Anti-grain books Grain Brain and Wheat Belly
Bestselling books such as“Grain Brain” and “Wheat Belly” are fueling the demonization of grains.

LAS VEGAS — Wheat is the new asbestos — or at least that’s what bloggers and bestselling books like “Grain Brain” and “Wheat Belly” suggest, said Julie Miller Jones, Ph.D.

Dr. Julie Miller Jones, Grain Foods Foundation
Julie Miller Jones, Ph.D.

“You have all kinds of people professing that not eating gluten helped them win Wimbledon and not eating gluten made them a movie star … and that we didn’t evolve to eat grain, and that it’s destroying our brains,” said Dr. Miller Jones, a certified nutritionist and scientific adviser for the Grain Foods Foundation. “Bloggers say grains are really bad for you. It’s interesting that every government in the entire world says we should have 45% to 65% of our calories coming from carbohydrates. Nearly every diagram, pyramid, plate … the bottom layer is grain. The world agrees that grain is what we ought to be eating.”

Dr. Miller Jones addressed common myths and misperceptions surrounding grains and gluten during a presentation at the International Baking Industry Exposition (IBIE), held Oct. 8-11 in Las Vegas. She also discussed the nutritional ramifications of avoiding grains.

“The paleo people claim that we didn’t evolve to eat wheat or grain,” she said.

Caution tape across bread
Many consumers believe grains are to blame for the rise in obesity.

To the contrary, humans have been eating grains for more than 100,000 years, as proven by dental record evidence. Cooked grain DNA was found in the dental calculus of Paleolithic era humans, Dr. Miller Jones said.

“Not only did we evolve to eat grains, but that actually promoted human evolution,” she said. “Normal primates have two copies of amylase enzymes, which break starch down. Humans are the only ones that have six copies of amylase enzymes. Because we have six copies that meant our brain could grow more rapidly so we could evolve to be a higher being than all primates. Cooked carbohydrates enabled that evolution.”

Fad diets aside, many consumers believe grains are to blame for the rise in obesity. 

Scale with measuring tape
About two-thirds of Americans are obese or overweight, yet grain consumption is flat or declining.

“In 2016, in every state, 20% of the people are obese (and) about two-thirds of us are obese or overweight,” Dr. Miller Jones said. “Grain consumption is flat or going down, and obesity in kids all over the world is going up. So, if grains are the problem, we should be losing weight, not gaining it.”

A meta-analysis of 45 studies published this year revealed consumption of whole grains lowered relative risk of disease and death.

“Those people who ate whole grain had half the risk of diabetes of people who did not eat the recommended serving of whole grain,” Dr. Miller Jones said. “They had a 20% lower risk of coronary disease, a 25% lower risk of cardiovascular disease, a 22% lower risk of stroke, and a 15% lower risk of cancer. They had a 17% lower risk of death overall.”

Paleo, gluten-free and grain-free diet foods
Paleo, gluten-free and grain-free diets have risen in popularity.

Moreover, low-carbohydrate diets have been linked to a significantly higher risk of all-cause mortality, she said.

“Going paleo, while it may help you lose some weight, it may not be what you want to think about for the long haul,” Dr. Miller Jones said. “The real cause of obesity is too many calories from all sources. Gluten-free and grain-free are not healthier, and they are often less healthy.”

Beyond health implications, grains are critical for protecting the world’s food supply.

“As you know we’re going to have 9 billion people on the planet in 2050… and grains make up 73% of the harvested acres and provide about 50% of the world’s calories,” Dr. Miller Jones said. “By 2050, we will need more than 40% more in terms of production, and that number will be even greater because many times we’re seeing as populations move from developing to transitional to developed, they eat more meat, and the more meat we eat, the more grain is required.

Rice, corn and wheat
Rice, corn and wheat provide two-thirds of the world’s calories.

“We already have intensive production, and we’re using a variety of methods to increase yield. There is only 20% more land that we can take, and a lot of that is forest … so which natural park do you want to cut down?”

Corn, wheat and rice provide two-thirds of the world’s calories and, coupled with barley, sorghum, oats, rye and millet, supply half of the world’s protein. These crops also are denser in calories per acre than lentils, green beans and quinoa.

“I want you to think about those people who say we don’t need any grains and we don’t need any wheat or corn as really not thinking the problem through,” Dr. Miller Jones said. “They provide many calories per acre, and we need to complement our diet with legumes, and we need all of these foods to help feed the world by 2050.”