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A Functional Medicine Approach to Grains

A Functional Medicine approach to grains from Dr. Mark Hyman – excerpt from his book, Food, What the Heck Should I Eat?...

"Don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of vitamins, minerals, nutrients, and fatty acids contained in whole grains. But you can easily get all those beneficial substances from other sources—vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, and other foods that don’t have the baggage that comes with grains.

When we talk about grains, we use the word starch.

For animals who eat grain—us included—it performs the same function: It breaks down into glucose, which spikes the hormone insulin, the body’s fat fertilizer or fat-storage hormone. High levels of insulin induced by starch and sugar are the driving force behind our obesity and chronic disease epidemics. They are linked to heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and even dementia.

But we don’t all realize that starch is just sugar with a slightly more complex molecular structure.

This is important: Starch and sugar are essentially the same thing. The whole complex vs. simple carb idea has retired to the dustbin of history. What matters is how much a particular carb raises your blood sugar. Bread is a complex carb, sugar a simple carb. But eating two slices of whole wheat bread raises your blood sugar more than eating 2 tablespoons of table sugar does! So whenever you eat something containing wheat flour, you might as well be mainlining sugar.

David Ludwig, the Harvard professor and obesity expert, often says that below the neck, your body can’t tell the difference between a bowl of cornflakes without the sugar and a bowl of sugar without the cornflakes. That’s how bad flour is.

It turns out that the starches and carb-laden foods the experts urged us to devour contributed mightily to our current epidemic of diabesity (which is the spectrum of pre-diabetes to full-blown type 2 diabetes that now affects one out of two Americans and one in four children) and heart disease. The carbs, sugars, and starches in our diet have been tied to cancer and even mental illness. Dementia, for example, is now also called type 3 diabetes. Nearly all the grains we consume today have been processed to death, so the good stuff they once contained is lost. Yet grain’s halo stubbornly persists. A recent survey found that 70 percent of Americans think granola bars are healthy, even though they’re really just cookies with a wholesome-sounding name. The scariest part of that survey? The fact that 28 percent of nutritionists said that granola bars are good for us.

Your Body Doesn’t Know What to Do with Gluten

Gluten is what makes dough doughy and bread airy (it shares the same root as the word “glue”). Normally, getting some of your protein from plants is a good thing. Except when it comes to gluten. Celiac disease, an autoimmune condition just like rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, or lupus, causes confusion in your immune system. Here’s what happens: Your body mistakenly reacts to gluten as if it were an external threat, and that prompts your immune system to attack your own tissues. Celiac is a root cause of at least fifty different diseases, including cancer, lymphoma, osteoporosis, kidney disease, irritable bowel syndrome, autoimmune diseases such as colitis or rheumatoid arthritis, anemia, and psychiatric and neurological diseases like anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, dementia, migraines, epilepsy, and autism.

Many more of us are afflicted with NCGS—non-celiac gluten sensitivity —which is essentially an extreme inflammatory reaction to the same protein. Even those of us without celiac may damage the cells of our intestinal lining when we eat gluten.

Oatmeal Is Not a Health Food

The major problem with oatmeal is the same problem with every other grain: It spikes your blood sugar and makes you hungrier. In one oft-quoted study, overweight children were fed one of three breakfasts: instant oatmeal, steel-cut oats, or omelets, all of which had the same number of calories. The kids who had the instant oatmeal ate 81 percent more food in the afternoon than the omelet eaters. The kids who ate the steel-cut oats did a little better, but still consumed 51 percent more than the children who ate eggs. That wasn’t the only difference: Compared to the omelet group, the kids who ate the oatmeal had higher levels of insulin, sugar, adrenaline, and cortisol (which suggests that the body perceives oatmeal as a stressor). The lesson? Even “healthy” cereal will increase your food cravings more than protein and fats. Although oats don’t contain gluten, they can be contaminated with it when processed in factories where wheat is present. So, add oats to your list of gluten-containing foods to avoid. Even gluten-free oats can be a problem for those who are sensitive."


If you’ve never heard of a grain before, try it. The following grains can be served as side dishes, cooked in water or broth, and flavored with whatever vegetables, herbs, and spices you prefer.

Buckwheat, from which pancakes, soba noodles, and kasha are made (it’s a cousin of rhubarb, not wheat at all, despite the name)

Whole-kernel rye (if you’re not gluten-sensitive)





Black rice

Brown rice

Red rice

Wild rice (actually a seed)

And the current champion weird grain: quinoa, also a non-grain; it’s technically a pseudo-grain, related to beetroots and tumbleweeds, but it cooks like a grain, looks like a grain, and is super nutritious

Non-GMO whole corn


Wheat (try einkorn or ancient wheat)






GMO wheat





Any refined grains

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