There is much hype today regarding the problems with gluten resulting in a plethora of gluten free products. The purpose of this article is to explain the current issues with gluten and grains.
What are grains?
Grains are small, hard, dry seeds harvested for human or animal consumption. The two main types of commercial grain crops are cereals such as wheat and rye, and legumes such as beans and soybeans. Cereal grains may be either in whole form where the entire grain (bran, germ, and endosperm) is preserved or in refined form where the bran and germ have been removed.
What is gluten?
Gluten is a type of protein found in most cereal grains such as wheat, rye, spelt, kamut, semolina, and barley. It is typically found in pasta, bread, cereals, cakes, cookies, crackers, beer, and even salad dressings. Most foods that are processed and come out of box will contain it. Compared with other types of cereal grains, gluten is the most difficult for humans to digest.
Why are grains not good for us?
For 97% of our human existence, we did not consume grains. Our bodies are not inherently designed to digest and metabolize them and haven’t made much progress towards doing so either. However, some individuals are genetically able to tolerate grains better than others. Furthermore, when grains were first introduced to the human diet (about 10,000 years ago), they were prepared and consumed in a manner that made them easier for humans to digest and metabolize. Pre-industrialized societies fermented grains so that they were more easily digested and their vitamins and minerals could be better absorbed. Today, grains are typically sprayed with pesticides while they are growing and then milled at high temperatures which causes their fatty acids to spoil and become rancid. If the milled flour is stored for long periods of time it becomes even more rancid. Preservatives, stabilizers, and additives are often added to flour further making it less beneficial and even harmful to our health.
If grains are not properly prepared, meaning if they are not soaked (aka fermented or sprouted) then they contain substances called anti-nutrients. Anti-nutrients can cause damage and inflammation to the lining of our gut as well as prevent the body from absorbing nutrients from food. This doesn’t mean only the nutrients in the grains won’t be absorbed but also any other food that you are consuming along with the grains. One example could be vegetables which are full of beneficial vitamins and nutrients and thus would not be readily absorbed if they are paired with anti-nutrient containing grains.
Phytic acid in an anti-nutrient found in all grains which combines with magnesium, iron, copper, calcium, and zinc in the intestinal tract thus preventing the body from being able to absorb these specific nutrients. Therefore, consuming large amounts of our modernly prepared whole grains can cause the body to become mineral deficient. Some believe that this is a driving cause of high cases of osteoporosis in our society.
Another anti-nutrient found in grains are enzyme inhibitors which don’t allow the body to properly break down sugars and proteins. This can further irritate the pancreas and digestive system contributing to allergies and other digestive and autoimmune disorders, such as celiac disease, Chron’s disease and irritable bowel syndrome. In Leaky Gut Syndrome, chronic irritation of the lining of the gut creates excessive permeability thus allowing incompletely digested food particles to cross over into our blood stream. Our bodies will subsequently recognize these particles as foreign material and mount an immune response to them. This is the pathway to creating various food allergies.
Even though only a small percentage of the population has celiac disease (which means they have a true gluten allergy) it has been found that about 30% of the population has noticeable amounts of anti-giadin in their stools. Anti-giadin are antibodies secreted when the body encounters giadin, one of gluten’s constituents, as an intruder. Having the antibody in your stools means that your body is actively fighting an intruder and that you are exhibiting signs of chronic inflammation.
The structure of gluten resembles the protein portion of the thyroid gland. If gluten has made it into your bloodstream and has created an immune response against it, the body may likely also begin to attack the thyroid gland. This can be a contributing factor to autoimmune based thyroid disease. This process also occurs in Crohn’s disease where the body has been producing antibodies against giadin and mistakenly recognizes the intestinal tract as foreign material and thus mounts an immune attack against it.
If you have developed an immune response to gluten, it can last up to 6 months each time you consume it. That is why in these cases it is critical to completely remove it from your diet. Even a small amount can create a significant immune response in some people.
Chronically elevated insulin levels and diabetes are huge problems in our society. Grains are inherently high in carbohydrates which can easily spike blood sugar (glucose) levels. If you consider the large amounts of grains we typically consume this is a big problem. High sugar and carbohydrate consumption puts increased pressure on the pancreas to release a lot of insulin to lower elevated blood glucose levels. Furthermore, this excessive glucose gets converted into fat contributing to weight gain. With chronically elevated insulin levels our bodies begin to become resistant to it leading to Type 2 Diabetes. Elevated insulin levels can also lead to systemic inflammation throughout the body. Systemic inflammation can cause a variety of other health problems such as atherosclerosis, arthritis, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Dysbiosis is defined as an imbalance of beneficial and pathogenic bacteria and yeasts in the gut. It is associated with depression, anxiety, autoimmune disorders, systemic inflammation, ADHD, autism, obesity, and pretty much most of the major diseases in our society. One of the causes associated with this problem is consumption of grains. The excessive amounts of carbohydrates in grains in addition to the pesticides and toxic chemicals usually associated with them contribute to dysbiosis. For individuals with significant gut flora imbalances sometimes just eliminating grains is not enough. They must also spend some time eliminating most sources of carbohydrates and sugars from their diets as they rebalance their system. The growing popularity of the FODMAPS diet encompasses this approach.
Our food system currently values grains, especially whole grains as healthy and nutritious being at the bottom of the USDA food pyramid with a recommended 6 to 11 servings per day. Based on the points made in this article, this is obviously not regarded as nutritious. A reason why our government initially pushed grains was economical. They are cheap to produce (although not without environmental costs), they can be stored for much longer, and they can easily be sold overseas which doesn’t lend much incentive to promote them as being unhealthy.
The bottom line is that depending on the state of your gut and susceptibility to inflammation you likely should not be consuming any grains or if you do in small amounts. If you are able to tolerate grains then opting for ones that are organic (free from toxic chemicals) and sprouted (pre-digested that gets rid of the anti-nutrients and enzyme inhibitors) are the way to go. The best sources of carbohydrates and fiber are from vegetables!