The more we dig into the ups and downs of our health, the more we realize that the food we eat and the lifestyle we choose plays a key role in preventing, reducing, and even rectifying many conditions, diseases, and health issues. Recently, one such issue that has taken center stage is the argument that grains negatively affect the health of our brain. These theories have even gone so far as to connect grain consumption with dementia and psychologically related issues such as depression and anxiety. How did these theories come about and is there actual scientific backing behind all the hubaloo?
I decided to take a deeper look into the science behind the claims to find out!
What are Grains?
A grain is “a small, hard, dry seed, with or without an attached hull or fruit layer, harvested for human or animal consumption.” In short, grains are the fruits or seeds from grass family plants. The most popularly cultivated, harvested, and consumed grains are cereals — the edible part of the grain made of endosperm, germ, and bran, such as rice, wheat, or millet — and legumes — seeds from the Fabaceae plant family consisting of lentils, chickpeas, soybeans, peanuts, and peas, to name just a few.
Grains are incredibly durable, which makes them favorable for farmers, yet, this durability means it’s more difficult for the human digestive system to process and breakdown them down. This is generally why so many individuals find that eating smaller amounts of grain or excluding grain altogether rectifies digestive discomfort.
Yet, what other affects do grains have on our health?
The Grain-Brain Connection
When it comes to learning about your health, you’ve got a plethora of topics to pick from. Whether it’s learning about mesonutrients, seeking to reduce bodily inflammation, transitioning to a plant-based diet, or attempting to cut processed foods from your life, the trends are countless.
Yet, these trends all have on thing in common: nutrition research that aims to make us healthier, happier, and basically just feel better all around.
One of the more recent and controversial theories is the grain-brain connection. New theories postulate that consuming grains can lead to major health issues. Before launching into the research around this theory, let’s take a look at the science linking the grain, the body, and the brain.
How Grains Affect the Human Body
Everything we consume is up for debate regarding whether it’s good or bad for you. The value of food products all depends on how and where they are grown or raised, how and where they are processed, and if they are shipped or stored for long periods of time. Plus, this doesn’t take into consideration how we prepare them at home; if heat or cold lessens or bolsters the nutritional content or if consuming the product raw is dangerous or maybe better.
That’s why I like to turn to science.
By learning how the components of food works in the body, I find it’s so much easier to implement said food product in the most nutritional way. Unfortunately, when it comes to grains, there are a handful of components making them hard on our digestive system, as well as those that trigger other health issues.
First and foremost, grains contain a harmful agent called lectin. Lectin, also referred to as anti-nutrients, are plant-based proteins that bind to sugar, yet they also have a bad habit of blocking our body’s ability to absorb nutrients. Originally, lectins were “produced by the plants to kill insects and fungi so that the grain is protected and can serve as seed for new plants.” They’re not evil, but they’re not great for humans or animals to ingest, in fact, they are toxic. Plus, the only way to inactivated the toxin in lectin is by soaking the grain for days in advance or using a pressure cooker.
Yet, that’s not the only harmful agent in grain. The list continues with compounds such as wheat germ agglutinins — can cause “glycoproteins to stick to the intestinal cell walls” with resulting damage resembling Celiac disease — amylopectin A — wheat-based sugar that spikes blood sugar which, with prolonged consumption, can lead to metabolic diseases, type 2 diabetes, dementia, and anxiety — and grain proteins — habitually “stick to small intestine lining cells causing damage and death of the cells which absorb nutrients,” leading to malnutrition and disease.
The really scary part is that this is just a few of grain components that are harmful.
Why Are Grains Shrinking Our Brains?
Now we know how grains affect our bodies, yet what about the brain?
Dr. Perlmutter, a leading researcher on the grain-brain connection, states that “the brain is more responsive to diet and lifestyle than any other part of the body and until now it’s been virtually ignored.” Therefore, when looking at how grains can negatively affect the rest of our bodies, how could it be that they don’t cause most of the damage upstairs? Much of the research regarding the degeneration of the brain by grains speaks to the habit of carbohydrates triggering inflammatory responses, which can lead “to disease and brain shrinkage through spikes in blood sugar.”
Other researchers conjecture that undiagnosed sensitivity to gluten may actually be the root cause of a variety of diseases and conditions including neurological diseases, psychiatric issues, and other brain-related disorders. James Braly, MD, and Ron Hoggan, MA, authors of Dangerous Grains, pose their case regarding the grain-brain connection by observing brain size over our history, specifically that “human brain size, based on head circumference, has diminished approximately 11 percent since the advent of agricultural societies.”
The key piece of science in this viewpoint was brought to light by Michael Crawford, PhD, when he made the case that long-chain “neural” fatty acids — found in fish and wild game, yet not in grains — are essential for brain development. Could the fact that our society has reverted to a high-grain, low-fat diet be causing brain shrinkage? This is what researchers such as Perlmutter, Braly, Hoggan, and a handful of others postulate.
There’s been a lot of talk, but what about the proof? Unfortunately, in the health and nutrition world, there are always two sides to every story. For the sake of learning more about the grain-brain connection, I’ve taken a sampling of two different viewpoints: one from Dr. Perlmutter, a highly controversial and prominent doctor, and the other from Diane Roberts Stoler Ed.D., a lesser-known neurological psychologist.
Let’s dive in!
The Grain Brain by Dr. Perlmutter
A Forbes article reviewing Grain Brain explained Perlmutter’s argument that “Alzheimer’s disease may really be a third type of diabetes, a discovery that highlights the close relationship between lifestyle and dementia.” In his highly debated book, Dr. Perlmutter explains the urgent need for society to “return to the eating habits of early man, a diet generally thought to be about 75% fat and 5% carbs.” Unfortunately, at this time Americans consume the opposite of this diet, at around 60 percent carbs and 20 percent fat.
Perlmutter outlines an anti-Alzheimer’s trio of foods he refers to as “memory food” including grass-fed beef, avocado, and coconut oil, explaining that these are “high-fat, brain-smart foods,” which he believes helps stave off dementia and dementia-related diseases.
Yet, Dr. Perlmutter isn’t all talk, he also provides a wealth of scientific research that bolsters this high-fat, low-carb diet he recommends. A few of these studies relevant specifically to the grain-brain connection include:
- Brain atrophy in ageing: Estimating of blood glucose levels vs. other type 2 diabetes effects published by Diabetes Metabolism
- Human ApoE Isoforms Differentially Modulate Brain Glucose and Ketone body Metabolism: Implications for Alzheimer’s Disease Risk Reduction and Early Intervention published by The Journal of Neuroscience
- Midlife systemic inflammatory markers are associated with late-life brain volume published by Neurology
The Resilient Brain by Diane Roberts Stoler Ed.D.
Diane Roberts Stoler Ed.D — a brain injury survivor with 30 years of experience as a health practitioner, Neuropsychologist, and Board Certified Health Psychologist and Sports Psychologist — is yet another health practitioner on the front lines that warns against consumption of grains.
Per a 2018 article published in Psychology Today, Stoler states that “pre-neolithic man did not eat grain and archeologists found less than 1 % of teeth or bones in those skeletons had degenerative disease. Neolithic man started grain agriculture practices and archeologists found up to 47% of teeth were decayed, abscessed or lost and bone disease (osteoporosis) appeared.”
The data is straight forward: our ancestors who didn’t eat grains had strong bones and teeth, while our ancestors who began to eat grain experienced higher rates of tooth decay and weak bones.
In the article, Stoler bolsters her argument against grains by providing concrete data regarding the effects of grain consumption on the human body such as the fact that they have proteins that trigger autoimmune diseases, they block zinc absorption and decrease iron absorption, and they are one of the top four causes of childhood allergies. Why does grain cause these issues? Stoler provides a lengthy breakdown of each harmful component in grains — wheat germ agglutinins (WGA), amylopectin A, Bt Toxin, saponins, protease inhibitors, lectins, gluten, grain proteins, gliadin proteins, and grain flours.
A Daily Menu without Grains
It’s important to note that, no matter how substantiated or influencing research may be, every human body is different and requires specialized attention. Therefore, before making any changes to your diet, make sure to speak with your healthcare provider.
With that said, if you are looking to reduce or cut out grains from your diet, I’ve curated sampling of vegan and vegetarian meals that could get you through the day grain-free!
Know Your Grains
First off, before heading to your kitchen, it’s important to identify the names of the most popular grains that may be in your pantry. I mention “most popular” due to the fact that the list of grains is incredibly long. You can find an entire list on this government-sponsored pamphlet resource entitled What Are Grains. With that said, grains can be broken down into refined — grains where the bran and germ have been removed — and whole grains —which contains the entire grain kernel.
Refined grain includes white bread and rice, noodles, grits, cornbread, corn and flour tortillas, couscous, and crackers. Whole grains include brown rice, buckwheat, quinoa, millet, rolled oats, bulgur, barley, and wild rice.
Remember, these are just a few of the popularly used grain items. Take a look at the full list in order to avoid others that you may not realize are grains.
One of the best ways to get the day rolling is with a healthy fat heavy breakfast. This is especially important if you are avoiding grain and even more important if you are practicing a strictly plant-based diet. Focus on coconut oil and avocado. If you like something sweet, try out this Corn on the Cob Salsa Stuffed Avocado, this Key Lime Pie Smoothie Bowl (make sure to sub out the granola!) or this Raw Oil-Free Avocado Lime Tart. Coconut oil can pretty much be added to any recipe or used in lieu of olive oil to get that additional kick of fat. For example, these Raw Chocolate Energy Bars are loaded with coconut oil, cashew butter, and antioxidant-rich cacao powder for the morning kick in the pants or you can simply add a touch of coconut oil to this gluten-free Protein Acai and Red Currant Breakfast Bowl.
The best way to avoid grains for lunch is by focusing on raw ingredients. These are not only easy to prepare and package but almost always exclude grains. For example, smoothies can be stored in the freezer, yet have the ability to pack a punch of protein and fat, such as this Goji Berry and Ginger Smoothie or this High-Protein Vanilla and Cashew Smoothie. Wraps are also a great way to keep your day grain-free such as these UnTuna Wrap or this Thai Tofu-Vegetable Wrap (make sure to sub lettuce for the flour tortilla!).
When it comes to grain-free meals, dinner may be the most difficult to get used to. This is especially true for plant-based eaters. While meat can take up the place where that quinoa or wild rice used to sit, plant-based eaters need to look elsewhere to fill that space. With that said, there are many options for creating a grain-free dinner plate that will still fill you up! Make lettuce wrapped tacos with this Walnut Taco Meat recipe, pile this Savory Walnut and Mushroom Bolognese on to your favorite roasted or spiraled veggies, go light with this Cheesy Cashew Cream Stuffed Figs with a Salad, or mimic spaghetti with this Sabich Spaghetti Squash Recipe (make sure to sub out the chickpeas!).
For more ideas on grain-free meals to get you through the day, we highly recommend downloading our Food Monster App, which is available for both Android and iPhone, and can also be found on Instagram and Facebook. The app has more than 10,000 plant-based, allergy-friendly recipes, and subscribers gain access to new recipes every day. Check it out!