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Are Whole Grains Healthy?

In a word, no. I loved my bread, pasta and cookies too. I get it. We all grew up eating pancakes, sandwiches, muffins, cookies. I grew up with an Italian father…..pasta! As a mater of fact, not long ago he said, “If I have to give up pasta, I’d rather be dead!”

I get it, I get it. Trust me, I get it. I had a hard time with it too until I got sick and had no choice but to take the plunge and just did it. Once I committed to just not eating it, no excuses….the cravings stopped. It’s amazing really. Why is that? Well there are many reasons. Here’s one. Through the reading I have done I have learned that sugar is actually addictive. Consuming excess sugar and processed carbohydrate snack food triggers many reactions one of which is the release of a neurotransmitter called dopamine. 

Neurotransmitters are little chemical messengers that send a signal from one neuron to another. Dopamine sends a motivating signal to your brain. It is a neurotransmitter that allows human beings to experience pleasure and reward and motivates us to continue to seek it out.  As you can imagine this has many positive outcomes. Motivation is good, right? Sure! But it can also have some pretty devastating outcomes when it is abused, over used or out of balance. It can lead to addiction, anxiety and depression just to name few not so great outcomes. The motivating signal is telling the brain that you need more and more and more. The problem is you eventually end up needing more and more of it to feel the same amount of pleasure. This is one of many pieces of the puzzle that can lead to addiction.  It becomes a vicious cycle. So, if you are ready to make a dietary change to feel better and look better this is one of the best decisions you can make. Like any addictive substance you just have to quit it and give it time for the craving for it to diminish.

So, why are you picking on grains in particular, Laura? Well, we all know sugar is just bad, right? At least I hope we do. It is the simplest and most damaging source of carbohydrates we consume. There really is no good level of sugar consumption although below a certain level is relatively innocuous. That level differs for each of us.  Fruit and natural sources can be tolerated but that is for a post of its own. So, if you are a sugar-holic like I was, start with that first.

The reason I want to discuss grains right now is that they tend to be masqueraded as health foods far more than any other processed carbohydrates, when in reality they are inflammatory and PROVIDE ABSOLUTELY NO NUTRITIONAL BENEFITS THAT WE CAN’T GET FROM A MUCH BETTER SOURCE.

Let me be clear…there is nothing we gain nutritionally from eating any grain that we can not get in other less damaging food sources. None the benefits listed in this advertisement have not been proven and quite frankly there is new evidence to the contrary! 

There are some who will lead you believe that you must have grains in your diet for it to be “balanced.” That eliminating a whole food group isn’t good. First of all, it was the food industry and the FDA that invented to concept of food groups. The body doesn’t use “food groups.” The body uses protein, carbohydrates and fats, period. Grains fall predominantly in the carbohydrate category but they also contain some protein. So why the push for grains? Might it be because it is a commodity crop that is the anchor of the food industry and it is the food industry that is driving nutritional policy? I know what I think, I’d love to hear what you think. But lets take a look at some of the other arguments.

Let’s start with the fiber argument: “I only eat whole grains. These are complex carbs with lots of fiber. That’s ok, right?”  First of all you can get more fiber in vegetables and fruits. And most veggies and fruits come with a lower lectin load. Lectins are found in all plant foods. They are protein compounds that act as a plants “defense mechanism.” They cause inflammation and irritate the gut. For those who tend to feel bloated after eating grains and legumes this is often why. Many grains also contain another problematic protein for many, gluten. I’ll tackle that in another post. In addition to that, more fiber isn’t necessarily a good thing. For folks with digestive issues adding more fiber can actually make things much worse. Imagine for a minute you have an irritated gut. Now you have just added all this rough indigestible fiber that just rubs against that irritated gut lining like a scrub brush. Since your body can’t really digest all that fiber properly, the bacteria in your gut have at it and produce lots of gas in the process leaving you feeling bloated and apologizing to your spouse for your stinky-ness.

How about the old standby: “They provide vitamins and minerals.” Once again, vegetables and fruits win here too! In addition to lectins that irritate the gut all plant foods have something called phytic acid or phyates. This is found predominantly in the bran and seed so grains and legumes have far more than most veggies. Phytic acid binds to certain minerals leaving them unavailable for absorption. Look, for those who can tolerate the gluten and have no real digestive issues it’s not that grains can’t be tolerated. It is more of a nutritional opportunity cost. Because you sat down to that big plate of pasta, you didn’t have room for the broccoli or spinach or other more nutrient dense veggie with minerals your body can actually absorb.

Or, “It helps me feel full.” Sure it does, it is taking up space in your gut with no real nutritional value and making you feel bloated (and probably gassy if it was that high fiber kind.) Kind of like that unwanted house guest that takes their old sweet time leaving and making you feel uncomfortable.

Now that we have sort of debunked these arguments, the biggest elephant in the room is really the blood sugar issue. All grains, even whole grains cause a spike in blood glucose. Glucose is the simple sugar that almost all carbohydrate gets broken down to in order for your body to use to or store it.  Anything higher than about 5 grams of glucose (about a teaspoon) in the blood is toxic. We either have to “burn it”  off through activity or clear it out of the way and store it somewhere.

After we eat, a healthy pancreas secretes a hormone called insulin to store the nutrients we just ate. The amount of insulin secreted is dependent on the amount and type of food we ate. Insulin not only stores nutrients, it also stores excess glucose. If we are active then it will be stored in our muscles and other organs to replace the glycogen (the storage form of glucose) we used during that activity. However, we only have so much room in our muscles and organs. Once those are full we end up storing it for longer term storage. It gets stored in cells that seem to have almost limitless capacity, our fat cells. All that excess glucose gets converted into triglycerides (the storage form of fat) and stored in our fat cells for later use.

Here’s the rub, if we are consistently feeding ourselves regular doses of sugar or starch, we will be unable to tap that energy storage. So it will just sit there on our hips, thighs and belly until we stop supplying the constant glucose drip. If we want to unlock all that stored fat we need another hormone to enter the picture, Glucagon. Glucagon is the hormone that signals for the release of that stored energy, both glycogen and triglycerides. In order for glucagon to be released insulin and thus blood glucose levels need to be low. The argument that whole grains, whole grain bread for example, raises blood sugar less than say white bread is really misleading. Just because it raises it less, does not make it good. It just makes it less bad. Just because a choice is less bad, doesn’t make it good.

 

There is so much more to this whole thing but I figure that this point I’ll lose my reluctant audience.

In a nutshell, if you chose to eat grains, it is absolutely your choice to do so. Dive into that yummy, gluten ridden, lectin laced, phytate loaded bowl of pasta and enjoy it. That isn’t written with sarcasm at all. I hope when you choose a less nutritious food, or in many cases a food that will make you sick in the long run, you make that choice from an educated place.  These are not healthy foods, they are just sources of calories and energy. They are at best a filler and at worst inflammatory and illness promoting. I can name dozens and dozens of other calorie and energy sources that do not raise insulin levels, do not cause leptin resistance, and have vitamins and minerals your body can actually use. Its not that eating a cupcake once in a while will doom you to an unhealthy life. What is far more dangerous is the habit promoted by the food industry and the FDA of 6-11 servings of grains a day….every day. Yikes!

A far better source of carbohydrates are whole food sources namely veggies, low sugar fruits and starchy root veggies in moderation. If you limit your carb options to these then weight loss and maintenance will be relatively easy.

Until Next Time,

Coach Laura AKA: Mom Gone Paleo

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