A Grain of Truth: Should You Avoid Grains?
by Ryan Andrews
Summary: Against the grain? Ryan Andrews is not. In this article he explains why he prefers to eat grains. And why, unless you’re intolerant to grains, you might consider them too.
If somebody is writing about grains in 2012, it’s probably to tell you not to eat them.
That’s because grains are a hot topic in the nutrition world. And rightly so. North Americans consume enormous quantities of grain, probably too much, both directly and indirectly.
We eat grain in the form of cereal, bread, pasta, baked products, as a component in many processed foods, and, of course, by itself.
Meanwhile, animals raised for meat are enormous grain-eaters too. So, when considering grain consumption, it’s important to think about how grains affect our health and our environment.
There’s much to be said both for and against grain as a component of our diet. But when it comes right down to it, coach Ryan Andrews is personally in favour of eating grains.
1. Yes, some people are intolerant to grains.
Grains contain chemicals that can cause various health problems for susceptible people.
Gluten, found in wheat, is a particularly common food intolerance. (Some evidence suggests that modern wheat varieties are more problematic.) However, other grains such as oats, rye, barley, and corn can also cause similarly negative health effects for some folks.
But people are intolerant of lots of different foods, not just grains. If a food or drink makes you feel lousy, don’t consume it. Whether it’s wheat, kale, blueberries, or holy water – listen to your body.
Meanwhile, if you aren’t intolerant to a certain food, the food goes along with your values, the food provides nutrients, and you enjoy the food, then why would you waste time trying to avoid it?
2. Grain in a person’s diet says nothing about their health or fitness.
I know people who don’t eat grains and they are muscular, lean and healthy.
I also know people who eat grains and they are muscular, lean and healthy.
In other words, as a Precision Nutrition coach, I’ve personally worked with thousands of clients. And I have yet to see a meaningful correlation between appropriate grain consumption and ill health.
3. When I eliminate grains, I eat more vegetables, fruits, nuts, and other foods.
While that may sound like a good thing at first, I assure you it’s not. In fact, when I eliminate grains, I overeat on other foods. This leads to body fat gain and lethargy after meals. Not good.
Through self-experimentation, I’ve learned that eating grains helps me moderate my total food intake and improve my health.
But this isn’t just about me.
Again, I’ve coached thousands. And I see the same thing over and over again with my clients. Fewer grains eaten equals more meat, nuts and fruit. For a lot of them, that means more body fat.
4. Another argument against grains? They contain toxins.
So we’re told: Eat potatoes instead. Wait, potatoes contain toxins too.
Okay, eat green veggies instead. Wait, green veggies contain toxins too.
Wait… pretty much every naturally occurring food in existence contains toxins. We ingest toxins every day in low doses from all foods. Especially if we eat plant foods; they’re simply part of most plants’ defense systems.
What about just eating animals? Well, if those animals eat plant foods, the toxins accrete in their tissues. So, yes, even animal foods contain these same naturally occurring toxins.
We can’t get away from them no matter which foods we choose. Don’t believe me? See the references below.
Many scholarly publications list the naturally occurring toxic chemicals in common foods. Heck, you can even find nicotine in familiar vegetables!
It sounds scary. But think about this for a minute.
The real issue isn’t whether or not a food contains any toxins. This issue is, how much of the toxic chemical is in the food, and does the chemical occur at a level that can be toxic to humans.
If you really want to eliminate naturally occurring toxins, eat more processed foods. (Now there’s a solution for you!)
Never forget: The major “toxins” that have been proven to promote disease and harm our health are excess food/ calories, processed fats, sugars, and processed meats.
5. Our ancestors probably ate at least some grains.
Long ago in some far away land, claims the theory, nutrition was simple and grains weren’t eaten.
Fine. Neither were raw sprouted grain-less granola, hemp protein, kale chips, and honey chia bars. All of which I’ve consumed in the past week.
In other words, just because something wasn’t eaten then, doesn’t mean we can’t eat it now.
Besides, data indicate that grains probably were eaten back in the day:
Uh-Oh Paleo: Grains Were Part of Hunter-Gatherers’ Diet
So Long and Thanks for All the Fish – Is Paleo Dieting Finished?
Thirty Thousand-Year-Old Evidence of Plant Food Processing
The Paleo-Diet: Not The Way To A Healthy Future
Did Cavemen Eat Bread?
Built Like a Neanderthal 1
Built Like a Neanderthal 2
6. From an environmental perspective, grains make sense.
Our food choices have a monumental influence on the amount of fossil fuel energy we consume. Check out these estimates:
Grain/bean proteins require 2 units of fossil fuel energy / unit of protein they provide
A broiler chicken requires 4 units of fossil fuel energy / unit of protein it provides
Milk & pork require 14 units of fossil fuel energy / unit of protein they provide
Eggs require 39 units of fossil fuel energy / unit of protein they provide
Beef requires 40 units of fossil fuel energy / unit of protein it provides
Lamb requires 57 units of fossil fuel energy / unit of protein it provides
“But Ryan, you’d have to eat pounds and pounds of grains to get enough protein….”
Don’t care. I eat enough protein and take care of it in other ways.
The livestock population in the U.S. consumes more than 7 times as much grain as is consumed directly by the entire American population. If this grain were diverted to human consumption, we could feed more people.
No matter how much you dislike grains, you will dislike the apocalypse more.
7. But, I read Wheat Belly!
So did I, and I’m not totally convinced.
While it’s an eye-opening read, it’s still a popular press book full of interpretations of scientific data. And, often, smart people can reach different conclusions based on the same data.
If you’re interested in an extensive discussion of the claims of Wheat Belly, check out this fully referenced review article:
Wheat Belly—An Analysis of Selected Statements and Basic Theses from the Book
In the end, here’s my argument…
Grains can provide key nutrients (helping prevent malnutrition);
are low in calorie density (helping prevent excess body fat);
are earth friendly (preventing the apocalypse); and
can help decrease our risk for chronic disease (cancer, heart disease, diabetes).
Of course, if you can’t tolerate grains, or any other food, and they make you feel bad, stop eating them! (Duh).
However, if you can tolerate them, don’t fall for the hype. Grains aren’t the next dietary evil. Excess food/calories, processed fats, sugars, and processed meats are what we still need to be concerned with.
[Editor’s note: Ryan Andrews, is fit, lean, and strong. His body fat is less than 5% year-round. And he’s got a great blood profile. With 2 Masters degrees – one in Exercise Science and one in Nutrition – he’s single-handedly worked with thousands of clients through our Lean Eating Coaching Program. The point of saying all this? Well, it’s easy to dismiss some random blogger’s opinion. However, to dismiss the opinion of someone like Ryan – ripped, healthy, educated, and experienced – is folly. So, even if you disagree, his thoughts are worthy of consideration].
Pimentel D & Pimentel M. Sustainability of meat-based and plant-based diets and the environment. Am J Clin Nutr 2003;78:660S-663S.
Ames BN, Profet M, Gold LS. Dietary pesticides (99.99% all natural). Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 1990;87:7777-7781.
Ames BN. Natural Carcinogens: They’re found in many foods. Health & Environment Digest.
Domino EF, Hornbach E, Demana T. The nicotine content of common vegetables. N Engl J Med 1993;329:437.