Here’s a conversation I’ve had a few dozen times with people over the past few years when we get on the subject of grains in the diet:
Me: “I try to avoid eating a lot of grain, especially wheat.”
Them: “Oh so you don’t eat any carbs.”
Me: “No, there are carbs in fruits and vegetables.”
Them: (Bewildered stare) “Yeah but what’s the problem with grains? We need grains. They’re a healthy source of vitamins and have fiber and other nutrients that we need.”
When I say I don’t eat grains, it shocks me how common it is that people will immediately respond that I must be carb free. If you built a diet heavy in sweet potatoes, beans, and fruit like apples, you could go grain free and still eat a HIGH carb diet. That aside, I’d like to tackle the piece in bold up above, which is the conventional wisdom that grains are required in the human diet to fill nutritional needs that can’t be provided by anything else. I realize this is kind of a straw man argument, but there are many people who truly believe we NEED grains in order to maintain a healthy, well rounded diet, so here goes.
I’ll say initially that this post is not intended to address whether humans can or cannot tolerate gluten and other cereal grains. This is strictly a look into the nutritional quality of grains and will have nothing to do with the havoc grains can wreak on autoimmunity, insulin, and gut health. However, it should be noted that the nutrients we metabolize from food can be significantly affected by gut health and autoimmunity, but I’ll give grains the benefit of the doubt in this post and stick strictly to the nutrients. If you’d like to learn more about the ins and outs of why grains can cause problems in humans, that subject has been covered by people much smarter than myself…
- The Definitive Guide to Grains – Mark Sisson
- Why Grains are Unhealthy – Mark Sisson
- The Argument Against Cereal Grains – Kurt Harris
- The Argument Against Cereal Grains Part 2 – Kurt Harris
- Grains and Human Evolution – Stephan Guyenet
Grains In History
It’s no secret that grains are deeply rooted in organized society. As we broke from the hunter gatherer lifestyle thousands of years ago and formed into an agricultural society, founder crops and livestock fueled the expansion of the population. Planting fields and farming allowed massive amounts of food to be grown so other members of society could concern themselves with art, science, warfare, and government instead of worrying about procuring their next meal. Grains like wheat, barley, and corn dominated these fields due to their powerful caloric density and the fact that they contain protein in addition to carbohydrate. Bread became the staple in agricultural societies, where caloric staples in hunter gatherer tribes ranged from game meat and fish to coconut and tubers. As time has passed, grains have been a mainstay in agricultural societies, with deep roots in Christianity (‘breaking bread’) and nationalism (‘amber waves of grain’).
With 10,000 years of history in it’s corner, grains have a legacy that is firmly set in the minds of nearly everyone born today in modern society. And if that legacy isn’t enough to set people’s minds that grain should be a staple of our diet, the government along with multi-national corporations have taken up the cause. Like any good marketing machine, corporations and the government have tried to best identify the angle with which to pitch grains. They do this by hammering on a few salient nutritional points. First, they stress the importance of ‘whole grains’, contrasting them to white flour in an effort to make them appear healthier. It’s not too surprising after this marketing campaign that you see categorically unhealthy products like Wheat Thins, Frosted Mini Wheats, and yes, Fig Newtons billed as “100% whole grain and a great source of fiber.” Brilliant marketing, shameful nutrition.
The Nutritional Value of Grains
Once the government and corporations hook you with the whole grains pitch, they begin to hammer in on the specific nutrients you’ll get from whole grains. Grains are “heart healthy.” We’ve been inundated with this message. Whether from the American Dietetics Association (ADA), the American Heart Association (AHA), or from Cheerios, the party line of the government and the companies they share a bed with is the same: whole grains are low in cholesterol and saturated fat and are an excellent source of dietary fiber. Let’s examine some of the statements from the AHA regarding grains:
- Eating whole grains provides important health benefits:
- Whole grains are generally good sources of dietary fiber; most refined (processed) grains contain little fiber.
- Dietary fiber from whole grains, as part of an overall healthy diet, helps reduce blood cholesterol levels and may lower risk of heart disease.
- Fiber-containing foods such as whole grains help provide a feeling of fullness with fewer calories and so may help with weight management.
- Grains are also important sources of many nutrients:
- B vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin, niacin and folate) play a key role in metabolism.
- Folate (folic acid), one of the B vitamins, helps the body form red blood cells.
- Iron is used to carry oxygen in the blood.
- Magnesium is a mineral used in building bones and releasing energy from muscles.
- Selenium is important for a healthy immune system.”
- A person who needs 2,000 calories each day to maintain a healthy body weight could eat 6 to 8 servings of grains (at least half of the servings should be whole-grain foods).
This serving suggestion is backed up by the well known, almighty food pyramid, which has at it’s base 6-11 servings per day of grains, rice, and pasta.
So in essence, the government, their doctors, and grain selling corporations are telling us we need grains because they’re….
- Cholesterol Lowering
- Low in Saturated Fat
- High In Fiber
- High in Essential Vitamins and Minerals
What if I were to tell you there’s a type of food out there that not only blows whole grains out of the water in terms of fiber, vitamins, and minerals, but you can also eat more of it in terms of volume and still consume fewer calories than grains. What is this magical food group you ask? It’s that lonely step child of the government sitting at the top left of the grains in the pyramid requiring a measly 3-5 servings per day: Vegetables. Let’s see how they stack up against whole grains…
The Tale of the Tape: Whole Grains vs. Veggies
I wanted to test the claims of the government and food manufacturers that grains were in fact a quality option for maintaining a low calorie diet, improving health markers, and getting high levels of fiber, vitamins, and minerals. To do that, I pitted 500 calories of whole grain bread against 500 calories of a small group of vegetables. 500 calories is about 6.4 ounces of grain, which is 4-6 slices of bread. This is less than the government RDA, but it’s a nice round number and the total numbers don’t really matter all that much as long as we’re using the same number of vegetable calories to compare against. For the vegetable group, I chose a healthy, well rounded group of four: broccoli, sweet potatoes, asparagus, and mushrooms. Using nutrition information provided by Nutrition Data, I compiled the table that follows. For the whole grain bread column, I calculated the levels of each nutrient in a 500 calorie serving. For the vegetables, I calculated the levels of each nutrient in a 125 calorie serving then added the four vegetables together to get a total of 500 calories.
No contest. 1st round knock out. According to the AHA, grains have an abundance of fiber, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, folate, iron, magnesium, and selenium. On all of those nutrients, grains fell short of the vegetables with the following total % of the amount in veggies, respectively: 59.7%, 37.9%, 17.7%, 21.6%, 15.4%, 27.5%, 50.3%, and 85.5%. The only two nutrients that had even 60% of the offerings of the vegetable group were maganese and selenium.
Beyond that, vegetables provide enormous amounts of other vitamins and minerals, which is far from common knowledge to most people. This serving of veggies alone provides 500% of the recommended daily values of vitamin C and if you can believe it, 50% of our daily calcium needs. Yet all we hear about is oranges and milk for those things. Not only do vegetables pack a significantly higher nutritional punch than whole grains, but they are also vastly more filling. Just to achieve the 125 calories of broccoli in my experiment, you’d need to eat about 6 cups of the stuff, whereas it would only require a slice and a half of morning toast to hit that caloric level. Which do you think would do a better job at satiating your hunger?
Why Not Vegetables?
It would seem strange given this analysis that an entire 6-11 servings on the bottom of the food pyramid is devoted to a food group that is in every way, shape, and form a poor substitute for another food group on that same pyramid. When logic fails, it always helps to follow the money. In order to wrap your mind around the screwy structure of the food pyramid, ask the following question:
What is more profitable; a pound of cereal or a pound of broccoli?
Back in my freshman economics class in college, we learned one of the paramount rules for increasing profit margin: differentiate yourself from the competition. In every industry, a company that can build respected brand recognition with the consumer by differentiating their product from the nearest competitor will be able to command the highest price premium. iPhones and MacBooks are some the most expensive products in their respective product space, yet they sell like hot cakes because of the cache and brand recognition of Apple.
The same rules apply in the food industry. In order to profit from the food system, corporations must effectively turn food into food products. Meat and carrots become Tyson frozen dinners, potatoes become Lays chips, and corn turns into everything. Once these products are effectively marketed to consumers, consumers become attached to them. People cling to their love of Gatorade, Power Bars, Sun Chips, and Lean Cuisine. These products are all offered at a premium price over and above the cost it takes to produce them from dirt cheap ingredients.
Contrast this to broccoli. There is no corporate manufacturer of broccoli. There is no owned recipe or patent for broccoli. Anyone with gardening knowledge and a patch of good earth can grow it. In the consumer’s eye, broccoli is all the same. There is no way for one manufacturer to differentiate their broccoli from another manufacturer’s. Additionally, broccoli is perishable, unlike all of the food products listed above. All of these facts add up to broccoli being a very poor money making venture for a corporation.
The fact is that the vast majority of ‘food products’ (not food) are made with some form of grain, be it wheat, corn, or soy. These grains (along with sugar) form the nutritional backbone of the vast majority of food products in the middle aisles of every supermarket in America. And they’re incredibly profitable. In the Fortune 500, there are 13 direct producers of food products in the top 200 alone. For an extended look at how powerful and successful the companies involved in the food system have become, take a look at the bottom section of this post from Andrew at Evolvify. Because of how shoddy campaign finance regulations are in this country, a sizeable portion of these corporate profits are being routed to Washington to protect their interests. The food pyramid, farming subsidies, and most of the AHA message have been built from these dollars.
From a pure numbers standpoint, vegetables are a better option is every single area by a long shot compared to grains on a calorie per calorie basis. However, the cold reality of it all is that the vegetables I listed in my analysis are about 8-10 times the cost of the bread, depending on your sources. In the words of Michael Pollan, “we need to find a way to make carrots cheaper than chips.”