This is another discussion in the Wheat Belly Basics series to bring newcomers up-to-speed on Wheat Belly concepts.
Here, I discuss phytates, the compounds in wheat and grains responsible for several important nutrient deficiencies. Contrary to popular opinion, grains are NOT necessary for nutrition—plenty of fiber of higher quality and B vitamins can be obtained from other sources. Grains actually CAUSE nutrient deficiencies, specifically of minerals.
Some deficiencies correct simply with grain elimination, while others such as magnesium and iron may require specific supplementation to compensate for the deficiencies caused by prior grain consumption.
This is another discussion in this series I call Wheat Belly Basics, that is, the basic arguments behind the Wheat Belly concepts, that may be new to newcomers. Oh, perhaps if you’ve been following the Wheat Belly lifestyle for some years, perhaps just refresher. This one is about phytates, and the nutrient deficiencies that they cause. This is also part of the many conversations I have had over the years, that show that gluten is not the only problem with grains.
Gluten is no more the only problem with wheat and grains than tar is the only problem, only thing wrong, with tobacco or cigarettes. You may recall tar as that brown residue that remains after you burn tobacco — burn a cigarette. Well there’s many hundreds of other components in tobacco, like cadmium and mercury, and all sorts of other toxins and volatile compounds, that cause cancers and heart disease, etc., that have nothing to do with the tar. Tar is just one component. But if you fell into that trap of believing that tar was the only problem with tobacco, you would smoke low tar cigarettes, and think it was fine, right, not realizing that you’re every bit as susceptible to heart disease, lung disease, lung cancer etc.
The same goes with wheat and grains. Just because something doesn’t have this one protein called gluten, it does not mean the rest of it’s perfectly fine. There are many other problems in the seeds of grass, because that’s what grains are: they’re seeds of grasses, and humans are simply ill-equipped to eat grasses. That’s why you don’t cut your lawn in the summer time to save the clippings to toss on top of a salad.
There’s something in wheat and grain called phytates. Phytates are interesting, because they are useful to the plant, because it helps fight off pests, like molds, fungi and insects. It’s a pest resistant compound in plants. Well, farmers know this. Agricultural scientists know this, so they have selected strains of wheat and other grains to be enriched in phytates, because it makes a plant more resistant to pests.
Problem: phytates are toxic to humans. They’re very powerful binders to anything that has a positive charge (minerals). The phytates in let’s say bread ,or bagels, or pizza crusts, whatever, binds the iron, zinc, magnesium and calcium in your intestinal tract, and you pass them out in the toilet.
Iron for instance: if you eat two slices of whole wheat bread, as you would for a sandwich, any iron you obtain your diet is bound up by the phytates. 90% of the iron is bound up by the phytates and you poop it out into the toilet. It makes getting iron very difficult, makes getting other positively charged minerals like calcium, magnesium and zinc also very difficult.
Nutrient deficiencies are typically caused by grain consumption; mineral deficiencies. There are other deficiencies caused by grain, like B12 deficiency, but let’s focus on the phytate caused mineral deficiencies, such as iron deficiency anemia, which is common (and much more so in females for unclear reasons). This can lead to such things as anemia that is very poorly responsive to iron. People take iron tablets, even prescription strength iron tablets, they even get iron injections, even get transfusions, bone marrow biopsies. This can go on for years, until the person removes grains from their diet, and their iron levels, their blood levels, go back up, within a couple of weeks. I’ve seen it happen many many times.
You know, the World Health Organization is aware of this effect. That’s why they know, when they ship wheat and other grains into a starving area, that they have to provide for the deficiencies that develop when they feed kids grains. Because if they don’t compensate for the nutritional deficiencies like that of iron, kids’ growth will be stunted, and their learning will be impaired. The World Health Organization is well aware that you must step in to correct all the nutrient deficiencies, especially iron, when you feed kids a grain rich diet.
Zinc deficiencies can develop and that can be responsible for immune disorders. It helps activate immune disorders; skin rashes. It adds to dementia risk. So zinc deficiency, long-standing zinc deficiency, has important implications, and most of the zinc is bound up by phytates if you eat grains
Calcium is very well bound by the phytates of grains, and you pass it out. Some people of course think they’re overcoming it by taking calcium supplements (which is a very bad idea, but that’s a whole separate issue). But recognize that the phytates of grains bind up the calcium, and by the way, when you eliminate grains, urinary calcium level, you’re urinary counts of loss, drops substantially.
Intestinal absorption of calcium increases due to vitamin D replacement that we engage in, in the in the Undoctored and Wheat Belly programs. Cultivation of bowel flora: the healthy species enhance calcium absorption. In other words, what we’re doing in the Wheat Belly lifestyle is getting enhanced absorption and decreased urinary losses of calcium. Calcium is self-correcting. You don’t need to take calcium supplements. You remove the phytates, you no longer pass them out in the toilet.
Magnesium deficiencies develop over years because of grain consumption. Most of the magnesium in your food is bound up by the phytates. You pay a bone health price. It leads to weaker bones. It leads to more erratic blood sugars, higher blood pressure, heart rhythm disorders, and numerous other problems including leg cramps and finger charley-horses. That’s why, when we eliminate grains, we replace magnesium to compensate for the years, decades, of magnesium deficiency caused by grains. When you go grain free, we do purposefully supplement magnesium, because the deficiency is so profound, so long-standing, we have to do that.
Calcium, like we talked about, just by removing grains and taking vitamin D, kind of corrects on its own. It’s a rare person who must take calcium, certainly not for bone health, to prevent osteoporosis and fractures.
Iron and zinc need to be addressed individually, because those situations vary. So I generally suggest that people who are at risk for Alzheimer’s, or are concerned about risk for Alzheimer’s, and/or have autoimmune disorders, or skin rashes, or other inflammatory conditions, consider zinc supplementation.
Likewise, iron should be assessed individually,because there is also higher an overload — you can overdo it, so that should be assessed and tracked — and iron supplementation only undertaken it really needs to be undertaken. Most people simply correct their iron by eliminating grains.
Those are the issues that surround the phytates of grains, something that has nothing to do with gluten, phytates being one of many dozens, if not hundreds of other components in wheat and grains that cause health problems in humans — remedied by this simple maneuver of not consuming grains.