Going Grain Free – Is It Really Necessary?

There has been a lot of attention paid recently to the so-called Paleo diet. One of the main components of this eating approach is to avoid grains altogether. Eat more vegetables, of course! Stop fearing fat, sure. Choose grass fed and ethically raised meats, ok you say, I can get behind that.

But stop eating grains? What! The majority of people I have spoken to about going grain free act shocked if not appalled. Granted, it is a big shift. Our society reveres wheat and its relatives and the majority of our diet depends on carbohydrate dense seeds. Our society is also obsessed with sugar and yet it seems more willing to accept the undesirable effects that this ‘food’ has on health and wellbeing. Perhaps our love affair with flour products has clouded our judgment. It is for this reason that I’d like to explore some of the research being put forth about how grains negatively impact the body. I’m not an expert by any means but I think it’s worth considering reducing grain consumption, if not eliminating it entirely. Diversity is, after all, the best approach to living and eating well.

It’s not all about gluten.

Have you ever heard of wheat germ agglutinin (WGA)? Research is indicating that WGA may be responsible for more damage than its infamous counterpart the gluten protein. WGA is a carbohydrate binding protein (a.k.a. a lectin) found in the germ of a wheat plant and utilized for protection against yeast, bacteria and insects. WGA binds specifically to N-acetyl-D-glucosamine and sialic acid. Before you get scared off and stop reading let me explain why this is important. N-acetyl-D-glucosamine is a monosaccharide used in the production of cartilage, tendons, bones, and even the cornea of the eye. It is also found, along with sialic acid, in the cells that make up mucous membranes throughout the body (think GI tract, nasal cavity, lining of blood vessels). WGA is attracted to these two sugars and while binding to them has the ability to directly damage the majority of tissues in the human body! The real kicker is that WGA doesn’t require a specific set of genetic susceptibilities or immune-mediated directions to do damage. In other words, a person need not have an obvious allergy or intolerance to wheat to suffer the effects of WGA. This may explain why populations that heavily rely on wheat products also suffer from chronic inflammatory and degenerative conditions.

Lectin who?

Lectins are sugar-binding proteins that protect plants from insects and other foreign invaders.  Plants do not have cell-mediated immunity and so must rely on innate immunity. Therefore, seeds of the grass family, such as rice, wheat, spelt, and rye, have particularly high concentrations of lectins. To be fair, lectins aren’t only found in grains. They are also present in legumes, nuts, dairy, nightshade vegetables (white potatoes, eggplant, peppers, tomatoes) and genetically modified foods (they are spliced in for better pest resistance). Lectins are incredibly resistant and pervasive. WGA, for example, is made up of the same type of bonds in vulcanized rubber and human hair!  The worst part is that through thousands of years of selective breeding, we have made wheat higher in protein and more concentrated in WGA lectin. Even after the germination and sprouting stages of a plant about 50% of the lectin level can be found in dry seeds. There is mixed evidence on the ability of certain processes such as fermentation, soaking, sprouting and cooking to destroy lectins. Fermentation and cooking seem to be the most promising. The trouble is that even if only a few lectins remain they are very unlikely to be digested by the human gut. Our enzymes can’t do them justice. This leaves the body vulnerable to attack. Lectins bind to the villi and crypt cells of the small intestine. This can lead to cell death, shortened villi, and diminished digestive and absorptive capability. We nutritionists call this “leaky gut.” A leaky gut allows undigested proteins into the bloodstream where they are perceived as foreign invaders and attacked by the immune system. At the very least this causes inflammation. In the worst case scenario it can lead to autoimmune conditions such as hypothyroidism, celiac disease, rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn’s disease. Lectins also interfere with hormones and are being connected to dysbiosis (overgrowth of harmful bacteria in the gut). You might be thinking, “lectins are everywhere, what the heck am I supposed to eat?” It seems our biggest problem is the lack of diversity in our diets. Lectins like to team up with other “bad guys” such as protease inhibitors (found in soy, beans, grains, nuts, seeds and nightshades) and saponins (found in soy, beans and agave). By constantly consuming these foods we become more prone to developing a leaky gut and allowing lectins and other problematic proteins to rein free. The more diverse and gut friendly our diet the less likely we are to succumb to the effects of lectin exposure. Animal protein, vegetables, fruits and fermented foods (staples of the paleo diet) are sounding pretty good right about now aren’t they?

Craving carbs? Blame amylopectin A

Another reason to be weary of wheat is its carbohydrate profile. A chain of branching glucose units called amylopectin A makes up 75% of the complex carbohydrate in wheat. Amylopectin A is digested extremely efficiently. Sounds like a good thing, but it isn’t. It means that wheat is rapidly converted to sugar (glucose) that is absorbed directly into the bloodstream. Hyperglycemia (high blood sugar) triggers a spike in insulin and insulin-driven fat deposition (especially visceral fat). Hence the title of William Davis’ book Wheat Belly.   As Davis puts it“Aside from some extra fiber, eating two slices of whole wheat bread is really little different, and often worse, than drinking a can of sugar-sweetened soda or eating a sugary candy bar.” Something to consider for all the folks out there trying to lose weight or control diabetes on a diet of bran cereal and whole wheat everything. Keep in mind that high blood sugar also increases risk of heart disease, premature aging and sends the body on a roller coaster ride of high and low sugar crashes leading to fatigue and irritability.

Grain – the popular kid

Whether motivated by comfort, cost, or efficiency most of us rely on grains for the majority of our daily calories. While grains do provide a certain amount of protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals, some argue that the quantity and quality (bioavailability) of these nutrients is lacking in comparison to other food groups such as animal protein and vegetables. The ‘trouble makers’ in grains such as gluten, lectins and quick digesting carbohydrates wreak havoc on our digestive tract and leave the body prone to degeneration (inflammation, immune dysfunction, hormone imbalance etc.).  Furthermore, the excessive consumption of grain tends to displace consumption of other nourishing food groups such as fruits and vegetables, fats, and animal proteins. It’s as if we’re filling up on dessert before we get to dinner. Perhaps we ought to think of grains as a treat rather than a staple and give our bodies a fighting chance.

Now What?

Going grain free opens up a whole new world of culinary possibilities! Come join me May 26th and learn to make mouth-watering grain-free desserts! You can also visit the nutritionists on staff anytime for tips on maintaining a gluten and grain-free diet.


Kate McMurray Certified Holistic Nutritionist

Resources:

Daniel, Kaayla. “Plants bite back.” Weston Price Foundation: http://www.westonaprice.org/food-features/plants-bite-back, 2010.

Davis, William. Wheat Belly. Harper Collins, 2011.

Ji, Sayer. “The Dark Side of Wheat: New Perspectives on Celiac Disease and Wheat Inolerance.” Journal of Gluten Sensitivity.Santa Rosa: “http://www.celiac.com“, 2008.

Sisson, Mark. “The Lowdown on Lectins.” Mark’s Daily Apple: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/lectins/#axzz30aiZi2xH, 2010.