Dear Mark Sisson: Where Paleo Recommendations Stand in Contradiction to Real World Observations

Dear Mark Sisson,

I came across your article entitled “Why Grains Are Unhealthy” that was published on the Huffington Post (shared on Primal Docs).  For those of you that missed it, it is posted here.  It is a nice article that presents some important information many are unaware of.  There is no doubt that our pro-grain stance here in the United States is contributing to serious health issues that many people are contending with.  That said, I would like to take a moment to explain why I feel your article has reached too far and not recognized the substantive dissimilarities between different grains.  As an ethnobotanist and “anthropological nutritionist”, I look for important details that distinguish seemingly similar types of foods (as you do).  I also look to observations of wild and traditional cultures to identify key aspects of food safety and nutrition.  Before I launch into the body of my letter, I would appreciate you considering two important points that I feel are pertinent to this discussion.

(1) Many people define a healthy diet as one that can protect against chronic disease and can invigorate various systems (e.g., immune, musculoskeletal, digestive, nervous) to perform at peak levels.  I do not consider this to be an adequate definition (it, like so many aspects of our modern society, focuses on the individual).  I also consider how health is transmitted through the generations to be vitally important (a brief article on intergenerational nutrition might be useful here).  If a diet cannot produce healthy children with well-formed bodies (including broad faces, all teeth emerging straight and not crowded, etc.) then that diet is deficient in one or more factors.  Such diets were common up until the agricultural revolution and almost everyone I encounter in the US bears the marks of a nutrient-poor diet experienced by their parents and grandparents.  I consider this to be a higher standard of measuring the success of diets.

(2) As you well know, many foods have been studied by various groups with dietary dogma of one form or another and their differing (and often contradictory) results speak to the differing interpretations of the value of some foods.  For example, we can observe how butter, eggs, beef, spinach, and others have been heralded as super foods and also labeled as destroyers of health (I’ll avoid the specific details as I’m sure you are aware of them).  Even individual components of food, such as fiber, have studies presenting contradictory lessons these days.  Each study, despite providing different results, is usually based on a grain of truth taken out of context and then extrapolated greatly (sometimes to the absurd).  There is hardly a food that doesn’t contain some component we can point out is bad for human consumption.  Without context, these microscopic analyses of different foods lack grounding.  Therefore, I view dietary information through the filter of traditional use and observations of those people who consumed the foods of interest (for a long time).  Did they have good health?  Did they live free of chronic disease?  Could they produce well-formed children consuming said foods?  These are all important questions that, in my opinion, must be asked every time a nutritional study is produced (when available).

Now, keeping in mind these points, on to your article.

Gluten:  you rightly point out that this allergen is a source of many problems and can contribute (along with other factors) to poor health, even in those who do not suffer obvious conditions such as celiac disease. Clearly, the commonly ingested grain in this country is wheat, which is a gluten-containing grain.  But, there are many grains that don’t contain gluten.  So this argument, while appropriate for modern wheat (and rye, barley, spelt, etc.), is not a concern for species such as wild rice, millet, rice, sorghum, goose-grass, corn, and teff (among others).  For what it is worth, many species considered to be grains (the fruit of grass) are not. These include amaranth, quinoa, goosefoot, and buckwheat.  These plants produce a different kind of fruit (called an achene) that despite some similarities also have substantial differences from grains.

Fiber:  wild plants, the very kinds that have nourished hominids for almost their entire existence, have fewer calories and more fiber than similar cultivated plants.  Though we might be able to identify one or more aspects of fiber (or certain kinds of fiber) that might not be “all good”, claiming we should potentially avoid high fiber foods (which amounts to avoiding wild plant foods) appears to be anti-paleo because the plant foods we’ve been exposed to for much of our early history were, in fact, higher in fiber than today.  I may be misunderstanding your comment (and if so, please correct me), but while we can list some potential problems with fiber, we can also list many beneficial features of this item.  I do believe this is an example of taking microscopic aspects out of context of the entire diet.

Phytic Acid:  this is a ubiquitous antinutrient found in grains and other seed-like fruits (achenes, utricles, samaras), nuts, and legumes.  It is not a reason to avoid any food.  It is a reason to avoid the unprocessed form of the food.  By processed, I refer to traditional methods of soaking, sprouting, and fermenting to activate an endogenous enzyme (phytase) to deactivate phytic acid.  Certainly most store-purchased forms of these foods are not properly processed.  But if anyone claims we should avoid grains because of phytic acid, then they should also claim that nuts are not healthy to consume (raw) for the same reason.  Brazil nuts, for example, have far higher levels of phytic acid that any grain.

Other Antinutrients:  plants are filled with antinutrients.  There is hardly a species in existence that doesn’t contain some kind of antinutrient or potential allergen (from oxalates to saponins to salicylates).  Many plant foods considered to be healthy possess potent levels of antinutrients.  Grains are no different in this regard.  Wild and traditional peoples have always consumed plants and yet demonstrated their diets were healthy as they could produce well-formed children.  There are no people on the planet that did not consume plants (even far northern cultures).  Context becomes important:  how do we extract what we need from plants (e.g., ascorbic acid, polyphenol antioxidants, other beneficial phytochemcicals) and protect ourselves from their adverse components.

Grain Nutrition:  you correctly note that grains are not a food that humans must consume.  But neither is grass-fed beef, wild-caught salmon, or any other food for that matter.  For any food we can come up with, we can also identify another food (or combination of foods) that will supply the same nutrition.  I don’t have to consume grass-fed beef because I can get similar nutritional factors in white-tailed deer, moose, or wildebeest. Because we don’t have to consume a food, this is not an argument for avoidance of a food (though I do understand you are trying to point out that grain, despite what our government may state, doesn’t need to be staple—I agree whole-heartedly with you).

Lectins:  these potentially harmful compounds are found in virtually all foods (including those that are recommended by various paleo diet authors).  I use the word potentially harmful, as it is also known that certain enzymes produced during fermentation deactivate some lectins, as does the heat of cooking (though some are heat stable).  Lectins are also reduced through sprouting.  The point, (and again), context tells us that traditional dietary practices, dietary diversity, and the selection of the right kinds of grain creates a diet that has reduced levels of lectins (compared to the Standard American Diet) and one that is armored against the effects of lectins.

The last point I would like to make, and not one referenced in your article, is that we can observe many cultures who consumed grains (to greater or lesser extents).  These people were healthy and, again, could produce well-formed children (something most modern diets cannot achieve).  People of the Outer Hebrides relied on oats as a staple combined with fish from the ocean, and there is ample photographic documentation of their health.  The Anishinaabe of the Great Lakes region relied on two species of wild rice as a staple combined with wild game.  They also could produce healthy children.  The Hopi consumed a species of panic grass, the Navajo consumed a species of rice-grass, Australian aborigines consumed a species of millet, African natives consumed species of goose grass and teff, and so on.  This isn’t to say because we’ve eaten grains we should continue to eat them, rather these are people who displayed health while consuming grain.  Context is important.  Given that we can observe people who incorporated grains into a healthy diet, I feel articles that state we should avoid all grains all the time are incorrect (and miss some key points).  Observations of living peoples stand in contradiction to the statement all grains are bad.

In summary, I feel many of the detractions you note concerning grains are also true of other foods (foods we are not told to avoid) and some of the detractions aren’t a real issue if you learn to select gluten-free wild and heirloom grains and learn to process grains to minimize levels of antinutrients (a task that is not hard to learn).  People have forgotten this latter aspect of culinary wisdom, but diets rich in wild foods (what I would argue are true paleo foods) often require some processing prior to consumption (e.g., leaching acorns to deal with tannins and phytic acid).  I understand you may be attempting to create a simple message for people who do not have nutritional literacy, but this message can cause people to avoid foods that have been shown to be part of many healthy people’s diet (sometimes as a staple).  Grains are paleo, they were eaten by several different paleo hominids.  Simply because the United States has chosen to consume large amounts of a highly allergenic grain that does not mean all grains are bad.  My message to people is:  eat less grain (i.e., diversify your diet), choose wild and heirloom types, and select gluten-free kinds.  You may think this is too complicated and with too many caveats, but it is an accurate message that does not attribute the ill effects of modern wheat to all grains.

Please do not interpret this message as attacking of your person or character.  I really like the work you do and firmly believe you have helped many people shed the ridiculous, politically-correct food dogma that is harming many people’s health in this country (and elsewhere).  Though you do not know me, understand my tone here is meant to be polite and non-confrontational.  As a forager, and one who studies indigenous human diets, I consume a large amount of wild food (far more diverse than most people’s diet).  Practicing this skill really opens one’s eyes to how modern diets are artificial in many ways.  My goal is to bring some of the real-world experience from wild landscapes to the nutritional discussions that are occurring.  Best wishes.

Arthur Haines

Delta Institute of Natural History