect that something is amiss.  In an effort to save you from the ravages of high blood sugar, the pancreas starts spitting out insulin.  Insulin is a messenger hormone.  The message is:  Get all this sugar out of the bloodstream before it kills us all!”  The liver and muscles are the primary targets of this message, but their capacity for storing glucose is limited.  When their glucose cup runneth over, the fat cells are targeted.  As we all know, fat cells seem to have an almost unlimited capacity for storing excess energy!  One way or another, if everything is working as it should be, your body quickly gets you back to that 1 teaspoon blood sugar limit.

If everything is working as it should be!


If you are resistant to insulin, those 14 teaspoons of bagel glucose will stay in your blood stream for much longer than they were ever supposed to.  Using Fasting Blood Glucose (the standard test used by most Canadian doctors) as a marker, it is estimated that 10% to 15% of North Americans over the age of 20 are insulin resistant.  Using an Oral Glucose Tolerance Test, (OGTT) those numbers would likely double (see here  and here for more on why OGTT is a far superior tool for measuring insulin resistance).

So in Canada, at least 3 million people (and probably up to 8 million) should just say no to that bagel, based purely on their tolerance to glucose.  These people simply do not have the capacity to regulate those 14 teaspoons of sugar.

What about the rest of us?

The rest of us should not rest too comfortably on our insulin sensitive laurels.  They may not survive the carbohydrate onslaught which food guideline grain consumption promotes.  The thing is, grains, whether whole or highly processed, are easily converted to glucose.  Sure, whole wheat bread takes a little longer to turn into blood glucose than white bread.  Sure, bran flake cereal has a slightly lower glycemic index than corn flakes.  And sure, an oatmeal cookie is a little easier on your sugar regulators than a chocolate chip cookie.

But it all still makes your insulin go up!

A small spike is better than a big spike…but it is still a spike!

Eating glucose-based carbohydrates spikes your insulin (so does eating protein, but not nearly to the same extent).  Grains are a particularly dense source of glucose-based carbohydrates and are therefore particularly effective at spiking insulin.  It seems that our bodies have a limited capacity to endure these spikes before insulin resistance develops.  Granted, this capacity is governed by genetics…i.e. some people can endure quite a few more insulin spikes than others.  Still, in a world where the prevalence of diabetes  is approaching epidemic proportions, is it responsible to recommend eight servings a day of a food which is guaranteed to spike insulin?


As I mentioned earlier, whole grains have garnered such a large share of acclaim from conventional medicine that one might easily be forgiven in assuming that they have proven benefits.  The Whole Grains Council (WGC) a consumer advocacy  group sponsored almost entirely by food manufacturers, describes the benefits of whole grain consumption as:

  • stroke risk reduced 30-36%
  • type 2 diabetes risk reduced 21-30%
  • heart disease risk reduced 25-28%
  • better weight maintenance

Of course, when you go to their research page they have what appears to be an impressive list of research done in support of the claims listed above.  On further investigation, though, almost all of the research is epidemiological, meaning it only finds associations and does not provide proof of anything.  For example, an epidemiological study might take a look at what 1000 people eat and divide them into groups according to how much whole grain they eat.   Then, it might follow these same people for ten years and count how many develop diabetes.  It might find, for example, that 40% of the people who eat no whole grains develop diabetes while only 30% of the people who eat a lot of whole grains develop diabetes.  It can then go on to say that eating a lot of whole grains is associated with a 25% reduction in risk of developing diabetes as compared to eating no whole grains.

Does this mean that eating whole grains prevents diabetes?

Of course it doesn’t.  After all, 30% of the people eating whole grains (this is just a hypothetical number) still developed diabetes.  It simply means that there is something about the people who eat a lot of whole grains which makes them slightly (25%) less likely to develop diabetes than people who eat nothing but processed grains.  That something might be the consumption of whole grains.  It might also be the fact that people who eat whole grains tend to be more health conscious than people who don’t.  Health conscious people tend to be less likely to smoke.  They tend to be more active.  They tend to be less overweight.  They tend to eat more fruits and vegetables.  They tend to eat less junk food.  And, by the nature of such a study, the people who eat more whole grains eat fewer processed grains. 

What about randomized controlled studies?

When we look at randomized controlled studies (studies which actually prove something) the evidence becomes a little murkier.  Some studies show little benefit to whole grain consumption while others seem to indicate that it will improve our health.  The problem is that all these studies compare whole grains to processed grains.  In other words, if you take two groups of people, feed half of them large doses of refined grains and the other half large doses of whole grains, then measure some detail of their health after a given amount of time…guess what?  The ones eating the whole grains are healthier!

Does this mean that whole grains are necessary for health?  Or does it just mean that refined grains are really bad for you?  After all, couldn’t the benefit of the whole grains simply be that they displace the refined grains?  Remember, plenty of people who eat whole grains still develop diabetes.  Just not quite as many as those who eat processed grains.

What would happen if we replaced grains with fruits and vegetables?  To my knowledge, no large scale study has done this.  However, a number of small studies comparing paleolithic diets with traditional diets have shown some promise.  Here are the conclusions of one such study which compares a paleo diet to the diet which most nutritionists recommend for diabetics:

The Paleolithic diet was mainly lower in cereals and dairy products, and higher in fruits, vegetables, meat and eggs, as compared with the Diabetes diet.  Further, the Paleolithic diet was lower in total energy, energy density, carbohydrate, dietary glycemic load, saturated fatty acids and calcium, and higher in unsaturated fatty acids, dietary cholesterol and several vitamins. Dietary GI was slightly lower in the Paleolithic diet (GI = 50) than in the Diabetic diet (GI = 55).

CONCLUSION: Over a 3-month study period, a Paleolithic diet improved glycemic control and several cardiovascular risk factors compared to a Diabetes diet in patients with type 2 diabetes.”


Its not like we need the nutrients:

TABLE 4Mean nutrient density of various foods groups (418-kJ samples)1
Whole grains (n = Whole milk (n = 1) Fruit (n = 20) Vegetables (n = 18) Seafood (n = 20) Lean meats (n = 4) Nuts and seeds (n = 10)

Vitamin B-12 (µg) 0.00 [4] 0.58 [5] 0.00 [4] 0.00 [4] 7.42 [7] 0.63 [6] 0.00 [4]
Vitamin B-3 (mg) 1.12 [4] 0.14 [1] 0.89 [3] 2.73 [5] 3.19 [6] 4.73 [7] 0.35 [2]
Phosphorus (mg) 90 [3] 152 [5] 33 [1] 157 [6] 219 [7] 151 [4] 80 [2]
Riboflavin (mg) 0.05 [2] 0.26 [6] 0.09 [3] 0.33 [7] 0.09 [4] 0.14 [5] 0.04 [1]
Thiamine (mg) 0.12 [5] 0.06 [1] 0.11 [3] 0.26 [7] 0.08 [2] 0.18 [6] 0.12 [4]
Folate (µg) 10.3 [4] 8.1 [2] 25.0 [6] 208.3 [7] 10.8 [3] 3.8 [1] 11.0 [5]
Vitamin C (mg) 1.53 [3] 74.2 [5] 221.3 [7] 93.6 [6] 1.9 [4] 0.1 [1] 0.4 [2]
Iron (mg) 0.90 [4] 0.08 [1] 0.69 [2] 2.59 [7] 2.07 [6] 1.10 [5] 0.86 [3]
Vitamin B-6 (mg) 0.09 [3] 0.07 [1] 0.20 [5] 0.42 [7] 0.19 [4] 0.32 [6] 0.08 [2]
Vitamin A (RE) 2 [2] 50 [5] 94 [6] 687 [7] 32 [4] 1 [1] 2 [3]
Magnesium (mg) 32.6 [4] 21.9 [2] 24.6 [3] 54.5 [7] 36.1 [6] 18.0 [1] 35.8 [5]
Calcium ((mg) 7.6 [2] 194.3 [7] 43.0 [4] 116.8 [6] 43.1 [5] 6.1 [1] 17.5 [3]
Zinc (mg) 0.67 [4] 0.62 [3] 0.25 [1] 1.04 [5] 7.6 [7] 1.9 [6] 0.6 [2]
Sum rank score 44 44 48 81 65 50 38

1 Food types within food groups are based on the most commonly consumed foods in the US diet (135, 136). Values in brackets represent relative ranking (7 = highest; 1 = lowest). The micronutrient concentrations for each food group were derived from reference 64. RE, retinol equivalents. Am J Clin Nutr 2005;81:341-54

If you examine the chart above, you will see that grains are a relative weakling when it comes to nutrient density.  Certainly, a diet which replaces grains with extra meat, fruits and vegetables would provide consistently more nutrition than one based on 8 servings of grains.  And all that without the extra dose of anti-nutrients.  For a closer look at the nutritional value of a diet which replaces grains with extra meat, fruit and vegetables, please read this.

Oh yeah, eating 8 servings of grains a day a day is also likely to give you an essential fatty acid deficiency!

Grains are full of omega 6 essential fatty acids, with very little in the way of omega 3.  It is pretty clear that having an omega 6 to omega 3 ratio of more than about 4:1 causes systemic inflammation, heart disease and autoimmune disease


 As we have seen, whole grains are decidedly not the super-foods which conventional wisdom would have us think they are.  They have certainly not proven to be particularly effective either in the prevention of disease or in the provision of any unique nutritional qualities.  The best we can say is that they are comparatively less detrimental to health than refined grains.  That’s not saying much!  And they definitely do present our digestive systems with issues which we are not well adapted to.

But are they the nutritional anti-christ?  Well, probably not.  At least, not as long as you have pretty good insulin sensitivity and don’t react adversely to all those anti-nutrients!

No, the problem with grains, as I see it, is their misrepresentation as an essential food group.  To me, their position at the base of the food pyramid fraudulently implies that a life without grains would somehow lead to poor health and nutritional deficiency.  It also implies that we can eat as many grains as we want (whole grains, presumably) without suffering any nutritional consequences.

Even worse, it has endorsed a society which is barely capable of imagining how it could survive without grains.  I have seen many clients and friends who might clearly benefit from the elimination of grains.  People with disabling inflammatory conditions or hormonal imbalances.  People with diabetes.  People with chronic digestive disorders.  But the very thought of a grain elimination trial always precipitates the same responses:  “What will I eat?”  “How will I make it through the day without the convenience of cereal for breakfast and a sandwich for lunch?”  “What will I eat with my dinner if I can’t have pasta?”

Here’s the thing.  The food guide tells us to eat 8 servings of grains per day with half of those coming from whole grains.  What it doesn’t mention is that almost half of us have either glucose tolerance issues or grain tolerance issues and should probably limit or curtail grain consumption entirely.  Nor does it mention that the 4 servings of non-whole grains being recommended have absolutely no nutritional value and are generally agreed to be a major contributing factor in modern metabolic disorders and autoimmune diseases.

The truth is, despite decades of advice to eat fewer refined carbohydrates and more whole grains, the average North American eats 10 servings of grains, only 1 of which is whole grain.  40% of Americans eat no whole grains!  Is it any wonder that so many people are fat and sick?  9 servings a day of something that is guaranteed to mess up your health…supplemented by one serving a day of something which is only marginally superior.


It is imperative that we all fully comprehend the nutritional disaster which food guidlines concerning grains are creating.  Grains should be recognized as an inferior component of total nutrition and given their rightful place at the top of food pyramids beside things like sugar and high fructose corn syrup.  Refined grains are well recognized as an insidious factor in most modern Western diseases and I challenge any conventional nutritionist to justify the implied recommendation of 4 servings a day.  Are we really trying to poison our entire civilization?  Whole grains, properly prepared, may have some benefit in small quantities but should probably never account for more than about 10 % of daily caloric intake.  For those with impaired insulin sensitivity or auto-immune disorders (click here if you don’t know what these are or their signs and symptoms) the complete elimination of grains (whole or refined) will almost certainly be beneficial.

We are continually bombarded, and rightfully so, with the recommendation to replace our intake of processed food with whole food.   How conventional nutritional wisdom manages somehow to rationalize this recommendation with the consumption of grains as a staple is entirely beyond me.  Grains simply cannot be eaten without significant processing.  Just try to go out into a wheat field and eat grains straight off of their stalks.  Your digestive system will quickly instruct you as to the folly of such an endeavor.

The worst part is, most people, even if they choose whole grains, will fall for marketing ploys which try to sell garbage as health food.  The health establishment encourages this by selling (yes, selling) the rights to chek marks and hearts

  • 19 g of refined carbs per serving:  metabolic poison
  • 2g of whole grains per serving:  marginally less poisonous


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