Since perhaps the USDA’s 2004 dietary recommendations, the entirety of the US has had a clear message: the more whole grains, the merrier. I remember I would buy 7 grain bread and then see 12 grain and think “wow! I need soma’ that!”. In my article about whole foods nutrition, I mentioned how whole grains are a great source of magnesium and selenium, but what I didn’t know at the time was that there was something else they’re good for: digestive distress.

This information drove me crazy at first. How is it that grains are bad when there are traditional cultures that have made grains a staple of their diet for centuries? The production and consumption of grains as we know it today is quite different from what once was. Traditional cultures used to soak their grains before preparing them. This process increases digestibility and neutralizes various anti-nutrients. Sally Fallon, president of the Weston A Price Foundation, explains:

Our ancestors, and virtually all pre-industrialized peoples, soaked or fermented their grains before making them into porridge, breads, cakes and casseroles. A quick review of grain recipes from around the world will prove our point: In India, rice and lentils are fermented for at least two days before they are prepared as idli and dosas; in Africa the natives soak coarsely ground corn overnight before adding it to soups and stews and they ferment corn or millet for several days to produce a sour porridge called ogi; a similar dish made from oats was traditional among the Welsh; in some Oriental and Latin American countries rice receives a long fermentation before it is prepared; Ethiopians make their distinctive injera bread by fermenting a grain called teff for several days; Mexican corn cakes, called pozol, are fermented for several days and for as long as two weeks in banana leaves; before the introduction of commercial brewers yeast, Europeans made slow-rise breads from fermented starters; in America the pioneers were famous for their sourdough breads, pancakes and biscuits; and throughout Europe grains were soaked overnight, and for as long as several days, in water or soured milk before they were cooked and served as porridge or gruel.

Gluten is one of the things that gets broken down in the soaking and fermentation process. Gluten is very hard to digest and it can cause an inflammatory reaction in many people. After time, it’s quite possible for one’s digestive system to become compromised due to the combination of this irritant and many others that we commonly consume. Dr. Marlene Merritt explains in her article myths about whole grains and vegetarianism that a diet high in unfermented whole grains, particularly high-gluten grains like wheat, puts an enormous strain on the whole digestive mechanism. When this mechanism breaks down with age or overuse, the results take the form of allergies, celiac disease, mental illness, chronic indigestion and candida albicans overgrowth. Recent research links gluten intolerance with multiple sclerosis. During the process of soaking and fermenting, gluten and other difficult to-digest proteins are partially broken down into simpler components that are more readily available for absorption.

Something else lurking in the grains: phytic acid and various other enzyme inhibitors. Phytic acid is an anti-nutrient that binds itself to calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, and especially zinc, in the intestines and blocks the body’s absorption of them. Because magnesium and calcium both play a role in bone health, frequent consumption of unfermented grains can lead to bone loss and mineral deficiencies as well.

Human beings, somewhat surprisingly, are not exactly intended to eat grains. Dr. Merritt says:

Anti-nutrients are there to protect the seed — they prevent sprouting until the time is right. What we forget is that animals that nourish themselves on plants and grains have longer, slower digestive tracts, with some having multiple stomachs for digestion. Those plants, grains and seeds want moisture, warmth, time and slight acidity to sprout, and imitating that is what will allow you to eat grains and legumes (soy excluded), extract the nutrients from them, and not have them cause short and long-term damage.

Does that mean that we should skip grains all together? Certainly, one can be in good health on a diet free of grains. The Masai tribe of Kenya is said to consume nothing but meat, milk, and animal blood. They are very fit, healthy, and have little to no dental carries (see my previous article to understand why this is notable). However, Dr. Price found that those who eat a varied diet had the best overall health. Grains however, just aren’t the pinnacle of health that we’ve been lead to believe from the USDA and all the other “diet dictocrats”.

To properly prepare grains, you want to soak them in a mildly acidic solution (for a day or more); to water, add in some whey, vinegar, lemon juice, kefir or yogurt and this will help to break down the anti-nutrients present and make the grains easier to digest and thus make the vitamin content more bioavailable. Sally Fallon outlines some additional information in her voluminous classic Nourishing Traditions:

Grains fall into two general categories. Those containing gluten, such as oats, rye, barley and especially wheat, should not be consumed unless they have been soaked or fermented; buckwheat, rice and millet do not contain gluten and are, on the whole, more easily digested. Whole rice and whole millet contain lower amounts of phytates than other grains so it is not absolutely necessary to soak them. However, they should be gently cooked for at least two hours in a high-mineral, gelatinous broth. This will neutralize some of the phytates they do contain and provide additional minerals to compensate for those that are still bound; while the gelatin in the broth will greatly facilitate digestion. We do not recommend the pressure cooker for grains because it cooks them too quickly.

While it is not necessary to rinse grains that have been soaked, some have said that they find it more flavorful after doing so.

UPDATE: A few months ago I decided to drastically reduce my consumption of grains aside from those that have been properly prepared, and white rice (something I’ll be discussing in the future). The largest source of grains for me used to be 2 bowls of “spelt flakes” I would eat in the morning with a handful of raisins in each. I now have Chris Kresser’s breakfast of champions (with an extra egg and extra coconut oil and butter for an added nutritional boost) in the morning and I’ve found that my digestion feels so much better! It’s really amazing when you experience something first hand. It’s one thing to read about what effect improperly prepared grains have on the body, and it’s another when you experience the difference first hand. Try this method out for a week and see if you notice a difference. Depending on how sensitive your digestion is, you may or may not notice, but either way, it’s good practice and healthier as a whole to adopt these changes.