Your Brain & Body on Grains (Beyond Body Fat & Trend Diets)

Written By


Expert Reviewed By

Dr. Lauryn Lax, OTD, MS

Dr. Lauryn, OTD, MS is a doctor of occupational therapy, clinical nutritionists and functional medicine expert with 25 years of clinical and personal experience in healing from complex chronic health issues and helping others do the same.


If anyone was to ask you: “What are the best ways to be healthier?”, you probably wouldn’t think twice:


Eat your veggies.

Brush your teeth.

Get 7-9 hours of sleep.

Drink water.

Exercise 4-5 times per week.

Cut out processed foods.

Walk more.



We know these methods like the back of our hands.


And as of late, even more modern advice may include tips and tricks such as:


Quit sugar.

Don’t drink too much coffee or alcohol.

Eliminate artificial sweeteners.

And, watch the grains and carbs.



Oy vey!


The Great “Carb Debate.”


Over the past two decades, we’ve heard more and more the hype about “low carb diets” and “going gluten free”, and thus we have repeated the advice right back, resolving to request the ‘Gluten-Free’ menu at the restaurant, opting for sweet potatoes over pasta, and wrapping our burgers in lettuce wraps…but WHY?


If you’re stumped as to why going ‘gluten’ free or grain free is all the rage right now…or why you should even consider such a thing, this post is for you.


For starters, I pose this question that Dr. David Perlmutter, author of Grain Brain, asks in his opening pages:


“If you could ask your grandparents or great grandparents what people died from when they were growing up, you’d likely hear the words, “old age,: or you might learn the story of someone who got a nasty germ and passed away from tuberculosis, cholera, or dysentery.



What you won’t hear are things like diabetes, cancer, heart disease and dementia. Since the mid-20th century, we’ve had to attribute someone’s immediate cause of death to a single disease rather than use the term “old age” on a death certificate.


Today those single diseases tend to be the kind that go on and on in a chronic, degenerating state and involve multiple complications and symptoms that accumulate over time. Which is why those 80 and 90-year-olds (our great grandparents) don’t usually die from a specific ailment.”


As the book Grain Brain goes on to explain, and concurrently a message I share with those who step into my office (presenting with various forms of health complications—from Alzheimer’s, to mood disorders, ADD/ADHD, adrenal fatigue, stress, anxiety, diabetes, heart disease, high cholesterol, psychological unrest and disorders, or simply unhappiness with their current physical state of being):



I am here to tell you that the fate of your HEALTH, WELL-BEING and QUALITY OF LIFE is not inevitable (i.e. you DON’T have to “settle” for disease that now prevalently accompanies “old age” or “life”); and the culprit of poor health and quality of life may NOT be encoded in your DNA…




Over the past 30-40 years, in particular, our country’s health-epidemic has been on the rise.


You’ve heard about it all: obesity, diabetes, and yes, brain dysfunction (like Alzheimer’s and Autism, ADD/ADHD diagnoses, heck, even disorders—like eating disorders and depression).


For instance:


  • Since the 80’s, obesity rates began a steady, constant climb until today, where almost 30% of the adult population is obese and 70% is overweight and/or obese. That means: 1 in 3 American adults is obese. More than 2 in 3 are overweight.


  • Today, 1 in 3 seniors dies with Alzheimer’s or dementia; and Alzheimer’s is the 6th leading cause of death in the country


  • Prevalence of autism in U.S. children increased by 119.4 percent from 2000 (1 in 150) to 2010 (1 in 68). (CDC, 2014) Autism is the fastest-growing developmental disability. (CDC, 2008)


  • There has been a rise in incidence of anorexia in young women 15-19 in each decade since 1930 (Hoek& van Hoeken, 2003). The incidence of bulimia in 10-39 year old women TRIPLED between 1988 and 1993 (Hoek& van Hoeken, 2003); and children under 12 who were hospitalized for an eating disorder increased by 119 percent between 1999 and 2006.


  • ADHD has become one of the most common childhood neurobehavioral disorders, according to the CDC. From 2001 to 2010, the new cases rose approximately 25%.


Does this seem right? What gives?


What the heck is going on?


The answer: It’s in our food.


From the Agricultural Revolution (introducing mainstream food processing and grain creation:

hello commercial breads, pastas, instant oatmeal, rice bowls, snack crackers, granola bars, etc.) to even more recently, the past few decades, grains have become a “staple” part of the American-way—STILL comprising the ‘majority’ of nutrients recommended by the USDA’s Food Guide Pyramid.



The ‘whole grain’ health kick primarily stemmed from the LOW-FAT CRAZE that took off in the 80’s—telling people that “fat and cholesterol” were killing them and making them fat.


So, in efforts, to avoid all that fat, people started eating more grains, carbs, and other processed low-fat foods.



Since that time, the primary breakdown of the current U.S. diet has consisted of approximately 60 percent carbs, 20 percent protein, and 20 percent fat.


Thus, there is no denying that our food habits over the past 30-40 have looked quite different than they did of our ‘ancestors’—whether you’re talking to your great grandparents, or considering your biological wiring of those of good ol’ cave day past.


Hmm…could the two (the rapid, steady rise in disease/declining quality of life AND what we eat) actually go hand in hand?




“Ok, I hear you, I hear you”, you say. “Grains may be doing more harm than good”…but HOW and WHY?!


Scientifically speaking, most grains (whether you’re eating quinoa or rice, Goldfish crackers, pasta or Fruity Pebbles), the reality is they still are associated with a carbohydrate surge.


“Grain-based foods have a fairly high glycemic index, meaning that after 90 to 120 minutes, your blood sugar is going to go up, and that is detrimental to the brain [AND body],” Dr. Perlmutter said.


In fact, did you know that you have about one gallon of blood in your body, and in that in that gallon, there is only one teaspoon of sugar!?


In other words: your body is designed to have just one teaspoon of sugar in your blood at all times – (if that).


When your blood sugar levels rise to that one tablespoon of sugar (through eating carbs), you would run the risk of going into hyperglycemic episodes (surge in energy, followed by crashes or headaches, irritability, ups/downs in hunger fullness, etc.); ‘off’ or foggy brain function; and blood-sugar OVERLOAD (resulting once more in all our diseases and declining health mentioned above).



Your body works very hard to prevent this from happening by making insulin to keep your blood sugar at the appropriate level.


In short:


Grains (and carbs in general) HAVE SUGAR IN THEM, and when you eat them, they raise your body’s insulin levels (often times rapidly if the bulk of your meals comprise starches and grains).


Insulin is required to transport nutrients, like carbs and protein, into various cells of the body. You eat carbs and insulin takes care of them.


But if you eat too many carbs – such as the person who believes that eating low-fat and healthy ‘whole grains’ as the bulk of their diet may do; Or the person who is “running off” cereal in the morning, sandwiches at lunch, a granola bar or crackers for a snack, and a pasta or rice-based meal for lunch, with little balance for protein and fats-– your body pumps too much insulin and you experience a handful of side effects:


  • Insulin resistance (inability to regulate carbs at all!)
  • Fat storage in your cells
  • Inflammation
  • Brain fog
  • Anxiety
  • And declining brain function


…To name a few.


It’s as simple as that.


The bottom line?


A diet that is based in grains and carbohydrates may not be the “way” to go—as we’ve been told to do by the USDA now for years.


And it’s not even a matter of “gluten intolerance” or “genetic predisposition” OR “weight-management.”


This is merely a matter of science—how the human body was designed to survive and thrive ideally (before the invention of takeout pizza, PB&J sandwiches, Starbucks’ muffins, and flour tortillas)….AND how we DON’T when we eat grains, wheat and processed foods in general.


From a health perspective, studies have confirmed this as well:



  • Food is a drug. CNN recently released a report stating that you can become ADDICTED to processed foods. Researchers found that the most problematic foods tended to be those with a high glycemic load, meaning they contained a lot of sugar and caused a spike in blood sugar. The authors wrote that these qualities could make foods more difficult to stop eating in a similar way as drugs that are highly concentrated and rapidly absorbed into the body are more addictive.


  • Alzheimer’s is a disease fed by sugar, carbs and grains. The connection between sugar and Alzheimer’s was first broached in 2005, when the disease was tentatively dubbed “type 3 diabetes.” At that time researchers discovered that your brain produces insulin necessary for the survival of your brain cells. A toxic protein called ADDL removes insulin receptors from nerve cells, thereby rendering those neurons insulin resistant, and as ADDLs accumulate, your memory begins to deteriorate.



  • Grains consumed over the long term, have been linked, time and time again to increases in weight gain, diabetes, and heart disease (also here).




  • A higher dietary intake of refined grains, sugar and dairy products predicted a worse 2-year outcome study of schizophrenia. 


  • More glucose (carbs) is associated with lowered memory and negative influences on your cognition


  • Higher glucose levels are associated with a higher perceived age; (i.e. the higher your glucose levels, the older you’ll tend to look!)


On a side note: Look at any study found on the Whole Grains Councils’ website, touting the benefits of whole grains, and you will find not one study comparing a diet rich in whole grains to a diet rich in WHOLE FOODS (real foods: meat, veggies, some fruit, little starch, no sugar).



Instead, studies compare refined grains to whole grains…or whole grains vs. fats…or whole grains to processed gluten free foods…But never whole grains to just real foods (and lower/no grain diets)…







Alright…it sort of makes sense: Grains aren’t the best for my bod or brain…But do I need to eliminate carbs altogether?!


Jump on the Atkins’ bandwagon, or go ‘gluten free’?!


Or if not …how much is “too much” grains and carbs; and won’t we be missing out on getting in fiber, minerals and other nutrition if I cut grains out?!




First, aiming for a more moderate ratio of carbs to proteins and fats is the way to go.


Not necessarily the opposite extreme of NO CARBOHYDRATES WHATSOEVER here people…but instead BALANCE.


A general baseline for health, without considering weight or body composition goals or efforts, would be about 30-40% of your diet being from carbs—the majority of these coming from non-starchy veggies, along with about 30-40% of proteins and fats.


Again, general baseline here—not individualized to you necessarily, but ONCE MORE: balance people, balance.



Secondly, as for the questions around going gluten free” or not (“to be or not to be?”)…oh man, oh man, there’s a lot of hype around this as well—another post for another day; but the short answer is: Not necessarily.


Meaning: there are hundreds of now, “gluten free” products out there that may not contain ONE ingredient (i.e. gluten), but otherwise contain all the other same ingredients their processed food-twins contain (foods with ingredients you can’t pronounce).


“Gluten free” diets are “in” right now because they sound good, but the bottom line, for general health, is the ‘unsexy answer’:


Eat real food. Don’t complicate things. Eat like your great grandparents (less grain based and no processed foods).


Lastly, as for “essential nutrients”…the short answer is: NOPE! You’re not missing out on anything you can’t get from your meats, fruits and veggies.



In fact, whole grains are lousy sources of fiber, minerals, and B vitamins when compared to the grass-eating, free-range meats, wild-caught seafood, fresh fruit and veggies.


For example, a serving of fresh fruits and vegetables has between two and seven times as much fiber as does a comparable serving of whole grains.


And, fruits and veggies consist of soluble fiber associated with low cholesterol levels, whereas whole grains consist predominantly of insoluble.


In addition, despite what a box claims, a serving of whole grain cereal contains 15 times less calcium, three times less magnesium, 12 times less potassium, six times less iron, and two times less copper than a comparable serving of fresh vegetables.


Compared to fruits and veggies, cereal grains are also low in B-vitamins. An average serving of mixed vegetables contains 19 times more folate, five times more vitamin B6, six times more vitamin B2 and two times more vitamin B1 than a comparable serving of eight mixed whole grains. And, the niacin content of lean meat and seafood is four times greater than that found in whole grains.


Moreover, whole grains contain a substance called phytate that practically completely prevents the absorption of any calcium, iron, or zinc that is found in whole grains anyhow (while the type of iron, zinc, and copper found in grass produced or free ranging meats and seafood is in a form that is highly absorbed).


It’s a no-brainer right?


Got questions?


Don’t hesitate to reach out!



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