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Whole Grains and Healthy Brains

September 13, 2013

A new book called Grain Brain, by David Perlmutter, is slated to hit the streets next week, claiming that we should all avoid grains – and basically all carbohydrates – because, as the author says, "modern grains are silently destroying your brain."

From our review of an advance copy sent to us by the publisher, we’ve found that Grain Brain is a misleading and sensationalist title for a book that distorts current science and contributes, sadly, to public confusion about what constitutes a healthy diet.

Celiac disease and gluten intolerance are real and serious issues. People with celiac disease (1-2% of the population) or non-celiac gluten intolerance (estimated at about 6% of the population) can indeed have medical issues not only with their digestive systems but with other organs including the brain, and these people will benefit from removing the four gluten grains – wheat, barley, rye and triticale – from their diets.

Even the 7-10% of people with a reaction to gluten, however, can continue to enjoy all the non-gluten grains: amaranth, buckwheat, corn, millet, oats (if certified as non-contaminated), quinoa, rice, sorghum, teff, and wild rice. The rest of the population can enjoy these ten grains along with the four gluten grains. Leading medical researchers in the area of gluten intolerance and celiac disease attest that there is no need for 90 percent or more of our population to avoid any grains.

Put simply, there is no evidence for the idea we should all avoid all grains. Perlmutter must realize this himself, since Grain Brain contradicts its main premise that all grains are injurious to brain health, and recommends eating, in moderation, “amaranth, buckwheat, rice (brown, white [sic], wild), millet, quinoa, sorghum, teff and [gluten-free] oats.”

In fact, evidence for the health benefits of whole grains is well-documented – and was touted by Grain Brain’s author in his earlier book The Better Brain which included foods like whole grain couscous, oatmeal, spelt pasta, and quinoa-stuffed peppers throughout its menu plans. In an interview promoting The Better Brain on CBN-TV, for instance, Perlmutter advocated replacing junk food with “real food such as unprocessed whole grains and fruits and vegetables.” He does not acknowledge or explain his flip-flop in Grain Brain, giving us no clue why he has now turned against what he previously acknowledged to be sound science.

While Grain Brain goes off the deep end in imagining that the very real health problems of the 7-10% of the population with gluten intolerance or celiac disease somehow extend to all of us, the book rightfully details many important components of good health that Oldways and the Whole Grains Council have long supported. These include the key roles of physical activity and sleep; the essential contribution of good fats; the value of the Mediterranean Diet (which Perlmutter cites as “very similar to my dietary protocol”); and the importance of avoiding inflammation and choosing carbohydrates with a low glycemic impact. 

Our advice? Don’t let Grain Brain scare you away from appropriate-size portions of healthy forms of whole grains (yes, a whole grain cookie is still a cookie!). Enjoy a balanced diet including a delicious variety of real, whole foods, an approach followed in traditional diets backed up by proven science, like those championed by Oldways. (Cynthia)

Comments

Grain Brain book

Cynthia, Did you read the entire book before you commented on it? Your comment didn't provide any proof to refute what Dr. Perlmutter says. I just finished it and Dr. Perlmutter does NOT state to avoid all grains. He backs his statement with physiological and genetic truths that our bodies are just not designed to eat according to the Food Pyramid (or now the Food Plate) provided by USDA which shows the majority of our meals should be comprised of carbohydrates (60%). He describes that for millions of years we ate only a small percentage of carbohydrates (5%) and that is why the medical profession has documented that the rise of obesity and health problems correlates precisely with the increased consumption of carbohydrates. Our food habits have changed while our DNA has not. He does recommend avoiding the grains that contain gluten but tells you to get tested with a specific test for gluten sensitivities before you start the diet. Standard Celiac Disease tests are useless as you mentioned it is only a very small percentage of people actually have Celiac disease. Gluten sensitivities can manifest themselves in a myriad of ways. My husband and I are going to get his recommended tests performed (8 of them) and if we test positive with the Cyrex Array 3 (for gluten), we will be avoiding ALL gluten. If we test negative, we will STILL adhere to the consumption of far less carbohydrates as we now know our bodies aren't capable of handling all the inflammation they generate. Go back and read what carbs do on the cellular level and how it causes inflammation. Inflammation is the root of endless ailments including Alzheimer's.

It's a complex situation...

Dear Germaine,

Yes, I read the book cover to cover, carefully taking notes and commenting in the margins as I went. I agree that inflammation is at the root of endless ailments, including Alzheimers. I also agree that there is a scientifically-documented link between a steady diet of high-glycemic-index/load carbs and inflammation. Most people eat too many poor-quality carbs and should pay more attention to both the quality and the quantity of the carbs they eat.

Different carbohydrates play a different role in inflammation. We just wrote a blog on pasta, a misunderstood carb if there ever was one. People assume it's high on the glycemic index but it isn't. And what about intact grains? Have a nice serving of any unprocessed whole grain (wild rice, quinoa, yes -- even barley or wheat if you're not sensitive to gluten), and you will not get an inflammatory spike in blood sugar.

The book starts out discussing gluten grains, but then suggests avoiding grains pretty much altogether, as well as most other carbs. See page 179, for instance, where he says, " 'grain brain'... actually encompasses more than just grains and includes virtually all carbohydrates." On his TV appearances he goes a step further, frequently saying that "all carbohydrates are toxic and should be avoided." 

It's true that a few of the recipes in the book include occasional small servings of non-gluten grains. I find this reasonable -- yet his "all carbs are toxic" rhetoric -- the part that he emphasizes -- is definitely extremist and unsupported by science or by common sense. The human race would have died out sometime in the last 10,000 years if all carbs were toxic. 

All that said, we applaud you for caring about what foods you invite into your body. Good luck with finding a diet that suits your particular bodily needs and tastes. (Cynthia)

hunter gatherers

Hunter gatherer peoples such as North American Indians up until 50-200 years ago (depending on location) scarcely ate any grain. They did harvest wild grains in season if they lived on the prairie, using a few grains here and there, but that wouldn't even comprise 5 percent of their diet. Only the southern most of native peoples cultivated any crop, the majority of them basing their diet on wild meat, fish, and some roots and berries, dried, augmented with few greens in season. And 'season' isn't long for any of the latter in most of North America. Greens were primarily used for teas and medicines. Diet, as well as alchohol (a sugar) has devastated our North American native people as surely as Smallpox did. I think if anyone can sustain themselves on grain based diets, it must take centuries to make that adjustment. We surely were not meant to base our diet on carbohydrates. I do take issue with the idea that we should not eat root vegetables, believing we as well as animals have evolved to our habitats, and in much of North America, root vegetables are THE vegetable. It's silly not to eat them. Eat what your habitat naturally provides.

traditional diets

Just because people didn't have access to a particular food in the past doesn't make it automatically unhealthy for them to eat it when it is available. All of Europe thought tomatoes were poison when they were first imported from the Americas -- but now they feature widely in many traditional cuisines around the Mediterranean.

Many populations have sustained themselves on grain-based diets (about 20% of the world's energy comes from wheat still today) -- but the grains that support life best are intact whole grains rather than highly processed ones.

At the end of the day, what's best is to listen to your body. If grains (or nuts, or fish, or any other category of food) don't work for you, don't eat them. To each his own!

I would like to point out to our readers that berries and tubers (roots) are also carbohydrates, as are greens and other vegetables. Carbohydrates sustain life all over the planet, usually augmented with small amounts of animal protein.

I think just use your common

I think just use your common sense. If you think you shouldn't have grains, then cut them out and see how your body responds. I personally react to all carbs (potato, rice, corn, wheat, spelt, millet etc), all grains and all sugars (all bar a few fruits). Don't ask me why! This has been discovered through an igG test, testing for 210 different foods and noticing myself react to things I've eaten. Follow what your body wants. Nobody can tell you what your body wants or can control how your body reacts to foods.

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