Diets like Paleo and Whole30 are getting grains all wrong

Grains have done a lot for us over the years.
Grains have done a lot for us over the years.
Image: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
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“At this point there’s no longer a good reason to include wheat in our diets, except in cases of famine.” With these words, health guru Dave Asprey—author of the New York Times bestseller The Bulletproof Diet and promoter of buttered coffee as brain food—sought to ring the death knell for one of the world’s favorite crops.

Asprey was writing on his Facebook page last October, where he had discussed a study linking wheat consumption to chronic inflammation. “Grains wrap themselves in proteins that slowly poison animals not evolved to eat them, like us,” he told his 350,000 Facebook fans. I protested in a comment that every great empire we’ve known has flourished in part because of grains. “Actually, grain was great food for ancient soldiers and peasants,” he replied. “People who follow Bulletproof don’t want to eat drone chow.”

Indeed, eschewing grains has become a hallmark of the urbane and elite. Asprey is one of a number of self-styled experts who argue that cereal crops will make you pack on pounds, hurt your health and impair your brain. Those figures include William Davis, bestselling author of WheatBelly; David Perlmutter, author of Grain Brain: The Surprising Truth About Wheat, Carbs, and Sugar—Your Brain’s Silent Killers; and husband and wife fitness team Dallas and Melissa Hartwig, who developed the popular Whole30 cleanse. Their 30-day cleanse forbids “hormone-unbalancing, gut-disrupting, inflammatory food groups,” including grains. And then, of course, there is the “insanely popular” Paleolithic “caveman” diet, which centers on eggs, meat, fish, fruits and nuts. Nary a grain graces a paleo plate. All of these diets suggest that giving up grains is an essential part of self-optimization.

But history suggests this mindset gets grains all wrong. Far from the foodstuff of mindless drones, grains are the building blocks of civilization.

As historian Rachel Laudan writes in Cuisine and Empire, every single great city-state—from Indonesia to China to the Roman Empire—has been built on the powerful nutrition and easy portability of grains. “Cities, states, and armies appeared only in regions of grain cuisines,” Laudan notes in her book. Ancient Romans built their empire on barley porridge; Chinese on rice porridge (congee); Indians on rice and lentil porridge (kichree). Polenta (millet and later maize porridge) was favored by Italian peasants. American colonies relied on grits. Laudan notes that in Hebrew, the word lehem means both grain and meal.

Laudan says that even food historians are surprised when she explains how essential grains have been to human civilization. “The most tweeted line from a presentation I gave at the Southern Foodways Alliance this fall was that most humans had depended on grains for most of history,” she says. “You would not have thought this came as a surprise.”

No matter where you go in the world today, cities continue to be fed on grains, except in the high Andes. “Basically, to maintain a city, you’ve got to get grains into it,” Laudan says. “Be it Bangkok, be it Guangzhou, be it London, or be it Rome—throughout history, grains and cities are two sides of the coin.”

To the modern consumer, grains often seem ordinary—available in limitless forms almost everywhere we go. But they were once as valuable as precious metals, and were a common form of payment. And for good reason: They hold a treasure of nutrition within their hard, indigestible outsides. Once cracked and soaked or milled, they can be transformed into porridges, pottages, pastas, breads, and spirits.

Though our tool-bearing ability to hunt, spear, eat and cook animals allowed us to grow big brains, cooked carbs also furthered our evolution. We also have grains to thank for keeping our ancestors healthy and well-fed. It’s well known that the fiber in whole grains helps reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes and other illnesses. Today, we continue to reap their benefits, as demonstrated by a 2015 study by Harvard researchers followed nearly 120,000 individuals for over 14 years. All were free of cardiovascular disease and cancer in 1984 when the study began, but by 2010 more than 26,000 had died. Those who ate the most whole grains were more protected from illness, and for each ounce of whole grains eaten each day, the risk of all-cause mortality (death from all causes) was reduced by another 5%.

So how have we arrived at a moment when the argument over grains is as fierce and furious as the fights waged between vegans and meat-eaters? Is there any validity to the views of people like Asprey? The answer may have more to do with how we live, and how we produce our grains, than grains themselves.

One theory holds that the more diverse and robust our gut flora, the better we tolerate all grains. In a corner of Russia where everybody is exposed to microbes in the environment and on the farm, and babies are routinely breastfed, bread is a key staple, and many allergies as well as celiac disease rates are low. “The same genes exposed to the same quantity of gluten do not, in that environment, produce the same frequency of disease,” writes Moises Velasquez-Manoff in the New York Times.

It’s also possible that today’s commercial grains are grown, sprayed, processed and stored in ways that possibly increase their toxicity. Commercially milled, shelf-ready grains and flours can also harbor mycotoxins, and there is evidence they are harmful to health. I wasn’t surprised to read a new study that found mycotoxins in corn products can build up to detrimental levels, especially in those on gluten-free diets that rely heavily corn.

Glenn Roberts, founder of heirloom grain purveyor Anson Mills in Columbia, SC, notes that “modern wheat farming seeds 150 pounds per acre. Nobody planted that densely before the industrial revolution.” With more space, cereal crops have room to “tiller” out into bushes, instead of single rows of straw. Then farmers can plant other types of crops, fixing a rainbow of healthy nutrients into the soil and leading to healthier, disease-resistant crops.

But fresh, heirloom grains open up another food heaven entirely. “I mill all my own local or ancient grains, and it’s a mind-blowingly different experience,” says whole grain guru Maria Speck, author of Simply Ancient Grains and Ancient Grains for Modern Meals. Speck says as recently as five years ago, people thought she was weird for milling her own grains. But now they’ve come to expect it, and are even doing so themselves. “Kitchenaid offers a reasonably priced attachment to the standard mixer, so that you can easily mill grains on your kitchen counter,” she says. Speck’s books offer inventive recipes like teff porridge with coconut cream, cocoa and molasses; or bulgur wheat simmered in pomegranate juice, served with blueberries in orange blossom water. “Many of us simply don’t understand how delicious fresh grains can be.”

For me, a celiac sufferer, wheat, rye and barley are out anyway. But otherwise, I choose heirloom, organically grown grains—buckwheat, sorghum, heirloom rice and corn, quinoa, teff. I source them whole or freshly milled, and either cook them that way, or grind them myself in a Vitamix blender. That doesn’t have to be the solution for everyone. But melting butter into my rough-hewn blue corn grits from the mountains of the Carolinas, I can say that, like my ancestors, I’m grateful for grains.