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New Research on Eating Grains and Weight Gain (The Results May Surprise You)
There is a common perception that whole grains cause weight gain, but a new study out of Tufts University is suggesting otherwise.
Published in the Journal of Nutrition, this new researcher examined how whole-and refined-grain consumption affected five of the major risk factors for heart disease: blood pressure, blood sugar, waistline circumference, and triglyceride and HDL (good cholesterol) levels.
The study drew data from the Framingham Heart Study, which ran from 1991 to 2014 and tracked the diet and lifestyle of 3,100 adults. Every four years the Framingham researchers tallied how many servings of whole grains were consumed. (The recommended amount, according to the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans is three or more servings of whole grains each day. A serving, for example, is a half cup of rolled oats, half cup of brown rice, or a slice of whole-grain bread.)
The Framingham study found that waist size increased by an average of one inch during each four-year interval for study participants who consumed fewer whole-grains versus half an inch for those who consumed more whole grains. In addition, the high whole-grain consumers had lower blood pressure and lower blood sugar.
But those who consumed refined grains had different results. Study participants who ate fewer servings of refined grains saw a decline in triglyceride levels, which is an independent risk factor for heart disease, along with a lower average waistline increase every four years during the eighteen year study.
The Tufts’ researchers concluded that “among middle- to older-age adults, replacing refined grains with whole grains may be an effective dietary modification to attenuate abdominal adiposity, dyslipidemia [high cholesterol], and hyperglycemia [high blood sugar] over time, thereby reducing the risk of cardiometabolic diseases.”
See also Why, How, and When to Eat Wheat
Americans Love Refined Grains
Sadly, the average American eats some five servings of refined grains a day.
Making some simple shifts in food selection at the grocery store can powerfully lower cardiovascular risk. In the Tufts’ study, the major source of whole grains was whole wheat bread and whole-grain breakfast cereals, while the major source of refined grains was pasta and white bread.
Whole grains have a fiber-rich outer bran layer that attaches to bile in the gut and escorts that bile, along with the toxic material it carries, to the toilet. Without enough fiber in your diet, up to 94 percent of bile (and toxic material) is reabsorbed back into the liver. The inner germ layer of whole grains is also loaded with B vitamins and healthy fats, while refining grain removes these nutrients, leaving only the starchy endosperm layer of the grain behind.
Eat Wheat Seasonally: The Ayurvedic Perspective on Grains
Yes, the perception that wheat is bad and grains are not required in a healthy diet has been thoroughly disputed in my book Eat Wheat. With more than 600 scientific references, this book aims to offset a misguided views regarding grains.
Most of the studies that suggest grains are unhealthy are done on refined or processed grains, rather than on whole grains, or, better yet, ancient or heirloom grains like einkorn or kamut. Ancient grains have been shown to deliver a host of health benefits while sporting a significantly higher dose of gluten.
That said, should we be eating grains every day of the year, three times a day? No. If we were meant to do that, grains would naturally grow year-round. But in most temperate climates, grains are only harvestable in the fall, after a long summer growing season. So, while our ancestors also fell in love with bread and have been grinding wheat and barley into flour for some 30,000 years, it was not a year -round delicacy.
Studies have shown that humans are hardwired to digest grains in the fall when they are harvested. Studies also show that the microbes in your gut that help digest starchy grains are more prolific in the fall versus the spring, when there are no grains available.
In addition, the enzyme that humans make to digest grains, called amylase, is more abundantly produced in the body in the fall versus the spring and the digestive aspect of the parasympathetic nervous system is upregulated in the fall and winter, compared to summer, in order to help the body break down hard-to digest grains, nuts, and seeds, which are all harvested in the fall.
The Dangers of Going Gluten-Free
Studies have compared folks who are gluten-free to those that eat wheat and what they discovered will shock you:
- Wheat eaters had six times less mercury in their blood than the gluten-free folks, on average.
- Wheat eaters had more good microbes and less bad microbes in their guts than the gluten-free folk.
- Wheat eaters had more killer T cells (a measure of immune strength) than gluten-free folks.
- Wheat eaters had less heart disease and less lower blood sugar than the gluten-free folks.
Other studies have found that whole grains can offer preventative support against diabetes, cardiovascular issues, cancer, and obesity, as well as lower cholesterol levels and greater antioxidant protection.
See also The Dangers of a Gluten-Free Diet
Troubleshooting Your Digestion so You can Eat More Grains
The primary reason grains have fallen out of favor is because of a global increase in the consumption of processed, refined, packaged, and non-organic foods.
Conventional foods that are sprayed with pesticides and herbicides kill the microbes in the human digestive system that manufacture the digestive enzymes that enable us to break down grain and sometimes hard-to-digest gluten.
In addition, highly processed vegetable oils that are used to preserve foods and extend shelf life are clearly not extending our lives. The microbes in our guts eat fatty acids but are unwilling and unable to consume processed fats, forcing fat to build up in the liver and gallbladder and causing bile sludge. This problem silently weakens digestive strength and we find ourselves placating the problem by taking foods out of our diets instead of fixing the broken down digestive system.
The Connection Between Eating Grains and Immune System Strength
There are no shortages of studies linking whole grain consumption to a stronger immune system. Conveniently swept under the rug is the connection between our digestive strength, our ability to detoxify environmental pollutants and toxic substances and our overall immune strength.
In a 2017 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the increased consumption of whole grains was linked to weight loss, better bowel function, and an increase of immune T cells that boost the body’s innate immune system response.
Taking foods like grains out of your diet may offer short-term symptomatic relief, but still allows more serious digestive issues to fester.
Weak digestion can also affect your immune system.
A weak digestive system allows undigested proteins and fats to enter the lymphatic system that surrounds your intestinal tract. The lymphatic system carries the immune system and is easily congested from poor digestive strength. Responding to an immune-system threat with a broken-down digestive system and a congested lymphatic system creates a perfect storm for a compromised immune response and a greater risk of long-haul complications.
Your ability to digest harder-to-break-down foods is directly linked to immune strength and your ability to successfully manage an immune event.
According to Ayurveda, 85 percent of all disease starts with a digestive imbalance. Today, we now have the science to connect those dots—poor digestion leads to food intolerances, along with a litany of health concerns including, and maybe most importantly, a weakened immune system.