Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Against The Grain: The Nutrient-Density Argument

Grain v Fruits & Vegetable Smackdown

To sweep a wide brushstroke, grains are not "Paleo". In fact, grains are pretty much public enemy number one of the Paleo/Primal community. In caveman speak: "ME PALEO. MEAT GOOD. PLANTS GOOD. GRAINS BAD! NO EAT GRAINS!"

Now while I agree that grains are not an optimal food source for us humans I'm not going to take the caveman approach here and bash grains for the Primal hell of it. The Paleo Model is all about sense, reason and open-mindedness.

Nutrition is not a chess board - there are no clear dividing lines; no distinctions of black or white; no neat squares to define dietary friend from foe.

Nutrition is more of a spectrum. Like a grayscale you have black (unhealthy) on one end and white (healthy) on the other with infinite shades of gray in between.

So unlike some Paleo peers I'm not willing to say, categorically, that all grains are bad for all people all of the time. That's a bit extreme. Personally I avoid grains completely except for the occasional white rice if I feel like some safe starch after intense workouts.

I am, however, going to give you what I think are the best arguments as to why grains generally fall on the darker end of the spectrum of optimal health.

Grains are a new food
Grains are a relatively new addition to the human diet - only becoming a staple in the last 10,000 years of our 2.5m year evolution (i.e. we've been eating them for only 0.004% of our history).

It seems odd to think of grains as a new food at first. Grains have played a central role in civilization and are featured prominently all throughout written history and religious texts. They are ingrained in our modern culture.

However, if you remove our natural bias towards weighing recent human history as more important - or at least more relatable - than our distant past, and instead take a broad view of our entire evolution, we've only been eating grains for an instant.

Look at it this way: if human history started with the birth of Christ, then we've only been eating grains since the iPhone was released. Or if you consider human history as being a 24-hour period, we've only been eating grains for six minutes.

The evolutionary argument that follows from this is that humans probably haven't had enough time to make the complex genetic adaptations it would take to be able to thrive on grains and that this may explain why grains are so problematic for so many people.

But even if we completely ignore this argument the case against eating grains is pretty compelling either way, so let's skip the evolutionary basis for avoiding grains and get to the less controversial stuff.


Grains are not particularly nutritious
First and foremost, contrary to how they are marketed by the grain-centric food industry, grains are relatively nutrient-poor compared to vegetables, fruits, meat and seafood, especially when you consider the bioavailablity of said nutrients.

Just because a food source is high in iron does not necessarily mean that the iron will be readily absorbed by the body. Anti-nutrients also contained in the food, such as lectins and phytates tend to bind with the iron and prevent absorption.

Think of it this way, if you're trying to pick up a girl/guy you want them to be available. There's no point going to a bar with a high concentration of girls/guys if they are all aready hooked up and therefore unavailable. You'd rather go to a bar with a lower absolute number of girls/guys but more single and therefore available ones. Makes sense?

So even if oats have a greater absolute amount of magnesium than bananas, you're likely going to absorb more magnesium from the banana because it is more bioavailable.

All you need to consider here is that you can't take the amount of nutrients in a certain food at face value - the bioavailablity of those nutrients also counts. And it appears that the nutrients in grains are not particularly well assimilated by the human body.

Anti-nutrients are definitely a compelling reason to think again about grain consumption, but as I said earlier I don't want to get all 'pseudosciency' on you so let's also ignore anti-nutrients for a while and just look at the absolute nutrient content - bioavailable or not.

Carb Rich, Nutrient Poor
For the most part grains are a rich source of carbohydrate and often in soluble fiber, but that's about it. Grains are inferior to other whole foods in basically every other way.

Grains are inferior as a source of solube fiber (the good pre-biotic stuff) to green leafy vegetables. Grains are inferior to animal products and seafood as a source of complete protein. Grains are inferior to nuts and seeds as a source of healthy fats.

No matter what micronutrient (vitamin or mineral) a certain grain is touted to have, I guarantee there is a better (more bioavailable) source in a non-grain alternative. In other words, you are not missing out on anything by eschewing grains.

Let's look at some examples of grains, their proposed benefits, and how they actually stack up against fruits and vegetables.

I've chosen three common health claims of grains: oats are high in fiber, quinoa is a great source of protein and whole wheat is high in iron, magnesium and B vitamins. The best way to compare nutrient density is by calorie rather than by weight or serving.

Fiber (Oats v Raspberries)

100 calories of oats contains 6.8g of fiber (and 21g of active carbohydrates*).
100 calories of raspberries contains 12.3g of fiber (and 10g of active carbohydrates).

Protein (Quinoa v Brussels Sprouts)

100 calories of cooked quinoa (a "faux" grain) contains 3.8g of protein (and 17g of active carbohydrates)
100 calories of Brussels sprouts contains 8.3g of protein (and 10g of active carbohydrates)

Iron, Magnesium and B Vitamins (Whole Wheat Pasta v Kale)

100 calories of whole wheat pasta contains 5% DV** of Iron, 7% DV of magnesium and 3% DV of vitamin B6 (and 18g of active carbohydrates)
100 calories of cooked kale contains 18% DV of Iron, 17% DV of magnesium and 27% DV of B6 (and 6g of active carbohydrates)

*active carbohydrates = total carbohydrates less dietary fiber
**daily value based on 2,000 calorie diet

As demonstrated in the above examples, not only are grains poorer in nutrients but they are richer in active carbohydrates.

Besides highly active people or athletes, there really is no reason to consume a diet high in carbohydrate, and many reasons not to. The case for loading up on empty carb calories from "healthy whole grains" makes sense to just about no-one except for our mates at Kellogg's.

That marketers of breakfast cereals can still get away claiming that a bowl of Cheerios (with skim milk) constitutes a healthy start to the day is an injustice to public health.


Given that excessive carbohydrate consumption - particularly of refined foods derived from grains - seems to be at the root of many modern diseases such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease, the richness of carbohydrates in grains is certainly not a benefit and is more likely a detriment for most people.

So if grains are trumped by other real foods as sources for all essential micronutrients, and they are also a vehicle for the overconsumption of potentially harmful carbohydrates, then why eat grains at all?

This is the crux of the nutrient density argument against grains. Even if grains didn't have some potentially harmful effects on human metabolism - and they do - then why even eat them when there are healthier alternatives?

Now of course there are issues of food scarcity and accessibility to whole plant and animal products across the world but fortunately you and I have the luxury of choice.

While pasta may be a lot cheaper than kale, and oats cheaper than raspberries, there are other cost-effective ways to get healthy calories in - olive oil, grass-fed butter, sardines, eggs, and fruits and vegetables from the market.

Either way, maximizing your health will minimize overall costs in your life - from medical expenses to new clothes for your expanding waist. Spend more on good food and you'll save in the long run.

Grains make for crappy carbs
As a final nail in the coffin, all derivative products of grains - processed foods and refined oils that unfortunately make up the majority of the Standard American Diet - fall on the dark side of the health spectrum. Pretty much without exception all junk food contains grains and grain derivatives such as high fructose corn syrup. By avoiding grains you are also avoiding these unhealthy foods.


Conclusion
Grains are strongly embedded in our culture. Modern civilization and grain consumption were both born of agriculture. Wheat/corn/rice are the backbone of Mediterranean/Latin/Asian food culture and many populations subsist on grains still today.

But from an optimal health perspective, grains are not all that great. In fact, for the most part grains are not a healthy food at all, and often quite the contrary is true. I believe gluten is one of the most damaging substances you can eat, but that's a story for another day.

Grains are a relatively new addition to the human diet. Grains contain anti-nutrients making the micronutrients in them less bioavailable. Grains are high in carbohydrate and are the base for most processed industrial foods. But that's just the background noise.

The most compelling argument against eating grains is that in terms of nutrient density grains are an inferior food.

In other words, given the choice, there is no compelling reason to choose grains as a source of nutrition when far healthier (Paleo) options, like my salad mountain, are available to you.

Still blinded by the "healthy whole grains" dogma or distracted by your Italian Nonna waving ciabatta in your face? Here's my suggestion - go against the grain, stictly, for one month and see how you feel.

"Eat Paleo. Train. Live life." - The Paleo Model.

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Sources (and resources)
http://nutritiondata.self.com
http://wholegrainscouncil.org/whole-grains-101/what-are-the-health-benefits
http://www.marksdailyapple.com/why-grains-are-unhealthy/#axzz2kXLd9Qzh
http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2011/12/12/are-carbohydrates-from-starches-healthy.aspx
Image 2: http://heplerphoto.com/agriculture/scott-hepler-photographys-agriculture-harvest-photography/
Image 3: http://junkfoodnews.org

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