Humans have only been eating grains and legumes for about 10,000 years. This might seem like a long time, but in terms of human evolution, it’s just the blink of an eye.
Before our ancestors learned about agriculture, we were hunters and gatherers which meant that our diet consisted mainly of meat, fish, fruit and vegetables.
Those who follow the Paleo diet believe that we should not be eating grains or legumes at all since our digestive systems have not yet evolved to properly digest them. They cite these foods as major contributors to many diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular disease and autoimmune disorders along with obesity, autism and inflammatory conditions of the gut and skin. Many people have found relief from these conditions by removing grains and legumes completely from their diet.
There is a lot of evidence to support these claims, but, there is also evidence that grains are a healthy and nutritious part of our diet. What to do?
One of the things that grains and legumes have in common is that they’re seeds and they contain anti-nutrients, primarily lectins and phytates.
Lectins are proteins that are thought to have a protective function in the seed. Unfortunately when they are ingested by humans with our pathetic single-stomached digestive system they can run amok causing inflammatory and autoimmune conditions.
This is because lectins are recognised by the body as foreign invaders and cause the body to produce antibodies. These antibodies can then attack our own cells which are similar in structure to the lectins. Kablammo – autoimmune disease.
Lectins can also contribute to Leaky Gut Syndrome, a condition where the cell walls of the gut allow larger than normal particles through into the bloodstream. These particles set off an inflammatory response in the body that can manifest as food sensitivities and allergies such as eczema and asthma, not to mention a whole load of gut symptoms (bloating, diarrhoea, constipation etc).
Phytates are known as anti-nutrients because they bind to certain minerals such as zinc, calcium and magnesium and iron, carrying them out of the body instead of allowing us to absorb them. Not good, particularly when grains are such a huge part of the Western diet. Again, those animals blessed with more than one stomach have no problem digesting phytates, but us humans do not do so well with them.
“But”, I hear you cry, “I thought wholegrain diets were supposed to be healthy (and I really like bread…and cake…and rice…and biscuits)!”
I still believe that wholegrains can add to the nutrition in our diet but they need to be prepared properly.
Most traditional societies had a particular grain that was staple to their diet. For the Scots, it’s oats. In Asia it’s rice. In Africa maize and millet are often used. What these societies have in common is that these grains are often fermented before being consumed. As well as adding beneficial bacteria to the food, fermenting has the added bonus of reducing the amount of phytates and lectins in the grains. Our ancestors intuitively knew that grains were somehow more easily digested if fermented first.
Traditional fermented grain dishes include sowans (a drink made from fermented oat husks) in Scotland, kenkey (fermented maize) in Kenya, ogi (fermented millet or maize) in West Africa), miso (many grains plus soybeans are used) in Japan to name but a few.
Fermenting grains significantly (in some cases totally) reduces both phytates and lectins as well as adding healthy bacteria to the mix.
Sprouting is another way to reduce the amounts of anti-nutrients in legumes and grains although it is not as effective as fermenting.
Sprouting grains and legumes involves soaking them in water for 2-3 days until you see a tiny shoot, at which time they can be eaten either raw or cooked. They will be easier to digest than grains and legumes that have simply been cooked, but will still contain some amount of phytates and lectins.
In short, if you are going to consume grains, they should be properly prepared first. The exception is rice which is relatively low in anti-nutrients. If, however, you have food sensitivities, an autoimmune disease or allergies, you may want to try cutting grains out of your diet completely for a couple of months and see if your health improves.