Grains pose a tough dilemma: we can’t feed the planet without them, but we can’t keep people healthy with them. Not even whole grains are good for us, although they are certainly better for us than refined grains. Three grains in particular, processed grains, glutenous grains, and corn (or maize), are worth minimizing or eliminating. Does that surprise you? If so, then read on for the details. It’s a case statement you won’t want to miss.
Last week’s Provision, Sullied Soy, prompted an onslaught of reader replies. All were appreciative, but they were also confused, concerned, and/or curious. They were confused, because they thought soy was a healthy alternative to meat, concerned, because they have been eating beans all their lives, and curious, because they wanted to know what I do for meals and snacks. Here is a summary of my various replies:
- Human beings are genetically best suited to eat the foods we have been eating the longest. That includes fruits, vegetables, wild fish, grass-fed game meat, free-range poultry, eggs, seeds, and nuts. Anything else is a late addition.
- Soy is a very late addition. It was not used as a food product in east Asia (or anywhere else) until about 2,000 years ago, with the discovery of fermentation techniques (making, for example, soy sauce, tempeh, natto, and miso). It’s primary function was to fix nitrogen in the soil, so that other crops could be successfully grown on a rotating basis.
- Meat from confined animal feeding operations just happened. Before World War II, meat came from widely dispersed farms and fish came from the sea. Cows and other ruminant animals were grass-fed, since their gastrointestinal tracts are not designed to eat corn and other grains. Today, it’s a race to slaughter animals and farm-raised fish before they die from the conditions of their diet and mass confinement.
- So what’s worse? To eat soy and other legumes, which include a wide variety of slow-release antinutrients, or to eat commercially available meat, which is riddled with suffering, toxins, antibiotics, hormones, and unhealthy fat? They are both undesirable, but for most people the latter is worse than the former (especially in the short run). That’s why research has demonstrated health benefits when people replace conventional meat with soy and other legumes.
- If you’re going to eat soy and other legumes, it’s important to prepare them right. That includes washing, rinsing, soaking, sprouting, fermenting, and sour leavening. These processes reduce the antinutrients that block mineral absorption, inhibit protein digestion, and irritate the lining of the digestive tract. Unfortunately, most people are neither aware of nor have time for such labor-intensive practices.
- If that’s how you’ve been eating your beans and legumes, then you may have no changes to make. Otherwise, it may be time to change how you prepare or how much you consume of these foods. It’s never too late to start eating healthy and to reap the benefits.
- In my own case, I rely increasingly on a network of local farmers and ranchers for my food. That gives me access to grass-fed buffalo and free-range poultry. I eat wild fish (usually salmon) a couple times a week. My morning fruit smoothie includes egg-white powder (rather than soy or whey powder). Egg-white powder is the gold standard when it comes to the amino-acid profile of protein powders. I purchase my powder in bulk from www.OrganicEggProducts.com.
I hope that clarifies the situation when it comes to soy and other legumes. Unfortunately, it gets even more confusing and even more difficult when it comes to grains. It’s one thing to give up soy; it’s an entirely different thing to give up wheat or corn. The former is pretty easy to spot; the latter are in just about everything and people absolutely depend upon them for survival. Some 10,000 years ago, the domestication and production of grains developed the beginnings of modern civilization. Unfortunately, they also developed the beginnings of the diseases of civilization, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, and autoimmune disorders.
That’s why grains represent such a Gordian knot. On the one hand, we can’t live without them and their abundant calories. On the other hand, we can’t live with them and their antinutrients. The Gordian knot got its name from Gordius, the king of ancient Phrygia, who purportedly tied a knot that was so intricate as to be impossible to untie. An oracle declared that whoever should untie the knot would rule over Asia. Undeterred by its complexity, Alexander the Great averted the ill omen of his being unable to loosen the knot by cutting it with his sword.
We need that magic when it comes to grains. One can only hope that scientists will solve the conundrum of how to make grains more healthy. Until then, the best we can do is to avoid the more problematic grains as best we can. To that end, I want to comment on processed grains, glutenous grains, and corn. All three are best eliminated from or at least minimized in the human diet, whenever possible.
Processed Grains. The more highly processed the grain, the more likely it is to have a high glycemic index and to contribute to metabolic syndrome (which includes impaired glucose tolerance, high insulin levels, elevated triglycerides, low HDL “good” cholesterol, and high blood pressure). Any carbohydrate which metabolizes quickly from the digestive tract into the blood stream poses such health hazards, and that’s especially true for processed grains. White flour, for example, has a higher glycemic index than white sugar — it’s that bad.
Having heard about these problems, many people have switched from refined to whole grains (going, for example, from white bread to whole wheat bread). They do not realize, however, that flour is flour when it comes to the glycemic index. Although processed whole grains do have more nutrients and fiber than processed refined grains, they do not have a significantly lower glycemic profile. Whereas a slice of white bread, for example, has a glycemic index of 100, a slice of whole wheat bread has a glycemic index of 95. Both are unacceptably high when it comes to health and wellness.
The reasons aren’t hard to understand. By the time you grind and mill the grain down into a fine powder, there’s nothing left to slow down its absorption into the blood stream. When you mix that powder together with sugar and fat in order to make a donut, the addictiveness of the food, and therefore the glycemic load, rise exponentially. It is best to eliminate all flour and processed grain products of any kind. These include bread, rolls, biscuits, pancakes, waffles, crackers, cookies, cakes, pies, pastries, bagels, donuts, cereals, noodles, pasta, and chips. These also include “instant” or “quick” varieties of grains (such as “instant oatmeal”).
Glutenous Grains. As the climate of the planet stabilized and as people started living further and further away from the equator, grains became increasingly important for many reasons: they had abundant calories, they had a relatively short lifecycle, they could be stored throughout the winter, and they tasted good. Chief among all the grains was wheat, which included a protein that had not been a significant part of the human diet during our entire 2-million-year pre-history. That protein, gluten, is hard if not impossible for many people to digest. For what some estimate to be as high as 50% of the entire human population, gluten is an antinutrient worth avoiding.
In addition to wheat, gluten is found in barley, rye, and to a lesser extent oats. Related proteins are found in triticale, spelt, and kamut. All are to be avoided. In its most extreme form, gluten intolerance takes the form of Celiac disease, a disorder of such severity that even the slightest amount of gluten (such as the amount contained in a shake of soy sauce or a single cheese puff) triggers an extreme reaction. That reaction includes diarrhea, bloating, acute abdominal pain, fatty stools, and destruction of the intestinal lining. Left undiagnosed and untreated, Celiac disease is life threatening, leading to weight loss, anemia, depression, fatigue, and a host of autoimmune disorders.
Many people have problems with gluten without knowing it, because symptoms can be mild, discounted, or even nonexistent. Many people associate gas and fatigue with normal aging, for example, whereas they may be the by-products of gluten intolerance. My wife, who was recently diagnosed with Celiac disease, notices an immediate energy drain if she consumes even a small amount of gluten. Knowing this enables her to make better choices.
Going on a gluten-free diet has many advantages. In addition to eliminating a hard protein to digest, it also eliminates many high-glycemic, processed foods. Instead of stressing the body, a gluten-free diet will make it easier for the body to be healthy and well.
Corn. The three grains that feed and power the world, in declining order of total calories, are corn, wheat, and rice. Together they account for about 75% of all the calories that come from grains, and corn (or maize) has been steadily working its way up to the top of the food chain. It became the largest crop, for the first time, in 1994 and it has been increasing ever since. This is due to the many uses of corn, heavily subsidized by the US and other governments, including to make ethanol, to feed livestock, and to sweeten processed foods (as corn syrup and high-fructose corn syrup).
Industrial corn has little to do with the sweet corn that occasionally graces the dinner table. Industrial corn is a commodity that has been genetically engineered to maximize yield and minimize disease. It is a breed apart, and yet it touches virtually every aspect of life. Corn has been so successful as a commodity, that one could ask whether we control the corn crop or whether the corn crop control us. Viewed from outer space, the vast fields of corn leave little doubt as to what is in charge. To quote Thoreau, we have “become the tools of our tools.”
When it comes to late additions to the human diet, little is more recent than high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Invented by Japanese researchers in the late 1960s, HFCS quickly took the world by storm. As a cheaper alternative to sugar with a long shelf life, HFCS is now the primary sweetener in many processed foods and most soft drinks. Since HFCS is lower on the glycemic index, one might herald such a development. But fructose (as opposed to the glucose in sugar) is metabolized almost exclusively in the liver. As a result, fructose is more likely to result in the creation of fats that increase the risk for heart disease. HFCS may also make it harder to control our appetites.
Corn may have no gluten, but many people are allergic to it all the same. It is also one of the most genetically modified of foods for pest control. Unfortunately, like wheat, corn is often hidden in the most unlikely of places. Who knew, for example, that HFCS is the stuff that makes Sushi rice sticky! One must become a careful reader of labels to avoid king corn.
In addition to the problems already cited, grains • like the soy and legumes we talked about last week • contain lectins, phytates, alkylresorcinols, alpha-amylase inhibitors, protease inhibitors, and other antinutrients. They also yield a net acid load in the body, after digestion, which contributes to calcium loss through the urine. That’s why they are best eaten in small amounts, if at all.
The best grain, if there is such a thing, is whole-grain, brown rice. White rice, like white flour, is a nutrient-poor, high-glycemic food that is best eliminated completely from the diet. Whole-grain, brown rice, on the other hand, can be eaten on occasion in limited quantities. This is more a social accommodation than a nutritional recommendation. The Gordian knot of grains remains to be cut. Until then, for those who have other options, it is best to avoid all grains and to stay with fruits, vegetables, wild fish, pasture-fed game meat, free-range poultry, eggs, seeds, and nuts.
Coaching Inquiries: What part do grains play in your diet? Have you noticed any signs of gluten sensitivity? Are there times when you have trouble controlling your appetite? What would it take to reduce or eliminate your consumption of grains? Is there one grain, in particular, that you would like to start with? Who could join you in going against the grain?
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Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Form or Email Bob.
Thank you for all the information on healthy eating. I have eliminated dairy products from my diet and have included flaxseed, twice a day. I am starting to notice a reduction of joint inflammation. I will keep trying to apply many of your suggestions in our daily eating habits.
I enjoy my morning soy protein drink. What’s a better alternative? (Ed. Note: Egg white protein powder.)
I appreciate your current Provisions. Our diet is largely raw • soups and salads which we just love, with occasional fish or bison, and/or occasional soba noodles with sea vegetables. Of course we go totally off that from time to time but not for long • we don’t care for the same flavors and textures that we once loved and we certainly don’t care for how we FEEL after eating certain things.
I was at Trader Joe’s today trying to figure out what foods to buy for the week (found myself staying away from soy products). I’m constantly looking to gain muscle and it’s tough to find a protein snack or supplement (lately I’ve been drinking protein shakes and nutrition bars post-workout) that doesn’t contain non-fermented Soy or non-organic soy. I’ll have to continue to navigate to find the healthiest products! I appreciate all your work and for the continued education!
I’ve been a regular reader of Provisions for some years now, and have always particularly looked forward to your Wellness Provisions. I am following the current series on the effects of food on health and wellness with interest. I’m surprised however about the Provision on soy foods. Especially since one of the sources I follow on your recommendation, Doctor Weil, still seems to recommend it. In one of his Q&A entries, “Rethinking soy?“, he explicitly refutes the fact that non-fermented soy should be avoided.
I don’t know if Doctor Weil is a victim of the food manufacturing lobby, or if new research has surfaced since he wrote this Q&A less than two years ago. Could you shed some light on this contradiction? (Ed. Note: Dr. Weil is a pesceterian: he eats fish but no land animals. So he does have a personal interest in minimizing the harmful effects of both legumes and grain. At least he acknowledges the problems exist. I, along with others, think they are significant.)
As a medical doctor, I have been fascinated by how rapidly genetic change occurs in our species. From ancestral Adam (Y chromosome side), about 60,000 years ago, we have evolved all the colors, nationalities, “races”, “Gallic noses”, congenital diseases, like cystic fibrosis (mainly whites), Tay-Sachs (mainly Jews), or sickle cell anemia (mainly Afro-Americans), etc. There were only about 2000-10,000 of us 74,000 years ago, after a die-out following the Toba volcanic eruption. So, all our species’ genetic differences (race, eye color, straight hair, etc.) have developed over a breathtakingly short time, compared to, say, a shark, which is largely unchanged over several million years.
We have talked about evolution glibly as a slow process, extending over many millennia. Waiting for DNA mutations certainly is. However, there are several other genetic mechanisms that create changes within a very few generations (gene recombination, natural selection, ecologic selection (white skin in Scandinavia to better absorb Vitamin D, for example), gene flow (e.g., more ADD-types, aggressiveness, and comfort with change in those who chose to move to America from elsewhere), and genetic drift (what Darwin actually observed in his finches, after only a few generations).
The most recent evidence is that we have cultivated grains for about 13,000 years, or twice what was thought a few years ago. Therefore, we have had about 650 generations to adapt to a diet largely of grain and farmed meat. This is fully 1/4 the time required for the much more complex changes of racial differentiation and spreading over the entire planet. By now, we may have adapted to the products of agriculture. (Ed. Note: Our DNA is only .2 percent different from those ancestors of 60,000 years ago. I, and others, remain persuaded that their diets have something to teach us.)
The following article by Michael Pollan, “The Vegetable-Industrial Complex,” about the contamination of spinach with E.coli. 0157:H7 really speaks to what you have been writing about in Provisions.
I received an interesting article from my local organic delivery service. It adds data for your possible upcoming discussion on the sustainability of healthy diets for the majority of people. I’m appreciating your series on your Wellness Prototype; it is well-thought out and provokes deeper reflection on my part.
I just read your Provision about Sullied Soy • this stuff is so difficult to figure out! Have you read the book The China Study, by T. Colin Campbell and Thomas M. Campbell II? It makes a compelling case for eliminating virtually all animal protein in lieu of plant-based foods, which of course could include soy and wheat. One of the studies outlined in the book shows how cancer was literally stopped and reversed when mice were switched from a largely animal-protein diet to a largely plant-based diet. (Ed. Note: I have not read The China Study. They may well have been contrasting the health impacts of commercial animal protein to plant-based food. If so, I agree with them. But for health and wellness, plenty of wild fish, pasture-fed game meat, and free-range poultry is the way to go.)
May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.
Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC
President, LifeTrek Coaching International, www.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformation, www.SchoolTransformation.com
Immediate Past President, International Association of Coaching, www.CertifiedCoach.org
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a Time, Online Retailers
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