Wholegrains Are Being Labelled “Anti-Nutrient”—Are They Actually Bad For Your Gut?

Say it ain't so!


It’s funny to think that less than a decade ago, wholegrains were the foundation of the food pyramid. We were encouraged to eat more servings of it than any other food group—including fruit and veggies. Meanwhile, meat and fats were merely a slither up the top. Oh, how times have changed! While bread, cereal and oatmeal are still staples of the modern diet, we no longer look at them as the pinnacle of virtuous eating. In fact, many of us try to limit them or avoid them altogether, for a variety of reasons ranging from gluten intolerance to a low carb, high fat diet. But now, it would appear the campaign against wholegrains has reached a whole new level, with various bloggers and diet blogs labelling them an ‘anti-nutrient’
The thinking in these health circles (mainly low carb diet advocates) is that wholegrains promote inflammation, damage the gut and prevent effective digestion. Specifically, it’s two little molecules in wholegrains that they say are causing all the havoc: lectins and phytates. So, is there any truth to this? Here, we investigate.

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What are lectins and phyates?

The first question is—what are lectins and phyates and why are they (supposedly) so bad? Well, lectins are a type of naturally occurring protein found in many foods like legumes, grains, seeds and certain vegetables. They act as a glue binding carbohydrates together, which can help cells interact and communicate with each other. They can also bind to molecules present in the cell walls of attacking bacteria or fungi and destroy them. Phyates are phosphorus-containing acids (phytic acid) that bind to minerals, assisting with the germination process.
Some believe that lectins bind to the lining of the gut, causing a range of unpleasant symptoms from nausea, diarrhoea and bloating to leaky gut syndrome. Meanwhile, the main concern with phytates is that they can bind to certain dietary minerals including iron, zinc, manganese and, to a lesser extent calcium, and slow down their absorption.
While both of these things are true—to an extent—the experts believe that it’s not an issue or the average person. “While most [lectins] are safe to eat, some plant lectins are toxic due to their ability to bind certain carbohydrates in our bodies,” plant geneticist and Policy Director of Biology Fortified, Inc told SELF. “For example, ricin from castor beans is a lectin.” However, they only really cause issues in undercooked legumes, not cooked products like bread and cereal.

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A 2014 study published in the journal, Cereal Science, also concluded that the current data on lectins does not support negative health effects. “The current scientific evidence is strong and consistent to suggest that wholegrains have beneficial effects in individuals with no genetic predisposition for celiac disease, despite the dietary lectin content,” the review authors write. “Despite numerous speculative assumptions that wheat germ lectins cause intestinal damage and disease, there is at present neither evidence that this is the case nor reason to recommend the healthy population to abstain from whole grain food products.”
Meanwhile, in Western countries where we have access to a diverse range of food sources, the malabsorption from the phytates generally isn’t cause for concern. However, it becomes more of an issue in developing countries where diets very high in grains and very low in animal products are the norm.
So, if you don’t have any digestive issues with wholegrains, there’s probably no need to ditch them completely for the sake of your gut. In fact, one of the best ways to keep your gut in tip-top condition is eating a wide range of (healthy) foods. Plus, wholegrains have a range of health-boosting benefits you’d be missing out on, including reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. As always, the best advice is to stick to a balanced diet and listen to your own body to determine what works for you—rather than just blindly following health bloggers and influencers.

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