The Real Problem with Grains

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The real problem with grains
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Grains are a controversial food in modern society, but the real problem with grains may not be what you think! On the one hand, you have experts who claim that we aren’t meant to eat them based on the stance that grains are a modern addition to the food supply and people have consumed them for only the last 10,000 years or so. Others claim that grains are the foundation of our food supply and have been for thousands of years.

So, Who Is Right?

Turns out that both sides might be, but with some important caveats. This means it isn’t a simple answer, mostly because we may not actually be talking about the same food!

What’s In a Grain?

Grains are simply the hard, edible seeds of grass-like plants. There are many varieties and the most common are wheat, corn, oats, and rice. They are one of the most-consumed foods worldwide and the primary source of nutrition and energy for many populations around the world.

Grains are made up of three main parts:

  1. Bran – the hard outer layer or shell
  2. Germ –  the core of the seed that provides nutrients when it sprouts and grows
  3. Endosperm – the starchy food source for the growth of the seed

Anatomy of a cereal grain

By definition, a “whole grain” contains all parts of the seed, while refined grains often have the bran or germ removed, leaving just the highly starchy endosperm. Whole grains can be a source of nutrients like B-vitamins, magnesium, and others, but in refined grains most of these beneficial parts are removed.

Many manufacturers enrich processed grains with synthetic forms of nutrients like folic acid (instead of the natural form of folate), iron, and B-vitamins to try to make up for the nutrients removed during processing.

Why Avoid Grains? (Answer: They Aren’t What They Used to Be)

It’s a fact: modern grains aren’t the same as they used to be a few hundred years ago, or even a few decades ago! And the grains we consume in the U.S. aren’t the same as the grains eaten in other countries … especially when it comes to wheat.

A few major developments started the problem with grains:

1. New ways of processing led to wider availability (and decreased nutrients).

With the dawn of the modern mill in the mid 19th century, grain evolved. Before this time, grains and wheat were ground in whole form, often with stones, and the flour still contained all the components of the whole grain. It was now possible to separate the parts of the whole grain and use just the starchy endosperm to create an inexpensive and very finely ground white flour (similar to most flour used today).

Without the bran and germ, these new refined flours lasted longer on the shelf but contained much lower levels of nutrients. So much lower, in fact, that in the 1940s manufacturers started to “enrich” wheat and other flours with synthetic nutrients.

Along with the reduced cost of flour from the newer and more efficient method of refining, availability of flour soared and almost everyone could now afford it as a regular staple. This, of course, led to more people consuming flour.

This wouldn’t have been as big of a problem on its own, until …

2. Agronomists developed new types of wheat to increase yield.

In the 1960s agronomists developed new cultivars of wheat in order to increase the amount of wheat possible to grow per acre. This modern wheat is a type of dwarf wheat that, unfortunately, is much less nutritious and comes with a list of potential problems.

A centuries-long study has tracked the results of this change. Since 1843, researchers in England have been conducting research called the “Broadbalk Winter Wheat Experiment.” They tracked many variables related to wheat cultivation, including fertilizer use, crop rotation, and nutrient content.

Unfortunately, nutrient content took a dive. Mark Sisson explains in his fascinating article “The Problem with Modern Wheat“:

Between 1843 and the mid 1960s, the mineral content, including zinc, magnesium, iron, and copper, of harvested wheat grain in the experiment stayed constant. But after that point, zinc, magnesium, iron, and copper concentrations began to decrease – a shift that “coincided with the introduction of semi-dwarf, high-yielding cultivars” into the Broadbalk experiment. Another study found that the “ancient” wheats – emmer, spelt, and einkorn – had higher concentrations of selenium, an extremely important mineral, than modern wheats. Further compounding the mineral issue is the fact that phytic acid content remains unaffected in dwarf wheat. Thus, the phytate:mineral ratio is higher, which will make the already reduced levels of minerals in dwarf wheat even more unavailable to its consumers.

In other words, while these modern varieties are easier and faster to grow, they don’t contain the same levels of nutrients but have the same levels of phytic acid, creating an imbalance that can lead to nutrient deficiencies.

3. Grains are hard to digest without soaking, sprouting, and other traditional preparations.

Aside from the fact that the grains and flours we consume are fundamentally different from the ones our grandparents and great-grandparents consumed, we also prepare them much differently and this may also help explain the increasing rates of allergies and intolerance problems with grains.

I explain in depth in this article how in almost all cultures people traditionally prepared grains by different methods like soaking, sprouting and fermenting (think sourdough bread). These methods make the nutrients in grains more available to the human body and reduce the phytates that can bind to minerals in the body. Many studies support the nutritional benefits of this traditional preparation.

In the name of convenience, we’ve largely stopped using these traditional preparation methods, further reducing the amount of nutrients we can obtain from grains and flours and potentially increasing the amount of mineral-binding phytic acid we consume.

But Why So Many Allergies to Grains and Wheat Especially?

If we just look at the changes in grains from the invention of the modern steel mill and the high-yield dwarf varieties cultivated in the 1960s, it still doesn’t completely match up with or explain the drastic rise of grain-related allergies and intolerances in the last two decades … but there is a missing link that might!

Are Grains and Wheat Toxic?

Other countries don’t seem to have the same problem with grains. Many people report that they are able to eat wheat and other grains without a problem when travelling abroad, even if they react to it in the U.S. In fact, I know several families who while traveling out of the country who consumed more processed grains than they would at home and noticed that certain digestive and skin issues actually improved.

I have family members who can consume certain varieties of grains (like imported organic Einkorn wheat or the ancient grain spelt) without a problem but react horribly to regular wheat or grain products. Why is this? Both contain gluten, so perhaps gluten intolerance isn’t the problem we think it is!

In fact, the answer may be something much simpler and more obvious that isn’t being widely talked about: the cultivation and spraying methods that have changed in the last few decades.

The Real Problem with Wheat

So what’s a mom to do? So many experts in the health world today (many that I’ve interviewed myself on the Wellness Mama podcast) say a resounding “no” to grains and especially gluten-containing grains. JJ Virgin recommends against giving wheat or gluten to kids and Dr. David Perlmutter blames grain in large part of the rising epidemic of MS and other brain conditions.

I agree with the Healthy Home Economist that new pesticides (Roundup or glyphosate, specifically) are largely to blame. The timeline matches up much more closely with the rise in wheat and gluten intolerance in the U.S.

From her article “The Real Reason Wheat Is Toxic Is Not Gluten“:

Pre-harvest application of the herbicide Roundup or other herbicides containing the deadly active ingredient glyphosate to wheat and barley as a desiccant was suggested as early as 1980. It has since become routine over the past 15 years and is used as a drying agent 7-10 days before harvest within the conventional farming community. According to Dr. Stephanie Seneff of MIT who has studied the issue in depth and who I recently saw present on the subject at a nutritional Conference in Indianapolis, desiccating non-organic wheat crops with glyphosate just before harvest came into vogue late in the 1990’s with the result that most of the non-organic wheat in the United States is now contaminated with it.

The fact that glyphosate is banned in many parts of the world may explain why other countries fare better.

In fact, this article and chart explain how increased glyphosate use on wheat crops may be partially to blame for the rising rates of celiac disease, comparing the increased incidence of celiac with increased glyphosate use:


Of course, I’m hesitant to assume that any of these factors alone is directly responsible for the rising problems we are seeing related to grain consumption in the last few decades, but when you consider that glyphosate may impact gut bacteria in a negative way, it makes sense that this could be contributing to the problem.

Other Reasons for the Problem with Grains and Wheat

Aside from the above problems with modern grains themselves and the way they are cultivated and processed, I believe there are several other (possibly inadvertent) effects of our grain consumption.

More Grains = Less of Other Foods

We know that statistically we are consuming more grain products in general (both whole grain and refined grains) and that corn and wheat are two of the top 5 most consumed foods in the United States. We also know that we are statistically consuming less fat that we have in previous decades, and fewer vegetables.

Since refined grains can spike insulin levels and are a highly processed carbohydrate, our increased consumption may be partially to blame for the rising rates of diabetes and obesity (though of course other factors come into play here as well).

Grains like wheat are found in the vast majority of all processed foods, which makes sense because they are inexpensive, shelf stable, and easy to manufacture. Unfortunately, we are consuming these foods in higher amounts at the expense of foods like vegetables, healthy proteins, and beneficial fats.

Fewer Nutrients

More grains and less of other foods means that we are also statistically consuming fewer of the nutrients found in foods like fresh produce, ethically sourced proteins and healthy fats. As we already know that modern grains have a diminished nutrient content, it is no wonder that it is becoming so difficult to consume enough nutrients from food alone.

Many experts suggest that micronutrient deficiency may be a large contributor to many types of modern disease as we simple aren’t able to obtain enough micronutrients from our food supply. As grains are a large part of the modern food supply but a low source of nutrients, they are contributing to this problem.

So Should We Consume Modern Grains?: The Bottom Line

The problem with grains isn’t as clear-cut as it sometimes seems. It isn’t just about the gluten, or the processing, or the modern cultivation, but a complex combination of many factors. There isn’t a clear-cut answer to that question and it truly does vary on an individual level based on gut health, the type of grain, and how it was prepared.

My Take on Grains

For years, I was completely anti-grain and didn’t eat them at all, especially while healing a thyroid issue. After many years of consuming processed grains when I was younger, I felt great avoiding grains entirely and saw no reason to eat them as I was consuming more nutrients and more vegetables without grains in my diet. This was a guiding principle of my cookbook as well, which I kept entirely grain free and dairy optional.

These days, I do eat white rice on occasion (here’s why) and serve it and other organic and properly prepared grains to my family at times.

What I Do:

  • I still avoid most grains, especially those that contain gluten, the majority of the time.
  • If I do consume grains, I opt for white rice or properly prepared whole grains such as organic Einkorn (soaked, fermented, sprouted, etc.).
  • I don’t make grains a staple of my diet. I do occasionally consume them but make sure that the core of our family’s diet is a wide variety of vegetables and fruits, healthy proteins, and beneficial fats.
  • Whenever possible, I use vegetables in place of grains. Love grains or hate them, vegetables typically contain many more nutrients. I make simple substitutes like using cabbage for noodles in spaghetti or sweet potatoes instead of noodles in lasagna. Not only are these substitutes more nutritious, but they also taste better (in my opinion).
  • I often bake with grain-free flours like coconut flour or almond flour, which are higher in protein and fiber and experiment with cassava flour and plantain flour (sources of resistant starch).
  • When I travel internationally, I try grains in other countries out of curiosity to see how I react. So far, so good … the research continues!

I realize that for many people completely avoiding grains is neither desirable or practical, and it certainly may not be necessary for everyone. At the same time, I continue to feel strongly about avoiding processed modern grains that have been refined, modified, and highly sprayed as they offer no nutritional value and may have a severe health impact over time.

What do you think? Do you consume modern grains? Why or why not?

Katie Wells Avatar

About Katie Wells

Katie Wells, CTNC, MCHC, Founder of Wellness Mama and Co-founder of Wellnesse, has a background in research, journalism, and nutrition. As a mom of six, she turned to research and took health into her own hands to find answers to her health problems. is the culmination of her thousands of hours of research and all posts are medically reviewed and verified by the Wellness Mama research team. Katie is also the author of the bestselling books The Wellness Mama Cookbook and The Wellness Mama 5-Step Lifestyle Detox.


976 responses to “The Real Problem with Grains”

  1. Rebecca Avatar

    This is SUCH a great article! I have NO IDEA how I would ever be able to give up grains, though. Pasta and bread especially are so crucial to my family’s diet. Do you have any baby steps for beginners? Where the heck would I start?

  2. Rebecca Avatar

    Going completely grain free has stopped my inflammation, helped my allergies and mucus issue related to severe allergies / sinitus, stopped my ibs, helped mendropnweight ice held onto for ten years and couldn’t drop despite gym workouts two hours a day every day, and most importantly, I haven’t compulsively overrated or binge ate anything. I don’t feel crashed out, sick, bloated like a nine month pregnant woman, or horribly enflamed since I got off all grains and starches like potatoes and corn and beans. I eat big salads, varied vegetables, wild fish, avocado, tahini, some seeds, try not to have too many nuts but I love vegan cheese made from raw cashews, olive oil, avocado oil, tea, coffee, vegan unsweetened milks, occasionally dark vegan chocolate, no dairy, no meat, fruit, I make a “pasta” with julienne zucchini and spicy marinara and tomatoes… I drink a lot of Meyer lemons in water or kombucha, eat some fermented vegetables, seaweed, spirulina, use a grain and sugar free vegan protein shake or egg white shake with spirulina and chlorella and super greens, try to not use sugar (some of the iced coffees I get have a little sugar in the soy milk) etc… I travel with this diet and it is feasible even in Italy. You just have to work with it. I actually don’t fear or obsess over food anymore. I enjoy it but I move on and I don’t need to graze now to have energy. I got really really overweight with my addiction to grains and to the drug like reaction I got in my brain and blood sugar eating them. My sugar levels were sky rocketing. My cholesterol and triglycerides were insane. All normal now. Thanks for your lovely site!

  3. Jason Yach Avatar
    Jason Yach

    The white potato getting a bad rap again. Maybe it’s because most Americans load them with crap.

  4. Pam Avatar

    Thank you for all of your wonderful articles, very informative and the TRUTH!

    Quick question:
    So if we shouldn’t eat grains (including rice, beans/legumes, nuts & potatoes), soy, or dairy, then what exactly is left for us to eat??
    However, I must say, when I was following a Paleo (caveman; hunter/gather) diet (which is what this sounds like if you are avoiding eating grains, etc) I did feel wonderful, the best health that I’ve ever been in (Im 47 yrs old) and I stopped craving sugar, carbs, etc. Your body actually starts to crave veggies!

    1. Wellness Mama Avatar

      Actually real dairy (preferably raw from healthy, grass fed animals) is quite good for you if you are not allergic. You also have tons of healthy fruits and veggies of many colors to choose from, as well as animal protein and eggs!

  5. Scott Nilson Avatar
    Scott Nilson

    Since this post appears to be educationally driven, can you cite your sources and/or present your educational background to establish your credibility in biological and nutritional science?

    Thanks in advance.

  6. Mary-Ann Avatar

    This is a very interesting article but I think it sounds far fetched. I have an autoimmunitive disease and I don’t see how cutting back on grain would help considering I can’t eat dairy products, fish or eggs. I rely on carbohydrates and meat in order to feed myself. I eat bread everyday and alternate between pasta and rice. How would you suggest someone with all these food intolerances could live without grains?

    1. Wellness Mama Avatar

      I am intolerant to eggs myself, although I am able to eat poultry, fish, and dairy. I eat a lot of veggies, including starchy ones like sweet potatoes. I have found that my own autoimmune disease has become far more managed now that I avoid grains entirely. If it is something that you are at all interested in, I would contact a good nutritionist to discuss how to work around your specific dietary requirements.

  7. don Avatar

    ill just use coconut flour then haha you eat meat so you cant be that right tho :0

  8. John Frausto Avatar
    John Frausto

    What do you suggest for someone who has high cholesterol and triglycerides? I can’t consume huge amounts of fats and red meats etc. This is all difficult considering how much information from both sides of arguments there are!

  9. Julika Avatar

    Interesting read. My question is:” What about sourdough bread in which the phytic acids are almost completely broken down through the long fermentation and soaking oats, beans and nuts in an acidic liquid to break down phytic acid over night/ several hours?”

  10. rivka Avatar

    I’ve read that too much protein is not good for the body – I don’t remember the rationale, but it did make sense to me. But I also hear the rationale for eliminated or at least seriously reducing grain intake. Could it be that the answer is to eat vegetables as the vast majority of the diet and a bit of protein (and a bit of grains some might say) ?

  11. William Avatar

    What about soaking and sprouting whole grains? Then they would be a heck of a lot better for you, eh??

    It’s tough, my parents and past generations consume rice on a daily basis… and me cutting it out completely, I would get questioned…

  12. David Avatar

    Thank you for this great article!

    I’m shocked at how many people feel the need to comment by saying you’re wrong, where’s the science, while happily ignoring all the science that shows you’re right. Or better yet, “I eat grains and I’m not sick (yet) so it’s OK.” Mind-boggling.

  13. Amber Avatar

    hi Katie, please forgive me that I’m not going to sit and spend about 2 hours reading all of the interesting comments lol. Here are my thoughts, what in the world am I going to replace bread with for my five guys? I’m all for it, believe you me, I can make it happen! But, they rely on peanut butter and raw sandwiches. I’m on day 2 of no grains and no sugars and I’m feeling pretty excellent! I’ve also been consuming less than 900 calories per day, thank you Chia seeds :-), and I don’t feel the least bit hungry. Honestly, I don’t even miss the food. I’m concerned about my family because my husband is overweight and his career causes him to sit all day long. So, I really need some insight on how to replace breads and pastas with something else. I’ll admit, I don’t think I could completely pull the organic fries they enjoy, (I do bake them at home though). thank you in advance for your insight 🙂

  14. Kate Avatar

    What is wrong with consuming sprouted buckwheat, millet and quinoa?

  15. ritz Avatar

    What about sprouted grains found in the Ezekiel breads… “sprouted to maximize nutrition and digestion?”

    I have finished the first loaf that I bought and have felt more energy and MUCH less of the pre-lunch or mid-afternoon crash (and even on my gluten/egg free muffins for breakfast I was still crashing)… And when I had those crashes it was absolutely EPIC. lol… (sleep has been about the same)

  16. Chelsea Avatar

    I’m interested in reading some of the studies that you mentioned in this article! Are you able to send some links or point me in the direction of them?


  17. Tanya Skinner Avatar
    Tanya Skinner

    Breastfeeding my 16 month old…Id like to start grain free, dairy free NOW…any suggestions so I can be successful and not ruin my milk supply (kinda a little worrisome on it). I feel trying grain free for 90 days is worth it. Dairy free is good as I am lactose iintolerant and cheese, dairy consuption irritates my baby anyways. Thanks for any suggestions. Love the site!

  18. James Avatar

    This is a good generally informative article put into laymens terms. Each individual will have a different degree of negative reaction to the phytates and lectins in grains, nuts, beans.. Articles like this are helpfull to people who are trying to pinpoint sources of symptoms. I consume alot of hemp protien in shake form, its one of the only seed meals without much phytic acid and its very nutritionally dense. I only eat 1 large meal a day besides my shakes. It always starts off with a couple tablespoons of good probiotic saurkraut on an empty stomach, some steamed spinach with olive oil, an avacado, a pound of animal protein, and sweet potato mash with banana. I feel better than I ever have in my like at 40 and all my autoimmune symptoms have disappeared. My digestive health and nutrient absorption is on point now. May not be for everyone, but grains, nuts, and beans had me all jacked up, physically, mentally, and emotionally.

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