Here at The Institute for the Psychology of Eating we do NOT endorse or promote any particular diet or nutritional lifestyle. We do highly encourage that each person openly explores the wide variety of nutritional approaches and dietary strategies that are available to them. We see nutrition as an ever-changing journey. We believe that a healthy relationship with food and a well functioning metabolism is possible when we can each be open to what works best for ourselves, and others. We believe there’s a nugget of wisdom to be found in just about any diet that’s been designed with care in mind for people and planet.
Everyday it seems that more and more information is coming out to show how grains, a central part of the diet in most societies on the planet, may not be the “staff of life” as they’ve long been described. With Celiac and non-Celiac gluten intolerance on the rise in our country, the need for an increased understanding about the effect foods have on our gut and our brain has been put squarely in the spotlight. It also brings into question, well, what are we really supposed to eat anyways?
So, perhaps it’s best to start with a little historical perspective when it comes to grain:
The transition from hunter-gatherer societies into the first “civilizations,” including Egypt, India, Peru, Mexico, Sumeria and Babylon, or China, would arguably not have been possible if it were not for this one particular kind of food. Egypt was built on kamut, Peru on quinoa, Mexico on maize, and India and China still subsist on rice. This is why the agricultural revolution (which began approximately 10,000 years ago) gets so much attention in the history of the human diet. We went from a largely migratory, seasonal culture to ones of agriculture, farming and permanent settlement. This shift allowed for a food surplus to exist and therefore made for easier access to an abundant calorie source that had not existed before… and the population boomed.
It changed the way we humans related to each other and changed our view of the heavens and the earth.
It also changed our bodies.
The debate that exists today, especially in the paleo community (but increasingly in other circles as well), is whether or not this reliance on grain has been a good thing for our health, as a species and a society, or whether it was then that our stature and well-being began to slowly deteriorate. So here’s the question at hand: Is Going Grain Free Better for Your Health?
If you’re coming from the “paleo-sphere” (or similar ancestral health perspectives), then the answer is a resounding yes. The paleo community argues, sometimes very convincingly, that as grains were absent from the Paleolithic diet, these are simply not foods that human evolved to eat. They discuss the issues that arise because of phytates, lectins and harsh forms of fiber. They point out the decrease in stature and increase in dental malformations that are apparent in the human archeological record shortly after the Agricultural Revolution as key indications of our need to avoid them. Further citations indicate the effects of gluten, as well as studies linking grain consumption with heart disease, and these are all decent and valuable points to consider. Here’s a couple more to keep in mind if you’re considering this dietary change for yourself:
Grains & the Gut:
When it comes to these “grain dangers”, there is some truth to be had, especially when it comes to the gut. And this is due to the fact that plants have their own defense mechanisms in the form of lectins, phytic acid, and other enzyme inhibitors.
- Phytic acid is a molecule that binds to a large number of essential minerals in the body, which leads to blocked absorption and deficiencies of important nutrients. Raw grains contain a lot if it.
- Lectins are what help the plant fight of pests, which is great for the plant, but can be damaging to our intestinal wall, and can wreak havoc on our immune systems.
- Gluten, the protein found in particular grains (wheat, barley, rye, etc.) can cause serious health issues in certain individuals.
The Gluten Intolerance Group of North America reports that 1 in 133 people have Celiac disease, and other studies say that perhaps as high as 1 in 3 people have gluten sensitivities. This can range from the full blow autoimmune condition in celiac sprue, to Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, and a range of other inflammatory health conditions due to intestinal permeability: Crohn’s disease and colitis. Gluten in particular can also cause non-inflammatory damage to the intestines, as well as mental disorders. Sounds pretty convincing when you begin to see what’s at work…
Grains & the Brain:
There’s been a wave of new books and medical information being released about the association between modern grain consumption and neurological issues: from hyperactivity in children, to Alzheimer’s and chronic headaches to depression. Studies compare grain consumption (and wheat in particular) with addictive substances, as wheat activates opiate receptors in the brain. Gluten’s exorphins (which are peptides formed when the gluten protein is digested) has also been linked to autism, ADHD, and schizophrenia, just to name a few. No wonder they’re getting so much attention.
Modern Agriculture and the Environment:
If you trace the history of food and agriculture, you will likely be astounded at the mess we’ve made. When trying to feed an ever-increasing population, cultivating grains in particular puts a tremendous strain on the nutrients in the soil. If you fail to rotate crops, reinvest in your land-base, or let field lie fallow, you’re looking at 2-3 years of wheat, barley, rye or corn, at best, before the soil dies and forces you to “go off in search of greener pastures”. This is the reality of food empires like Rome and Egypt all the way up through the European Middle Ages. Poor agricultural practices expanded the need for human habitat, felling forests and causing wars for more land resources. Our bad habits exacerbated famines and followed us to the United States, where we turned some of the richest soil in the world into the Dust Bowl, and decimated the breadbasket of our country in just shy of 150 years. And we didn’t know how to fix it. This led to the need for nitrogen, and led us to a long reliance on petroleum-based fertilizers to coax food from depleted soils. Grasslands, watersheds, and forests have all fallen into damaged states due to a tradition of irresponsible farming. And we still haven’t taken recovered. Ouch.
When you take this perspective seriously, and also come to understand the level of hybridization and genetic alterations happening to some of the most basic foods in this country, like wheat and corn, for instance, it’s no wonder we’re sick and it’s no wonder our environment is in such trouble.
Here’s the hopeful thing: what has been described above is, thankfully, not the only way to go about things. There are better ways to grow food, there are still organic farming methods, and heirloom varieties of grains that still hold a much higher nutritional value than their modern day imposters.
Despite the obvious condemning features of grain consumption on the brain and the gut, there’s one thing we seem to be missing, because: there are many healthy, vibrant cultures that have and still consume grains on a daily basis. So how do we correlate that with what we’re learning in in our modern medical journals, or even the incriminating evidence in the bones of our ancestors?
It turns out, you can learn a lot about a culture when you figure out how they eat what they eat. In traditional societies, grain consumption was a bit of process, as their ancestral wisdom had taught them that very specific preparation techniques were required to make certain foods “fit to eat”.
This includes souring, sprouting, soaking and fermenting grains and flours. In doing so, one is able to reduce or eliminate many of the elements that act like toxins inside us. Not only are the lectins, tannins, and other digestive anti-nutrients minimized, or favorably altered in this way, but such practices actually improve vitamin content, and increase access to their robust amino acid chains.
So, when we look at the bone record of our ancestors, it should make us pause. Is the degenerative bones structure due the inclusion of grains of themselves, or does it perhaps show us that we were still learning, that our early agriculture ancestors hadn’t discovered the tools fermentation when it came to their new food group. As we see our health taking such a deep nose-dive in our modern day, perhaps we need not step back as far as the Paleolithic, but consider instead the tools that make our foods more nutritious, digestible and health promoting.
Part of the work we do here at the Institute for the Psychology of Eating is training our Eating Psychology Coaches to support others in navigating the wealth of nutrition information out there, and bring it into alignment with who they are as Eaters.
Eat it or Leave It?
As you can see there’s a lot of information to consider, for there is a long history of eating grains without issue. So which path do you choose without relying on a high-fact diet?
Reasons to go grain free might include: you’re in a hyper inflammatory state, you suffer from an autoimmune condition, you’re trying to seek more nutrient dense sources of food, and/or you feel a pull to the paleo and evolutionary philosophy of the human diet.
Reasons to enjoy your whole grains: proper consumption of these foods shows a long medical history of their ability to reduce the risk of cancer, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, stroke, and the benefits of non-soluble fiber to cultivating healthy gut bacteria. Many grains are rich vitamins, and often manganese in particular, which is an important component in bone production by supporting the protein matrix. It’s also required for skin integrity, and by association happens to protect against UV damage. Other benefits include managing blood sugar, for it helps in the process of gluconeogenesis (the mechanism that keeps our glucose levels from dropping too low).
No one said you had to eat them everyday, however, or gorge solely on gluten. And of course, none of the societies who have, or continue to experience, a high level of health got there by eating wonder bread or Special K. So it’s important to understand that preparation, the properties of grain itself, and quality are going to play a part here.
The key when it comes to these kinds of decisions, once you’ve weighed all the data that’s of importance, is to consult the inner nutritionist. Awareness is powerful and rhythm is everything. There’s a lot of good qualities we can find in grains, and there are plenty of reasons to say, “no thanks”. Ultimately, there’s so much data on both sides, and yes, it is important to take into account, but we run into problems when we only rely on external sources of knowledge. It’s equally important to be aware of the effect your mind has on how you eat, not just what you eat.
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