Are Grains Really Dangerous to Our Health?

By Brane Žilavec, May 2015

4. Is consumption of grains at the root of the modern health crisis?

The anti-grain health experts have gathered around the phenomenon of gluten intolerances, but they don't stop at this point. They are linking the consumption of grains with a host of modern diseases. For example, some claim that there exist "the impact of wheat, rye, barley, spelt, kamut, triticale and other grains on a range of conditions … on more than 200 chronic illnesses and conditions, including cancer, autoimmune disease, osteoporosis, brain disorders, intestinal disease, chronic, pain, digestive disorders, infertility and problematic pregnancies." [1] Another author writes that "grains have been heralded since time immemorial as the 'staff of life', when in fact, they are more accurately described as a cane, precariously propping up a body starved of the nutrient-dense, low-starch vegetables, fruits, edible seeds and meats, they have so thoroughly supplanted (c.f. Paleolithic Diet). Most of the diseases of affluence, e.g. type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, cancer, etc. can be linked to a grain-based diet, including secondary 'hidden sources' of grain consumption in grain-fed fish, poultry, meat and milk products." [2]

There is no doubt that people in the United States are today experiencing an enormous health crisis with steeply increasing rates of obesity, diabetes, cancer, and other illnesses with more or less established links to the modern diet. But why – according to the anti-grain health experts – should the main culprit be grains, or gluten grains? Where is the evidence for such a radical conclusion?

The Cases of Healing by Elimination of Gluten or Gluten Grains

The literature of anti-grain health experts abounds with the cases of patients who have been healed from serious diseases with elimination of gluten or wheat or gluten grains from their diet. For example, in Wheat Belly we can read about one patient, Wendy, who struggled unsuccessfully with ulcerative colitis for more than ten years, accompanied with constant cramping, diarrhoea, frequent bleeding and anemia. The medications didn't help; but after she has eliminated from her diet wheat and gluten she has completely recovered (see Appendix 3: The True Story of Healing). No doubt, this is one example of the astounding healing caused by the change of a diet. In spite of such evidence the author's conclusion that she "was cured by wheat gluten elimination" is incorrect. How is this possible? The reason is provided by the same author when he explains that "sticking to wheat- and gluten-free foods can be as easy as restricting yourself to foods that don't require a label… such as cucumber, kale, cod, salmon, olive oil, walnuts, eggs and avocados." [3]

Such a change is obviously not a minor one when people eliminate one offending food from their diet and then experience improvement of their health. Here we have an example of radical change of diet. Even with the absence of information on what exactly Wendy was eating before, we can imagine that she would not experience such dramatic improvements if her previous diet was not an average American diet. Therefore the suggestion that her health improved solely due to elimination of wheat gluten cannot be proven until all other impacts of such a radical change of diet as in the elimination of almost all processed foods is properly investigated.

This is very common mistake of anti-grain health experts. For example, Dr Perlmutter reports in his book Grain Brain: "Many of my patients reach me once they have 'tried everything' and have been to scores of other doctors in search for help. Whether it's headaches and migraines, Tourette's syndrome, seizures, insomnia, anxiety, ADHD, depression, or just some odd set of neurological symptoms with no definite label, one of the first things I do is prescribe the total elimination of gluten from their diets. And the results continue to astound me… It's my belief that gluten is a modern poison... The good news is that knowing this common denominator now means we can treat and, in some cases, cure a wide spectrum of ailments with a single prescription: the eviction of gluten from diet." [4] This is the conclusion of the author. However, when we look at his dietary plan we find beside elimination of all sources of gluten, also elimination of all forms of processed carbs, sugar, starch, packaged food labeled 'fat-free' or 'low-fat', and so on. On top of this he recommends a daily supplement regimen for the rest of the patient's life. With all these inputs it is simply impossible to tell if gluten was the main culprit or not.

Other health practitioners and experts also report improvement of specific health conditions with elimination of wheat or gluten grains from patients' diets. There are also many people who out of their own initiative eliminated gluten-containing foods from their diet and felt much better than before. There is no doubt that the eventual positive impact of such dietary interventions on human health can be for many people very surprising. But they prove nothing more than the great significance of proper nutrition for human health. When we try to find out what exactly made the main impact and why, the answers are not as simple as many people would like to have them. For people do not eat just gluten, or just wheat, or just gluten grains, but foods made from numerous ingredients, including a host of food additives. And people don't just eat, they also drink, including stimulants such as alcoholic drinks, sugary drinks, coffee and tea; many take food supplements, sleeping pills, painkillers and other medicines to alleviate their chronic diseases. And human health is not dependent just on what we consume, but from many other influences which can be encompassed by the word 'life-style'. From a holistic perspective everything that we do has an effect on the way we feel – either good or bad, healthy or ill.

Another method used by the anti-grain health experts to prove the negative health impacts of gluten is the use of medical studies. For example, in the article Avoiding Gluten Good For More Than Just Celiacs, Study Confirms the Sayer Ji claims that "a new study provides sound evidence that one does not need to have classically defined celiac disease … in order to benefit from going gluten free." [5] When we look more closely we find that:

With such shortcomings it is very daring to conclude that "gluten avoidance is an evidence-based, precautionary dietary approach" as the author of the article does. Of course, we do not deny the fact that there are people with various intensities of gluten intolerance, from mild to moderate, and to the more serious, such as coeliac disease. But the existence of such conditions cannot be transferred to the rest of human beings, nor to the societies existing in the past.

Besides, the majority of medical evidence provided by anti-grain health experts is relating to stories of people living in United States. What this evidence demonstrates is nothing else but the present state of the specific health problems of the specific groups of people who have been examined. This is true also for any medical evidence from any country in the world. Even in the case of several studies with similar outcomes we cannot eliminate the existence of a group of people who would react differently to consumption of a specific food.

On top of this, no amount of medical evidence can prove that the specific grain (or specific substance contained in specific grain) is always triggering the same onset of negative metabolic processes which are culminating in the occurrence of specific disease. It should be obvious that medical evidence is reporting about pathological – not the healthy – responses of the human organism. The main difference between the healthy and unhealthy response of the human organism is that the metabolic processes in the first case are working as they should work, and in the second case they are not. Human beings become ill when their metabolic processes get out of balance! To assume that pathologic responses to consumption of grains are a kind of norm valid for all human beings is really seriously missing the point.

The anti-grain health experts are continually suggesting this scenario with the use of such broad generalization as: "Gluten and carbs are destroying your brain. And not just unhealthy carbs, but even healthy ones like whole grains can cause dementia, ADHD, anxiety, chronic headaches, depression, and much more." [6] Or: "Wheat has intrinsic narcotic properties… highly narcotic… (It stimulates) our opoid circuit in the brain … and causing (a craving which ensures) that we always come back" [7] for another piece of bread, for another burst of pleasure. The fact that this happens to some people cannot be translated into a proof that the consumption of grains will always impact people in the same way. We are not like one animal species eating the same food; our food choices are not affected only by our bodily needs, but also by our nationality, family and our personal preferences. But so far "the study of human nutrition has been concerned with what applies to all human beings, and … nutrition in future decades will … turn its attention more and more to understanding and supplying individual needs – needs that quantitatively do not apply to all humanity but are more or less distinctive and crucial for individuals." [8] This means that "in medicine we must recognize individuality at biochemical and physiological level" [9] and consequently avoid any generalizations which don't take into account that "each human individual has quantitatively a distinctive pattern of nutritional needs (and that) from individual to individual, specific needs may vary several-fold." [10] All this demonstrates very limited validity of scientific studies and dangers of one-sided generalizations and misinterpretations of medical facts.

The grains as the cause of obesity and diabetes pandemic

The consumption of grains is linked by anti-grain health experts to the modern health crisis not only because of their gluten content, but also because of their carbohydrates. In The Non-Grain Diet Dr Mercola writes that "one of the most critical problems with grain consumption is that grains elevate blood glucose levels, and thus trigger cravings for sweets … Even though carbohydrates themselves are fat-free, excess carbohydrates end up stored in your body as excess fat." [11] Then in the description of the biochemistry of weight gain he concludes: "Following a grain meal, insulin rises to lower blood sugar. This causes hunger soon after the meal. Cravings result, usually for sweets, leading you to snack – often on more grains and sweets. Not eating makes you feel ravenous, shaky, moody and ready to 'crash'. This cycle becomes chronic. You never get rid of that extra stored fat, and your energy nose-dives. This is called grain addiction. What you're eating drives you to eat more of wrong foods. This is the biochemical reason why all starchy vegetables, grains, and sugar are addictive." [12]

In Wheat Belly Dr Davis writes: "Because of wheat's incredible capacity to send blood sugar levels straight up, initiate the glucose-insulin roller coaster ride that drives appetite, generate addictive brain-active exorphins and grow visceral fat, it is the one essential food to eliminate in a serious effort to prevent, reduce or eliminate diabetes." [13]

Sometimes the generalized statements of anti-grain health experts get really absurd. For example (italics mine): "We've known for more than thirty years that wheat increases blood sugar more than table sugar, but we still somehow think that's not possible. It seems counterintuitive. But it's a fact that few foods produce as much of a surge in blood glucose as those made with wheat." [14] "Oatmeal, for instance, whether 'stone-ground', Irish or slow-cooked, will cause blood sugar to skyrocket." [15] "Any meal or snack high in carbohydrates (from grains) generates a rapid rise in blood glucose." [16]

A sensible person cannot deny that there are obviously people who cannot manage sugar metabolism to such a degree as referred above. But a sensible person must also refuse any attempts to attribute to grains a more negative impact on the level of blood sugar than it is the case with the sugar. There is one simple experiment that can prove the absurdity of above statements. All we need is two groups of people, one eating only bread for a week – a good quality traditional wholemeal bread! – another group eating only sugar, and then measure their blood sugar levels and other health parameters.

In spite of such common sense contra-argument there is an evident tendency of anti-grain health experts to sideline the impact of increased sugar consumption in modern American diet and instead put the main blame on grains. This doesn't mean that they don't advise the elimination of sugar, but only that they don't investigate the possible cumulative effects of high sugar consumption, in combination with highly-processed food products made from grains, on the human ability to properly metabolize carbohydrates. Instead they prefer to condemn grains.

There is even statistical evidence that we should focus our attention on sugar. Dr Robert Lustig reports about the following investigation: "We asked the question: What in the world's food supply explains diabetes rates, country-by-country, over the last decade? We melded databases from the Food and Agriculture Organization, which measures food availability, the International Diabetes Federation, which measures diabetes prevalence, the World Bank, and the World Health Organization. We assessed total calories; meat (protein); oils (fat); cereals (glucose); pulses, nuts, vegetables, roots, and tubers (fiber); fruit excluding wine (natural sugar); and sugar, sugar crops, and sweeteners (added sugar). We controlled for poverty, urbanization, aging, and most important, obesity and physical activity. Bottom line – only changes in sugar availability explained changes in diabetes prevalence worldwide; nothing else mattered." [17]

Beside the sheer amount of sugar consumed nowadays in the standard American diet, one needs to take into account that the vast majority of sugar consumed in United States is either high fructose corn syrup (artificially sweetener created from genetically modified maize) or white sugar – that is, sugar stripped of all essential trace minerals and vitamins which are present in whole unrefined sugar. The overconsumption of such extremely bad quality sweeteners on a daily basis is the main culprit causing serious disruption in the metabolic processes involved in digestion and transformation of carbohydrates. The situation can be exacerbated, of course, by the regular consumption of refined foods, such as white bread, white pasta, etc. Thus one can imagine that in specific people because of specific reasons their ability to properly digest carbohydrate foods can be seriously compromised. In such cases they need to eliminate all carbohydrate-rich foods, including grains. But this is a case of dietary therapy and as such cannot be transferred to those who doesn't have the same health problems – even as a preventive diet – before all other important factors which contribute to human health or illness are properly investigated.

The Limits of Arguments Based on Biochemical Pathways

The arguments of anti-grain health experts are firmly rooted in descriptions of biochemical pathways in the human organism. For example, in The Dark Side of the Wheat Sayer Ji writes: "Thankfully, we don't need to rely on our intuition, or even (not so) common sense to draw conclusions about the inherently unhealthy nature of wheat. A wide range of investigation has occurred over the past decade revealing the problem with the alcohol-soluble protein component of wheat known as gliadin; the glycoprotein known as lectin (wheat germ agglutinin (WGA)); the opioid-like peptides known as gluten exorphins and gliadomorphin, and the excitotoxic potentials of high levels of aspartic and glutamic acid found in wheat. Add to these, the antinutrients found in grains such as phytates, enzyme inhibitors, etc. and you have a substance which we may more appropriately consider the farthest thing from wholesome." [18]

This whole document is based on the descriptions of metabolic pathways in which this or that substance causes this or that impact until the occurrence of a specific health problem. The document is then finished with an impressive list of scientific studies, a 90-page quick reference guide containing hyperlinks to research on the National Library of Medicine on over 120 diseases that have been linked to wheat consumption.

However, what the author doesn't mention is the fact that all food substances are part of metabolic pathways which are far more complex than those presented to the readers. "Nutrients generally do not follow a single predictable path after they enter the trillions of cells in our bodies. In most cases, the potential route a nutrient can take once it enters the body branches out, directly or indirectly, into multiple pathways of products (metabolites), with each pathway possibly branching out into still more pathways. Furthermore as these pathways develop, they may lead to many different kinds of activi­ties or functions, like mobilization of energy and repair of damaged cells. The dominant pathways end up determining to a great extent whether we enjoy health or suffer disease. Understanding metabolism is not just a matter of following a nutrient down a large number of independent pathways, however. As these pathways branch out, their integration with one another seems endless." [19]

The fact is that in the human organism various things influence each other. Any attempt to single out the impact of one food or one ingredient is an extreme case of simplification. For that reason any claim of anti-grain health experts that the main culprits are grains – or gluten grains, or wheat, or gluten, or gliadin, or starches, or amylopectin A, or any other part of grains – is a matter of choice on the basis of personal preferences. You need just to see one modern map of metabolic pathways ( to grasp "how impossible it is to fully understand the way our bodies react to the foods we eat and the nutrients they contain. Explaining nutrient function by only one or even a couple of these reactions is not sufficient. Once consumed, nutrients interact with one another and with other food-borne chemicals within an enormous maze of metabolic reactions located in hundred trillion cells" [20] of the human organism.

Inside such context the following message of the anti-grain health experts gets another meaning: "Whatever health problems concern you, whether for a loved one or yourself, the answer is often found in diet and how the body reacts to foods. And the culprit may be the grain products you are eating and en­joying every day. The very food that provided the foundation of today's civilization, the food that is enshrined in the holy scriptures of several of the world's oldest religions, the food that is touted as the 'staff of life', is really an unexpectedly common, serious threat to human wellness and existence… Many people eat grains daily because they are cheap and abundant, yet science is reporting that these very same grains are bringing us to the brink of an enormous health crisis." [21]

The sole indisputable point stated above is that the answer for many modern health problems can be "often found in diet and how the body reacts to foods." The rest are conjectures and suggestions, because the evidence provided by the anti-grain health experts – or any other medical evidence – is "only an infinitesimally small fraction of the total number of interactions operating every moment in our bodies. Clearly, the common belief that we can investigate the effects of a single nutrient or drug, unmindful of the potential modifications by other chemical factors, is foolhardy." [22] The confirmation for such a conclusion is provided even by one member of the anti-grain movement, by Dr Perlmutter himself: "Every day we hear of some news item related to health. We are bombarded by messages about our health – good, bad and confusingly contradictory. And we are literally mesmerized by the messages. Even the smart, educated, cautious, and skeptical consumer is mesmerized. It's hard to separate truth from fiction, and to know the difference between what's healthful and harmful when the information endorsements come from 'experts'. If you consider some of the advice doled out in the past century from these so-called experts, you'll quickly realize that many things do not always appear as they seem. It's quite common to witness a complete about-face when it comes to the validity of a certain fact, claim, or practice." [23]

Now – according to the health experts of the anti-grain movement – we do not need to worry anymore. Now we finally know the 'truth' based on the same kind of confusingly contradictory arguments (as it is demonstrated in this investigation). The only difference is that now we have finally found out that the 'main culprits' are grains. However, if the grains themselves were at the root of modern health crisis – if they were so detrimental to human health as is explained in many details by the anti-grain health experts – then Roman, old Greek and old Egyptian societies would collapse in a few centuries simply because they lacked the advantages of modern technology and medicine by which the modern societies, such as American and British, are keeping the present health crisis under control – with great efforts and costs to the all society. But even such an approach has its limits; these medical systems are already struggling under the enormous human and financial burdens. As reported in Newsweek "health-care costs have been steadily rising by more than the rate of inflation, consuming ever larger chunks of the economy: 12% in 1990, 17% in 2010, and projected at 25% in 2025." [24] Or in other words: Sooner or later Americans will run out of money to spend on health care because too many people are having too many illnesses!

At the very root of the modern health crisis we can find the materialistic reductionism which is not ready to admit the existence of the enormous complexity of living organisms. "The one nutrient/one disease relationship implied by reductionism, although widely popular, is simply incorrect. Every nutrient-like chemical that enters the complex systems of reactions (in the human organism) creates a rippling effect that may extend far into the pool of metabolism. And with every bite of food we eat, there are tens and probably hundreds of thousands of food chemicals entering this metabolism pool more or less simultaneously." [25]

On top of this we need to take into account that "nutrition is not a mathematical equation in which two plus two is four. The food we put in our mouth doesn't control our nutrition – not entirely. What our bodies do with that food does… Our bodies use countless mechanisms, strategically placed throughout our digestion, absorption, and transport and metabolic pathways, to effortlessly ensure tissue concentrations consistent with good health – no database consultation required. But as long as we let reductionism guide our research and our understanding of nutrition, good health will remain unattainable." [26] This means that we cannot proceed with ordinary analytical and causative way of thinking when studying the origins of illnesses in the human organism.

However, all documents of anti-grain health experts are permeated with such reductionist approach, and this is the basis of all their health claims, including their conclusion that grains are the main culprit behind the modern health crisis. Then we should not be surprised that "ever since we 'scientized' nutrition, the state of our health has declined. Decisions about what to eat and drink have gone from habits of culture and heritage to calculated choices based on shortsighted nutritional theories, with little consideration of how human beings reached modernity in the first place." [25] Thus the main message of the modern health crisis is that we need to change the outdated ways of an materialistic approach to nutritional research and start with the truly holistic one if we want to deal in a fruitful way with such topics as to what people ought to eat to keep slim and healthy.


  1. James Braly, MD, Ron Hoggan, MA, Dangerous Grains, Why Gluten Cereal Grains May Be Hazardous to Your Health, Avery, New York, 2002
  2. Sayer Ji, The Dark Side of the Wheat, A Critical Appraisal of the Role of Wheat in Human Disease, pdf report available for free if you register at
  3. William Davis, MD, Wheat Belly, Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight and Find Your Path Back to Health, Harper Thorsons, London, 2014
  4. Dr David Perlmutter, Grain Brain, The Surprising Truth About Wheat, Carbs and Sugar – Your Brain's Silent Killers, Yellow Kite Books, London, 2014
  5. Sayer Ji, Avoiding Gluten Good For More Than Just Celiacs, Study Confirms, 11.03.2015
  6. See note 4
  7. Interview with Sayer Ji,
  8. Roger J. Williams, PhD, Biochemical Individuality, The Basis for the Genetotrophic Concept, Keats Publishing, USA, 1998 (1956)
  9. As above
  10. As above
  11. Dr Joseph Mercola, The No-Grain Diet: Conquer Carbohydrate Addiction & Stay Slim for Life, Penguin Group, USA, 2003
  12. As above
  13. See note 4
  14. See note 4
  15. See note 3
  16. Dr Mercola, Reduce Grains and Sugar to Lose Weight and Improve Health
  17. Robert Lustig, MD, Still Believe 'A Calorie Is a Calorie'?, 29.04.2013
  18. See note 2
  19. T. Colin Campbell, PhD with Howard Jacobson, PhD, Whole – Rethinking the Science of Nutrition, BenBella Books, USA, 2014
  20. As above
  21. See note 1
  22. See note 19
  23. See  note 4
  24. Newsweek,15 February 2010
  25. See note 19
  26. See note 19
  27. See note 4