I was recently asked this question and realized it’s probably a question many people would like to have answered. Some health “experts” say avoid them at all cost and some say that we need grains to be healthy. In my professional opinion, there is no single correct answer that applies to everyone. However, when it comes to eating grains, I do have three major concerns. This article will help you decide if grains are right for you.
Issue #1 – blood sugar
A main concern with grains is that they are primarily made up of carbohydrates and can cause blood sugar and insulin spikes which are known to be detrimental to everyone’s health (the “spikes” that is). These blood sugar and insulin imbalances can eventually result in everything from back pain to cancer and anything in between. We certainly don’t want blood sugar imbalances, but does this mean that no one should eat grains?
Adding a protein and fat-containing food with grains can be the key (in regards to blood sugar). There’s quite a difference between eating a bowl of rice with vegetables, compared to a piece of fish over rice and vegetables. The main difference is the latter has added protein and fat from the fish. Those added nutrients will help prevent the blood sugar and insulin spikes. Eating only carbohydrates at a meal, whether they’re from grains or not isn’t something that should be done regularly. Also, if a person has a pre-existing problem that’s greatly affected by blood sugar and insulin issues (e.g.: diabetes, obesity, anxiety or panic attacks, fatigue, etc.), it might be best to avoid grains even if they are combined with protein and fat.
Issue #2 – sensitivities and allergies
When people think of grains, they generally think of wheat and its endlessly disparaged protein, gluten. It’s a no-brainer that if you have celiac disease (or a gluten sensitivity) you should avoid wheat and other gluten-containing grains. However, aside from wheat, all grains tend be highly allergenic (or cause sensitivities) compared to the other food groups. Corn and even rice is a fairly common sensitivity for people. And actually, the person who asked me this question is highly reactive to quinoa, most people’s go-to food instead of other common grains. Although quinoa is not truly a grain, that just goes to show you can be sensitive to any food. I don’t ever recommend patients eat grains regularly. What I do recommend is for patients to find out if they are truly sensitive to them by eliminating grains for a month and then slowly re-introducing them.
Of course, whole grains are generally recommended; but if you only have a mild sensitivity (and must have that sandwich or pasta), you may be better off with refined grains as they’ll most likely have less of the allergenic component than the whole grain.
Issue #3 – lectins, phytic acid and nutrient absorption
Lectins are proteins that are widespread in grains. They act to bind themselves to cell membranes in the digestive tract. This can lead to intestinal cell death and/or damage to the villi (the part of the cell responsible for absorption). If this happens often enough and in a large enough quantity, you may wind up with increased intestinal permeability or “leaky gut syndrome.” This can result in unwanted food particles, microbes, and toxins leaking through the gut wall into the bloodstream, where they normally would be too large to do so (had the intestinal wall not been damaged). It’s postulated that leaky gut is a main driver (and even cause) of autoimmune diseases (multiple sclerosis, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, rheumatoid arthritis, etc.) nervous system diseases (Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, dementia, etc.) and endocrine diseases (diabetes, etc.). If these types of conditions run in your family, you may want to think twice about grains, or at least the amount that you consume.
Another component of grains (and nuts, seeds, and beans) is phytic acid. Phytic acid can cause mineral imbalances by binding to calcium, magnesium, zinc, iron, and possibly more minerals. A lack of these essential minerals can be responsible for a myriad of health conditions and symptoms, with osteoporosis and iron-deficiency standing out in my mind. If you’re concerned with not getting enough nutrients in general or have a condition due to specific mineral deficiencies, grains are probably best avoided until the situation clears up. Additionally, phytic acid can bind to important enzymes that our body needs to digest protein and starch. Aside from a sensitivity, this could be another reason why some people have digestive upsets when eating grains.
As you can see, “the deal with grains” can certainly be a “deal-breaker” for some people. I hope this helps to shed more light on your food choices.
Dr. Rob D’Aquila – NYC Chiropractor – Diplomate and Board-Certified Teacher of the International College of Applied Kinesiology