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“People from Africa, Asia, and Latin America eat lots of grains and manage to stay skinny, so what’s the deal?”
You know this line of questioning. We’ve all heard it. We’ve probably all pondered it. It may have even stumped a few of you, left you stuttering and stammering for a quick explanation. But by the time you think of a reply (if you even have one), the moment has passed and they have “won” the argument. A briefly open mind was now closed.
But let’s be honest: it’s a valid question, and a tough one at that. We can’t just avoid the tough questions. So let’s take this head on.
Like always, the answer is multifaceted. Health is not reliant on a single feature. It’s not just diet, it’s exercise, stress, sleep, family, community, genetics, infectious burden. Within diet, it’s not just what is eaten, but also what isn’t eaten. It’s how food is prepared, whether it’s cooked or eaten raw. Find me a culture who thrived on grains as a staple food, and I’ll find you a culture who came up with some elaborate preparation method to mitigate the antinutrients and enhance the nutrient bioavailability of those grains. Find me a culture whose health thrived on toxin-rich grains as a staple without mitigating said toxins, and I’ll be waiting a long time (and observing the United States through smug Primal shades while I wait).
In today’s post, I’m going to explore the primary reason for why so many traditional cultures who ate grains managed to stay thin and relatively free of degenerative diseases: traditional grain preparation, including soaking, sprouting, and fermentation. If you’re familiar with the Weston A. Price Foundation‘s stance on grains, you’re probably aware of these preparation methods. Each step alters the nutritional experience of the grain to varying degrees, making it more digestible, less toxic, and tastier. I for one am not willing to go through hoops to make grass babies go down easier, but the process is nonetheless extremely interesting. And in the future, if any of my readers want to give grains a shot, at least they’ll do it right, or as right as it can get. As I always say, the only reason to make grains any part of your diet is as a cheap source of calories that converts to glucose very quickly.
You know how cool parents will drink or smoke with their teens to teach them mature consumption of potentially illicit substances before they learn to do it all wrong it in the wild world? This post is kinda like that.
Let’s first do a quick rundown of what exactly we’re trying to avoid, deactivate, or mitigate. We gotta know what we’re up against.
Phytic acid: Phytic acid is the main storage form of phosphorus in grains. That's awesome for the grain, which needs phosphorus, but there's a catch. Phytate also binds to many minerals, including zinc, magnesium, calcium, and iron, to name several. And, since non-ruminants don't possess phytase, which digests phytate and releases the bound minerals for easy absorption, eating large quantities of phytate-containing foods results in mineral deficiencies for meat-eating apes. These deficiencies, taken to an extreme, can manifest as tooth decay, which might explain why early grain eating populations had worse teeth than the hunter-gatherers who preceded them.
Enzyme inhibitors: Grains are seeds that require certain wet, nutrient rich conditions for proper growth. Spontaneous germination is counterproductive (you don’t want your children settling down in an area with high crime and high unemployment, do you?), so enzyme inhibitors prevent it. When moisture abounds (like, when soaking grains), the inhibitors are deactivated and sprouting occurs. So why should we care? Certain other enzyme inhibitors also inhibit our ability digest the grains. If you’re relying on grains as a dietary staple, you can’t afford not to wring every last drop of nutrition out of them.
Lectins: I covered lectins fairly comprehensively in a previous post, so I’ll keep it brief. Lectins are nature’s pesticides, protecting the tiny grain from predation. They can perforate the intestinal lining, disrupt our immune systems, and there’s even evidence that they bind to leptin receptors in the hypothalamus (potentially triggering leptin resistance).
Gluten: You know this guy. Found in wheat, rye, and barley, he’s a real bastard of a protein – and possibly not just to celiacs. There’s some evidence that true fermentation can break down gluten, but not all of it. Some Italian researchers used a unique blend of bacterial species to break down 99% of the gluten in sourdough bread, but it was under strict, extremely contrived laboratory conditions. More on that later.
So, how do traditional cultures take care of the aforementioned?
Soaking and Sprouting
I’ve written about soaking nuts and seeds before, and soaking grains is the same idea. The grains are covered with water, placed in a preferably warm place, and soaked for between 12 and 24 hours. There’s not much more to it than that. After soaking, you drain them, rinse them, and let the grains sit out for a couple days. To get grains to sprout, rinse and drain them a couple times each day until sprouts emerge.
Effect on phytate: If the grain contains phytase, some of the mineral-binding phytic acid will be deactivated, but not much. And if the grain has been heat-treated, which destroys phytase, or it contains very little phytase to begin with, the phytic acid will remain completely intact. Overall, neither soaking nor sprouting deactivates a significant amount of phytate.
Effect on enzyme inhibitors: Well, since the seed has been placed in a wet medium and allowed to sprout, the enzyme inhibitors are obviously mostly deactivated. Digestion is much improved (cooking will improve it further).
Effect on lectins: The evidence is mixed, and it seems to depend on the grain. Sprouted wheat, for example, is extremely high in WGA, the infamous wheat lectin. As the wheat grain germinates, the WGA is retained in the sprout and is dispersed throughout the finished plant. In other grains, sprouting seems more beneficial, but there’s always some residual lectins that may need further processing to deactivate.
Effect on gluten: Sprouting reduces gluten to some extent, but not by very much. Don’t count on it. A little bit goes a long way.