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Grains: Friend or Foe?

Updated: Apr 5, 2019

By. Garrett Guzman

Did you know?

“Accumulating evidence suggest that the mismatch between our modern diet and lifestyle and our Paleolithic genome is playing a substantial role in the ongoing epidemics of obesity, hypertension, diabetes, and atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease.” – James O’Keefe Jr.

What About Grains and Legumes?

Unfortunately, this is where I would include the bad . . . with a strong caveat. Grains and legumes stand to have a very large upside, if it weren’t for the anti-nutrients (gluten, phytic acid, lectins, etc.), industrial milling, genetic engineering, and chemicals pesticides. While there are grain/legume “versions” (organic, non-GMO) and preparation methods (soaking, sprouting, and fermenting) that could be beneficial to your health and lower your risk for cardiovascular disease, less than 1% of these foods will meet the above criteria, especially in the United States. Without access to the optimal grain/legume and without proper preparation, you could actually be increasing your risk of all chronic diseases, but specifically obesity, diabetes, dementia, stroke, and cardiovascular disease.

The Bad

If you reference back to last week, we discussed those foods that have a beneficial effect on your risk of cardiovascular disease. These foods included fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, and meats (organic, non-processed). This week, we will discuss those foods that have been determined to generally have a negative effect on your ticker. And next week, we will finish by discussing the “ugly” foods that will be of greatest detriment to your heart and overall health.

Back to grains and legumes. Let’s begin by discussing those nasty anti-nutrients. To begin, gluten is the anti-nutrient that probably gets the greatest public scrutiny, and for good reason. Gluten is the protein found within many grains, such as wheat, rye, and barley (amongst many others). “A recent large study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that people with diagnosed, undiagnosed, and “latent” celiac disease or gluten sensitivity had a higher risk of death, mostly from heart disease and cancer (our two highest causes of death). The findings were dramatic. There was a 39% increased risk of death in those with celiac disease, 72% increased risk in those with gut inflammation related to gluten, and 35% increased risk in those with gluten sensitivity but no celiac disease (2).” And this is simply in relation to our top two causes of death. Gluten has also been associated with various autoimmune diseases, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Alzheimer’s and dementia, depression and anxiety, various serious skin conditions (eczema, psoriasis), asthma and allergies, and many others.

Next on deck is phytic acid, which combines itself with iron, calcium, magnesium, copper, and zinc in the intestinal tract, blocking their absorption (1). This can lead us with multiple mineral deficiencies and even bone loss. That being said, certain preparation methods such as soaking, sprouting, and sour leavening can dramatically reduce phytic acid.

One antinutrient that gained much notoriety with the publication of The Plant Paradox, by Dr. Steven R. Gundry, was lectins. Little known fact, gluten is one of the many lectins (and definitely the most popular) that are present within our foods. Lectins are a type of protein, which are extremely abundant in grains and legumes, that are used as a defense mechanism against microorganisms, pests, and insects (and unfortunately, even humans). In research, increased lectin consumption has a strong correlation with various autoimmune diseases (especially those related to the colon, such as Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis), and various endocrine disorders (specifically those of the pancreas and thyroid). Similar to phytic acid, certain grain and legume preparations can reduce, but not eliminate, lectin levels.

Industrial milling is an amazing process that turns our grains into flours with speed and efficiency, and dramatically increases the shelf life. Unfortunately, this process does nothing to improve our health. In fact, it eliminates much of the protein, fats, fiber, vitamins, and minerals within the grains. And most of the time, these are replaced with sugar, rancid vegetable oils, and various additives and preservatives.

Perhaps the scariest attribute of many of the grains we consume in America is the genetic engineering, better known as genetic modification (GMO). In fact, more than 90% of all soybean, cotton and corn acreage in the United States is used to grow GMO crops (3). In 2009, The American Academy of Environmental Medicine issued this statement: “Several animal studies indicate serious health risks associated with genetically modified (GM) food, including infertility, immune problems, accelerated aging, faulty insulin regulation, and changes in major organs and gastrointestinal system. The AAEM has asked physicians to advise all patients to avoid GM foods (4).”

Chemical pesticides in commercially-grown grains and legumes are another concern. Less than 1% of all U.S. farmland is certified organic (5). Therefore, nearly all the organic grains and legumes we purchase in the U.S. are imported (which is a discussion for a different day). Use of pesticides has everything to do with increasing productivity and decreasing loss (therefore strictly financial), and nothing to do with improved health of the consumer. Though not specific to cardiovascular disease in the least, “it has been postulated that their (pesticides) long-term, low-dose exposure is increasingly linked to human health effects such as immune suppression, hormone disruption, diminished intelligence, reproductive abnormalities and cancer (5).”

For these reasons, and perhaps a few others, I cannot recommend the current consumption of grains and legumes for the prevention of heart disease (and other chronic diseases). Hopefully, although not likely, society (and government) will place greater emphasis on the health of its members, rather than the short-sighted profitability of its food industries.

1. Reddy, NR (1982). Phytates in legumes and cereals. Adv Food Res.(28): 1-92.

2. Hyman, Mark (March, 2011). What You Don’t Know Might Kill You.Retrieved from

3. Johnson, David (April, 2015). These Charts Show Every Genetically Modified Food People Already Eat in the U.S.Retrieved from

4. Smith, Jeffrey (2015). Health Risks. Retrieved from

5. Aktat, Wasim et al. (2009). Impact of pesticide use in agriculture: their benefits and hazards. Interdiscip Toxicol.2 (1): 1-12.

Grains: Friend or Foe?


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