What’s The Deal With Grains?

*Note from Sarah: Jason Seib is back with another awesome article.  This is an easy to read post that you can send over to friends and family whom might be pestering you for answers as to why you are avoiding all the “fiber rich and heart healthy” breads, pastas, and cereals! Now you have the explanation you need right at your fingertips. For more Jason, you can also find him at Everyday Paleo Lifestyle & Fitness.

What’s the Deal With Grains?

This one is mostly for the paleo newbies and those of you who never quite understood the details behind our grain avoidance.  Let’s debunk a couple of common myths.

But we NEED grains!  Grains are good for you!

On the contrary, grains are good for birds, but not us.  Mammals like you and I can’t quite stomach them (pun intended).  Here is the short story in highly oversimplified form.  Grains contain gut irritating lectins that damage the microvilli, or brush border, in our intestines, which then leads to the widening of tight junctions, a condition also known as leaky gut.  Leaky gut is the situation in which bigger particles than planned are allowed through the gut wall and into your body.  Some of these particles, especially the lectins themselves and gram negative bacteria, can be very problematic.  When your immune system discovers these interlopers it destroys them and creates an antibody to go hunting for more.  Unfortunately, the interlopers can sometimes resemble various tissues in your body and you become “autoimmune”.  Autoimmune diseases are situations in which your immune system has waged war against one or more of your own tissues.  Rheumatoid arthritis, cataracts, ankylosing spondylitis, Hashimoto’s disease, eczema, and celiac disease are just a few examples from a long list of autoimmune diseases that plague western society.  Some of them respond very well to the removal of the offending agent from the diet.  Some of them will persist until they have helped you into an early grave.

Wait, there’s more.  All of that gut damage elevates systemic inflammation.  Elevating systemic inflammation is kind of like ratcheting up your immune system a notch or two.  That’s bad.  Inflammation is at least correlated, if not causal, to all noninfectious diseases and not to be taken lightly.  Try typing “inflammation” and any noninfectious disease you can think of into your web browser and be prepared to be inundated with more information than most of us could ever make time to read.

We have been consuming grains throughout recorded history.  Haven’t we evolved to eat them without ill effect by now?

Actually, we probably will not ever evolve to eat grains without problems.  Natural selection is really only concerned with one thing – survival of species.  Therefore, nature does not really have much of an opinion as to whether or not you live to be 30 or 130.  Reproductive fitness is all that matters.  The life threatening effects of grains tend to be cumulative with the increased rate of disease manifesting mostly in middle age and later.  Consequently, there is no great stimulus to evolve for better grain digestion since the reproductive years have past.  You can probably eat the worst junk food you can think of and still have 10 kids, but I wouldn’t recommend it.

Lactose, on the other hand, is a different story and an example of how fast selective pressure can change our genetics.  Some genetic lines rapidly evolved to maintain the ability to digest lactose as adults, and these changes took place in a very short period of time compared to most evolutionary processes.  So how is lactose different?  Well, people who are lactose intolerant actually get sick when they drink milk or consume any other form of dairy product, and sick people don’t tend to be too fertile.  Not being able to digest this readily available source of calories was a problem if your people had been agrarian long enough to forget how to sustain themselves through those times when the crops failed and dairy was what you had available.  Thus, natural selection promoted lactose digesters to the head of the pack in some places.

If I don’t eat grains, where will I get my fiber?

Technically speaking, fiber is a non-digestible carbohydrate.  There are two types of fiber in the human diet, soluble fiber and insoluble fiber.  Soluble fiber is the good stuff.  It absorbs water and can then be fermented by bacteria in the colon to become butyrate.  Butyrate  is then used to make energy by the cells lining the colon.  Fruits and vegetables are good sources of soluble fiber.

Insoluble fiber on the other hand, is really only good for one thing.  Pooping.  If this is a problem area for you, fruits and vegetables have you covered here, as well.  Sometimes with a major change in nutrition some people will experience constipation.  Digestive enzymes from your local supplement store will usually help.

(For more good research on grains, check out the excellent article Cereal Grains: Humanity’s Double Edged Sword by Dr. Loren Cordain)

For more Jason, you can also find him over at Everyday Paleo Lifestyle & Fitness.


  1. Ann says

    I’ve been saying this about beans as well for many years. If they’re so good for us, why do people have such difficulty digesting them? I honestly don’t believe I’ve ever spoken to a single person, IF the subject has come up, who doesn’t have problems with gas and bloating no matter how the beans were prepared, or how many years they’d been eating them. That speaks to me of sub-optimal suitability as a source of nutrition for the human body-

  2. JT says

    It’s one reason to eat healthier with good food choices to live a healthier life. When people can’t eat wheat product or milk products it’s not a choice to be on this food life style. This was a great post going over why I can’t eat wheat products. Everyday Palei has gret recipes and gives us other ways to make foods and find food substitutes.

  3. says

    such a great article…one that i definitely have to pass along to some stubborn family members! all i can speak of are the many positive differences i’ve seen in hubby & i since we quit *most* grains. i still like my occasional quinoa! the benefits far outweigh any sacrifice here.

  4. Amy says

    Do you think you could elaborate on “reproductive fitness” or direct me to articles that support Paleo is logical for fertility? I have followed a fertility diet which calls for increased whole grains, less animal protein and more beans and fish as a source of protein but I never felt right.

  5. pamela says

    thatk you for this article and for your wonderful website…. I am trying to go more Paleo to not only lose weight but to also fix the plethora of GI issues that I suffer from… its hard growing up being taught about “balanced” meals and how creat carbs area. I’ve never felt good eating like this and in the last several weeks I’ve been eating Paleo I’ve never felt better. Falling off the bandwagon recently made me realize that Paleo is better for my entire well being because now I’m suffering the repurcussions of that fall. thank you again a million times

  6. Sara says

    A good explanation, but I wouldn’t consider it a “short story” or “highly oversimplified”. You use a lot of scientific terms that someone who is not experienced in nutritional science probably wouldn’t understand, and will probably still be lost after the explanation. When I found this article, I was hoping for a good summary I could use to explain the problem with grains to children, but I think they’d be pretty lost here. They still insist “but it’s one of the food groups!”

  7. Mary says

    Sometimes all the scientific information can be hard to understand…all I know for sure is that when I don’t eat any grains, I don’t have problems with my chronic allergies ( congestion, runny nose, sneezing ) !!

  8. Julie says

    Hi Sarah, I have your cookbook and love the recepies! I follow the paleo diet to some extent (with great results), but I do eat peanuts, beans (mostly pinto for mex food), corn tortilla chips, and popcorn (occasionally). What is the paleo rational against these foods?

  9. Lindsay says

    The best way I am able to explain the no “heart healthy grains and beans” to Paleo critics/doubters is that there is nothing in grains or beans that we can’t get from meats, fruits, vegetables, and fats. And on top of that, anything good (like fiber or “heart healthy antioxidants”) in grains and beans is more easily absorbed and found in higher quantities in all aforementioned foods anyways.

  10. Mark says

    “Rheumatoid arthritis, cataracts, ankylosing spondylitis, Hashimoto’s disease, eczema, and celiac disease are just a few examples from a long list of autoimmune diseases that plague western society. Some of them respond very well to the removal of the offending agent from the diet. Some of them will persist until they have helped you into an early grave.”

    Are you attempting to imply that these diseases are caused by grains in someone’s diet, and that people who are suffering from these problems can be alleviated of symptoms if they stop eating grains?

    Isn’t it somewhat presumptuous that all grains are created equal? Could someone’s diet have things that are worse than lectins even if it is totally grain free? What about their environment?

    There is no conclusive and valid scientific study linking the intake of grains, broadly defined, and the inflammatory diseases listed above. Sure gluten is bad for some people, and deadly for others. Enriched flour is probably bad for everyone though, but it has worse things in it than “lectins.” Oats, rice, corn, or spelt can be harmless for a majority of people, as well as a great choice of cheap calories.

  11. says

    There are also another reason why grains are not very good for us like phytic acid and gluten.
    But actually I was superised when I stoped eating grains and I found that I feel better and perform better. 😉

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