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A Case Against Grains

For years the USDA food pyramid guidelines recommended 6-11 servings of grains daily. What’s interesting is in the latest USDA food pyramid the recommended servings dropped significantly to 3 ounces of whole grains daily. This is quite a sharp reversal in the recommendations for grains in our diet. What’s going on?

I thought whole grains we’re supposed to be a staple of a healthy diet? The new recommendations of 3 ounces would equal a very small portion of your daily calories. For example, you could fulfill the 3 ounce recommendation by eating 1 slice of bread, 1 cup of cereal, and ½ cup of rice.

The new recommendation with decreased servings of grains is long overdue in my opinion. I’m going to present a case to you that grains may not be as healthy as you’ve been led to believe. It all starts with a very simple observance that’s always puzzled me…

Why Aren’t All Vegetarians Lean And Super Healthy?

When it comes to fat loss, fitness, and nutritional science I’d classify myself as being more of a realist than a theorist. I’m a research junkie and I read just about everything I can get my hands on. But at then end of the day I don’t think anything can replace individual testing and personal experience.

If I’ve come to one concrete conclusion after all my years of research it’s this…everyone is different.

While some people do well as vegetarians, others fail miserably with it. If eating meat was the real problem then why are some vegetarian’s fat? And why aren’t all vegetarians healthy?

It’s because of this issue I could never just single out vegetarianism as the optimal eating plan for health. Look, I’m not here to argue about vegetarianism…to each his own and whatever works for you. But there is one component in typical vegetarian diets that can be an issue for some people.

What is it? Eating too many grains.

We have a misconception in our society that if a food is labeled “healthy” then it couldn’t make you gain weight. It’s just not the simple. Weight loss or weight gain is always a hormonal and energy balance issue. The vegetarian who eats more carbohydrates than his body needs will gain weight (or not be able to lose weight) due to the hormonal imbalances caused by being in a high insulin state most of the time. It’s just too easy to over-consume with grains because most people eat way more than what their body needs for energy.

The Failure Of The 6-11 Servings Recommendation

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the leading medical experts are overwhelming backing off on their daily recommendations for grains. The new USDA food pyramid reflects this trend. The old standard of 6-11 servings daily was a failure and a complete disaster for public health. You can’t tell me the epidemic rise in obesity and type II diabetes has been solely related to our increased consumption of fast food, processed junk, and a lack of exercise. I think they know it too, which is why you’re seeing this reversal.

Fat Gets A Bad Rap And Becomes Public Enemy #1

If you remember back in the 80’s and early 90’s it was all about fat being the culprit in our diets. Meat got caught in the crosshairs and the trend was all about being low-fat. Food manufacturers aren’t stupid and they follow these trends. That started the low fat craze where natural foods became almost the enemy. Funny how the generations before us had remarkably lower levels of heart attack, stroke, diabetes, and obesity even with things like butter, whole milk, beef, eggs and other foods with saturated fats in their diet.

Now I’m not saying you shouldn’t limit saturated fat in your diet but I’m here to tell you it’s not the real problem.

What’s Blown Our Hormonal Balances Out Of Whack

The real culprit in the modern diet today is eating too much food that raises insulin levels. I believe it’s the combination of increased consumption of grains along with processed, refined foods that is at root behind the obesity and diabetes epidemic.

We have a new medical term in our generation referred to as “Syndrome X” that is identified by high blood pressure, high triglycerides, low HDL cholesterol, and high risk of stroke and heart attack. Most experts will agree the real cause behind all of this chronic inflammation. While that’s a whole topic in itself, there’s little argument that chronic inflammation is at foundation of most illnesses and disease.

How does all this relate to grains? Most of the problems related to grain consumption can be lumped into one of two categories. Those related to hyperinsulinemia (the pancreas produces too much insulin because the receptor sites shut down) and those related to irritant/toxicant properties inherent to grains. Both problems are directly related to weight gain and health problems due to inflammation.

Good Carb-Bad Carb Or Is It More About The Amount?

One of the fallacies that is still being promoted is that slow releasing carbs (starches like beans, whole grains, brown rice, etc) causes a flat insulin response and consequently don’t pose any problems. Sure it’s true if you’re eating very small amounts but that’s rarely the case. Eat them a cup at a time and have several servings throughout the day and not only does blood sugar levels rise dramatically but you’ll see a steady release of insulin.

Having your body staying in the presence of insulin is what causes hyperinsulinemia and all the problems that go with it. It’s not just the quick release carbohydrates that are the problem (sugars, processed foods, white rice, etc) it’s the excess carbohydrates as a whole that keep your body in the presence of insulin.

Bloating Is NOT A Normal Digestive Response

The second problem with grains relates to their irritant/toxicant properties. Look no further than gluten to see the inflammatory effects of grains. Many people are highly allergic to gluten due the irritant properties but may not even know it.

In the small intestine we have tiny little structures called microvilli that interact with food during digestion. The microvilli are covered with enzymes that help to digest and transport food particles into the blood stream. Gluten can cause a severe problem to these microvilli and even lead to an autoimmune reaction (called Celiac Sprue) in which the microvilli are destroyed making it nearly impossible for your body to absorb fats, minerals, and many vitamins.

While not everyone is susceptible to a full blown celiac response, never-the-less, irritation is present with virtually all grain consumption. The lower level irritation has been broadly labeled as “leaky gut syndrome” and is common inflammatory issue that causes bloating.

Bottom Line With All Of This And Where I Stand On Grains

I believe that if we’re going to have a discussion about “optimal health” you can’t ignore the potential negative impact grains can have on your body. Am I never going to eat grains? Of course not, but I think you should minimize their role in your diet and that’s exactly what I’ve done.

I am of the camp that you should eat as close to the ground as you can and stick with the “hunter-gatherer” means of eating lean proteins, eggs, nuts, seeds, oils, fruits, and vegetables. This type of diet will be inherently lower in carbohydrates (but not zero carbs) and will create much lower insulin levels.

While everyone is different and some people have increased needs for carbohydrates (ex. endurance athletes) I have found that you can achieve a lean, muscular, healthy body without that much starch carbohydrate.

Even at 240 lbs and more of a “body-builder’s” frame than a “runner’s frame” I have found that I can fuel my body for high intensity “burst training” pretty much exclusively with carbohydrates from fruits and veggies.

As always don’t just take my word or anybody else’s on what will work best for YOUR body. You simply have to experiment. I would encourage you to simply try removing grains from your diet for one week and see how your body responds. Take a true “hunter-gatherer” approach for the week and eat only natural foods from lean proteins, eggs, nuts, seeds, oils, fruits and veggies.

Remove anything processed or refined (basically any food with a label) along with all grains. Don’t worry about how much, counting calories, or even getting the right ratios. Make it simple. Eat when you’re hungry but only eat from natural foods.

Here’s an example of how your diet may look for the day. Of course there are countless combinations and examples you could come up with. You may not eat the snacks if you’re not hungry, that’s ok. It doesn’t matter. Simply eat when you’re hungry but only eat foods that haven’t been processed or refined in any way.

Breakfast- scrambled eggs, 1 cup cut up strawberries
Snack- hardboiled eggs, orange slices
Lunch- large salad with vegetables and grilled chicken. Olive oil and vinegar dressing
Snack- apple with almonds
Dinner- grilled fish, steamed vegetables, tossed salad.

Try eating similiar to this for an entire week and let me know what you find. I’d love to hear from you. I’m going to be blogging next week about something very exciting for those people who want to lose fat. It’s about a breakthrough new strategy called “intermittent fasting” that has been showing impressive results on people dropping fat while maintaining (and even building) lean muscle.

I’m going to be testing it on myself and will be posting comments about how I feel and how my body is reacting. Look for more on this in the next few days.

Shane Doll is a certified Charleston personal trainer, fat loss expert, and founder of Shaping Concepts Personal Training Studios. He provides a free, no-obligations trial of his Charleston personal training programs and has helped over 1000 local Charleston area residents lose weight and get in shape with his unique system.

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Category: Nutrition.