The Thing With Grains

Another reader question today.

Why is grain so dangerous to health? can you send me a listing of those grains that are not to be eaten and why?

Well, fortunately, there's a lot of good info out there and so rather than rehash it, let's just call attention to it here, particularly for the benefit of newer readers. I just checked the number of RSS subscriptions to Free the Animal and it's now over 1,000, which would represent regular, daily readers. Just a couple of months ago, last I checked, it was less than half that. Growing all the time, so thanks for the support I get from readers.

Let's begin with Mark Sisson and his Definitive Guide to Grains. First, let's look at the principle behinds the thing, which I call The Paleo Principle. Here's Mark:

Those of you who have been with us a while now know the evolutionary backdrop I mean here. We humans had the pleasure and occasional scourge of evolving within a hunter gatherer existence. We’re talking some 150,000 plus years of hunting and foraging. On the daily scavenge menu: meats, nuts, leafy greens, regional veggies, some tubers and roots, the occasional berries or seasonal fruits and seeds that other animals hadn’t decimated. (Ever seen a dog at an apple picking?) We ate what nature (in our respective locales) served up. The more filling, the better. And then around 10,000 years ago, the tide turned. Our forefathers and mothers were on the brink of ye olde Agricultural Revolution. And, over time, grains became king. But, as countless archaeological findings suggest, people became smaller and frailer as a result of this new agrarian, grain-fed existence.

And actually, the 150,000 years is just for Homo Sapiens and could be upwards of 200,000 years. but, before that, more primitive ancestors of humans go back at least 2.5 million years. Grains never played any significant role in diet.

Why? It's certainly not that people would have considered them unhealthy. In fact, had they been eaten for all those years, we would certainly be well adapted to them by now — just as people worldwide have become increasingly adapted to lactose in milk beyond weaning age, owing to a genetic mutation about 8,000 years ago that left the lactase producing gene on, and that mutation has been spreading far and wide ever since. Unfortunately, we know of no such stark mutation for grains, and it's important to remember that we were already genetically adapted to milk. The mutation merely allowed us to continue to drink it into adulthood.

But the principle reason ancestors didn't take grains into the diet is because it's too much work for the reward. Think about how much work it would take you to locate and pick wild grains, just to get a handful — a few hundred calories at best. Now, compare that with the effort required to take an animal and the thousands of calories you get from that.

So, somewhere along the line someone realized that it's better to lay around most of the time, hunt occasionally, bag the meat, and enjoy life. The life of a gorilla, for example, is pretty dismal. They literally have to eat all the time, the nutrient density of the food they eat is so low. Moreover, look at the size of the gut needed to break down and digest all that fibrous plant matter.

Continuing with Mark (be sure to read his whole entry, as I'm just excerpting):

Among my many beefs with grain, the first and foremost is the havoc it plays with insulin and other hormonal responses in the body. For the full picture, visit the previous Definitive Guide to Insulin from some months ago. Guess what? The same principles still hold. We developed the insulin response to help store excess nutrients and to take surplus (and potentially toxic) glucose out of the bloodstream. This was an adaptive trait. But it didn’t evolve to handle the massive amounts of carbs we throw at it now. And, yes, we’re talking mostly about grains. Unless you have a compulsive penchant for turnips, the average American’s majority of carb intake comes from grains.

That's one, but there's more.

And as for the nutritional value of grains? First off, they aren’t the complete nutritional sources they’re made out to be. Quite the contrary, grains have been associated with minerals deficiencies, perhaps because of high phytate levels. A diet high in grains may also reduce the body’s ability to process vitamin D.

Why not get the same nutrients from sources that don’t come back and bite you in the backside? If you have the choice between getting, say, B-vitamins from chicken or some “whole wheat” pasta, I’m going to say go with the chicken every time. Is pasta cheaper? Yes. Is it healthier? No. The B6 in chicken is more bioavailable, for one. The fact is, you pay too high a physiological price for the pasta source. Let’s get this point on the dinner table as well: whatever nutrients you can get from whole grains you can get in equal to greater amounts in other food. In terms of nutrient density, grains can’t hold a candle to a diverse diet of veggies and meats. (And if the label says otherwise, look closely because the product is fortified. Save your money and buy a good supplement instead.

This is a big one that, frankly, pisses me off. Even not considering the problems with grains in terms of insulin, gluten, and other lectins, they are not very nutritious. Listen, everyone, and listen closely: if you eat grains as a significant part of your diet, you are getting CRAP nutrition as compared to a paleo-like diet. It's simply a fact, the "healthy-whole" fraud notwithstanding. You are feeding your children an inferior diet, and considering the phytic acid in grains, you are sacrificing their ability to absorb minerals, potentially setting them up for arterial calcification later in life (contributed to by the vitamin D deficiency that goes hand-in-hand with a high grain diet).

Want proof that a diet with any significant grain content is nutritionally inferior, and woefully so? See here, and here (really, take a moment). In fact, for most micronutrients, a paleo diet outstrips a standard, grain-based diet by 100-300% in terms of nutritional content.

Grains are junk and garbage that barely pass for "food," and yet this is what the "authorities" advise that you eat as your primary source of "nutrition." Why? Wish I knew, definitively. Much is a result of the huge subsidies paid to producers, much is modern ignorance, and the rest is simple inertia. Anyway, the nutritional deficit from grains pushing out far more nutritious and bioavailable foods like meat and veggies (you can only eat so much, so what's it gonna be?) is the prime reason why they ought to be avoided in any important quantity.

But, wait, there’s more. Enter the lurker substances in grains that cause a lot of people a whole lot of obvious problems (and probably all of us some kind of damage over time). Grains, new evolutionarily-speaking, are frankly hard on the digestive system. (You say fiber, I say unnecessary roughage, but that’s only the half of it.) Enter gluten and lectins, both initiators of digestive mayhem, you might say. Gluten, the large, water-soluble protein that creates the sludge, err, elasticity in dough, is found in most common grains like wheat, rye and barley (and it’s the primary glue in wallpaper paste). Researchers now believe that a third of us are likely gluten intolerant/sensitive. That third of us (and I would suspect many more on some level) “react” to gluten with a perceptible inflammatory response. Over time, those who are gluten intolerant can develop a dismal array of medical conditions: dermatitis, joint pain, reproductive problems, acid reflux and other digestive conditions, autoimmune disorders, and Celiac disease. And that still doesn’t mean that the rest of us aren’t experiencing some milder negative effect that simply doesn’t manifest itself so obviously.

Now for lectins. Lectins are mild, natural toxins that aren’t limited to just grains but seem to be found in especially high levels in most common grain varieties. They serve as one more reason grains just aren’t worth all the trouble that comes with them. Lectins, researchers have found, inhibit the natural repair system of the GI tract, potentially leaving the rest of the body open to the impact of errant, wandering (i.e. unwanted) material from the digestive system, especially when these lectins “unlock” barriers to entry and allow larger undigested protein molecules into the bloodstream. This breach can initiate all kinds of immune-related havoc and is thought to be related to the development of autoimmune disorders. Some people are more sensitive to the damage of lectins than others, as in the case with gluten. Nonetheless, I’d say, over time we all pay the piper.

So, there you have the most of it. However, I urge anyone who's interested to read Mark's entire entry.

For even more, check out Life Spotlight's post just today: The Real Truth About Those "Healthy Whole Grains." Also, Scott linked up Stephan who has a three part series that I probably already linked at some point, but let's do it again.

Leptin and Lectins

Leptin and Lectins: Part II

Leptin and Lectins: Part III

The punch line, from Stephan the biologist as pulled together by Scott from those three posts:

For this model to be relevant to us, we'd expect that humans with metabolic syndrome should be leptin-resistant. Well what do you know, administering leptin to obese people doesn't cause satiety like it does in thin people. Furthermore, elevated leptin predicts the onset of obesity and metabolic syndrome. It also predicts insulin resistance. Yes, you read that right, leptin resistance comes before insulin resistance.

Many plants use lectins as a defense against hungry animals. Thus, an animal that is not adapted to the lectins in the plant it’s eating may suffer damage or death. … Grains and legumes (beans, soy, peas, peanuts) are rich in some particularly nasty lectins. Especially wheat. Some can degrade the intestinal lining. Some have the ability to pass through the intestinal lining and show up in the bloodstream. Once in the bloodstream, they may bind all sorts of carbohydrate-containing proteins in the body, including the insulin receptor. They could theoretically bind the leptin receptor, which also contains carbohydrate (= it’s glycosylated), potentially desensitizing it. This remains to be tested, and to my knowledge is pure speculation at this point. What is not so speculative is that once you’re leptin-resistant, you become obese and insulin resistant, and at that point you are intolerant to any type of carbohydrate.

One of the molecules they use to probe the function of the leptin receptor is our good friend wheat germ agglutinin (WGA), a lectin found in wheat, barley and rye. They used WGA to specifically block leptin binding at the receptor.

This fits in very nicely with the hypothesis that grain lectins cause leptin resistance. If WGA gets into the bloodstream, which it appears to, it has the ability to bind leptin receptors and block leptin binding. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how this could cause leptin resistance.

As to the last part of the question, what grains would be OK, I'd have to pass. I'm so over grains, don't think about 'em and don't miss 'em. I'm just sticking to Real Food.

Richard Nikoley

I'm Richard Nikoley. Free The Animal began in 2003 and as of 2021, contains 5,000 posts. I blog what I wish...from health, diet, and food to travel and lifestyle; to politics, social antagonism, expat-living location and time independent—while you sleep—income. I celebrate the audacity and hubris to live by your own exclusive authority and take your own chances. Read More


  1. Aaron Blaisdell on May 21, 2009 at 18:20

    Yup, grains are bad news. Which makes it all the more ironic that they can be so addictive! I've been trying like hell to get my toddler off of the stuff. What does she crave? Goldfish crackers, pretzels, cereal for breakfast, pancakes and waffles, pasta and noodles of any kind (actually, we found some noodles made from sweet potatoes at a chinese grocers–probably not the most healthy things, but definitely way better than grain-based pasta), bread and peanut butter (lectin overload anyone?)… Oh the list goes on and on. All the "heart-healthy" snack foods (the word "food" there is quite oxymoronic) that Conventional Wisdom screams at us should be a part of every kids diet. Okay, I just want to scream right now.

  2. Stan (Heretic) on May 21, 2009 at 18:39


    Our children were easy to convert, they just ate what was available, not what they "craved". You aint's seen nothing yet. The real challenge is when they reach 12-14. You will see! 8-:)

    Stan (Heretic)

  3. Patrik on May 21, 2009 at 20:59

    I agree. Although I have no children, none that I know of 🙂 — I see how my siblings are raising their children. My nephew's little hand is perpetually in his little "snack" bowl that follows him around the house and is happily filled up by his mother.

    He only eats chicken nuggets and french fries. (BTW we broached this subject on Seth Roberts' blog who has the insane idea that children prefer healthy food, when every child I know will take a hideously frosted cupcake and Tang over roasted chicken, salad and a glass of water.

    I think this "snack" thing is insane. As a child, never had "snacks". We ate at mealtime. End of story. We never had soda either. Just milk, water or tea.

    Our Paleolithic ancestors sure as hell didn't have any snacks, especially grain-based.

    Sure, you had some dried meat or fruit etc etc laying around, but nothing like this insane snack culture revolving around Twinkies, Chips Ahoy, "fruit" drinks etc etc

  4. Patrik on May 21, 2009 at 21:06


    I think your post is spot-on. But shooting from the hip via pure instinct, I would presume that races exposed to grain-based agriculture would have some slightly better "tolerance" (not the right word) to grains then others. Especially processed.

    Europeans, Middle Easteners versus Africans, Native Americans.

    Example: Extreme obesity witness amongst Pima Indians on reservations in early 1900s. Granted, they were eating an extreme diet almost exclusively white flour.

    That was one of my takeaways from 10,000 Year Explosion.

  5. jon w on May 21, 2009 at 21:11

    I agree…

    we don't often make time to sit down for a prepared family dinner, but my 3 and 5 year olds always get a few choices of real food. sometimes they choose not to eat anything, which is fine, but they are usually willing to try everything, and if they do eat, look forward to fruit for dessert. once they go to school and get exposed to the junk that's out there it will get harder. I also have a grown son, and thru the teenage years they start making their own choices and choosing how to eat is part of that.

  6. z.g. on May 21, 2009 at 23:30

    I quit rice, pasta, potatoes, and (to some extent) bread two years ago after reading the Zone.

    What I ate was a lot of veggies, fruit, fat, protein sources, and two times daily 30-50 grams oats. The occasional whole rye bread was a treat.

    Less than a month ago, I quit oats and the occasional rye.

    Now instead of having oats, apple, cottage cheese and a fat source in my breakfast, I have two different fruits and cottage cheese and nuts.

    I am not loosing weight now, but the body composition is changing, and definitely I feel better now.

    I feel lighter and more energetic.

    And btw, two years ago with that simple change I went from 225 to 203 in four- five months, with no loss in physical performance.

  7. Richard Nikoley on May 21, 2009 at 18:33


    Have you tried letting her get hungry enough to eat what she doesn't crave when not very hungry?

    I once watched a group of child eating experts turn a family of kids who woul donly eat pizza, burgers, hot pockets (you know the drill) into spinach & Brussels sprouts lovers inside of two weeks. The rules?

    1. no food except mealtime.

    2. food at meals was prepared real food.

    3. no pressure to eat anything. they could freely go hungry, but if they did, their next opportunity came at the next mealtime, which was: see 1 & 2.

  8. Jeff on May 22, 2009 at 03:00

    Hey Richard,

    Great post. I liked you take on things.

    "Grains are junk and garbage that barely pass for "food," and yet this is what the "authorities" advise that you eat as your primary source of "nutrition." Why? Wish I knew, definitively."

    My opinion is that this is easily explainable if you follow the money. I would love to open a Paleo restaurant, but I would have to charge triple what the pizza and pasta shops charge. To get people to go our requires understanding and courage to buck the trend and question authorities. Most are happy to leave it to the "experts". The money leads to funding research which finds healthywholegrains (I like leaving it as one whole world like Jimmy Moore) to be the healthiest thing on earth.

    I like you thought on kids as well. I wish I could do that. The problem is that they go to school where healthywholegrain are on the menu at each meal. When home we follow those rules you laid out pretty well and it does work. Thankfully, my kids are pretty good about eating real food.

    Great post as usual,


  9. Les on May 22, 2009 at 05:23

    Ditching grains from diet is sooo 2008.

  10. Aaron Blaisdell on May 22, 2009 at 07:05

    I've talked about doing just this with my wife, but she thinks it is too extreme. Something inside her tells her it is so wrong to let her child skip a meal (because she refuses what we serve her). Marriage is a wonderful thing, but can also be quite frustrating! I've actually pushed a lot of boundaries over the past 6 months in terms of our family diet. For example, we are completely weened off of vegetable oils, cooking sprays, and the like. My wife is from China, so everything used to be stir fried in the wok with these things. Now we cook with only coconut oil, ghee, bacon fat that I save from the weekly bacon, and Mary's oil blend (one part each of coconut oil, EV olive oil, and sesame oil). We've also cut down drastically on the carbs served with our meals. I am even putting Carlson D3 drops into all of our foods, and sometimes Thorne K2 drops as well. I sneak High Vitamin fermented cod liver oil in my kids' food.

    I'll keep pushing on boundaries but it takes time, like how the ocean wears away the coastline.

  11. Aaron Blaisdell on May 22, 2009 at 07:06

    Thanks for the warning. "Be afraid. Be very afraid."

  12. Katelyn on May 22, 2009 at 11:02

    Excellent. Now ditch veggies and fruit, everything except meat. Grains are horrible, but veggies and fruit don't offer you any nutrients you can process either, at least not the bang for the buck of meat. Why bother?

  13. Richard Nikoley on May 22, 2009 at 06:21

    I agree, Patrik. Although, I think it's pretty clear that healthful grain eating societies:

    1. Don't eat them in the massive quantities we do, in virtually everything, with even meat, fish, and veggies often wrapped, breaded, and/or deep fried in the stuff.

    2. They go so some lengths to better prepare them via soaking, sprouting, and/or fermenting.

  14. Richard Nikoley on May 22, 2009 at 08:34

    I hear ya!

  15. Richard Nikoley on May 22, 2009 at 11:21

    "but veggies and fruit don't offer you any nutrients you can process either"

    I don't believe that, but you're welcome to try and convince. I do understand that to some extent, probably a good bit of the nutrition in veggies and fruits are used in the process of digesting them. Certainly not all.

    I have no real quibble with an all meat / eggs diet, if that's your thing. I'm sure I'd feel fine with it. But I feel fabulous already, orders of magnitude better than before. Everyone ought to find their niche in the zero to high carb realm, just sticking to real foods. I'm not going to make a big point to sway those eating lots of natural carbs anymore than I'm going to try to sway those eating none or trace.

    Have at it.

    I'm going to advocate for Real Food, and to the extent dairy, grains and legumes get involved, then please take guidance from the WAPF folks on proper preparation, i.e., raw pastured dairy, soaked, sprouted, and/or fermented grains and legumes.

    Remember 80/20, and not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. I'll have a substantial post on that next week, maybe even a series.

  16. Oerloper on May 23, 2009 at 06:55

    Hi Richard,
    I eat myself Paleo and no grains at all, BUT I still have a question, because I´m a bit confused after reading "Born to Run", the Tarahumara Indians run a lot (like 25 miles a day and more, and eat legumes, corn, drink corn beer, and are very healthy. So they do two things a lot of Paleo people (De Vany, Mark Sisson)refuse to do: distance running and eating agriculture products. What´s your opinion about that?

  17. Monica on May 23, 2009 at 08:48

    One reason grains are cheaper is that they have been subsidized since the 30s. This is because they are politically connected but also, storeable crops that the government wants a buildup of for various reasons, some of which include the "stabilization" of prices.

    The grain subsidies are a disaster for many practical reasons. 1) They decrease the fertility of our soil which leads to further subsidy programs like the Conservation Reserve Program. (The CRP STINKS, all we need to do is put animals back on pasture. CRP doesn't really improve marginal land very much.) 2) Subsidies directly make corn, wheat, soy products, and cottonseed oil cheaper by giving farmers a significant portion on the dollar for what they grow, depending on what the government wants more of. Soy plantings skyrocketed after WWII because of soil fertility problems. (It is a legume so nitrogen fixation happens around its roots.) 3) Because farmers are more likely to plant a certain crop if it is more heavily subsidized, this further depresses prices, making these foods (cottonseed oil, soy oil, corn oil, soy and corn meals, wheat, canola, etc.) much cheaper than they ordinarily would be in a free market. Meanwhile the only way meat is subsidized is through EQIP. (The crop subsidies also make prolonged periods of grain feeding more economical in comparison to grass feeding for cattle.)

    Combined with the government's nutritional recommendations (which also come from the USDA, can we say CONFLICT OF INTEREST!?) it is a disaster.

  18. Richard Nikoley on May 23, 2009 at 11:38

    The same as it has always been. I have no opinion on running. Wanna run? Knock yourself out. Not for me. I hate it and certainly don't need it. I walk, lift heavy things, and sprint.

    As to the grains and legumes, it would be helpful to know how much they actually eat and how it's prepared. It's likely far different from the stuff in our supermarkets.

    Finding acceptable ways to deal with grains and legumes is not the same as claiming they are essential. They are not. You could do every sound preparation technique in the world and you're still far better off with another piece of meat, fish, or fowl.

    I'm not interested in grains and legumes. They're crap "food," as far as I'm concerned

  19. minneapolis j on May 24, 2009 at 13:51

    Richard, a great post. Why load the plate with with something that is not nutritionally great?

    Why not just get out of the habit of RELYING on bread at every meal. Sautee up some vegetables in a good natural oil, prepare fish, chicken, beef, pork or what have you, and maybe have a handful of nuts and some berries….is it that hard?

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