Grains, Health & Insulin


There is a small but growing minority of people who advocate a grain-free diet. Their argument is that grains and sugars result in large blood glucose rises and correspondingly demand a high level of insulin to be dealt with by the body. Since insulin is a storage hormone this makes it difficult for the body to burn fat and instead the shift is towards storing energy – principally in fat stores. They argue that consuming grains is therefore at the root cause of rising levels of obesity, insulin resistance and diabetes.

Much of this thinking comes from the interest in Paleo diets – that is the diet consumed by our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Before we began farming, some 10,000 years ago, Man did not consume grains or refined sugars, and so the carbohydrate load of the diet was less than today (but it’s incorrect to say our carbohydrate intake was low – just lower). The insulin demand would also therefore have been lower. However when we did start to grow grains and domesticate animals, it allowed our populations to grow. We were able to grow more food instead of relying on successful hunts. In the modern world it would be impossible to feed us all on an animal food based diet.

But do eating grains impact negatively on our health? Well the first point is that it is ludicrous to lump all grain foods into one category. There is a huge difference physiologically and nutritionally between a wholegrain, minimally processed, and a refined grain product. We cannot compare a wholegrain bread for example with a cupcake made from white flour and sugar! Its no surprise that people lose weight when they stop eating grains… that means no cakes, biscuits, muffins, pastries, white bread or other baked goodies. Yet they will claim its grains per se that were the problem.

Refined grains are undoubtedly a problem. Products made predominantly from white flours, and even many wholemeal flours being so finely ground by modern milling techniques, do give rise to large rapid rises in blood glucose and require an unnaturally large release of insulin to be dealt with by the body. If this happens repeatedly the chronic elevations in blood glucose and insulin can damage blood vessels, raise the risk of heart disease, diabetes and is highly likely to affect your weight (particularly if you are also sedentary). However when you eat the same amount of carbohydrate from a minimally processed grain food, both glucose responses and insulin are markedly lower.

There is also evidence that the added carbohydrates in our diet when we began consuming grains lead to a growth in the frontal lobes of the brain; as a consequence we actually got smarter. To me this is really interesting. We got smart enough to figure out how to farm and that we could get some of our nutritional needs from eating more plant foods, and by doing so we fed our brain more of the fuel it needs to work optimally. In turn our intelligence improved again. Fascinating! Today roughly 30% of the glucose circulating in your bloodstream is used by the brain. If you also exercise, particularly at any intensity, you need addition carbohydrates to fuel your working muscles.

Lastly there is a substantial amount of evidence showing that consumption of wholegrains reduces your risk of chronic disease and is associated with lower BMIs. So the epidemiological evidence is in support of being picky about which grain foods you eat. It seems clear to me that so long as you are smart in your carb-rich food choices and include wholegrains in your diet – while minimising your use of refined starch and sugar – you will reap the benefits. Barleymax products fall into this category. They are not made from flour but the intact grain, they are incredibly rich in all three types of fibre, but uniquely are high in the third type resistant starch, while being low GI (slowly absorbed), and is higher in protein and micronutrients than many common grains. Research just released from CSIRO shows that resistant starch in the diet feeds the good bacteria in your bowel and improves the ability of the cells in your bowel to protect themselves from carcinogens, in turn lowering your risk of cancer. So my mind there is little doubt that we need to picky about which carbohydrate-rich foods we should eat regularly in our diet, and that choosing the smart carbs benefits our health enormously. If you’ve been “carbophobic” I hope that comes as joyous relief!


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