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The Definitive Guide to Grains

Recently by Mark Sisson: Dear Mark: Your Brain on Junk Food

Order up! Yes, folks, it's definitive guide time again. I've read your requests and am happy (as always) to oblige. Grab your coffee (or tea), and pull up a seat. Glad you're with us.

Insulin, cholesterol, fats… They're only the tip of the iceberg. I've had a few u201Cdefinitiveu201D topics up my sleeve for a while now, and grains are it for today. Yes, grains. I know we've given them a bad rap before, and it's safe to say I'll do it again here. Sometimes the truth hurts, but you know what they say about the messenger, right? Without further ado…

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Grains. Every day we're bombarded with them and their myriad of associations in American (and much of Western) culture: Wilford Brimley, Uncle Ben, the Sunbeam girl, the latest Wheaties athlete, a pastrami on rye, spaghetti dinners, buns for barbeque, corn on the cob, donuts, birthday cake, apple pie, amber waves of grain…. Gee, am I missing anything? Of course. So much, in fact, that it could – and usually does – take up the majority of supermarket square footage. (Not to mention those government farm subsidies, but that's another post.) Yes, grains are solidly etched into our modern Western psyche – just not so much into our physiology.

Those of you who have been with us a while now know the evolutionary backdrop I mean here. We humans had the pleasure and occasional scourge of evolving within a hunter gatherer existence. We're talking some 150,000 plus years of hunting and foraging. On the daily scavenge menu: meats, nuts, leafy greens, regional veggies, some tubers and roots, the occasional berries or seasonal fruits and seeds that other animals hadn't decimated. (Ever seen a dog at an apple picking?) We ate what nature (in our respective locales) served up. The more filling, the better. And then around 10,000 years ago, the tide turned. Our forefathers and mothers were on the brink of ye olde Agricultural Revolution. And, over time, grains became king. But, as countless archaeological findings suggest, people became smaller and frailer as a result of this new agrarian, grain-fed existence.

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Ten thousand years seems like a long time, doesn't it? Think of all the house projects you could get done, the advanced degrees you could earn, the dinner party recipes you could try out, the books you could read. Almost oppressive, isn't it? But our personal vantage point on the span of 10,000 years doesn't mean much of anything when the context is evolution. It takes a lot to drastically change a major system in the human body. We're talking a way bigger change than trying out the latest flavor of Malt-O-Meal. Grains were certainly not any substantial part of the human diet prior to the Agricultural Revolution. And even after grains became a large part of human existence, those who were deathly allergic to them or had zero capacity to take in their modest nutrient value were, in all likelihood, selected against. And pretty quickly at that. Those whose health was so compromised by grains that they were rendered infertile early in life were also washed out of the gene pool. That's how it works. But if you can limp along long enough to procreate (which was considerably earlier then than it typically is now), that new fangled diet of grains got you through. No matter how stunted your growth was, how awful your teeth were, how prone you were to infection.

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When I say humans didn't evolve eating grains, I mean our digestive processes didn't evolve to maximize the effectiveness of grain consumption. Just because you can tolerate grains to a certain degree, as just about all of us can (thanks to those earlier folks hitting the end of the genetic line), doesn't mean your body was designed for them or that they're truly healthy for you or – especially – that you can achieve optimum health through them. We're not talking about what will allow you to hobble along. We're talking about the foods that offer effective and efficient digestion and nutrient absorption in the body. And that's all about evolutionary design. If you're not after optimal health, you're probably reading the wrong blog. But if you want to work with your body instead of unnecessarily tax it, if you want to focus your diet on the best foods with the most positive impact, you most definitely are reading the right blog. Now let's continue.

Among my many beefs with grain, the first and foremost is the havoc it plays with insulin and other hormonal responses in the body. For the full picture, visit the previous Definitive Guide to Insulin from some months ago. Guess what? The same principles still hold. We developed the insulin response to help store excess nutrients and to take surplus (and potentially toxic) glucose out of the bloodstream. This was an adaptive trait. But it didn't evolve to handle the massive amounts of carbs we throw at it now. And, yes, we're talking mostly about grains. Unless you have a compulsive penchant for turnips, the average American's majority of carb intake comes from grains.

The gist is this (as many of you know): Whatever the carbohydrate, it will eventually be broken down into glucose, either in the gut or the liver. But now it's all dressed up with likely no place to go. Unless you just did a major workout or are finishing tying your running shoes as we speak (which would allow those grain-based carbs to be used in the restocking of depleted glycogen stores or burned as secondary fuel, respectively), that French baguette will more likely get stored as fat.

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