Why Grains Are Bad: Gluten, Lectins and Phytates – A Response

Mark Sisson and GrainsIn my quest to provide an objective point of view, I often run the risk of seeming contrarian. This, at least, is what some people have told me but I disagree with them (see?). Anyway, I love reading and learning, as many of you do, but we need to remain cognizant of one fault we are all victims of – believing everything you read. The reason I started this blog was because I didn’t want to believe everything I read. In fact, it is through this blog that I dive deeper into such claims to gain a more informed point of view.

Now to the meat of this post, or rather, the grain. My girlfriend is experimenting with removing grains from her diet. While I support her decision, I was curious as to why. She sent me a very thorough explanation from Mark’s Daily Apple. She also had a few other sources but this article was the tipping point since it seems very informed and convincing. But I wasn’t sure about a few things. So I began the deep dive.

Essentially, Mark opens up by stating that he is done eating grains. He does so descriptively and eloquently, displaying his writing talents which I believe exceed mine and therefore I applaud him. After an intriguing intro, he outlines three common reasons people give for why you should eat grains and builds his anti-grain argument on that foundation. It’s a very compelling article and I highly recommend you read it before continuing.

Disclaimer: Also, before continuing, please note that I am not trying to prove the author wrong, or right for that matter. My goal is to apply a critical lens to encourage the reader’s further questioning and investigation as they consume such articles.

“You need the fiber!”

Mark argues you do not. This is contrary to everything we hear about fiber,so I am glad he is making a stand against the majority. However, I think the majority may be correct on this one.

  1. Mark cites some scientists who reported that high-fiber foods “bang up against the cells lining the gastrointestinal tract, rupturing their outer covering” which “increases the level of lubricating mucus.” I don’t blame him for being turned off by this description but I am surprised that he instantly discredits their conclusion that this is a “good thing.” The lubricating mucus is what keeps foods (and other stuff?) flowing smoothly through the gastrointestinal tract, preventing clogging. Furthermore, because your cells are constantly repairing themselves, you are not at risk of destroying the cells down there to a point that is beyond repair. Think of building muscle through exercise as an example. In essence, you are causing trauma to the muscle fibers and injuring them. Then, a biological effort to repair or replace damaged muscle fibers takes place and you become healthy and strong.

  2. Research pioneered by Dr. Denis Burkitt asserts that low fiber Western diets are the cause of “coronary heart disease, adult-onset diabetes, varicose veins, obesity, diverticulitis, appendicitis, gallstones, dental cavities, hemorrhoids, hiatal hernias and constipation.” Since then, the medical community has taken up many studies on fiber and while they conclude it is “not a panacea for all ills” as Burkitt originally concluded, many still advise high fiber diets as “there is strong evidence that dietary fibre, especially insoluble fibre in fruits and vegetables, decreases the risk of Diverticular disease.”

  3. Real scientists and real doctors have been cited in the point above whereas Mark cites this guy. Konstantin Monastyrsky is NOT a doctor nor is he a scientist. That’s ok, neither am I. And I am sure Monastryrsky has learned a lot in his time understanding his own unique conditions and experiences – nobody else’s.

Also, there is video of him sitting next to a poop chart :) What do your poops look like?

Konstantin Monastyrsky and poop chart

  1. Finally, Mark closes by saying he gets plenty of fiber from his fruits and vegetables. Touché on that one buddy. You don’t have to eat grains to get fiber, and fruits and veggies are awesome. But by stating this, aren’t you discrediting your entire anti-fiber argument?

“You need the vitamins and minerals”

Mark admits that he needs vitamins and minerals like “B1 and B2, magnesium and iron, zinc and potassium.” But he doesn’t need to eat grains to get those. He’s right! Grains also have calcium, folic acid, and selenium. But Mark (and you and me) can get those from foods other than grains.

“But it forms the foundation of the governmental food pyramid!”

Mark, dude, I totally agree with your disagreement on this one. While I do think (and wish/believe/hope) the government does some good, they certainly can make improvements on recommending what we eat. For instance, the USDA is responsible for regulating food production and providing (unfair) subsidies to industries they argue need it. THEN, they set guidelines on what we should eat. There is an obvious conflict of interest and I’m glad Mark is on our side for this.

But then Mark explains that grains are a distinctly Neolithic food to which humans have yet to adapt. Now we’re getting into a rather philosophical discussion and its harder for me to accept this claim because he is a paleo dude and, well, I am not. But, I shall keep an open mind as we talk about lectins, gluten, and phytates.

Lectins. I actually had no idea what these were. And Mark doesn’t really tell us what they are either. Although he tells us what they do, which I guess is what’s important. I was beginning to think he didn’t do much research on this since he has little to say and one of his points is actually just the title of a paper. This made me question if he actually read the paper or just found the title via Google. But then I was glad to see he followed it up with a later post which explains more about this protein.

Anyway, lectins are carbohydrate-binding proteins. In animals, “lectins are also known to play important roles in the immune system by recognizing carbohydrates that are found exclusively on pathogens, or that are inaccessible on host cells.” That sounds like a good thing.

But according to Carolyn Pierini they can also do harm. Simply put, Pierini concludes that lectins consumed in everyday food can bind to sugars of gut and blood cells and trigger an inflammatory response. Specifically, a lectin in wheat germ is capable of activating certain proteins which are involved in almost every acute and chronic inflammatory disorder including neurodegenerative disease, inflammatory bowel disease, infectious and autoimmune diseases. She is not claiming causation however, but rather association.

Another example of the good and bad: “Wheat germ agglutinin has also shown to interfere with protein digestion and increase gut permeability. Peanut lectin, kidney bean and soybean lectins are other examples of lectins that have influences on bodily tissues. On the bright side, the lectins in broad beans, jackfruit, and culinary mushrooms have been shown to slow the progression of colon cancer.”

The main take away: just like many other proteins and biological components, lectins are kind of like Catwoman, capable of good as well as bad and appear virtually anywhere..

Gluten. People with Celiac Disease are allergic to gluten. This can cause a variety of negative effects. Obviously, as Mark suggests, these people should eat a gluten-free diet. Similarly, if people are allergic to peanuts, they should not consume peanuts. It is estimated that 1% of Americans have Celiac disease. Similarly, 1% of Americans have a peanut allergy. But are we allergic to gluten because we have yet to adapt to it as Mark, other paleo advocates, and some scientists posit? Or are some people allergic to it just because? Humans have been eating peanuts for around 3,500 years and the same amount are allergic. Personally, I believe peanut allergies are the result of food production and pollution but I propose the question to provoke thought.

It also seems reasonable that some people who do not have Celiac Disease can experience less than optimal effects from gluten. So Mark does have a pretty solid argument here. But if you love grains and are worried about gluten, I would advise trying a gluten free diet and if you don’t feel any different, then you are probably fine eating grains.

Phytates. I also did not know what these were and Mark did not define them in his article. Phytate is the salt form of phytic acid which is the principal storage form of phosphorus in many plant tissues. As Mark indicates, it can make certain minerals like zinc and iron unabsorbable. I don’t like the sound of that.

And actually, according to the Wikipedia article, the following foods contain higher concentrations of phytic acids than grains: sesame seeds, pinto beans, linseed, Brazil nuts, tofu, almonds, soybeans, walnuts and peanuts. That list copses a good chunk of my current diet. Help me, Mark!

According to one study, “as little as 5-10 mg phytate phosphorus added to a wheat roll containing 3 mg iron inhibited iron absorption by 50 per cent.” However, ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) as well as meat strongly counteracted this inhibition and once again enabled iron absorption. I guess that’s an argument for a diverse diet. And eating meat.

To put this into perspective, if I eat one serving of oatmeal (40g), I am also consuming 377 mg of phytic acid. One serving of oatmeal contains 10% of my daily iron but, given the phytic acids, would I actually absorb any of that? If I add raisins, which have 3.8 mg of Vitamin C (ascorbic acid), does this counteract the inhibition of iron absorption? What if I take my daily vitamin which has half the iron I need and an excess of the Vitamin C I need? Help me, scientists!

In Conclusion, Mark has a few very compelling points and would obviously not have lots of books, blogs and apparel if he couldn’t make any credible claims (right?). I think the most compelling arguments against grain have to be the lectins and possibly gluten. The phytic acid argument may be compelling as well but those are so much more abundant in nuts and soy which I eat way more that grains (read: I don’t want it to be true) and the adverse effects can likely be counteracted with Vitamin C. Eating grains is a choice. It doesn’t seem like they will kill you (unless you have Celiac Disease) nor does it seem like they will make you live forever. Just know why you are or are not eating them.

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