The human digestive tract is a subject of great controversy. Those professing that humans are innately carnivorous, herbivorous, or omnivorous argue at length about the differences in cheeks, teeth, stomach acids, length of intestines, etc. My readers already know that I lean toward the herbivorous side of things, but do agree that small amounts of animal-based foods are beneficial. Everything in moderation, after all.
The subject of carbohydrates is also highly controversial. Everyone agrees that sugar (a carbohydrate) is harmful in our modern amounts–especially fructose when it doesn’t come directly from a fruit. For non-fruit-and-vegetable carbohydrates, such as beans and grains, the jury is still out.
Gluten, a protein found in high quantities in wheat, is getting the spotlight as everyone’s new favorite fad diet. ”Gluten free” is a popular labeling tool to make consumers feel all warm as fuzzy about their purchase. My co-worker reported not too long ago that his shampoo bottle said “gluten free.” “It’s not like I’m going to drink the stuff!” he exclaimed. So what’s all the hype about gluten, starch, and carbs in general? Are they good for us? Bad for us? Do they make us fat?
Before we go into it, let’s take a look at digestion…
The digestive process can be divided into two main categories: mechanical and chemical. Mechanical is simple: processing a food, and chewing it. Chemical digestion, however, is a little more complicated. It occurs in the mouth, the stomach, and the small intestine. Digestive action is dependent on receptors that send messages to the brain, which responds sequentially by sending water, digestive enzymes (from the pancreas), enzyme precursors, coenzymes, electrolytes, acids, bases, buffer salts, hormones, and more.
Chemical digestion begins in the mouth with the secretion of amylase, an enzyme that breaks down starch. Stomach acid, however, neautralizes amylase and effectively stops starch digestion, until it is resumed again in the small intestine (considering that carbohydrates are quick to leave the stomach, this makes sense). Protein digestion is mechanical in the mouth (not chemical); protein is broken from long to short chains of amino acids in the stomach’s hydrochloric acid.
When starches are consumed without proteins, the acidity of the stomach approaches neutral and it will not hinder starch digestion. When proteins are consumed without starches, stomach acid becomes strong. But when starches and proteins are consumed at the same time (a hamburger, chicken and rice?), the body must provide two opposing digestive mediums, and it cannot. The result is impaired or partial starch digestion and impaired or partial protein digestion.
Partial grain digestion can have adverse health effects. ”Undigested particles of grain get stuck in the microvilli of our intestinal walls, building up with time, ultimately undermining our ability to properly digest other foods because of this interference. If the interference becomes extreme, a host of intestinal and auto-immune disorders can result including leaky gut syndrome, gluten intolerance, celiac disease, and irritable bowel syndrome,” (Kristen M., from foodrenegade.com).
Partial animal protein digestion also causes problems. Animal proteins contain no fiber and so they pass through the digestive tract more slowly. In the words of Dr. Douglas N. Graham, a leading spokesman for raw foods, “At one hundred degrees, in a dark, wet environment, undigested meat will go bad (rot) rather rapidly. The partial digestion of meat that occurs when it is eaten with grains very often accounts for the putrefication so obvious when feces are expelled.”
Grains don’t putrefy. But they do ferment, producing some ethanol (alcohol) and gas. While there is nothing inherently harmful about gas, alcohol does not belong in the body, as it is a poison that kills cells with which it comes into contact. Alcohol is also an addictive substance.
Chemists have also discovered over a dozen separate opiates in wheat (opium is a narcotic known for its addictive and sedating qualities), which explains the “brain fog” people often report from too much gluten. Turning to a high energy food that leaves you feeling drugged and addicted is not advisable.
Gluten in most starchy foods is mucous-forming, leading to congestion and impaired breathing. Due to this, as well as their digestive speed, starches (particularly wheat) are ill-advised for athletes. Starches are recommended due to their slow release of energy, but from an athlete’s point of view (athletes demand rapid energy release), this makes little sense. Eating a complex carbohydrate after a training sessions has the athlete waiting for hours before he obtains any benefit, and by then, the receptors for glycogen storage are less sensitive, leading to delayed glycogen repletion.
Slow digestion requires much more digestive energy, when compared to the rapid digestion of fruits, resulting in lower “net” energy. Simple sugar is the body’s preferred source of energy: glucose and fructose. The two behave very differently in the body. Glucose goes right to the blood stream to fuel muscles and cells. Fructose gets metabolized into the liver and is converted into fat (roughly 30%–an evolutionary survival strategy, I’m sure) and glycogen (the fuel reserve for the muscles and brain).
Sugar and starch (which breaks down into sugar) are highly addictive–sugar, primarily, because we are hard-wired to seek sweet foods as naturally bioavailable sources of energy; and both sugar and starch (high-glycemic starch, really… like flour products and processed grains), due to their direct influence on serotonin (the happy neurotransmitter) levels. Once released, serotonin elevates the mood, having a powerful effect on our demeanor. Cravings for sugary and starchy foods are typically your brain’s attempt to make you feel better.
If that weren’t enough, there are the acid-forming properties of grain that should be considered. Grains (and beans, nuts, and seeds) contain phytic acid (phytic acid is tightly bound in the phosphorus content of grains and legumes, especially the bran portion of grain or the outer layer of legumes. It is considered the “principle storage form of phoshorus.”). The human body is more alkaline, and a diet high in acid-forming foods leads to blood acidification, de-mineralization (and alkaline minerals are pulled from the body’s reserves in order to neutralize acid), and inflammation.
Grains only entered the human diet about 10,000 years ago–a mere blink in evolutionary time. Traditional human societies all found ways of coping with phytic acid. According to Kimi Harris, author of thenourishinggourmet.com, “Phytase is the enzyme generally present in phytic containing grains and legumes that neutralizes phytic acid. Sprouting, soaking and fermenting raw grains allows phytase to become activated, which then reduces the phytic acid. We as humans do produce some phytase in our bodies, which explains why some can eat a high, unsoaked whole grain diet without negative impact. Since lactobacilli and other digestive microflora can also produce phytase, those of us with a robust intestinal health will have a much easier time digesting grains, soaked or unsoaked. But regardless, all of us can benefit from less phytic acid in our grains.”
- Sprouting — This is when the whole grain kernel is sprouted.
- Soaking — This is when the already milled whole grain flour is soaked in an acidic medium like buttermilk, whey, yogurt, lemon juice, or vinegar before being cooked.
- Fermenting — This is when the grain is naturally fermented with wild yeast, as is the case with all sourdough breads.
More recently, due to the Industrial Revolution and the hyper-mechanization of grain milling, the advent of processing techniques to increase shelf life, the saturation of refined carbohydrate products into supermarkets, and the subsidization of grain production, never have grains been so negatively influential in the human diet. We have abandoned most of our traditional processing methods.
So what to do? Should we stop eating grain?
No. But consider the following tips:
1) Grain should not dominate the diet. The majority of carbohydrates should be sourced some whole fruits and vegetables. Too often we see individuals who consume scarce amounts of fresh produce and subsist off cheap, easy-to-eat grain products. Grain should be an accompaniment, not a centerpiece of the dinner plate.
2) Avoid as much as possible (consider the true social impact of eschewing all of it) hyper-processed grain products like most store-bought bread, cakes, cookies, pastas, pita chips, crackers, pancakes, etc.
3) Eat a variety of whole grains, and consider soaking, sprouting, or fermenting them before consumption if you suspect you have impaired digestion.
4) Abandon the old starch-and-protein paradigm, to improve digestion. Whole grains are a great morning recommendation, as they do give slow-releasing energy for daily activity and concentration. They are fiber-rich and increase satiety. Save your protein for later in the day, especially after your training sessions, in order to give your body the building blocks it needs when it shifts into repair mode (rest and sleep); or, eat protein separately as a small snack.