Is Gluten the Problem, or Are Grains Bad for You? & What About Beans?
We hear about the benefits of fiber-filled whole grains and protein-packed legumes. But, we’re also in the midst of a gluten-free, grain-free frenzy, including elimination diets like Whole30. So, are grains bad for you? And is gluten healthy? Spoiler alert: it’s different for everyone. We all have different bodies, genetics, health histories, lifestyles, and foods that we eat on a regular basis. So, it makes sense that different foods affect us differently.
Many people demonize gluten as the root of the problem. And, if you have celiac disease, gluten is (literally) your body’s enemy. But, it’s not necessarily everyone’s enemy. (Or, is it??) And, even gluten-free grains can cause similar problems. Now, I have to say this right off the bat. There’s NO concrete, scientific evidence that gluten, grains, or legumes are definitely inflammatory or disease-causing for everyone. And, more than any single food, your diet as a whole has the greatest impact on inflammation and chronic diseases.
But, even seemingly-healthy foods, like whole grains and beans, can be more problematic for people with food sensitivities. Even minor stomach troubles can be a sign that something’s wrong! (Check out our post on Common Food Sensitivities to learn more!) But, simple changes in our diet can make a big difference. Ultimately, YOU have to decide what’s best for your body. Why not make an informed choice?
Image credit: Whole Grains Council
'Healthy' Whole Grains, Or Not?
So, the million-dollar question that’s popped up in recent years: are grains bad for you? And, to answer this, we’ve also got to look at the cousins of whole grains—legumes (a.k.a. beans, and peanuts).
Most of us have lived our entire lives hearing about the health benefits of whole grains and legumes. And, there’s plenty of reason to deem these foods healthy: they’re full of dietary fiber, slow-digesting carbs, and essential minerals. Plus, beans are a much-loved source of plant-based protein. Plenty of research studies also link whole grains and beans to a lowered risk of heart disease and diabetes, as well as lower levels of inflammation!
But, even these seemingly-healthy foods can cause problems for people with digestive issues or autoimmune diseases. And, the prevalence of celiac disease—an autoimmune reaction to gluten—has increased significantly in the last century. Compared to the 1950s, the rate of celiac disease today is five times higher. Rates of non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) are also on the rise. Plus, nearly ⅓ of Americans are going gluten-free. WHY??
What Are Grains & Legumes?
To start, we need to understand where these foods come from. Grains, pseudograins, and legumes are all seeds from various plants. (Now, remember the seed part—it’s going to be important!)
- GRAINS, also known as “cereal grains,” from the Poaceae grass family. Includes wheat, barley, rye, corn, millet, oats, sorghum, spelt, teff, rice, brown rice, wild rice, and more.
- PSEUDOGRAINS, from the broadleaf plant families. Includes quinoa, buckwheat, amaranth, chia seeds, and more.
- LEGUMES, any plant that grows in a pod, from the pea family. Includes beans, clover, alfalfa, lentils, peanuts, chickpeas, lima beans, soybeans, and more. (And, you may also hear legumes referred to as "pulses." But, pulses refer to the dried seed, like dried beans, dried peas, chickpeas, and lentils.)
The seeds of these plants are edible—hence, why we eat them. BUT, let’s breakdown some basic biology real quick. Seeds contain a plant’s embryo, which is how they reproduce and pass on their genes. So, according to the laws of evolution, those seeds need to survive so they can go on to produce more baby plants. But, that means those seeds (the grains and legumes that we eat) are STRONG enough to withstand digestion. They contain digestion-resistant substances that allow the seeds to move through an animal’s/human’s body intact, so they’ll be planted on new soil.
Examples of Whole Grains
Image credit: Rebel Dietian
Examples of Legumes & Pulses
Image credit: Nutrition Refined
What Makes Grains & Legumes Hard to Digest
Plant proteins that bind to carbohydrates and are tough to digest.
- By far, gluten is the most infamous lectin. Yes, gluten is actually a type of plant protein, known as a prolamin. There’s gluten in wheat, as well as some other grains. (i.e. barley, rye, spelt, wheat berries, durum, semolina, farina, farro, and more.)
- And, gluten isn’t the only digestion-resistant prolamin. MOST grains and legumes contain prolamins just like gluten, like orzenin in rice or avenin in oats. So, the prolamins in other seeds—not just gluten—can also be problematic for some people.
- In general, prolamins are important proteins that the seeds need so they can grow. And, they have some up-sides—like the way gluten makes bread chewy instead of rock-hard.
- But, prolamins (like gluten) are also very sturdy and can be hard to digest. That sturdiness can put a strain on the digestive system, and may damage the gut lining over time.
- Then, the gut lining can become ‘leaky,’ meaning food and nutrients leak out into the blood stream. And, if undigested proteins like gluten leak through, our immune system goes into overdrive—every time we eat them. Our immune system ends up attacking our own bodies, like is seen in autoimmune diseases.
- Even just in wheat, there are also other lectins that protect the plants from harm out in the wild. For example, the agglutinins and amylase trypsin inhibitors (ATIs) in wheat function as natural insecticides/pesticides. But, they can be hard to break down, and some bodies might react to them like ‘foreign invaders.’
- In fact, studies examining both agglutinins and ATIs reveal that they can increase and fuel inflammation in the body. And, researchers suspect ATIs play a role in non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS). Plus, they can contribute to the development of autoimmune diseases—both digestion- AND non-digestion-related.
Phytic Acid & Phytates:
Anti-nutrients that protect the seed by inhibiting digestion and binding to certain minerals.
- Phytic acid in grains and legumes prevent our digestive enzymes from doing their thing so the seed can survive.
- And, because phytic acid binds to minerals like zinc, iron, and calcium, it can prevent our body from absorbing those essential minerals. That's why phytates are often referred to as antinutrients.
- However, this only happens when we consume large quantities of it. So, if grains and legumes are a MAJOR part of your diet, phytic acid can lead to greater mineral deficiencies.
- But, phytic acid is also an antioxidant with potential benefits for our health. It may help regulate blood sugar, lower cholesterol, and even inhibit the growth of some cancer cells!
Image credit: Dr. Jockers
Are Grains Bad for You? Problems with Grains, Gluten, & Legumes Today
Now, into they nitty-gritty of why and how exactly grains, gluten, pseudograins, and legumes can be problematic:
We Eat Mostly Refined Grains Today
- The refining process removes the nutrients and fiber found in whole (That’s why most flours/grain products are “enriched” with synthetic nutrients. And, not to mention “bleached” with all number of chemicals.) So, refined grains are not-so-nutritious, can spike blood sugar levels, and have an inflammatory effect.
- And, even breads or pastas labeled as “whole-grain” can be problematic. The whole grain is still ground into a flour, which is often enriched to ‘make up for’ lacking nutrients.
Image credit: Harvard School of Public Health
We Prepare Grains & Legumes Differently Than We Did in the Past
- Back in the day, it was common practice to soak, sprout, or ferment grains and legumes before preparing or eating them. This made their nutrients more available, reduced the phytic acid content, and made them easier to digest.
- Now, to produce these foods and products faster, many food manufacturers skip these crucial steps. So, we get fewer nutrients and more phytic acid from these grains and legumes. And, they’re harder to digest. (That is, unless you’re soaking, sprouting, or fermenting at home.)
- And, we prepare bread much differently today. Flour needs time to ferment, so the yeast activates and starts pre-digesting some of that tough gluten. Instead, artificial additives are used to speed things up, and our poor gut is left to digest all that gluten on its own.
Image credit: Dr. Axe
Vital Wheat Gluten: Are Modern-Day Breads Harder to Digest?
- And, on top of the already hard-to-digest gluten, most bakers add vital wheat gluten to their bread. This is a powdered, concentrated form of gluten that helps strength the dough and make it rise.
- There’s no data looking at vital wheat gluten specifically. But, it’s possible we’re eating more gluten than our bodies can digest.
Dwarf Wheat & Pesticides?
- In the 1960s, a new method of growing wheat emerged that allowed us to grow more And, though there’s no evidence that this shorter “dwarf” wheat has led to the rise in gluten sensitivity, it’s much less nutritious. It’s lower in minerals than older wheat crops, but still contains the same levels of the antinutrient phytic acid.
- Plus, some people correlate increased use of a common herbicide in the U.S.—Roundup—with the dramatic rise in celiac disease and gluten-sensitivity. (In part, this is because people who can’t tolerate gluten well in the U.S. seem to tolerate it just fine in other )
- It’s thought that the glyphosate in Roundup and some other herbicides can disrupt our healthy gut bacteria balance.
To Eat, Or Not to Eat Grains?
We know that refined carbs cause all sorts of health problems. But, can we condemn grains and gluten because of these new preparation methods, vital wheat gluten, dwarf wheat, or Roundup? Well, there’s just not enough evidence to settle the debate for certain. Most research points to the correlation between whole grains and a lower risk of chronic diseases. So, if grains are working for you, great!
But, emerging studies also show that certain wheat proteins can be inflammatory or irritate our gut lining. And, a good amount of research has found that people dealing with IBS or IBD benefit significantly from a gluten-free diet. However, it’s not clear whether gluten is the problem, or if it’s the complex carbohydrates in wheat and other grains. The Low FODMAP Diet—designed to help people with IBS—focuses on certain types of carbs as the problem. The diet involves eliminating certain types of carbohydrates (FODMAPs) that can cause digestive strain, which includes grains.
If you’re concerned or battling with your stomach every day, consider limiting/eliminating grains or gluten for awhile. Then, see how your body responds! If your gut lining is becoming more permeable, exposing it to less digestive stress can help it heal. And, it may even prevent the development of an autoimmune disease! Then, you can always try adding grains or gluten back into your diet to see if you’re truly sensitive to them.
NOTE: But, if you decide to try a gluten-free diet, don’t mistake gluten-free products for ‘healthy.’ Many are highly processed and can be equally problematic for our health! For some healthy inspiration, check out the wholesome, gluten-free shopping list at the end of this post!
Image credit: Flavilicious Fitness
Take Charge of Your Health
So, here we are, coming full-circle. Are grains bad for you? Is gluten healthy? And what about legumes? Well, you already know the answer. It’s different for everyone. But, now YOU have the knowledge and the power to decide for yourself. Pay attention to how you feel when you eat these foods, and listen to what your body is telling you. And, if you deal with digestive problems or an autoimmune disease, it’s especially important to tune in to your body’s signals.
Gluten, grains, legumes—these are all major parts of most people’s diets (especially in the U.S.). So, if we’re eating them all the time, it’s hard to know whether or not we’re sensitive to them. The better questions would be, is gluten healthy for you? Or, are you sensitive to grains and legumes? Start paying attention to your body so you can figure out which foods are your friends. Or, try an elimination diet (like Whole30) to pinpoint the most problematic foods for you.
Understanding how grains and legumes affect your individual body gives you the power to make changes and improve your health! And, remember, these foods may or may not be problematic for you. Yes, grains and legumes do offer some wholesome nutrients, and may be healthy choices for some people. But, if you are sensitive to them, the benefits of those nutrients may be negated by the strain placed on your body. As always, get informed so you can take charge of your health!
Gluten-Free Shopping List
Image credit: Lil Runner
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