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Podcast: Is Bread the Staff of Life? Eliminating Grains and Legumes

By The Paleo Diet Team
February 27, 2014
Podcast: Is Bread the Staff of Life? Eliminating Grains and Legumes image

The following is a podcast transcript from an episode that originally aired in January 2015.

Dr. Loren Cordain: I'm Loren Cordain, founder of the Paleo Diet Movement.

Shelley Schlender: I'm Shelley Schlender. This is the Paleo Diet Podcast for January 2015.

Dr. Loren Cordain: Many diet in the wall nutritionists, including ADA trained. The ADA actually just changed their name.

Shelley Schlender: The American Diabetic Association.

Dr. Loren Cordain: Dietetic.

Shelley Schlender: American Dietetic Association. Well, you know what? Those groups basically say the same thing.

Dr. Loren Cordain: Right, so the American Dietetic Association. They've just changed their name to another something or other, but it's that conservative nutritional group that's been there forever, and they align themselves with the USDA so the recommendations are fairly similar between the ADA and the USDA. One of the criticisms of the Paleo diet that has come out by most standard trained nutritionists is that it's a dangerous diet because it eliminates two entire food groups and it will be deficient in numerous trace nutrients, vitamins and minerals.

Shelley Schlender: But, Loren Cordain, when I was a kid in school, I know something about these food groups. There was milk on one side. There was bread on the other, and I forget what the other two there but there were four basic food groups and those were two of them.

Dr. Loren Cordain: Those food groups are arbitrary categories created by humans, not by evolution through natural selection. Do you think a deer, when it goes out and eats, and it eats a little bit of grass or a little bit of shrubs or herbs, and it's saying, "Ah, I got to get my food groups in." No, it's absurd. Chimpanzees, primates, they don't worry about food groups. They worry about foods that are genetically adapted to that their tastes and their physiologies work well with. It's an arbitrary classification, is that we have grains and dairy products.


Shelley Schlender: Loren, Cordain, bread is the staff of life. I remember that from school.

Dr. Loren Cordain: Shelley, you're parroting what I'm going to be saying because I've written a paper that has been well cited over the world called Cereal Grains: Humanities Double Edge Sword. Any of our listeners can actually download that for free on my website,

Shelley Schlender: That's interesting, too, because I've talked with scientist, research scientists in different places including Stanford, who have never heard of this kind of research.

Dr. Loren Cordain: Many bench scientists have a very narrow perspective. Their nose is very close to a particular problem and they tend not to have an eclectic perspective. In my career, looking at this evolutionary nutrition concept, I had to span many disciplines. When I wrote that paper Cereal Grains, it came from a variety of perspectives. It came from nutritional biochemical evolutionary and cellular perspective, and so that paper was written at that level. Infrequently, do we ever see nutritional papers that are written other than a bench scientist viewpoint.

That paper shows from an evolutionary perspective and nutritional perspective, a biochemical perspective and a genetic perspective. Humans don’t have any cereal grain requirement. We can get along just fine. We don't have to eat cereal grains.

Shelley Schlender: We don’t' have to cereal grains and your paper is a great way to study that. I remember the first time I read that paper. I read it three times because it's pretty dense. It's got a lot of information in it and it takes a while for the concepts to sink in. It's not like a sound bite story. It is a rigorous thing to read that paper but it can be life changing.


Dr. Loren Cordain: Thank you for the kind words, Shelley. It was a labor of love to write. I'd been working on it for almost two years before I had an invitation from Artemis Simopoulos, who was the editor of a well-known nutrition journal. She actually invited me to finish the paper up. I said, "Artemis, this is an enormous paper. It runs probably 50 or 60 pages, and that's in the print version." I said, "Over 400 references." She said, "Let's do it." I said, "I'm only about half done," so she actually gave me the opportunity to do that. I was in Athens, Greece at a conference that she had invited me to. I came home and dropped everything and I finished that paper in six months that they'd been working on it for two years. She ended up publishes it. It got published in 1999.

Yes, some things have changed but a lot of what's in that paper still holds true. Some of the immunology and some of the ideas we had about autoimmune disease and cereal grains, we now have more modern and better data.

Shelley Schlender: It doesn't sound like you've disagreed with that you said initially but now you have more focus in what you say is the link between autoimmune diseases and grain, for instance.

Dr. Loren Cordain: We actually have more support, and so in 1999 I was dealing upon the best scientific papers that spanned the decade or two decades or three decades before that whereas a lot of water has gone over the dams since 1999. We now know that cereal grains are associated with multiple autoimmune diseases. We're getting a much better handle on why that is.

Shelley Schlender: Meaning that there's more support, not less support for the ideas that you started with in that paper about cereal grains?

Dr. Loren Cordain: Absolutely. For instance, one of the most powerful arguments that has come forth comes from Alessio Fasanos groups at the University of Maryland Celiac Center. They were the individuals that showed that gluten actually upregulates a compound in our gut called zonulin. Zonulin increases intestinal permeability.

Shelley Schlender: That sounds like something from a movie, Zonulin, the Invader from Outer Space.


Dr. Loren Cordain: Actually, the term zonulin, zonulin had been discovered before Fasano's group had made the connection that gluten upregulates zonulin. What it shows is in many people, when you eat gluten or gluten containing grains, it increases intestinal permeability.

Let's go backwards in time to 2000. We had written a paper in the British journal of nutrition saying that increased intestinal permeability was an underlying factor for autoimmune disease. We came in almost ... I think Fasano's book came in in 2006, so we were about six years earlier than Fasano's group with the experimental evidence. It was very gratifying for me to see that we now have experimental evidence in humans and animals that gluten containing grains increase intestinal permeability.

What Fasano did, is he went on to corroborate the hypothesis that we put forth six, seven years earlier that a fundamental factor underlying autoimmune disease was an increase in intestinal permeability.

We now believe, not just we but Fasano's group and others around the world believe, that that Type I diabetes, celiac disease, Hashimoto's disease of the thyroid, rheumatoid arthritis and other diseases that we believe are autoimmune in nature, are proceeded by a leaky gut in genetically susceptible individuals.

Shelley Schlender: We're talking about food right now. It's also known that there are other environmental factors that will increase intestinal permeability such as use of antibiotics which has been prevalent in the last 50 years, and the increased use of pesticides of different kind. The decrease in exercise may have some link to whether or not the gut holds itself together with integrity. While we're talking about food, it's in a world where these other factors are also influencing what's going on.


Dr. Loren Cordain: Well, that's a good point, Shelley, and I think that if that fundamental hypothesis in theory is correct, which I believe it is, the largest interface between our body and the outside world is our gut then when the gut becomes permeable to the gut contents and the bacteria, that's not a good thing for our immune system. There's a lot of good evidence that points to the idea that multiple factors in our environment can increase intestinal permeability.

However, it's kind of like cigarette smoking was in the 50s. Everybody did it and it wasn't until the surgeon general reported in the 1960s that we realized that everybody's doing it and a certain percentage of people pay the consequence. Everybody eats wheat, but when I say everybody now that Paleo is becoming so known worldwide, not so many people eat wheat anymore and with gluten sensitivity an estimated 5% of the US population which amounts to 15 million people, have gluten sensitivity, so many, many people are stopping and getting gluten out of the diet.

We talk about environmental factors that increase intestinal permeability. One factor that is poorly appreciated, and I had an email conversation with Alessio Fasano a number of years ago, and I said, "You know, you guys were focused on wheat and gluten containing grains." I said, "Have you considered the saponins?" And he goes, "What?" Saponins, and I said, "Yes, saponins do the same thing but through a different mechanism."

Shelley Schlender: Saponins, those are in quinoa?

Dr. Loren Cordain: Saponins are in all kinds of foods that we eat as staple foods. For instance, kidney beans, snap beans. Saponins are high in many, many foods.

Shelley Schlender: One thing that you're pointing out here is that while the world has a real fascination with gluten, and there's a lot of documentation about gluten being a hazard for some people, you can go to grocery stores and find gluten free foods. I've never been to a store that sells saponin free foods in an aisle that says saponin free. There's a lot of compounds in grains and in beans that are designed, not to help us eat them.


Dr. Loren Cordain: Right, these are called anti nutrients. Anti-nutrients are compounds that are evolutionarily selected for, sometimes are called secondary compounds. And they're selected for by the plant to prevent or discourage predation. One of the factors that you have to do is that if you're going to discourage predation and you want to poison a predator, the toxin compounds that you evolve have to bet into the predator's bloodstream. What that means is that when you ingest them, they have to get past the intestinal barrier, the GI tract barrier, and then get into the plasma and ultimately into bloodstream.

Shelley Schlender: When these plants evolve these special things to poison the predator eating them, were they thinking of the customer at Safeway or King Supers or Whole Foods walking down the aisle, or did they have another creature that they were trying to decent themselves against?

Dr. Loren Cordain: First off, they weren’t trying to defend themselves against anybody. This wasn't an active act. This all happened serendipitously through natural selection, so the plants that tended to have these compounds tended to survive and reproduce. That's how natural selection worked. There's no intended goal. It's all completely haphazard. It's haphazard based on survival of the fittest so when we talk about safe, there's no such thing as non-saponin foods.


You're absolutely right. When I see practitioners that have somewhat of a transitory pull in the Paleo community recommending legumes on a regular basis, this is a nonscientific promotion and it is contrary to 30 and 40 years' worth of good bench scientists, tissue work, and animal work. When you boil kidney beans, when you pressure cook kidney beans, you can get the lectins out of them. You can do a pretty good job of removing lectins, but you can't get saponins out, even with pressure cooking. Saponins are concentration gradient driven in terms of what they do to biological membranes, meaning that the more of them you get, the more they bust open membranes.

Shelley Schlender: You mean cell membranes, meaning the protective coating on our cells in our body?

Dr. Loren Cordain: That's right. First off, in the gut we have a mucous lining. Below that we have a glycocalyx, and below that we have endothelial cells that line the gut. For saponins to get into the body and do their nasty things, they have to break down mucous which they can do very easily. That's soap. You want to get mucous off your body, put soap on the mucous and it goes away. You want glycocalyx to go away, put soap on it. You want to break open a membrane, put soap on it. This is how molecular biochemists break open cells to put compounds into the cell to see what happens, is with saponins. The way the saponins break down cell membranes is that they bind cholesterol moiety. They bind the cholesterol molecule on the membrane. They cause the membrane then to what we call exvaginate. It forms this bubble, and then more and more of the saponins bind more and more of the cholesterol molecules and they cause the membrane then to break, and they punch a hole in the membrane. As I mentioned, it's concentration gradient driven.

Shelley Schlender: The more you eat, the more this happens.


Dr. Loren Cordain: Acupressurists and practitioners that are telling people what they should and should not with Paleo apparently haven't read these papers. What I would encourage them to do are to read a scientist by the name of Arpad Pustzai. The spelling on that is A-R-P-A-D P-U-S-T-Z-A-I. Go to Medline. Go to PubMed, and look up his name, and you can see the information for yourself.

Shelley Schlender: He was the scientist from Scotland.

Dr. Loren Cordain: He was, indeed. He was a very well known scientist and he ended up losing his job because way back in the early to mid-90s he suggested that we shouldn't be putting certain parts of the genome of one plant into another plant.

Specifically, he had been studying wheat germ agglutinin which is a lectin in wheat. It's possible to get that gene that makes WGA in wheat and it's possible to transfer it to the plant like a cucumber or a cantaloupe or a plant where there's a lot of damage from predation by pathogens and ...

Shelley Schlender: And bugs.

Dr. Loren Cordain: And bugs. Exactly, so that's one of the purposes of WGA is to prevent predation in wheat by bugs and other predators. Pustzai said, "This is not a very good idea and I don't think we should do it because our animal models show that WGA is a toxin compound that affects the immune system. It affects the GI tract. It affects everything."

He was on board with GMO foods probably a decade before the rest of the world was, and he lost his job over it. What is really tragic is there was some incredible work being done on anti-nutrients that came out of the Road Institute in his laboratory. He built just a tremendous group of scientists, and the whole thing ended up being wiped out in the period of a year because it was impoliticly incorrect to make that statement.


Shelley Schlender: It may be politically incorrect, but it's scientifically fascinating, this idea that plants evolved a lot of defenses against being eaten, mainly by bugs. They didn't want to be eaten by bugs and it just so happens that what would make a bug sick can also make us sick when we eat those kind of products. A lot of GMO work, a lot of plant breeding for grains and beans has been focused on how to reduce bug predation.

Dr. Loren Cordain: Well, you know, bugs is kind of a generic word that takes up everything in the popular vernacular but let me say that these anti-nutrients, that plants evolved, protect them against insects. It also protects them against viruses, fungi, and bacteria, so a lot of them have multiple functions and they protect against small mammals, birds, and they even protect against large mammals.

Shelley Schlender: You mean even cows sometimes will not digest some of these grains and beans because they have so many anti-nutrients. These grains and beans make it through the digestive tract of even those animals.

Dr. Loren Cordain: Yeah, you're absolutely right, and it's not just grains and beans. It also extends to some of the common tubers that we eat on a regular basis. For instance, potatoes.

Shelley Schlender: People tend to say these days that they protect themselves against anti-nutrients by not eating fluent. And here in this conversation, you've been mentioning a number of different things besides gluten that are designed kind of to irritate the digestive tract of the creature that's eating this seed. A lot of the plant breeding that's been done, whether it's GMO or normal plant breeding, has been done to protect the plants from being eaten by insects and fungi and stuff like that, but from what you're saying that also protects it from being digested properly by us.


Dr. Loren Cordain: First off, these compounds, most of them, tend to be peptides or proteins, and so they're resistant to digestion. That's one of the characteristics of these anti-nutrients is that the first thing is after we eat them our proteases in our gut, trypsin, chymotrypsin, and other enzymes that break down proteins and peptides, they have to be resistant to those. That's one of the very first compounds that we find in virtually all grains and all legumes is they contain what are called protease inhibitors.

Protease inhibitors seem to have adverse effects on our physiology as well because trypsin and chymotrypsin are secreted by the pancreas. When those enzymes don't work very well because they're being inhibited by protease inhibitors what it does is it caused the pancreas to secrete more and more of them because it's not getting these proteins and peptides broken into the constituent amino acids. Then what hat does is it puts stress and strain on the pancreas and what we find from animal models is that you if feed animals like chickens or rats or laboratory animals large amounts of anti-nutrients that contain protease inhibitors, they tend to have pancreatic problems.

That's the first step is you've got to get passed the protease. Then you have to get passed these anatomical barriers. You've got to get passed mucous. You've got to get passed glycocalyx. You've got to get beyond the endothelial layers.

Shelley Schlender: Right now you're speaking from the perspective of the seed.

Dr. Loren Cordain: The seed.

Shelley Schlender: Whether it's a grain or a bean that once they get all the way through the digestive tract and grow into another plant.

Dr. Loren Cordain: Right. It's not the seed per se. It's the multiple compounds that these plants evolved to put in their seeds, these secondary compounds such that if a predator eats them, it causes toxicity. So, you've got to, first off you've got to get into the animals body. You have all these barrier, the protease inhibitors. You’ve got to get passed the mucous, the glycocalyx and the endothelial cells.


Then you have to bypass the immune system because if you get into these things, then you still have immune cells, you have dendritic cells, and macrophages that are sitting right there at the gut interface. What they do is they gobble these things all up. What happens is that these toxic compounds, and there's multiple toxic compounds, what they do is that they are bound. It's amazing cop and robber how this has evolved over the hundreds of millions of years is that these parts of the immune system that bind, that once these get passed the gut they are bound up by immune cells which they themselves are also adversely affected by these compounds.

Say for instance, wheat germ agglutinin from what, it's bound up by a cell called a dendritic cell in the gut. What happens is WGA bypassed that dendritic cell. What the dendritic cell does is it wants to dispose of it in the liver. What happens is the WGA binds a receptor in the dendritic cell called toll-like receptor 4. When WGA binds toll-like receptor 4 or a compound from bacterial in the gut called lipopolysaccharide, it up regulates the pro-inflammatory immune response and it makes the gut get inflamed. Then it inflames. It has these chronic low level inflammation throughout our body, and so these types of foods ... One of the ...

As I mentioned the cigarette analogy is that we didn't maybe get this right. We used to think that cardiovascular disease was a plumbing problem. We were eating too much cholesterol and saturated fat, whereas now we realize that no, that's probably the case. What it really involves is an inflammatory problem.


The $64,000 question is what's responsible for this low level chronic inflammation. Well, how about this, the largest interface we have to the outside world is not a scratch on our arm. It's not a cut in our mouth. We have 200 meter square area in our guts that we expose to the outside world because the inside of our gut are really the outside of the world.

That's where this huge pathogenic load comes from. If we eat things on a daily basis ... Everybody eats wheat. Almost everybody probably has problems with their gut. Everybody eats potatoes. Everybody eats beans. There are genetic factors involved but you can't drive heart disease, cancer, or autoimmune disease without chronic inflammation.

That's the interesting part of this is I have come to the swan song of my career is to see that scientists worldwide now realize that the gut by intestinal permeability has a lot to do twits our health.

Shelley Schlender: There is a lot of talk among microbiome researchers. The gut biome is a really hot topic right now. About how you need to keep the microbiome itself healthy by feeding it foods that make it happy so that it doesn't start digging into your gut itself to get itself fed. I don't know how many of those researchers are also looking at how the food itself can dig into the gut.

You're describing how food itself can dig into the gut.

Dr. Loren Cordain: Tat's kind of oversimplification but it's apropos.

Shelley Schlender: Well, it's true that those little grains and legumes don't have shovels.


Dr. Loren Cordain: No, but they have the molecular equivalent of shovels and they're not really digging per se. What they're doing is they're binding and what our group has shown, alia now it's been ... We're almost in 2015 so 15 years ago our group actually has shown in the scientific literature that when you eat dietary lectins, WGA or lectins found in legumes, they change the composition of the bacteria in the gut that favor sugars hat allow these bacteria to bind into gut mechanisms.

Shelley Schlender: Oh, let me see if I'm hearing this correctly. That eating greens and legumes promotes a flora, microbes in the gut that are the kind that are more likely to get hungry and want to eat the gut.

Dr. Loren Cordain: Well, there are animal experiments that show that. Because this is a fairly new concept, it's, I want to say, somewhat controversial meaning that there's data that goes both ways because when you eat legumes and grains not only do they contain anti-nutrients, they contain fiber. Fiber seems to have therapeutic and beneficial effects up on the gut biome. Let me just finish ...

Shelley Schlender: Depends, depends. Sometimes it has therapeutic effects and sometimes it doesn't. It's a brand new area and the scientists are trying to figure this out.

Dr. Loren Cordain: That's right. That's what I was trying to point out is that the experiments can go either way. There's an interaction between anti-nutrients and fiber itself. We really don't know. If we look at one animal model, it may have a different GI tract than primates. Primates, ourselves included, have a slightly different model than to carnivores.


Shelley Schlender: This is a topic that I think we're going to come back to and talk about more. One bottom line is when someone sees that the bread is supposed to be the staff of life and they're in the grocery store and they say, "I've got some low grade inflammation. Something's wrong so I'm going to go the gluten free aisle." There's a lot of other anti-nutrients besides gluten that you can't track through lab tests that you can get as a consumer and you can't track by going and finding the saponin free aisle. You can't do that. What's the better course for somebody who might have low grade inflammation when it comes to grains and beans?

Dr. Loren Cordain: I would say tightly follow the Paleo diet and don't eat grains and beans.
That's all for this addition for the Paleo diet podcast.

Shelley Schlender: Our theme music is Chapman Stick Soloist, Bob Culbertson.

Dr. Loren Cordain: Visit my website, for past episodes and for hot links to my research studies, book, and latest writings. For questions or comments, the place to go is

Shelley Schlender: For the Paleo Diet Podcast, I'm Shelley Schlender.

Dr. Loren Cordain: I'm Loren Cordain.

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