Are grains really as detrimental to health as some suggest? Contributing editor Rod Cedaro and nutritionist Pieta Cedaro argue that when consumed correctly, wholegrains play a vital role in a healthy and balanced diet.
According to some celebrity chefs, we should be cutting wholegrains from our diet as they are the principal cause of obesity and myriad other maladies. In fact, the ‘Paleo Way’ is being championed as a cure for everything from heart disease to autism.
In our opinion, and it would appear that of others with formal qualifications – you know, the type you acquire at universities as opposed to the Internet – the Paleo Way may be little more than an effective way to leverage celebrity status and sell books.
In the last five years or so, we’ve seen a rift open between those who believe grains are fundamental to good health and those who advocate strictly limiting or indeed eliminating them from diets.
Those in the paleo camp cite the fact that coeliac disease has shown a marked increase over the last half century, which has given rise to a gluten fearing sub-culture where millions worldwide have become their own little N = 1 experiments in ‘nutritional science’.
So who’s right? Should we be eating grains or not?
Contrary to what the paleo enthusiasts would have you believe, grains are actually an ancient food that humans have consumed for millions of years. In addition to wheat (which we probably over-consume in modern day society), there’s the familiar rice, oats, corn, barley, buckwheat and rye. And then the lesser-known grains like triticale, quinoa, teff, amaranth, sorghum, millet, spelt and kamut. Learning to cultivate these grains helped modern man give up his nomadic lifestyle and create modern civilisation.
Grains, particularly in their wholegrain form, provide various nutrients, including vitamins, minerals, fibre and phytonutrients.
One problem with the current debate is that the notion of ‘grains’ appears to be used interchangeably with ‘carbs’. Carbohydrates are a macronutrient found in a range of foods such as bread, pasta, potatoes, milk and milk substitutes, along with many dairy products, beans, soft drinks and of course wholegrains.
Unfortunately, in modern society much of the diet is based on processed foods. Many wholegrains are processed and stripped of much of their nutrient value and packaged along with salt, sugar and fat, making them tasty, easy to over-consume and nutrient poor.
But what’s the story with wholegrains?
Some would have you believe wholegrains cause inflammation, which suppresses immune function, causing cellular breakdown associated with heart disease and the like. But the serious science doesn’t support this contention. In fact, several large epidemiological studies have actually linked wholegrain intake to lower levels of inflammation. Furthermore, not one controlled trial has linked wholegrains to increased levels of inflammation.
Another recent contention is that wholegrains somehow damage your intestines because they contain so-called ‘anti-nutrients’ and other compounds that interfere with how well we absorb minerals.
Again, the science doesn’t support this position and at least three well-controlled studies found that the consumption of various amounts of wholewheat flour, wheat bran, and/or oat bran had no significant effects on absorption or blood levels of minerals such as calcium, zinc or iron.
Let’s consider the impact of some of these ‘anti-nutrients’:
• Protease inhibitors: When raw or lightly cooked, grains still contain large amounts of protease inhibitors, which block the action of protein-digesting enzymes, interfering with your protein absorption. But once appropriately cooked, grains contain very few protease inhibitors — and those that remain actually have anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties.
• Lectins: Proteins that can bind to cell membranes, causing damage to intestinal tissue if consumed in large, uncooked amounts (e.g. Sprouted kidney beans). Cooked and consumed in moderation, they have actually been shown to reduce tumor growth and decrease the incidence of certain diseases.
• Phytic acid: Is the storage form of phosphorus, phytic acid can bind minerals in the digestive tract, preventing their absorption (e.g. iron). Truth is, you’d have to be consuming huge amounts of unleavened bread for this to happen. In reasonable amounts, phytic acid actually has health benefits.
In short, these anti-nutrients are only a problem when grains are consumed in vast uncooked quantities. However, when consumed as part of a normal diet they do in fact have health benefits.
Furthermore, many well-controlled studies have found that the consumption of grains actually improves gastrointestinal symptoms in sufferers of various gut ailments such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.
People suffering from coeliac disease who are exposed to gluten experience an inflammatory response stimulating the immune system to attack the small intestine, damaging its cells. This can ultimately inhibit digestion, leading to ailments such as diarrhoea, various deficiencies (e.g. iron) and osteoporosis. To date, the only effective treatment for people suffering from coeliac disease is to consume a gluten-free diet. Problems are, however, that some people incorrectly self-diagnose themselves as coeliac and replace the gluten component of foods with sugar and fat to get the same mouth feel, which results in excessive energy intake.
While 10-to-20 per cent of the population may have some form of gluten intolerance, the rate of true coeliac disease is estimated to be far lower – perhaps one per cent. Unless you’ve been medically diagnosed with either coeliac disease or gluten intolerance, there’s little to no reason to eliminate gluten from your diet.
So, if it isn’t coeliac disease or gluten intolerance, why is a growing number of people experiencing gastro problems in modern society?
The current thinking is that this is due to FODMAPs, or fermentable, oligo, di-, mono-saccharides and polyols. These are carbohydrates from various sources including wholegrains, dairy products and fruits and vegetables that some people struggle to fully break down. It results in painful gas and bloating.
If you think you’re perhaps suffering from a FODMAP problem, your best approach would be to consult with a dietitian and instigate an elimination diet protocol to identify precisely what foods are causing your problem and ultimately steer clear of them.
Next up, paleo converts cite the overconsumption of grains as the cause for increasing obesity rates and that this is all promoted by current nutrition guidelines. There are a couple of problems with this argument as I see it. Firstly, the vast majority of Australians don’t follow food guidelines the Government promotes. And secondly, the elephant in the room is the fact that the majority of the population doesn’t move anywhere near as much as they need to. Compared to our grandparents, we’re far less active than we used to be.
The fact of the matter is that large-scale population studies have shown that the higher the consumption of wholegrains, fruit and vegetables (a so-called ‘plant-based diet’) the lower the population’s body weight and longer the life expectancy. The research suggests the exact opposite to what the paleo fraternity espouses. In short, it’s not wholegrain cereals that are making us overweight and obese, it’s a combination of factors including eating too much energy (too many calories/kilojoules) for the amount of activity the wider population engages in, as well as the consumption of over-processed, high fat, sugary foods. In short, we live in an obesogenic society – everything is geared to making people move less and eat more rubbish.
Wholegrains, in their unrefined form, are actually pretty bland. Refine them and mix them with additional fat and sugar and you end up with energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods like biscuits, muffins, pizzas and highly refined breakfast cereals. Therefore it’s not the carbs that are the problem, but rather everything that comes in concert with them once they’ve been refined.
So, are wholegrains good for you? You’d better believe it. Evidence-based research tells us:
1. Fibre helps clean the gut, lowers the incidence of bowel cancer and ‘bad’ cholesterol levels.
2. Wholegrains slow digestion, keeping you fuller and satisfied for longer.
3. Wholegrains are packed with essential vitamins and minerals.
Sure, you can get away with not consuming wholegrains, but why would you? Just like any macronutrient, if you overconsume carbohydrates, you’ll gain weight. Your consumption of carbohydrates should be linked to your activity levels – the more active you are, the more carbohydrates (from all sources) you should eat.
As per the suggestion of the Australian Dietary Guidelines – eat a wide cross section of nutrient dense (not energy-dense) foods. You could happily replace some of your wholegrain consumption with other high-quality carbs, like potatoes, sweet potatoes, fruit, legumes, etc. You’d get all the carbs and fibre you need along with an array of other beneficial phytonutrients.
Where we’re getting it wrong is that we’re looking at foods in isolation. No one food (or food group) is the magical elixir for a healthy life.
But trying to eliminate grains entirely is going to be difficult in even the best of circumstances. The viewpoint that all grains are unhealthy and should be avoided is nonsense.
Where to from here?
• Differentiate between ‘research’ and ‘junk science’.
• Listen to qualified experts on both sides of the fence with an open mind.
• Ascertain what works best for you, even though this may change over time.