When it comes to good nutritional choices, the mainstream media and food companies have taught us that grains are truly one of the best choices we can make. But is the science saying the same thing?
Over the last few years, there’s been a rapid increase in scientific research showing that grains may actually be one of the worst choices we can make when it comes to our brain’s health.1 A fact that is only just starting to reach the media through some eye-opening works like the book Grain Brain by Dr. David Perlmutter. The book made numerous key points about the downside of consuming grains as a large component of a healthy diet.
However, to those in the Paleo community, the book was nothing new. Gluten, and gluten-like compounds, have been seen as less-than-desirable for almost 20 years2,3,4 and for numerous reasons including GI issues, neurological dysfunction and even autoimmune disease.5,6,7,8,9
Empty Calories – Grains Don’t Provide the Nutrients our Brain’s Need
Bioavailability of nutrients is perhaps one of the biggest issues with grains.10,11,12 When we eat a grass-fed steak, our bodies can absorb and use almost all of its amino acids. This is not the case with grains. While they appear to be nutrient dense, many of those nutrients cannot be actively used by our bodies. For example, grain sources of vitamin B6 contain a pyridine ring which prevents our bodies from using it. Hence, grains quickly become the epitome of empty calories.
When it comes to our brain’s health, empty calories can actually become negative calories. That’s because our brains require many different nutrients, vitamins, and minerals.13 When we replace true nutrient dense food with grains, our brains miss out on many key nutrients that they need (hence Dr. Perlmutter’s title of Grain Brain14). By switching out grains for brain-friendly foods like wild-caught salmon (packed with omega-3s), we can truly optimize our neuronal health.15
While many frame a grain-free, brain-friendly diet as a way to combat disease, I’d ask you to re-think of it as a way to prevent disease. By eating large amounts of nutrients that can help our neurons fire properly, we are taking one of the best steps towards optimal health.16
The Detrimental Effects of Grains on our Brains
However, grains are even more detrimental than just taking up valuable space in our diets. There are many parts of grains which – when consumed – may actually disrupt and ruin our brain’s numerous essential processes.17,18,19
For example, a 2015 scientific study showed that “gluten psychosis” is a very real phenomenon.20 In that study, researchers confirmed that non-celiac gluten sensitivity can even display symptoms of hallucinations and psychosis. While this may seem shocking, the possible mechanisms of action behind it, are not. Researchers posit that a “leaky gut” (which gluten can promote) may allow gluten peptides to cross the intestinal membrane and ultimately the blood brain barrier. One proposed mechanism is that once inside the brain, these peptides may cause problems in neurotransmission and the endogenous opiate system. Another proposed mechanism of action is an innate immune response in the brain caused by the gluten peptides. Whatever the mechanism, this condition is real, and is only beginning to be understood.
Other research has shown that gluten sensitivity can manifest solely with neurological dysfunction, and neuronal symptoms.21 This means that many of us many not even realize that our mental health is being harmed by the consumption of grains. That is truly a scary possibility. In fact, according to research, 10–15% of gluten intolerance cases are associated with central or peripheral nervous system disorders, as well as psychiatric disorders.22 To add to these scary statistics, many who are sensitive to gluten, are never diagnosed or treated.23
Grains are also a key cause of increased blood sugar – especially refined grains, like the kind found in breads and pasta.24 High blood sugar levels have been directly correlated with an increased risk of dementia.25 This research found that the blood sugar levels required to promote dementia weren’t even at diabetic levels – meaning you could have an increased risk of developing dementia without even knowing it.
And as mentioned above, grains also affect our gut’s health. Research has shown that grains can lead to increased intestinal permeability, which then causes a chain reaction, resulting in many autoimmune diseases, and other neurological manifestations.26,27
Little Evidence for Grains
Quite simply, there is very little evidence to show that consumption of grains is necessary for optimal health. At best, grains are filler – cheap, easy to produce, and very calorically dense. However, these reasons are only good for one entity, and it’s not our health, it’s the big food companies.
Perhaps the best evidence of grains being sub-optimal, is a simple look at essential human nutrients. We need protein, fats, and carbohydrates.28 Ideally, we want to consume foods which provide high quality versions of all three and have the most nutrients per calorie (i.e. nutrient density). Further, these foods should not have any downsides, like too much sugar, or other bioactive compounds which would cause potential problems. Grains do not fill any of requirements. They only provide a large amount of calories – very little else. In fact, there are even small amounts of pharmacologically active opioid peptides in wheat.29 These include four different gluten exorphins, as well as gliadorphin. In fact, the harm from grains is indirectly seen by the improvements experienced after avoiding them – studies are being published showing increased quality of life in those who consume gluten-free diets.30 Though they may not know it, this likely comes from increased neuronal health, caused largely by avoiding the regular consumption of grains.
So the next time you think about what to put on your plate, think back to the simple essential nutrients that our bodies and brains require. The carbohydrates provided by grains can easily be replaced by fruits, nutrient-dense veggies or other Paleo-friendly choices. And the best part? All of these choices will help our brains – not hurt them. Remember, the Paleo Diet has been specifically designed to contain only the best foods – by following the template you will automatically weed out poor nutritional choices – like grains – and be on your way towards optimal health.