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One of my more controversial posts is how grains are killing you slowly and despite the continually emerging evidence about the potential problems associated with consumption of modern grains, many people are still unsure.
While I personally know that I feel better when I don’t eat grains (especially gluten) and that my kids do better without them, I’m not in the business of trying to force a particular diet on anyone. At the same time, I wanted to address one common objection I get, especially from people in the nutrition field- (I’ve heard this twice this week):
“Unless you have Celiac disease, it is dangerous to avoid an entire food group and this puts you at risk for nutrient deficiencies.”
Gluten is not a Food Group!
Though grains did form the base of the outdated “food pyramid,” even the food pyramid did not define gluten as a “food group” by itself. Additionally, there are not any nutrients in gluten that can’t be found in higher amounts in other foods.
What exactly is gluten? (definition from Chris Kresser):
“Wheat contains several different classes of proteins. Gliadins and glutenins are the two main components of the gluten fraction of the wheat seed. (They’re essential for giving bread the ability to rise properly during baking.) Within the gliadin class, there are four different epitopes (i.e. types): alpha-, beta-, gamma- and omega-gliadin. Wheat also contains agglutinins (proteins that bind to sugar) and prodynorphins (proteins involved with cellular communication). Once wheat is consumed, enzymes in the digestive tract called tissue transglutaminases (tTG) help to break down the wheat compound. In this process, additional proteins are formed, including deamidated gliadin and gliadorphins (aka gluteomorphins).”
In other words, gluten is a small part of a small group of foods, and it doesn’t provide any specific health advantages by itself.
Gluten is found in grains including wheat, rye and barley (as well as some others). Whole grains, including those with gluten, are often considered part of a healthy diet even though the same nutrients found in whole grains can be found in equal or larger amounts in foods like vegetables, fruits, and meat or organ meat. It frustrates me to hear things like this from the Scientific American:
“For most other people, a gluten-free diet won’t provide a benefit, said Katherine Tallmadge, a dietitian and the author of “Diet Simple” . What’s more, people who unnecessarily shun gluten may do so at the expense of their health, Tallmadge said.
That’s because whole grains, which contain gluten, are a good source of fiber, vitamins and minerals, Tallmadge said. Gluten-free products are often made with refined grains, and are low in nutrients.”
You know what else is a good source of fiber, vitamins and minerals? Vegetables.
You know what also has MORE fiber, vitamins and minerals? Vegetables.
You know what also doesn’t have the potential to cause gut damage (in most cases)? Vegetables.
If we are feeling really brave, we can even add in foods like liver, broth, fermented vegetables and eggs (if tolerated) and blow the nutrition profile of grains completely out of the water.
Do We Need Grains?
Let’s break down the reasons that we are often told that we need grains: fiber, vitamins and minerals. Do grains really have spectacular amounts of these substances that are hard to find elsewhere?
I think Mark Sisson summed this up perfectly in this post when responding to the assertion that “You need the fiber!”:
“Okay, for one: no, I don’t. If you’re referring to its oft-touted ability to move things along in the inner sanctum, fiber has some unintended consequences. A few years back, scientists found that high-fiber foods “bang up against the cells lining the gastrointestinal tract, rupturing their outer covering” which “increases the level of lubricating mucus.” Err, that sounds positively awful. Banging and tearing? Rupturing? These are not the words I like to hear. But wait! The study’s authors say, “It’s a good thing.” Fantastic! So when all those sticks and twigs rub up against my fleshy interior and literally rupture my intestinal lining, I’ve got nothing to worry about. It’s all part of the plan, right?
Somehow, I’m not convinced that a massive daily infusion of insoluble grain fiber is all that essential. And that “lubricating mucus” sounds an awful like the mucus people with irritable bowel syndrome complain about. From personal experience I can tell you that once I completed my exodus from grains, the IBS completely stopped. If you’re not yet convinced on the fiber issue I’ll refer you to Konstantin Monastyrsky’s Fiber Menace. Anyway, there’s plenty of fiber in the vegetables and fruit I eat.”
In other words- you can get fiber from fruits and vegetables without the potential harm to your digestive system.
Vitamins and Minerals
Grains are often suggested for their vitamin and mineral content, specifically for B-vitamins and Magnesium. Just as with fiber, thees things can be easily found in other foods. Health Habits takes on the assertion that grains are a great source of these nutrients:
“Hmmmm…why don’t we take a look at the nutrition info again and see if that’s true.
- Thiamin … And the winner is fruits, vegetables and once again…bran.
- Riboflavin … veggies win again
- Niacin … and again
- Folate … and again
- Iron … and again
- Magnesium … and again
- Selenium …and last but not least, it’s a tie between veggies and grains!!!
So, except for the fine showing in the selenium category…
Fruits & vegetables are the best source of vitamins and minerals.
The Bottom Line
Gluten is not a food group.
Grains do contain some nutrients, but these nutrients can be found in larger amounts in fruits, vegetables and meats/fats.
I will agree with many nutritionists that going gluten free isn’t going to do much good if you just replace the gluten with gluten free processed foods. These gluten free processed alternatives often have more sugar and chemical substances to balance out the lack of gluten.
If, however, you replace the gluten containing foods (and all grains) with vegetables, fruits, fermented probiotic-rich foods, homemade broths, organ meats and humanely raised animal meats, you will not be missing out on vitamins and minerals. In fact, according to the latest statistics I’ve seen for food consumption in the US, you’ll be head and shoulders above the rest of the population on vitamin and mineral intake.
Since grains are often fortified with additional nutrients, it is important to make sure that you are eating a varied and nutrient rich diet when you go grain free. I’ve also found that rubbing magnesium oil (here is the recipe) on my feet at night is an easier way to absorb magnesium and replace the magnesium that is often added to grains.
Chris Kresser on the Gluten Thyroid Connection
Mark Sisson on Fiber, Vitamins and Minerals
Chris Kresser on Toxins in Grains
SCD Lifestyle on the Problems with Gluten Free Food
Sarah Ballantyne on Gluten Cross Sensitivity
The Paleo Parents on Gluten Sensitivity and Gall Bladder Disease
Where do you stand on the gluten/grain issue? Share below!
Discussion (96 Comments)
I have been doing a lot of reading about not eating any grains vs. eating only traditionally prepared grains. I’m at a bit of a crossroads right now, but I think that might husband and I have decided to just be grain free at home, and then just do our best when we eat out or go to other people’s homes, but not worry about it too much.
I think it’s ok for us to eat traditionally prepared grains (soaked/sprouted/fermented whathaveyou) even though I know the soaking does not significantly reduce gluten and lectins and other bad guys (I am not sensitive to gluten at all). I also try to eat einkhorn and emmer wheat over modern dwarf wheat.
However, it’s a lot of trouble to soak grains or flour, and to find these heirloom types of wheat, so it might not even be worth it to keep grains in the house.
My next step is to buy some coconut flour and arrowroot powder or xantham gum or whatever you have to put with it to make it more similar to normal flour.
I was told by an OB nurse that I would not get what I needed during pregnancy if I chose a gluten free diet. Many in the medical community do not understand. At 44 years old I had a very healthy pregnancy and birth.
My favorite part: “In other words, gluten is a small part of a small group of foods, and it doesn’t provide any specific health advantages by itself.” I am completely over the “scare tactics” mainstream dietitians and nutritionists (usually being paid or endorsed by the processed food industry) use when referring to a diet sans gluten or grains. Missing out on nutrients… really? Most fail to account for the fact that most of the vitamins and minerals found in processed grains are fortified and synthetic – and aren’t event absorbable in the body! Sure – the nutrition label says “100%” of needed iron – but if only 30% is actually able to be used in the body due to anti-nutrients and inappropriate cofactors, there is a massive discrepancy there! Thanks for continuing to get the word out!
Please discuss the seemingly useful technique of soaking and fermenting all grains. This seems a wise use of grains.
I was going to suggest this as well! One of the issues with grains is the phytic acid and anti-nutrients that severely reduce the nutritional value of them, and which traditional preparation can help reduce.
I’m cutting down grains, and the only time I do eat grains now I do my best to make sure they’re soaked. It’s weird to get used to- but it’s quite cheap to do, which is nice.
Although I am weary and exhausted of the gluten discussion, I really appreciate using Chris Kesser as a source, I find his website more reliable than the others that are on here. I find it frustrating when people dismiss Scientific American, which is a respected peer reviewed publication.
I am of the opinion that every body is different and do what is right for you and respect what others do for themselves. Thanks for writing about this, I hope in the future to see more great sources on your website.
Where do I begin to get started? Feeling overwhelmed.
It is overwhelming, trial and error is often how to start. There are tons of different types of gluten free foods at many common stores now. Unless I have a reason, I only shop the outside of a grocery stores. You will find the fresh, unprocessed foods there. My first step was throwing out all my breads, cookies, pastas, etc. Nowadays you can find all these items gluten free too! Also, it’s also a different kind of full without those to swell up in your belly. Good luck!
I’m not a huge fan of wheat but I still love my oats, brown rice, barley, rye, and certain other grains which can still contain traces of gluten. I think whole grains have their place to some extent and I don’t believe that just because a product is ‘gluten free’ that it is healthy. If I had a severe sensitivity to gluten I would most certainly avoid it. I guess with any way of eating you can argue the pros and cons. It comes down to what feels right for you and your own body.
Thanks for the interesting article.
I completely understand your frustration. In the end, I think you have to just choose what’s best for you and let other people make their own decisions. I was on a gluten-free diet due to allergies but we found out our allergies were caused by a parasite. At the moment, I’m just avoiding what I consider to be empty carbohydrates such as bread, pasta, white rice, etc, because as you say – other food has better nutrition. My choice although the doctor thinks we should do the low-carb thing but I think that’s a bit too extreme. Just replace the pure carbs with more vegetables is pretty much what we did which does lower the carbs.
I took my 3 year old son off of Gluten two months ago and three weeks ago we went completely grain free and sugar free. I already feel like I have a different child (he was having frequent meltdowns and pretty crazy mood swings). He also gained 2 lbs during that time which, compared to the 4 lbs he gained all of last year, is pretty spectacular. I basically made the switch on a whim, and I’m so glad I did. Thank you so much for your site – it has been, and I’m sure will continue to be, invaluable as support through this process. I’m a single mom and full time law student – it’s a bit overwhelming but I can’t imagine doing anything differently now that I realize this is what is healthiest for my little guy.
I have a similar situation with my 4 year old son. I really like the idea of trying a grain-free and sugar-free diet. I am just so overwhelmed and don’t know how to start! I’ve trained myself to provide well-balanced meals (half plate of veggies, 1/4 protein, 1/4 grain or starch), but it appears I’ve been missing the boat. How do I begin to replace the starches and grains with fruits and veggies?
Replacing starches and grains with fruits and veggies is easy….. just make the switch.
My typical lunch includes one serving of meat, and two vegetables (with olive oil or butter).
My typical supper is one serving of meat, 1/2 cup fermented sauerkraut, one veggie with butter, and occasionally a side salad.
Between/after meal snacks: nuts, occasional fruit, cheese.
It seems like gluten-free diets catch a lot more criticism than low-fat or low-carb. Those diets are eliminating entire macronutrients!
Oh well. If the naysayers lived with my husband through the 10 days he’s sick from inadvertently ingesting a few specks of flour residue, they’d get it.