Delta turned grain-free when she was five months old.
A year ago, we brought our boss home. When I took her to the vet for her first check-up, she emphasised the benefits of a a grain-free diet. Most kittens are raised on the supermarket variety of dry pet food with corn, wheat and soy as fillers. Cats are obligate carnivores and do not need grains. Cats raised on conventional cat food are much more prone to obesity, diabetes and arthritis than cats who have been grain-free.
What about dogs, I asked. Aren’t they omnivores like humans?
Are they okay eating grains? Ideally, a dog’s diet should be grain-free as well, especially if it is beginning to show signs of inflammation in the joints, the vet said. It was the first time I was hearing the words “grains” and “joints” in the same sentence.
I’d experienced joint pains for nearly a decade, mainly in the knees and hips. It would feel worse during exercise or as the day wore on. I’d mentioned it to numerous doctors over the years and was told, rather disinterestedly, that I was “wearing them out ” through strenuous exercise, or was “showing signs of developing arthritis”. Or it could be related to bone loss and hence it was be prudent to “stop being vegan and include more calcium sources like dairy”. So I started eating cheese and yogurt and stopped running. Still, a dull pain in my knees was often my default state, and it would flare up really badly from time to time in the middle of a martial arts class.
Now, it’s true that women are more likely than men to suffer from a variety of chronic pain conditions. It’s also true that doctors take women’s pain less seriously and give it less attention than it deserves. A woman with chest pain is made to wait much longer in an emergency room than a man with the same complaint. And let’s hope she’s not black, ‘cos then she’ll wait even longer.
I’d stopped discussing my chronic knee pain during my annual medical check-ups ‘cos I was tired of being treated like a whiny hypochondriac. I turned to random strangers on the Internet. Based on what Delta’s vet told me, I googled “grains” and “joints”. There is a whole body of scientific literature that discusses the impact the former has on the latter – in humans.
The word that cropped up most often was “inflammation“. Chronic joint pains and arthritis are, most often, not the result of overuse. They are, in fact, an allergic response caused by an overactive immune system that is trying to deal with constant invasions by digestive stressors and toxins. (Link) The increased levels of histamine in the joints leads to swelling, which causes pain.
A simple C-Reactive Protein test helps ascertain the existence of systemic inflammation. Not one of my doctors had ever recommended it.
Lectins are sticky proteins that attach to carbs in the intestinal lining. They are potent stimulators of inflammatory cytokines that promote a host of chronic digestive and autoimmune disorders. (Link)
Lectins are found in a whole variety of foods – grains, beans, seeds, nuts, dairy, vegetables from the nightshade family. Plants use lectins as a defense against hungry animals by inflicting varying degrees of damage (or death) on those that are not adapted to the lectins in the plant. For instance, ricin (found in castor beans) is fatal to humans. Phytohaemagglutnin found in raw kidney beans is less toxic, but can cause serious illness and is destroyed through cooking.
Lectins are resistant to stomach acid and digestive enzymes. They damage the gut wall and make the membrane lining it “leaky”. They then enter the blood stream (along with other undigested non-lectin proteins) and bind to surface cell membranes in arteries and vessels, organs and glands, including the thyroid, pancreas, kidney and adrenals. This causes allergic reactions, including anaphylaxis, as well as antigen antibody reactions leading to autoimmune disorders and degenerative diseases.
Gut inflammation and permeation does not always result in full-blown allergies. People who are “sensitive”, but not “allergic” also suffer a whole array of medical conditions, of which joint pain is often a symptom.
Wheat lectins (gluten and gliadin) are among the worst offenders. A search for “arthritis+celiac disease” yielded over half a million hits.
… a hotbed of inflammatory activity beneath the surface. The visceral fat of the wheat belly, i.e., fat kidneys, fat liver, fat intestines, fat pancreas, produces abnormal inflammatory signals, such as various interleukins, tumor necrosis factor, and leptin. These are the inflammatory signals that create insulin resistance and diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, and cancer.
These same inflammatory mediators are able to enter the joint spaces, such as those in your hips, knees, and hands. This leads to osteoarthritis, the exceptionally common form of arthritis that affects 1 in 7 Americans. In particular, the level of leptin in joints mirrors that in blood, a phenomenon that has been associated with joint destruction.
The previously widely-held notion that arthritis is simply a wear-and-tear phenomenon due to the mechanical stress of excess weight is proving to be an oversimplification. Arthritis is also part of the carbohydrate-driven, weight-increasing, inflammatory condition of insulin resistance or metabolic syndrome. (Link)
A review in the New England Journal of Medicine listed 55 diseases caused by gluten. One of them is “osteoperosis”. A good percentage of the population is “gluten sensitive” without having full blown celiac disease and faces serious health risks without even realising it.
In addition to causing inflammation, lectin renders the hypothalmus resistant to leptin – the hormone that signals satiety.
Lectins from grains increases blood triglycerides, which, in turn can block leptin from passing from the blood to the brain.
Wheat Germ Agglutinin, or WGA, (a lectin present in wheat, barley, and rye) actually binds directly with the leptin receptor and prevents leptin binding. (Link)
In the U.S., foods that are genetically modified are not required to be labelled as such. Unless it says “organic” or “non-GMO”, one must assume that it has been genetically modified. That includes most corn and soy. GMO foods have been specifically modified to include lectins with the potential to enhance the plants’ resistance to insect and nematode pests.
BONE LOSS AND TOOTH DECAY
Grains, nuts and seeds are among the richest sources of phytic acid or phytates – the principal form of phosphorus storage in plant tissues. In grains, the phytic acid is concentrated in the bran.
Ruminants like cows have multiple stomachs that manufacture the enzyme phytase in order to break down the phytic acid in plant foods. Humans only have one stomach. We need to either remove the bran from grains/beans/seeds/nuts or soak/ferment them for prolonged periods of time to generate phytase action.
Phytic acid affects bone health by acting as an “anti-nutrient” in four ways.
- it bonds to nutrients like calcium and iron, rendering those, as well as the phosphorous in the phytic acid unavailable for absorption.
- in the presence of phytic acid zince and mgnesium absorption are greatly impaired.
- phytic acid interrupts the metabolism of Vitamin D.
- it inhibits enzymes required for digestion like pepsin, amylase and trypsin.
Drs. Edward and May Mellanby, who discovered Vitamin D, had two famous studies. Both revolved around oatmeal – notoriously high in phytates.
One study showed that the rickets-producing effect of oatmeal is limited by calcium.
Phosphorus in the diet (at least from grains) needs some type of calcium to bind to. This explains the synergistic combination of sourdough bread with cheese. Historically, the cultivation of grains usually accompanies the raising of dairy animals; high levels of calcium in the diet mitigates the mineral-depleting effects of phytic acid. (Source)
Another demonstrated the impact of grains on tooth decay.
It found that oatmeal accelerated tooth decay, which could be controlled by supplementing the diet with Vitamin D and calcium. A grain-free diet supplemented with Vitamin D actually reversed early tooth decay in children. (Link)
Whole grains vs refined
While whole grains have more minerals, the absorption from polished grains may be higher because they have a much lower phytate content. This study, for instance, shows higher iron absorption from white (polished) rice rather than brown rice. Adding Vitamin C (collard greens) to phytate-rich food greatly enhances iron absorption.
We need to either remove the bran from grains or soak/ferment them (as well as legumes, seeds and nuts) for prolonged periods of time to generate phytase action and neutralise the phytic acid.
Phytic acid is not all evil. It is rich in antioxidants, but we get plenty through non-grain foods. Dark chocolate is a very rich source. So are nuts and seeds. Vegetarians, especially, get more than enough from non-grain sources.
Grains high in phytates
Oats, whole wheat, brown rice, barley (all unsoaked/unsprouted)
Grains low in phytates
Millets (like ragi and bajra), White Rice, soaked/sprouted whole grains
Grains cause an acid-load on the body.
When they are metabolized, they release Sulfur K and other acids into the bloodstream.
In contrast, fruits and vegetables get broken down into bicarbonate when they are metabolized, so they add alkali to the body. And that helps to neutralize acid. Sugars and fats are generally neutral. So when the diet is relatively poor in fruits and vegetables relative to grains and protein, that’s a net acid-producing diet. (Nutrition Action, Nov. 2010 issue)
As we age, our kidney function declines, leading to excess acid in the bloodstream. The body responds to this by breaking down bone and muscle. This leads to porous bones (osteoporosis) in older people and frequent falling (and fractured bones) because of muscle wastage.
Grains occupy real estate in our plates and stomachs that could otherwise be occupied by nutrient-dense, alkalising foods that support bone and muscle health. Now that we have cut out grains, our veggie consumption has doubled.
Grains spike blood sugar faster than most other foods. This favours fat storage. (Link)
Glycation – glucose modification of proteins, also causes cartilage destruction. The cells of human cartilage lack the ability to divide, so the cartilage cells you had at age 18 are the cartilage cells that you will hopefully still have at age 80. However, high blood sugars (glucose) glycate the proteins in cartilage. (Source)
WHY EAT GRAINS?
Our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate very diverse diets averaging over a hundred types of plants and wildlife. Today, 90% of the world’s calories come from 17 agricultural sources and most of them are grains. Why is that?
- they are an easy and cheap source of calories.
- they rank as “comfort food”.
- Carbs are addictive. How addictive?
Let me see if I’ve got this right. A lifesaving therapy is offered to patients who have undergone the misery of radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and surgery, and who are beyond hope, and this therapy requires nothing more than eating a lot of butter, meat, cream, cheese, etc. while avoiding most carbohydrates. And a considerable number drop out because they can’t give up carbs? (Source)
As addictive as nicotine. Once you get on the seesaw, it’s hard to get off.
BUT WHY BOTHER?
Whole grains, conventional wisdom goes, are “good for you”. As compared to what? Refined grains.
Gluten is toxic. Period. So let’s restrict this comparison to non-gluten grains.
If you take into account how phytic acid affects mineral absorption, brown rice may not be better for you than white.
White rice is essentially nutrient-free pure starch. (That’s why, in the U.S., it is required to be fortified with synthetic vitamins and minerals). It spikes your blood sugar, but may not be so bad after a hard workout when you need to replenish your glycogen stores. But a banana is much more nutritious and convenient. You don’t even need to cook it.
How about soaked/fermented brown rice? It has fiber, B vitamins and won’t spike your blood sugar the way white rice does.
1 cup cooked brown rice – 4 grams.
A medium baked potato with skin – 4.8 grams.
A medium apple with skin – 5 grams.
A cup of cooked sweet potato – 7 grams.
A medium avocado – 11.8 grams.
As for the macro-nutrient content, brown rice does not hold a candle to any of the above-mentioned foods, not even the reviled potato.
White potatoes have twice as much riboflavin (B2), 2.5 times as much folate, vitamin C, 10 times more potassium, more than 3 times as much iron, and 25% more calcium than brown rice. Sweet potatoes are rich in provitamin A and vitamin C, three times as much B2, 5.5 times as much folate, 9 times as much potassium, slightly more iron, and more than 3 times as much calcium.
No soaking, no fussing. Stick a potato or sweet potato in the oven for a while, add a dab of coconut oil and a dash of spice, and you’re done. Or just eat a raw avocado.
We love ragi porridge, but remembering to soak it before cooking is a pain in the ass. Eggs are easier to prepare and more nutritious.
So why bother?
My joint pains disappeared after cutting out gluten, my gum sensitivity has greatly improved after cutting out all grains. We don’t miss them and fare quite well without any “cravings”. Last week we went to a pizza place with friends for our “cheat meal” and just didn’t feel like eating any wheat. Both of us ate a salad and came home fully satisfied. Once in a couple of weeks, we may eat a bit of white rice at the Thai restaurant. Or some soaked/fermented brown rice at home. But it’s too much of a bother for the amount of planning and effort involved.
Here’s the million-dollar question.
Veterinary doctors freely advocate cutting out grains in pet diets. Why do doctors treating humans consider it heresy to even suggest it to their patients? Why do they ask someone with joint inflammation to exercise less or start eating dairy instead of simply cutting out gluten?
Most medical professionals, like the rest of us, love their cookies. Grains form such a huge part of the Standard American Diet (and Standard Indian Diet) that asking people to eliminate or even reduce them is like punching their frail old grandma in the ribs. It is likely to provoke a visceral emotional response.
The general mindset seems to be that if it tastes good and doesn’t kill or cripple you in the next hour, it mustn’t be that bad for you. You have to want to be pain-free and fit enough to do what you want really badly to give up something that is everywhere in everything.
We’re glad we did.
Our own physical body possesses a wisdom which we who inhabit the body lack. We give it orders which make no sense. ~ Henry Miller
Salmon is tastier than oatmeal. ~ Empress Delta
– bee (and jai)