The 5 Reasons Why Grains Are The Hardest Food to Digest

by Sarah Grain FreeComments: 32

grains are hard to digest

By Monica Corrado, MA, CNC

If you’ve heard of the GAPS Diet, Autoimmune Protocol, or the Specific Carbohydrate Diet (SCD), you know that elimination of grains is a major step in reclaiming the health of your gut.

But why?

Grains have been consumed for thousands of years by many healthy, degenerative disease free ancestral cultures without an issue. Why all of a sudden do folks need to stop eating them in order to arrest symptoms of autoimmune disease?

Isn’t there an easier way?  The foundation of the Food Pyramid is “heart healthy” whole grains after all. Can’t a person even eat rice when on a gut healing protocol?

Let’s delve into this controversial subject and discuss what it is about grains that makes them so hard to digest for humans especially when there is any sort of compromise in gut function.

The truth is that all those “heart-healthy” grains are the hardest food for a human to digest.

That’s why they can blow holes in your small intestine, which wreaks havoc on your immune system with all manner of unpredictable autoimmune symptoms.

Grains are Seeds

All grains are really seeds. That’s right, seeds which are meant to produce a plant. They are not meant to be digested. They are meant to stay intact, until they arrive at the perfect conditions to grow another plant: soil, water, air, and sunlight.

That’s why 2,000 year old date seeds found during archaeological excavations in Israel were shockingly still intact when found. And they grew into a plant when given the correct conditions!

The idea of grains being built like a “containment center” has been a helpful analogy to me; a fortress which is not meant to be breached by our digestive system. Even cows are not supposed to eat grains under ideal grazing conditions, and they have four stomachs!

All Grains Contain Phytic Acid

Phytic acid blocks the absorption of minerals in your small intestine, and grains are particularly high in this anti-nutrient. This is a major problem!  Humans need minerals right down to the cellular level. Think also our hearts, our bones….

Consuming grains that are not prepared correctly in the amounts that the USDA has encouraged for the past 30 some years—8-12 servings per day—can result in bone loss, due to all those minerals you did not absorb!

The vast majority of breads, crackers, bagels, rolls, sandwiches, croutons available on the supermarket shelf even if organic have not been prepared in a manner that you could ever digest fully without some sort of digestive compromise. YIKES! And whole grains prepared in a modern fashion are the worst of all for the digestive system. I’ll explain why later.

All Grains Have Enzyme Inhibitors

What are enzyme inhibitors and why should we care? Simply put, enzyme inhibitors inhibit the action of enzymes! Just think of the starter in your car: if the starter doesn’t work, the car doesn’t start. Enzymes act as catalysts for digestion. That is, they kick start digestive processes. One does not want one’s enzymes inhibited. Might the overconsumption of grains that were not prepared well be one of the reasons for the rise in pancreatic dis-ease and cancer? Hmmm. Worth a thought.

All Grains Contain Disaccharides

Disaccharides, or double sugars, are present in all grains. The compromised gut is unable to digest double sugar molecules because the lack of beneficial gut flora compromises the function of the enterocytes. The enterocytes are the cells that reside on the villi of the gut wall and produce the enzyme disaccharidase which breaks down the disaccharide molecule into easily absorbed monosaccharide molecules. When the enterocytes are not nourished and strengthened properly by adequate beneficial flora, they become weak and diseased and may even turn cancerous.

Compromised enterocytes do not perform their duties of digesting and absorbing food properly. The critical importance of the enterocytes to health cannot be overstated! Weak and diseased enterocytes also have trouble digesting starch molecules which are very large with hundreds of monosugars connected in long branchlike strands.   People with weak digestion due to an imbalance of gut flora and messed up enterocytes have a terrible time digesting these complex molecules leaving large amounts of it undigested- the perfect food for pathogenic yeasts, bacteria, fungi and other pathogens to thrive upon.

Even the starch that manages to get digested results in molecules of maltose, which is – you guessed it – a disaccharide!  This maltose also goes undigested due to a lack of the enzyme disaccharidase and becomes additional food for gut pathogens.

All Grains Contain Complex, Hard to Digest Proteins

Lastly, grains contain complex proteins. And guess what?  Whole grains are the highest in these complex proteins!

The human body needs food to be in the simplest form in order to absorb and use it. The word “complex” means that there is work to be done by our digestive tract. Though it works and works, these proteins cannot be broken down. The worst offender? Notorious gluten. Gluten is a complex protein that the body cannot break down…and it’s even more complex than ever, after 50 years of hybridizing for increased gluten content!

Because human digestive tracts cannot break down complex proteins, they must be broken down prior to eating. That means sprouted, soaked, or fermented before cooking. Sprouting, soaking, and fermenting grain based foods are easy processes that not only pre-digest the proteins in grains, they also neutralize the other problems mentioned above. And they are easy peasy, once you know how.

If you’re in the process of healing your gut or have healed it by going off grains … you simply must learn about the magic of sprouting, soaking and fermenting which are the methods ancestral cultures used to prepare grains in order to consume them without ill effect. This is the first step on the joyous journey back to eating and enjoying your grains.

Learn More About Grains and Gut Health

Psst! If you’d like to get a jump on learning how to properly and traditionally prepare your grains by soaking, sprouting, or sour leavening so that you can digest them easily and enjoy them again, click here to check out my hand written and illustrated chart, Preparing Beans and Whole Grains for Ease of Digestion and Nutrient Availability on my website,

About the Author

Monica Corrado_miniMonica Corrado, MA, CNC is a teaching chef and holistic Certified Nutritional Consultant who is passionate about illuminating the connection between food and well-being. She is a dynamic teacher, speaker, consultant, and author who lives to share the tools, knowledge and inspiration to cook nourishing, traditional food. Monica has been teaching food as medicine for almost ten years after 18 years in sustainable food sourcing and preparation, menu design and management.

Monica’s current work focuses on the brain-gut connection and helping children come to balance through food. She enjoys empowering moms, dads and other caregivers with tools in the kitchen to help all children, especially those with AD/HD and on the Autistic Spectrum by teaching them how to cook to heal their gut through the GAPS (Gut and Psychology Syndrome) diet and other healing protocols. Monica travels around the country teaching people how to cook nourishing, traditional food, and has started her own Cooking for Well-Being Teacher Training program. She is an adjunct professor at the Maryland University of Integrative Health (formerly Tai Sophia Institute in Columbia, Maryland) and at the Farm-to-Table Culinary Academy at Sunrise Ranch in Loveland, CO.  Monica is also a member of the Honorary Board of the Weston A. Price Foundation, and a Certified Nutrition Consultant. For more information about Monica, her teaching schedule, and to find out more about training with her to become a Traditional Foods Teacher, check out her website


More Information

Heal Your Autoimmune Disease Now

The Five Most Common GAPS Diet Mistakes

The Difference Between the GAPS Diet and Autoimmune Paleo Protocol

Comments (32)

  • Maria

    Hello! It’s always fun to read contradictory advice on the same day. I was hoping someone out there could help me make sense of this excerpt from

    “When husks (bran) were separated from rice, the B vitamins were removed, which led to deficiency diseases of pellagra and beri beri. However, in addition to B vitamins, these rice polishings (bran) provided phytic acid (IP6), also called inositol hexaphosphate, an important mineral binder and antioxidant. [Free Radical Biology Medicine 8: 61-69, 1990; J Biological Chemistry 262: 11647-50, 1987] IP6 is found in every living cell in the body and is also an important second messenger for the nervous system. The low consumption of whole grains has led to reduced consumption of IP6 and the development of iron, copper and calcium overload diseases (hemochromatosis, Wilson’s disease, kidney stones, mitral valve, calcium cataracts) and other iron-overload sequelae such as hypertension, atherosclerosis, brain disorders, liver disease, colon cancer and other maladies. IP6-phytic acid has been mistakenly branded as an anti-nutrient because it interferes with mineral absorption among growing children. Nutritionists fail to recognize that most of the anemia in developing countries is caused by intestinal parasites, not the lack of iron, and that nature favors iron anemia over iron overload, since iron is a major growth factor for bacteria, viruses, fungi and tumor cells. Bran has never been fully restored to the food supply, and the world is still suffering from deficiency diseases. “

    June 18th, 2015 12:36 pm Reply
  • Marty

    This is a super informative article about grains. I had to take out my notebook, it was so full of good tips. Thanks so much, I learned a lot :)

    June 15th, 2015 1:58 am Reply
  • al

    thank you for your insight and posting this. very helpful and great timing for me

    January 30th, 2015 7:47 pm Reply
  • Joe

    do you recommend commercially prepared sprouted bread at the natural foods store? why or why not? thank you! like your work.

    January 27th, 2015 11:11 pm Reply
    • Sarah TheHealthyHomeEconomist

      Yes, they are fine in my experience. Just be sure to get organic if the sprouted bread has wheat in it as the conventional wheat crop in the United States is heavily sprayed with glyphosate containing herbicides just before harvest (which the wheat kernels suck up) which decimates beneficial gut bacteria.

      January 28th, 2015 10:42 am Reply
  • michelle G

    Yes, you can heal your gut and IBS and IBD by eliminating all grains, starches and sugars like I did by finding the SCD diet. The cause of my IBD: eastern european genes, wasn’t breast fed in the 50’s, lots of antibiotics and allergies, no Vit D, bad food, stress. The perfect storm for creating a gut imbalance. Trick is to stay balanced by listening to your body and processing your grains properly per WAPF, but a good place to start is killing off the bad stuff and rebalance. Good article.

    January 27th, 2015 10:14 pm Reply
  • johnberk

    This is not the first place where I read about the possible dangers of grain consumption. But what do you suggest? Should we rather eat less or abstain from it completely? And what about rye? Does it have better characteristics than the other grains? And then, there is of course one thing I cannot live without – good quality hops beer. And I digest it without any problems, to be honest.

    January 27th, 2015 5:58 am Reply
  • Shane

    Without sources/references it’s just a blog of speculation.

    January 26th, 2015 6:43 pm Reply
  • Laura

    Does soaking really degrade proteins like gluten?????????
    But my sourdough bread rises still well even after a long fermentation….

    January 26th, 2015 5:24 pm Reply
  • Dan

    Love your blog and always learning. Thank you for this excellent explanation!

    January 25th, 2015 8:25 pm Reply
  • Marcia

    Great article! Couple things I was wondering…when you say seeds are not meant to be digested does that include Chia seeds of flax seeds etc.? I have recently started using Chia seeds and read about the multiple health benefits including helping the digestive track. Thoughts? Also, do you include rice, oats, quinoa etc. In this list of grains to avoid? Please advise :)

    January 25th, 2015 11:30 am Reply
    • Marcia PART II

      Sorry I meant Chia OR Flax seed etc.

      And this is the kind of info I have read from numerous nutritionists with similar blogs which support the opposite idea and claim that these seeds can actually aid in the healing process of the gut and digestion….

      “Chia seeds are super high in dietary fiber, making it great for digestion and healing digestion issues.”

      Just curious to hear your opinion thanks!

      January 25th, 2015 12:08 pm Reply
    • Tangela

      When she said seeds were not meant to be eaten, what also popped into my mind were beans, peas, corn, and peanuts. They are all seeds that we eat. Not to mention the seeds in tomatoes, okra, eggplant, strawberries, blackberries, etc. – all of which have seeds in them that are most commonly eaten with the host.

      January 26th, 2015 8:05 am Reply
  • lia

    People are not all the same. Perhaps ingesting grains affects some and not all.

    January 25th, 2015 10:33 am Reply
  • Melinda

    I do enjoy ready articles that have merit on subjects of interest however I believe if you are going to take a stand and want people to take you seriously, all your facts should be correct..Cattle do not have 4 stomachs they have 1 stomach with 4 compartments… Which,being ruminant (chew their cud) animals, give them the ability to digest more efficiently than a human which is a mono-gastric,non ruminating, animal. So comparing the two digestive systems and how they breakdown food and absorb it is not a comparison that can be made because they simply do not work the same..

    January 25th, 2015 9:13 am Reply
  • Sarah, The Healthy Home Economist

    It’s important not to commit the logical mistake that just because grains are hard to digest this somehow makes them “bad”. Grains are not “bad”. They can be prepared in a manner that is both convenient and digestible — providing the digestive system is healthy and in good shape. If they can’t be digested due to digestive impairment, take them out of the diet, heal and then add them back in slowly and methodically. If you don’t want to ever eat them again, fine. But, personally, I think a life of not eating grains is boring and I certainly would never raise children that way unless there was a need to due to autoimmune issues. Don’t fall for the black and white argument that grains are always bad and should never be consumed. Thousands of years of history with healthy cultures eating grains that suffered from little to no degenerative disease shows this to be a false argument.

    January 24th, 2015 8:37 am Reply
    • Megan

      Sarah, I would be thrilled if you did an article on how to traditionally prepare (soak??) and cook rice. We’ve been on gaps for the last two years and are ready to re-introduce rice (yay!) because we have sorely missed it all this time.

      My in-laws are hispanic and eat rice seven days a week but have lost the traditional ways of preparing it.

      January 26th, 2015 6:32 pm Reply
  • Brenda

    Jessie Hawkins explains in her book that it’s been show that soaking does not break down the phytic acid, whereas, the sourdough process does.

    January 24th, 2015 7:18 am Reply
    • Laura

      Correct me if I’m wrong but this what I know about phytic acid …..
      Phytase (an enzyme that degrades phytic acid) should be available in all seeds. Seeds need this enzyme to germinate.
      So if you buy flour from the store you don’t know if these seeds have been heat treated ( for example even the best rolled oats are toasted before being rolled). Heat destroys phytase so soaking will not be usefull in destroying phytic acid and there is where the yeast from the sourdough will be usefull.
      But if you have your own grains you can get away by just soaking.
      Am I right ?

      January 26th, 2015 5:15 pm Reply
  • lisa

    your post doesnt seem to explain the very question you pose at the beginning. why didnt our ancestors and cultures that continue to rely heavily on grains have these same autoimmune probs that we face? could you kindly explain?

    January 24th, 2015 4:12 am Reply
    • Sarah TheHealthyHomeEconomist

      They didn’t have antibiotics and other meds and a horrible processed food diet which messed it up in the first place like modern people do.

      January 24th, 2015 8:19 am Reply
      • Heather W.

        We’ve been eating according to WAPF principles for 10 years. We have not had “antibiotics and other meds and a horrible processed food diet which messed it up” just as long. I also run a clean home with safe homemade personal care and cleaning products. YET here we are– having had to do GAPS Intro and Full GAPS last year, and currently having to do the Autoimmune Paleo protocol due to extreme gut inflammation (like appearing 7 months pregnant). Our seeds, grains, and legumes have always been “properly prepared” for 10 years (including sourdoughing our bread for over 12 hours). After 2.5 weeks on AIP my gut is finally back down and I’m beginning to lose the weight that has slowly crept up the past 4 years. I cannot help but feel betrayed by “proper preparation” and grain themselves.

        January 24th, 2015 10:02 am Reply
        • Sarah TheHealthyHomeEconomist

          Much is determined in the womb … prenatal and early childhood nutrition is critical. Remember that Mom’s gut flora is passed along to her children for better or for worse. And, for most women today, this means for worse (the Pill decimates Mom’s gut flora and almost all women take the Pill before having their children anymore) and the children inherit a gut flora that is very problematic to their health even if they make excellent choices as adults.

          January 24th, 2015 4:14 pm Reply
      • Lugh

        This is pure supposition and has absolute ZERO basis in science. There is no evidence whatsoever that ancient peoples did not suffer from these diseases. There was no way for our ancestors to diagnose these diseases, which is why, should you read historical chronicles, annals, or other surviving documents from cultures ranging from Ancient Egypt through to the Renaissance, you’ll hear of children that were always “sickly,” or heirs to thrones that were unhealthy from birth and died at young ages. These “sickly” people likely suffered from a wide variety of diseases that are easily diagnosed and treated with modern diagnostics, but before that technology became available, they simply assumed that someone was prone to being sick. To simply assume that these diseases didn’t exist because you personally haven’t heard of it is fallacious and irresponsible. As someone both with a PhD in history and who is married to a PhD in chemistry who studies autoimmune diseases, you are so incredibly wrong here there aren’t enough words in the English language to describe it.

        January 29th, 2015 10:06 am Reply
    • Beth

      Lisa, those earlier peoples also did not have gut-damaging chemicals like Roundup / glyphosate permeating their environment.

      January 24th, 2015 6:15 pm Reply
  • Brian

    I am a little disappointed that you only put half the story on here. I know you give a link to the rest of the story, but this leaves the impression that we should all stop eating grain, period. end of story but it is not. this technique is not what I have come to expect from the healthy home economist. Look for ward to a better effort next time.

    January 24th, 2015 12:09 am Reply
  • Rick

    “Grains have been consumed for thousands of years . . . without an issue” ??
    With the advent of agriculture we got short, fat, and sick and it took us 5000 years to recover (sort of). Grain wasn’t the only player in that tawdry little drama but it had a starring role. Grains were never good for us but now of course we’ve ‘improved’ everything . . .

    January 23rd, 2015 11:23 pm Reply
    • Sarah TheHealthyHomeEconomist

      Seriously? Just as one of many examples, the traditional Swiss culture that relied on grains (sourdough bread) for approximately 50% of its diet were so handsome, fit, strong and gorgeous that the Pope chose men from those villages for the Vatican Guard. In addition, the tribes in Africa that ate the most balanced diet between both animal and plant foods that included grains dominated and were stronger and better physically proportioned than the tribes that ate only animal foods AND those that ate mostly plant foods. Read “Nutrition and Physical Degeneration” Grains *destroying* health is a myth and totally NOT true. It is an argument that has no support anthropologically.

      January 24th, 2015 8:23 am Reply
  • Beth

    Hi Monica! Thanks for putting this whole topic so beautifully “in a nutshell”! Great post.

    January 23rd, 2015 8:21 pm Reply
  • Naya

    What are your thoughts on old fashion oatmeal? Is it ok as long as it’s soaked over night (with lemon juice or acv?) and then eat it with lots of butter? But then it’s so mushy. ick! Would you be able to guide me to a healthy recipe for oatmeal that is not mushy? Thanks!

    January 23rd, 2015 4:49 pm Reply
    • Beth

      Naya, you could try steel cut or whole oat groats for a firmer texture.

      January 24th, 2015 12:07 am Reply
    • Teresa

      Try just covering your oats in water with the lemon juice added, then in the morning add only alittle water in pan. I make this all the time and mine are not mushy unless I add too much water either in soaking or cooking.

      January 24th, 2015 9:14 am Reply

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