If you eat a diet that features popular foods like bread, pasta and rice, the chances are you eat a variety of grains every single day. And you’re not alone. These foods are the most widely eaten in the world because they grow easily in many climates. But while many people rely on grains to keep bellies full and meals tasty, fewer realise the true impact these grains have on our bodies and overall health.
Grains are best described as small, dry seeds that grow on plants called cereals. The most common varieties are rice, wheat, corn, oats, and barley, and they make up the bulk of carbohydrates (commonly known as carbs) found on our plates at mealtimes. When eaten as they come, they’re called wholegrains, but in today’s society, wholegrains are typically refined before hitting the supermarket shelf. This process, in which the nutritious bran and germ are removed from grains, improves the texture and increases the shelf life of foods. And this is why you’re more likely to find white rice, white pasta and white bread (all processed) in your local grocery store than their unrefined 100% wholegrain versions.
Refined versus wholegrains
Researchers have long been aware that refining grains strips them of most of their nutrients. Back in 1999, food scientists identified that the process by which a wholegrain is turned into a refined grain not only removes much needed dietary fibre, it also strips the food of B vitamins and minerals, such as iron, zinc and calcium. But even though the scientific consensus is that unrefined wholegrains are more nutritious than refined ones, unrefined grains still pose a health challenge.
Because all grains, even unprocessed wholegrains, are primarily carbohydrates, and the building blocks of all carbohydrates are… sugar molecules.
Take rice for example: in some cases carbohydrates account for 80% of raw white rice and 75% of raw unprocessed wild rice. While there’s a lot of carbohydrate in both types of rice, the presence of fibre in unprocessed varieties delays the breakdown of carbohydrates to sugar inside the body. But with refined rice and other grains, the absence of fibre means their carbohydrates are easily accessible in the body and are quickly turned into sugar. The outcome? Eating refined grain can quickly spike blood sugar levels and encourages the body to produce insulin – the hormone that removes sugar from the blood and turns it into fat.
In some cases carbohydrates account for 80% of raw white rice and 75% of raw unprocessed wild rice.
A 2011 review of 23 clinical studies showed foods that rapidly raise blood sugar levels cause cravings, overeating, weight gain and obesity. And other research has found that these foods increase a person’s potential risk of developing heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
But unrefined grains are also problematic, because even though the fibre they contain slows down their impact on blood sugar, as high carbohydrate foods, they are still turned into sugar in the body. That means blood sugar spikes and insulin spikes – read on for why this is so damaging to your health.
Why grains can upset blood sugar
While grain-free, low carbohydrate diets are synonymous with certain weight loss programmes, like the Atkins or Dukan diet, research shows that a diet that’s low in carbohydrates like grains doesn’t just benefit your waistline, it can also improve heart and brain health. A study this year looked specifically at the impact of carbohydrates on the health of Middle Eastern populations and found a lower risk of metabolic syndrome – a group of conditions that increase a person’s risk of heart disease, diabetes and stroke – among those who ate low carbohydrate diets. More specifically, low carbohydrate consumption was found to improve blood sugar levels, blood triglycerides (fats that raise heart disease risk), blood pressure and weight.
And if you consider the role of insulin in the body, this finding soon makes sense.
Insulin’s main function is to clear sugar from the blood and into cells for use, but its secondary function is to turn the sugar that isn’t used for energy into fat – fat that’s laid under the skin (leading to obesity) and fat that’s laid in and around vital organs – two factors that expert bodies say can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Insulin’s main function is to clear sugar from the blood and into cells for use, but its secondary function is to turn the sugar that isn’t used for energy into fat.
This year, guidelines named high carbohydrate diets as a risk factor for a condition called insulin resistance. In this situation, the body’s cells don’t respond properly to the hormone insulin, resulting in a build-up of the sugar molecule glucose in the blood. Excess insulin is then produced by the pancreas in an attempt to counteract the glucose build-up, but this abundance of insulin in the blood leads to a whole host of health problems, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, weight gain and diabetes.
Yet the story doesn’t end there.
Studies over the decades have found an association between insulin resistance and long-standing (chronic) inflammation. And this matters because chronic inflammation underlies the majority of common chronic diseases.
The inflammation problem
A UK report in 2015 pinpointed diet as a key cause of the chronic low-level inflammation that eventually gives rise to diseases, including metabolic syndrome and diabetes – a condition that has become increasingly common over the last 60 years. In the US alone diabetes affected less than 1% of the population in the 1950s but rose to 7% by 2014. And although the exact mechanism by which grains trigger inflammation remains the subject of much debate, a common theory is that the grains we eat today are wildly different from the grains the human body was designed to digest. As US neurologist David Perlmutter explains in his bestselling book Grain Brain, today’s grains have arisen from years of positive selection of strains that produce the highest yields possible, while being very resistant to adverse weather conditions and pests.
Gluten has been named as a key cause of grain-related inflammation. The protein is found in many grains, namely wheat, barley, spelt, oats, and rye. As gluten is responsible for making baked goods feel soft and fluffy, modern grains have been cultivated to have much higher levels of the protein than ancient versions. It’s thought that the human body was not designed to cope with such high levels of gluten, and this is reflected by the growing number of people who report digestive trouble after eating gluten. Specifically, research shows that 1% of the world’s population have an autoimmune-driven gluten intolerance, called celiac (or coeliac) disease. Among these individuals, eating gluten triggers gut inflammation and damage, which has the knock-on effect of leaving the body malnourished. While most people do not have true celiac disease, research has identified the existence of a more common gluten intolerance called non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS).
As gluten is responsible for making baked goods feel soft and fluffy, modern grains have been cultivated to have much higher levels of the protein than ancient versions.
But gluten is not the only commonly occurring grain protein associated with inflammation. Lectins are small proteins that are found in high concentrations in grains. They have long been under scrutiny by the scientific community because they are known to trigger inflammatory reactions, and they can bind to and damage almost all cell types. Indeed, a report published by allergist David Freed in the British Medical Journal suggests that lectins may have an association with inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and diabetes.
This ability of modern grains to cause inflammation is made worse by the fact that as a society we’re consuming more of them than ever before. The total global grain supply for 2016/2017 was forecast to exceed 2.5 billion tonnes for the first time ever. Such continuous consumption of grains keeps the body in a constant state of inflammation, and this is thought to give rise to the numerous conditions that plague us today.
To grain or not to grain?
So is the key to ultimate health to eat a grain-free diet?
This is still a point of a lot of debate among many doctors, but for us the answer is clear – do without them.
There is an abundance of evidence implicating grains – both unhealthy refined ones and ‘healthier’ wholegrains – in the development of conditions like diabetes, heart disease and stroke. It has even been suggested by experts like David Perlmutter, that lesser-understood conditions like chronic fatigue syndrome, depression and anxiety could be linked to the consumption of all modern grains.
Sure, wholegrains are sources of fibre, vitamins, like B vitamins, and minerals, including selenium, potassium and magnesium; however, if you can’t separate the bad from the good in a certain food, then that food is bad for you – full stop. To give a more clear example: You don’t eat carrot cake to load up on vitamin K, you simply eat carrots.
And if you still don’t believe me, well, cut grains out of your diet completely and watch how quickly you start to look and feel better. Sure, there will be withdrawal. Coming off grains is very difficult. But if you get through that period, the other side is a far healthier life with increased wellbeing and an improvement or even reversal of serious conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes.