The Complete Bulletproof Guide to Gluten and Grains
By: Bulletproof Staff
December 1, 2016
The Bulletproof Diet isn’t big on most grains.
That can be a tough pill to swallow if you’re new to a high-fat, low toxin, low-carb lifestyle. Carbs form the base of the revered Food Pyramid, and doctors have been promoting “heart-healthy” whole grains for the last 30 years. Grains must be an essential part of eating well, right?
Quite the opposite, actually. Despite what you likely grew up hearing, grains are not the nutritional powerhouses they’re claimed to be. Some grains are a decent source of carbs, and some are okay on occasion, as long as you tolerate them. For most people, though, the majority of grains have more downsides than upsides. They don’t offer much bioavailable nutrition, they cause inflammation and intestinal damage, they trigger cravings, they’re often full of mold toxins, and there’s a good chance you’ll be better off without them.
Here’s an in-depth breakdown of how grains affect your biology, where different grains rank in the Bulletproof Diet, and how, if you do decide to eat grains, you can minimize digestive damage.
Phytic acid keeps you from absorbing nutrients
Life as a grain is rough. Everything in nature wants your starch for the easy calories, and if you don’t have a good way to protect yourself, you’ll end up in an animal’s stomach pretty quickly.
In response to this, grains have developed a few defense mechanisms to ward off hungry foragers. The first is phytic acid. Phytic acid binds to minerals with double positive charges and keeps you from absorbing them. In this case, that means you aren’t getting much of the iron, zinc, and calcium from the grains you eat [1,2,3]. The phytic acid will also bind to those three nutrients in any other veggies you eat alongside grains. Brown rice, wild rice, and whole wheat have the most phytic acid . Brazil nuts and almonds are high in it, too.
You can run into nutrient deficiencies if you eat phytic acid-rich foods with most of your meals [1,2,3]. It’s a particular problem if you’re menstruating because you’re already losing iron. Phytic acid is also a bigger concern for vegetarians – it binds to iron and zinc in other vegetables, but not the forms in meat. So if you do eat something high in phytic acid, pair it with grass-fed beef or another high-quality meat.
Phytic acid isn’t all bad. It has anticancer properties [5,6] and can prevent excess iron from causing inflammation in your gut. But it isn’t essential, and there are better antioxidants out there that don’t screw up your nutrient absorption. The dozens of antioxidants in green and other colorful veggies come to mind.
Lectins damage your gut and cause inflammation – if you’re sensitive to them
Lectins are grains’ other big defense against predators.
When food passes through your GI tract, it bumps against the lining of your gut and causes minor damage. Usually, your cells jump in and repair things before the damage can cause any problems. Your gut stays sealed and intact.
Lectins screw up that process. They’re sticky little proteins that bind to the lining of your gut and prevent that routine healing process [7,8]. The damage leads to low-grade intestinal inflammation, which may explain why beans and grains – both of which are high in lectins – cause digestive distress for so many people.
If you’re constantly eating lectins, your intestinal lining can start to get holes in it, and the contents of your gut begin escaping into your bloodstream, leading to leaky gut syndrome (aka intestinal permeability). There’s also a convincing case that lectins contribute to leptin resistance , which makes you gain weight .
Lectin sensitivity can vary a lot between individuals. Some people can eat lectins with abandon and never see a problem. Others run into inflammation, acne, joint pain, and stomach issues. A good way to test yourself is to load up on lectin-filled nightshade vegetables (tomato, eggplant, and peppers) for a meal and see how you feel afterward.
A final thought: cooking lectins often destroys them. That’s good for tomatoes and peppers, but many of the lectins in wheat are heat-stable . Cooking wheat won’t make a difference; you’re better off avoiding it.
Gluten, agglutinin, and other grain proteins
Gluten is the hot topic in the nutrition world these days. Most everyone agrees that celiac disease is a real thing, but when you start talking about non-celiac gluten sensitivity, the scientific community splinters. Some researchers say gluten itself causes inflammation and intestinal damage in non-celiac people [12,13,14]. Others say it’s the short-chain fermentable carbs in wheat causing gut issues, and that gluten is just a scapegoat [15,16].
Or maybe it’s agglutinin, a part of wheat germ that triggers inflammation [17,18] and interferes with brain cell growth , even in microscopic amounts.
Or, according to the very latest research, it could be amylase-trypsin inhibitors, proteins that contribute to allergies, asthma, irritable bowel syndrome, and arthritis .
Maybe it’s gluten. Maybe it’s agglutinin. Maybe it’s amylase-trypsin inhibitors. Maybe it’s evil voodoo magic. What’s certain is that in the last 70 years there’s been a dramatic increase in people who have trouble with gluten or a protein closely related to it . The symptoms are consistent – brain fog, inflammation, fatigue, joint pain, and gut issues – and they tend to go away when people give up grains .
Grains get moldy
A lot of grain-free Americans say they didn’t feel so bad when they were traveling and ate bread in France or pasta in Italy. The opposite is true too: plenty of European tourists report feeling sick when they first eat American food.
There’s a good chance that mold is the culprit. If you’ve been Bulletproof for a while, you’ve probably learned a bit about mycotoxins. They’re exceptionally powerful carcinogens, hormone disruptors, and inflammatory agents. They’re also a major problem in the United States, for two reasons.
The first is that we have the most severe mycotoxin contamination on the planet. Here’s a map of mycotoxin contamination in crops, courtesy of agricultural research company Biomin:
The U.S. is also one of the highest pesticide users worldwide , and wheat and corn are among the most likely crops to have pesticide residue, according to the FDA’s pesticide monitoring program.
That might be acceptable if it meant lower mold levels, but we also have the worst mycotoxin regulations of any developed country , and corn and wheat are some of the most susceptible crops.
In other words, American-grown grains are often moldy and likely to be contaminated with pesticides. That’s not Bulletproof.
Grains spike your insulin levels and cause fat gain
Then, of course, there’s the issue of carbs. Grains are carb-heavy. Whole grain or refined, the carbs you eat will eventually turn into glucose. Your body will store a certain amount as glycogen, but that well is pretty shallow, and once you max out on glycogen you’ll store the rest of the glucose as fat. The carbs will also cause your insulin to yo-yo between high and low. You’ll be hungry every few hours, you’ll crave sugar, and you’ll put on fat.
A high-fat, low-carb diet, on the other hand, will give you steady energy for hours while training your body to burn fat. That’s one of the pillars of the Bulletproof Diet (you can download the Bulletproof Diet Roadmap for free here).
That’s not to say you should never eat grains. The Bulletproof Diet recommends a higher-carb day about once a week, and if you tolerate them, certain grains can be a good way to get your carbs. Here’s a breakdown of individual types of grains, from the most to least Bulletproof.
White rice is a good, clean source of carbs. It’s almost pure starch. There are no nutrients, but there aren’t any bad things in there either.
Long-grain white rice clocks in at about 55 on the glycemic index (table sugar is 100), so it won’t spike your blood sugar too badly. Short-grain white rice is more iffy, with a glycemic rating of about 72. Whichever you choose, you can upgrade the starch in your rice (and make it low-carb) by cooking it with coconut oil, as explained here. Rice is also resistant to mold.
The only issue with rice is that it sucks up arsenic from the soil while it grows. That’s an easy fix: before cooking your rice, rinse it with warm water until the water runs clear . You can cook it with extra water and pour the excess off at the end to decrease the arsenic even more.
Whole grain rice
Whole grain rice has lectins and trypsin inhibitors, but they aren’t the heat-stable type. Cook your rice and nearly all of them will deactivate. Heat won’t get rid of nutrient-sapping phytic acid, though, and whole grain rice has a lot of it.
Whole grain rice has much more arsenic than white rice, so be sure you rinse it until the water runs clear before cooking.
Quinoa is unusual. It’s technically a seed, not a grain, and vegetarians like it because it’s a complete protein, which is rare for a plant.
It also has a prolamine in it that’s similar to gluten and may damage your gut. It’s carb-heavy, and it doesn’t have particularly impressive nutrition. If your gut biome is in good shape, having a bit of quinoa now and then is probably okay, but it won’t do much to improve your performance.
Buckwheat is another seed that behaves like a grain. It’s basically the same deal as quinoa – lackluster nutrition, gluten-like prolamine, and high in carbs. It doesn’t have the complete protein quinoa does. Again, if you have a strong gut you can probably weather eating buckwheat occasionally. You’re better off without it, though.
Oats (gluten free)
While all oats are technically gluten-free, a lot of oats grow next to or on the same land as gluten-containing wheat, rye, and barley, and end up contaminated. Gluten-free oats have their own dedicated fields. They’re the ones to choose if you eat oats at all.
Oats may not have gluten, but they do have a similar protein called avenin that can damage your intestinal lining if you’re sensitive to it. Whole-grain oats have a moderate amount of phytic acid, and instant oats have a high glycemic index (80). Oat plants are also susceptible to mold.
Oats aren’t the worst grain out there, but there are better ways to start your morning.
This is where things get ugly. Rye is the first grain on this list to contain gluten. It’s not as damaging as wheat gluten, but it will still trigger a reaction in you if you’re celiac or gluten-sensitive. Rye also has its own form of agglutinin, the sneaky little protein that contributes to asthma, joint pain, leaky gut, and allergies. Rye also tends to grow mold.
On top of that, rye bread usually has a 2:1 ratio of wheat flour to rye flour. It’s rare that you’d ever eat pure rye without wheat.
As with most other grains on this list, corn contains a gluten-like protein that can damage your gut lining. Corn’s version is called zein. Corn is one of the most genetically modified plants around, and it holds a heavy pesticide load.
It’s also often high in mold and mycotoxins. In the last 50 years, there’s been a sharp increase in fusarium root rot, where fusarium mold takes over the roots and leaves mycotoxins in the corn itself, even if no mold is present. It’s likely because pesticides and poor farming practices are wrecking the bacteria in the soil, leaving toxic mold free to take over. If you do decide to have some corn on occasion, make sure it’s organic.
Then, of course, there’s wheat.
Wheat is the worst offender, and not just because of its gluten content. It’s a who’s who of antinutrients, complete with inflammatory agglutinin, FODMAPs (sugars that feed bad gut bacteria), allergy-inducing amylase-trypsin inhibitors, lots of nutrient-sucking phytic acid, and heat-stable lectins that don’t break down when you cook them.
And, of course, it gets moldy. A 2011 study found toxic fusarium mold rot in 57% of wheat fields . Wheat is also susceptible to ochratoxin A, a mold toxin that causes kidney and liver cancer and stays in your system for at least 35 days . Plus wheat’s high in pesticides.
If you have to have a slice of bread, go for a loaf made from imported European flour, which is lower in gluten, agglutinin, and other inflammatory proteins , and lower in pesticides and mold. You can opt for a fermented bread like sourdough to avoid some of the phytic acid, too. Even then, though, there’s no compelling reason to eat wheat. It’s toxic, and you can get all the nutrients it provides from far better sources.
There you have it. By and large, grains are an unnecessary part of your diet. Flip the food pyramid on its head – get most of your calories from quality fats, load up on organic veggies, add some wild-caught fish or grass-fed meat, and maybe have a sweet potato now and then. Fuel your body with good, clean food and it will start working with you, not against you. You can find a list of which foods to eat and which ones to avoid here, for free.
Have you gone off grains? What differences did you see? Talk about it in the comments, and subscribe below for more content about how to upgrade your body and mind. Thanks for reading and have a great week!
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