Saturday, March 10, 2012

Why You Don't Need Grains

Alright folks, it's time for another rant.  Something's gotten me really fired up lately.  Now I don't want to mention any names... but let's just say that there are a lot of people out there who are really attached to grains.  I mean, grains do make up over 1/4 of My Plate.  They're a major part of nearly everyone's diet: pasta, rice, bread, corn... there's no question that these foods make up the bulk of the American diet.  But does that mean they're good for us?  No.  Just because everyone eats them doesn't make them healthy.  If you look at the history of the human diet, and read this Jared Diamond article, you'll learn that adopting agriculture and grains as a major part of the human diet may have been "the worst mistake in the history of the human race."  That's a pretty grand statement, but there's no debating the huge decline in human health that followed the agricultural revolution.  It's very clear that when we as a species decided to adopt agriculture and make grains a part of our diet, we traded health for the ability to support a larger population.  So I ask you again... just because everyone eats grains, does that make them good for us?  NO!

Now I'm going to really freak some people out, are you ready?  Brace yourself... I don't eat grains.  At least not a lot of them.  If I do, it's usually white rice with my sushi or other Asian food.  Yeah I love Asian food.  But at the most, I eat white rice 2-3 times a week.  Other than that, I don't eat grains at all; no bread, no pasta, no bagels.   I definitely don't eat whole grains.  Yes I said it.  I. Do. Not. Eat. Whole. Grains.  And I'm proud of it.

Let's imagine I tell one of my professors about this.  I can only imagine the response, since this is a completely fictional story, but I can be 99.9% sure she'll be concerned.  I'd put money on it.  I can see the expression of shock on her face, even if she's trying to hide it.  She can't imagine a life without grains.  Where on earth would I get my B-vitamins??  She's genuinely worried for me.  I'm at risk for pellagra and beri beri from B-vitamin deficiencies, she says.  B-vitamins are important for energy production, how am I going to metabolize glucose?  And what about the fiber?  Whole grains are full of fiber, how will I ever get enough of it?  And worst of all, there will be a chronic, giant hole in the upper right quartile of my dinner plate.  That can't be good.

How will I get my B-vitamins??  Gee, I don't know.  How did we ever get B-vitamins before grains?  From meat of course!  Let's do a little experiment to see if my professor's concern is warranted.  I've looked up two whole grains and two red meat sources on  Here are the nutrition labels for 2 slices of whole wheat bread, 1/2 cup cooked brown rice, 100 g sirloin steak, and 100 g pork tenderloin (that's 3.5 ounces, for you Americans).  Check it.

1/2 cup cooked brown rice
100 g pork tenderloin

100 g sirloin steak

2 slices whole wheat bread

There you have it.  Two whole grains and two meats.  Those meats look pretty high in B-vitamins don't they?  But I can see that's a lot of information to take in.  I'll make it a little easier on the eyes, so you can really see the comparison.  What I've done here is to average the vitamin and mineral quantities for the grains, and compare them to the average for the meats.  I figured this would yield a better result that's more indicative of the food group as a whole, rather than just one food.  The caloric content of both groups was the same.  Oh, and I also went ahead and incorporated the fact that the iron, calcium, magnesium, and zinc in grains don't get absorbed (they're bound to phytates).  Here ya go...

Wow.  Is it just me or did whole grains just receive a beat down?  Looks like the B-vitamins in meat are juuuust a smidge higher than in whole grains?  Yeah, much higher.  Gosh, I guess I'm getting plenty of B-vitamins then.  Looks like meat is a lot higher in other important nutrients too, like iron, zinc, magnesium, selenium, and potassium.  And this doesn't even consider grass-fed meat, which is higher in vitamins A and E, and probably other vitamins as well.  Sorry, whole grains.  The only micronutrient higher in whole grains is manganese, which isn't pictured here.  I've never met anyone who worried about manganese.

At this point, you may be asking yourself... why the hell am I eating whole grains?  I would answer your question with an emphatic "I have no frickin' clue."  But if you were under the impression that they're a nutrient-dense health food, you sir/ma'am are barking up the wrong tree.  Maybe you're a vegetarian and you've gotta get your calories from somewhere.  Maybe you really like bread and pasta.  Maybe it's just convenient because every convenience food in the world is based on grains.  There are a lot of reasons people eat grains... being healthy should not be one of them.  They're cheap, nutrient-poor foods; even the whole grain variety. 

As for that fiber issue... that one doesn't even deserve my time, but I'll give it one minute.  Where else am I going to get my fiber??  How about (deep breath)... broccoli, lettuce, bell peppers, onions, mushrooms, Brussels sprouts, avocado, bananas, oranges, blueberries, raspberries, sweet potatoes, white potatoes (exhale CO2).  Need I go on? Thank you.

Let's sum it up.  Here's the lo-down on grains...

  • They're convenient
  • They're cheap
  • They require minimal preparation or cooking
  • They taste good to most people
  • The food industry loves them because they can be made into just about anything and they have a long shelf life
  • They're low in nutrients
  • They're high in empty calories
  • They displace more nutrient-dense foods in the diet 
  • There hasn't been enough time, or selection pressure, for humans to adapt to them since their introduction into our diet
  • The prolamine proteins in grains (especially gluten) are difficult to break down and can be irritating to the gut
I'm sure I'll address these last two in greater detail in the future.

Get it?  Got it?  Good.  Grains are high in calories, low in nutrition, and they're completely unnecessary in the human diet.  You could do far better if you're trying to eat a healthy, nutrient-dense diet.  But I still have to deal with that gaping hole in my dinner plate if I'm not eating grains... maybe we need a new plate.  How about this one... I give you the Paleo Plate:


  1. So what is your view on brown rice? I read a few things that pretty much have the same views as you do, but they recommend brown rice as a health food. Do you think brown rice is "better" than any other grain out there?

    1. I wouldn't say brown rice is a "health food" per se. In my mind, rice is the best of the grains, it's the least allergenic, I personally do fine with rice and I eat it almost daily. But just because it's not harmful doesn't mean it's healthy. It's still relatively low in nutrients... I would consider it sort of neutral, neither healthy nor unhealthy.

      I think rice is fine for most people, it certainly won't kill you. Potatoes and sweet potatoes are a better starch choice, but for some variety, rice is nice. So I guess what I'm saying is that it's not optimal. I just think it's important that people understand the truth about brown rice and whole grains... they're not nutrient dense health foods like everyone wants you to believe. If you're going to eat them, fine. Just understand what you're eating.

      Thanks for reading!

    2. Doesn't rice raise your blood sugar?

  2. so i have a question, you say you are grain free except for white rice. what about coffee, most cheap coffees have grain and even some burgers if they are not grass fed contain grain as well

    im not trying to harp on you im actually just curious

    also since you go to uconn i must say hello, im from tolland (oh im sorry the exit you take to get to your college) have a nice day

    1. Oh Tolland, cool! I live in South Windsor, so I'm familiar with Tolland a little bit.

      Anyway, I suppose if I really wanted to eliminate grains 100% from my diet there are things like coffee and ground beef that I could concern myself with, but it's honestly not worth my time. I try when possible to eat high quality meats and coffee, and all food in general. But I don't think grains are the devil by any means, nearly everyone on earth eats them and we're not all dying off like flies. I don't think it's optimal by any means, but if a small amount of grain sneaks into my diet, I'm totally okay with it. I just try to do the best I can most of the time and not stress over the small stuff.

      Thanks for reading!

  3. Hi
    With regard to grains, I don't think they are essential either, however, I like a nice sandwich or home made burger sometimes (who doesn't?). I was wondering what your opinion is on processed grain such as white bread. Obviously I am aware of insulin spikes but then I also heard that whole wheat bread spikes just as much as white bread. I am trying to do some research on this topic and I am wondering if white bread is actually better for digestive health as it passes through the body much easier as opposed to wheat bread which rips and tears. You say you eat white rice as do Asian people and they also eat white because they believe that whole grain rice is bad for digestion....what do you think?



  4. Agreed. I don't have an outright gluten intolerance or anything like that, sometimes a hamburger on a bun is needed. I am American after all haha.

    It's funny you mention refined grains being better for digestive health, because it's something I'm currently experimenting with myself. Many people, anecdotally, report tolerating refined grains better. I've written on some of the problems with whole grains here:

    I plan on writing a new one about whole grains soon, so be on the lookout for that. As far as the insulin spike, it's true that the difference is small between whole and refined grains. But I'm not convinced the insulin spike is an issue at all in the context of a real meal with protein and fat. Protein and fat both slow down the digestion, so unless you're mainlining white rice without any fat or any other food on the side, I'd say glycemic index is irrelevant.

    Thanks for reading Jon!

  5. Great article. And great points. I also think grains are useless in diet. And I'm so much better for it.

  6. You state that you eat white rice 2-3 times per week and brown rice almost daily and yet you do not eat grains? Or is it you're ok with refined grains, not whole grains?
    Many grains are quite beneficial to gut health in particular - when prepared correctly - quinoa, barley, wild rice, black rice and oats for example are excellent sources of many nutrients.....grains were gathered and eaten pre agriculture revolution, they were simply prepared better - long soaking time, less hard boiling time....

    So perhaps it is simply the amount of grain, how it is processed and consumed as opposed the grain itself?

    Further, for people tolerating processed grains better than whole grains, could this not simply be due to the fact that gut enzymes increase and decrease with dietary intake over time? As in the case of legumes for example?

    Not trying to be argumentative, simply seeking more information about your opinion and you're thoughts on mine.


  7. Brown rice is full of phytates and lectins, so when you eat a nutritious meal the healthy nutrients do not get absorbed by the body because the brown rice binds it! It's an anti nutrient. You are better having a little white rice if you were going to eat any grains.

  8. Yes, rice and potato have quite a high glycemic index as they are starches. If you're diabetic, you're best to avoid any sugar and starch and eat more saturated fats.