Eat Grains Or Die: The (ahem) ‘Evidence’ From The Save The Grains Campaign

In last week’s post, we saw how media shills for the Save The Grains Campaign have been warning us that if we ditch the grains, we’ll develop diabetes, fill up with mercury, then get sick and die. And lest we assume they’re being overly dramatic, they assure us these claims are backed up by research.

Well, it’s true … really lousy research in the form of weak observational studies. The SBC News article that flatly declared we need whole grains to avoid diseases and death, for example, cited this study as proof:


The study included 367,442 participants from the prospective NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study (enrolled in 1995 and followed through 2009). Participants with cancer, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and self-reported end-stage renal disease at baseline were excluded.


Over an average of 14 years of follow-up, a total of 46,067 deaths were documented. Consumption of whole grains were inversely associated with risk of all-cause mortality and death from cancer, cardiovascular disease (CVD), diabetes, respiratory disease, infections, and other causes.

Same old garbage. Researchers send out food questionnaires over a period of years and follow up by examining medical records. Then they look for correlations – and by gosh, they tend to find exactly the correlations they were seeking.

Food questionnaires are notoriously unreliable. And even if people could accurately remember what they’ve eaten over a period of years, the correlations merely tell us that people who choose whole grains over white flour have better health outcomes.

Does that prove that whole grains are better than white flour? Not really. It could simply be that since whole grains have been declared health food, health-conscious people are more likely to consume them. Health-conscious people are different from I-don’t-give-a-@#$% people in all kinds of ways. Even the authors of the study acknowledged as much:

In our study cohort, both whole grains and cereal fiber were correlated with high levels of physical activity and better health status, as well as with low BMI, low levels of smoking, and low intakes of alcohol and red meat. However, our results were less likely due to the potential confounding of these factors because careful adjustment for these factors in our analyses did not significantly change the results. Nevertheless, we acknowledge that the positive associations may still be related to residual confounding of non-measured covariates.

Researchers can try to adjust for all the confounding variables, but it’s nearly impossible. Sure, you can try to balance out factors like smoking and alcohol consumption, but how do you know the I-don’t-give-a-@#$% people aren’t lying about how much they drink? Do the health-conscious people get more sleep, take more supplements, and generally have a better attitude on life that results in less stress? The researchers don’t know.

But let’s suppose for the sake of argument that the researchers really and truly teased out every possible confounding variable, and that people who eat whole-grains foods are really and truly healthier than people who eat white-flour foods. So what? That doesn’t in any way prove that whole grains prevent diseases.

To use my favorite analogy, if we compare people who smoke filtered cigarettes to people who smoke non-filtered cigarettes, the people who smoke filtered cigarettes will have lower rates of lung cancer. But only an idiot would look at those results and declare that filtered cigarettes prevent lung cancer, so people who don’t smoke at all are going to get lung cancer. That’s the logic of “whole grains prevent disease, so going grain-free will make you sick.”

Another Save The Grains Campaign article I didn’t mention last week was a hit piece on Pete Evans, the celebrity chef from Australia. (He visited the Fat Head farm in 2015.) The article was titled We Put Pete Evans’ Paleo Diet And Dairy Claims To A Clinical Dietitian. Here are some quotes:

“Pete Evans does an amazing job in his own field. But the concern is because he isn’t trained in any nutritional science, he doesn’t have the knowledge to be administering this kind of health advice. And a lot of it isn’t backed by evidence,” Accredited Practising Dietitian Melanie McGrice told The Huffington Post Australia.

Riiight. Because the standard-issue advice from dietitians is based on such rock-solid science, as we’ll see in a minute.

“I think there are some good aspects about the Paleo diet, for example its emphasis on fruits and vegetables, and cutting down on highly-processed and packaged foods. He supports these aspects,” McGrice said.

“But it falls down in its restriction of core food groups like grains and legumes. The latest research shows that grains and legumes are protective against conditions such as hypertension and other cardiovascular markers.”

Do dietitians ever ask themselves why grains are a “core food group”? Do they ever wonder how humans managed to thrive without the “core” food for 99% of our time on earth? Do they ever ask themselves if human health improved after we took up eating grains a mere 12,000 years ago? Apparently not.

As for the science, the quote from the Accredited Practising Dietitian had a link under the words latest research in the online article. So I followed the link. But before we go there, let’s review what the dietitian said:

“The latest research shows that grains and legumes are protective against conditions such as hypertension and other cardiovascular markers.”

So obviously the link will take us to a study demonstrating that grains and legumes – all of them – protect us against hypertension and cardiovascular markers. Now here are some quotes from the study:

Health claims regarding the cholesterol-lowering effect of soluble fiber from oat products, approved by food standards agencies worldwide, are based on a diet containing ≥3 g/d of oat β-glucan (OBG).

Yup, the study is about oat bran. That’s it. Not legumes, and certainly not all grains. Oat bran. And why is oat bran such wunnerful, wunnerful health food?

The objective was to quantify the effect of ≥3 g OBG/d on serum cholesterol concentrations in humans and investigate potential effect modifiers.

So it’s a study (actually a meta-analysis of studies) of oat bran’s effect on cholesterol levels. And by gosh, it turns out oat bran lowers cholesterol. The study lists the results in mml/l, but in terms of mg/dl (the units we use in the U.S.), oat bran lowers cholesterol by about 11 points.

Wowzers! If a food lowers cholesterol, it absolutely, positively MUST reduce heart disease, right?

Wrong. In the past couple of years, some embarrassing studies from the 1960s were “re-discovered.” In a study published in The Lancet, men who switched from animal fats to soybean oil experienced an average drop in cholesterol of 60 points. That’s a huge drop. And the result? Here it is:

The total number of men who had a major relapse at any time in the trial was 45 in the test group and 51 in the controls; of these major relapses 25 in each group were fatal. None of the differences found is significant.

A change in diet produces a big drop in cholesterol, but no reduction in heart attacks. So why the heck should we just assume a ten-point drop produced by oat bran will save us from heart attacks? Obviously we shouldn’t.

The “rediscovered” Sydney Diet Heart Study was even more embarrassing. The intervention group switched from animal fats to safflower oil. Their average cholesterol levels dropped by nearly 40 points. And here are the results:

The intervention group (n=221) had higher rates of death than controls (n=237) (all cause 17.6% v 11.8%, hazard ratio 1.62 (95% confidence interval 1.00 to 2.64), P=0.05; cardiovascular disease 17.2% v 11.0%, 1.70 (1.03 to 2.80), P=0.04; coronary heart disease 16.3% v 10.1%, 1.74 (1.04 to 2.92), P=0.04).

Big drop in cholesterol, but also a higher death rate – from all causes, including heart disease. Same thing happened in another “rediscovered” study that was conducted and then apparently buried by Ancel Keys.

So let’s follow the (ahem) “logic” of the hit piece on Pete Evans: he can’t be right because he tells people to avoid legumes and grains, and legumes and grains are good for you. We know this because of the latest research! … which consists of an analysis concluding that oat bran will lower your cholesterol. That means all legumes and grains must help to prevent heart disease, even though the effects of oats tell us nothing about the effects of other grains, and even though diets that produced a big drop in cholesterol in other studies also produced a higher death rate from heart disease.

Got that?

To summarize, the evidence presented by shills for the Save The Grains Campaign consists of 1) meaningless observational studies that compare the effects of whole grains to white flour (and therefore tell us nothing about the effects of ditching grains), and 2) one meta-analysis that tells us oats will reduce cholesterol, but in no way proves oats (much less other grains) will prevent heart attacks.

Now let’s look at an actual clinical trial – you know, the type of study that can tell us something useful. I like the opening of the abstract very much:

Recommendations for whole-grain (WG) intake are based on observational studies showing that higher WG consumption is associated with reduced CVD risk. No large-scale, randomised, controlled dietary intervention studies have investigated the effects on CVD risk markers of substituting WG in place of refined grains in the diets of non-WG consumers.

Perfect. They acknowledge that nearly all the studies purporting to demonstrate the wonders of whole grains are observational, then set up the central question: what if we have people who don’t normally consume whole grains start eating them? That eliminates the problem of comparing health-conscious to I-don’t-give-a-@#$% people.

The researchers divided the subjects into three groups: the control group continued their usual diet (i.e., a diet with almost no whole grains), a second group added 60 grams of whole grains for 16 weeks, and a third group switched to 60 grams of whole grains for eight weeks, then 120 grams of whole grains for another eight weeks. Then the researchers measured markers of cardiovascular risk, which they defined as:

BMI, percentage body fat, waist circumference; fasting plasma lipid profile, glucose and insulin; and indicators of inflammatory, coagulation, and endothelial function.

That’s a lot of markers. If whole grains are such wunnerful, wunnerful health foods, that third group must have rocked the house compared to the other groups. Here are the results:

Although reported WG intake was significantly increased among intervention groups, and demonstrated good participant compliance, there were no significant differences in any markers of CVD risk between groups.

Nothing. Epic fail. A big, fat zero. That’s after nearly four months of gobbling those heart-healthy whole grains. Perhaps to save their future funding, the researchers suggested that four months may not be long enough for whole grains to confer their magical health benefits.

Yeah, that’s one possible explanation. The other is that whole grains aren’t health food – no matter how hard the media shills for the Save The Grains Campaign want us to believe otherwise.


42 thoughts on “Eat Grains Or Die: The (ahem) ‘Evidence’ From The Save The Grains Campaign

  1. Tom Welsh

    “Consumption of whole grains were inversely associated…”

    Maybe I’m just a grammar Nazi, but I can’t bring myself to trust scientific conclusions reached by someone who can’t make a verb agree with a noun a whole three words away.

  2. Tom Welsh

    “Do [dietitians] ever ask themselves if human health improved after we took up eating grains a mere 12,000 years ago?”

    Since Tom had other points to make, and no doubt assumed that we all know the answer to that rhetorical question, let me butt in with this:

    and this:

    and this:

    (with a bow to Dr Weston A. Price, author of the canonical book “Nutrition and Phyiscal Degeneration”)

    1. Tom Welsh

      It’s interesting that although the first article I linked to – “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race”, by the famous anthropologist Jared Diamond – was published in 1987, it doesn’t seem to have influenced the established doctrine of “healthy wholegrains” one iota. (A single-page PDF can be found at

      I’d also like to highlight the opinion of Yuval Noah Harari, author of the best-selling “Sapiens” and “Homo Deus”. These passages can be found starting at page 81 of the paperback edition.

      “We did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us. The word ‘domesticate’ comes from the Latin domus, which means ‘house’. Who’s the one living in a house? Not the wheat. It’s the Sapiens”.

      So, asks Harari, what did the wheat offer H Sapiens in return for being domesticated? Not better nutrition, nor security against violence, nor even safety from hunger and even starvation. Just the possibility of multiplying exponentially – the [perhaps rather foolish] definition of biological success.

      “With time, the ‘wheat bargain’ became more and more burdensome. Children died in droves, and adults ate bread by the sweat of their brows… Paradoxically, a series of ‘improvements’, each of which was meant to make life easier, added up to a millstone around the necks of these farmers.

      “Why did people make such a fateful miscalculation? For the same reason that people throughout history have miscalculated. People were unable to fathom the full consequences of their decisions”.

      Every good harvest tempted people to have more children, but they failed to see the long-term implications. Eating grains weakened their immune systems while being crowded together with farm animals encouraged infectious diseases; and even when they had a surplus of food, that just attracted robbers and enemies so they had to build walls and lose workers to become soldiers.

      “The trap snapped shut”.

      1. chris c

        Wheat is a vegetable psychopath. It sacrifices most of its children by filling them with opioid peptides so we eat them, and finishes the job with gluten and other things that upset our guts so the few survivors are sown into a neat pile of manure.

        Since then it has caused us to invent everything from combine harvesters to seed drills all to amplify the process. Now it must be THE most successful plant in the history of the planet, it has migrated out from an obscure corner of the Middle East to just about everywhere.

      2. Walter Bushell

        The thing is every improvement seemed to raise the standard of living, until the population reacted. Your life got better at the cost of your descendants.

  3. Zachary

    I’m sorry Tom, but going filtered cigarette free will make you sick! You need to balance your diet with a serving of healthy filtered cigarettes because they have been proven to lower the rates of lung cancer. I smoke filtered cigarettes and I’m still really lean, so I see no reason to give them up.

    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      Well, the producers of “What The Health” promoted the idea that eating one egg is the equivalent of smoking five cigarettes. So I plan to get in my protective smoking by eating eggs.

      1. Hugh Mannity

        That means I’m up to 3 packs a week… and counting…

        Does adding bacon to my eggs increase the filtered cigarette equivalent?

        1. Tom Naughton Post author

          The “What The Health” people would certainly tell you adding bacon is like adding more cigarettes.

          1. Brandon

            Heh, I was initially disappointed in myself that I couldn’t at least give it an open viewing and then form an objective response. Now, I’m more disappointed that I wasted nine minutes. I was hoping you’d post a review on the site, selfishly of course, because I was too annoyed to do it myself.

  4. Firebird7478

    I was a big oatmeal eater. I even took part in the bodybuilder’s craze of scooping protein powder into it for flavor.

    My total cholesterol jumped 140 points over the years.

    1. K2

      Back in my undergrad days, I’d fix a one-serving size bowl of cooked (not instant) oatmeal with just margarine (no butter in our house!), no sugar to have before my 0800 class. By 1000, the hunger was beyond bearable and I was ready to gnaw on a text book as a snack.

      I was told oatmeal was a “stick to your ribs” meal that should last me much of the day. Honestly, I really thought there was something wrong with me because the “experts” and well-meaning people in my life insisted it was one of the best things to eat.

      Years later, I discovered I am – and no doubt was – insulin resistant. I could have saved a lot of years of struggle and self-doubt had I just listened to my body and not the “authorities” among us.


  5. Firebird7478

    “Do dietitians ever ask themselves why grains are a “core food group”? Do they ever wonder how humans managed to thrive without the “core” food for 99% of our time on earth? Do they ever ask themselves if human health improved after we took up eating grains a mere 12,000 years ago? Apparently not.”

    I often wonder that about doctors. After spending the day writing prescriptions, they go home, relax in their recliner to watch some TV, and see the commercials from all those law firms seeking out clients who were harmed by the very drug that doctor prescribes all day. Do they even stop to think that they’re partly responsible for the harm that has happened to these people by complying with the drug companies? Or do they just keep eating their Edie’s chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream right from the container like it is no big deal?

  6. Stephen T

    Thank you for your analysis of this pile of ‘healthy’ grain nonsense. Much appreciated.

    As for cholesterol, Dr Kendrick recently pointed out that our brain synapses are almost entirely made from cholesterol, so reducing it doesn’t seem like a terribly good idea. This point really seems to hit home with people, even when they only have a vague idea of what a brain synapse is.

    Statins and dementia. Now there’s something they should be looking at. Maybe pharma can invent a drug to deal with the problem from the other drug. I think that’s normal policy. I recently heard a US doctor say that the average sixty year old is on 12 medications. Shocking. Can it be true?

    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      Yeah, I’ve looked it up. Don’t remember the exact figures, but most people over 45 are on at least one, and the number goes up with age. When I saw the figures, I realized why the anesthesiologist for my knee surgery seemed a little dubious when I answered “none” on the form asking me to list my medications.

      1. Walter Bushell

        And we hardly know of the interactions of two drugs. Three or more and there may be some research, but when you get to four or five it’s just impossible.

        Plus there is there is the over the counter, alcohol and illicit drugs.

        1. Tom Naughton Post author

          Yup, Jackie Eberstein gave a talk on one of the cruises about drug interactions — and these are drugs commonly prescribed.

  7. chris c

    The Agenda is revealed

    oh that’s weird, he seems to have detweeted it.

    Maybe he wasn’t meant to let the cat out of the bag yet.

    Oh even more weird, now it’s back. A bit edited perhaps.

    (to be continued)

    Big Vegan, Big Grain, Big Marg and Big Pharma make strange bedfellows with the WHO and UN – except they have all the dogma on their side, and all the money to impose it, and we puny meatlings have only science as our defence.

      1. chris c

        There’s some excellent science from many excellent scientists but increasingly I find myself thinking “How the hell did they slip THAT one past the Ethics Committee?”

  8. Phillis Hammond

    “The researchers suggested that 4 months may not be long enough”

    I call bull honky on them. 4 months is plenty of time to see if whole grains has an effect. Even eating something with a whole grain (not wheat though as I’m gluten sensitive) is enough to knock me out of kilter. I splurged for a couple months with non-gluten whole grains last year. My wright skyrocketed and I got one of the worst dental exams I’d had in several years. This year after going ketogenic (my body REALLY can’t handle many carbs at all) I had my dentist and her hygienist in raptures. They’d never seen such tight and pink gums especially in a person my age (63)! Lost 7 pounds in 5 days and I also resolved some inflammation in my back. Those scientists are just another example of Einstein’s definition of insanity!

  9. Jeanne

    I sometimes wonder why there is so much resistance amongst a professional group (dietitians) to the growing evidence that the SAD is so bad. I see evidence of this all the time, as I work in a hospital (as a therapist) and I see cereal and orange juice on the trays of diabetic patients. Then i wonder if there is a Us the professionals vsThem, the uninformed bias going on. It’s sort of like the Us the MDs vs Them, the lay population that gets info on the internet thing. “How dare they, the uniformed lay population challenge Us, who are the professionals!” This mindset could keep the professionals from really seeing the evidence. It challenges how they see themselves. As a health professional, I can empathize with this mindset.

    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      That’s got to be part of it. If you consider yourself a trained professional, it must be insulting to have (ahem) common folks insist you’re wrong. But I also think part of the resistance stems from the fact that so many of these groups are financially dependent on Big Food.

      1. Firebird7478

        That happened to me the other day on Twitter. I responded to a post from a low carb author with the following: Protein = essential; Fat = Essential; There is no such thing as an essential carbohydrate.

        Well, some health coach in Ottawa went ballistic on me, showing a video of the expert he chooses to believe in, told me to read the research and the science and proclaimed that I probably have never trained anyone in my life, let alone an athlete. I kindly pointed out to him that I have 40 year of training experience and not only have I trained athletes, but I was a PROFESSIONAL ATHLETE (a wrestler). The thread blew up in support of me and my new found friend from Ottawa disappeared, especially after I posted photos of me at 22 and 52. LOL

    2. The Older Brother

      What’s to wonder? “Professional” just means they get paid. “Dietician” is a government recognized credential that the holder has completed training requirements and passed a test from a certifying organization whose major funding is provided by Big Cereal, Big Soda, Big Sugar, and Big Pharma.

      So they complete all that course work/time/money thinking they’re doing some good, getting all kinds of positive feedback and being told they’re experts, then people have the audacity to say “that doesn’t work.” So it must be the stupid client’s fault, because everyone in their “Circles of Self-Congratulation” (God bless Thomas Sowell for having the perfect phrase for everything!) agrees that everything they think is correct.

      Under those circumstances, it would be surprising for them to turn around and say “hey, I’ve actually been trained how NOT to think scientifically for the last four years, and pretty much everything I thought I knew is not only crap, but harmful to the people I thought I was helping!”


    3. Mike

      Nixon’s secretary of agriculture encouraged techniques to increase grain product because the administration noticed that voters were grousing about food prices.

      If we admit that grains may not be the best thing then food prices increase, and and a popular US export loses some sparkle.

  10. Desmond

    When I read about AHA’s campaign against ancient foods, and hear vegan advice to abandon 65 million years of omnivorism, I am reminded of a quote from Blackadder: “There was a tiny flaw in the plan… It was bullocks!”

  11. Dianne

    These people remind me of my New Age nephew insisting that everybody makes his own truth. He had his truth, I had mine, and his truth was whatever he wanted it to be — there was no such thing as objective truth. I wish I’d been swift enough to ask him if he’d drive across a bridge engineered by someone who thought that way. Some things simply are, or they are not, and no amount of insisting will change the actuality. Our job is to find out what is true, and then apply it to our lives. Mind you, I’d love to believe that those tasty grains are good for me, but the scientific evidence, plus what happens when I eat them, tells me they are not. I seemed to get away with them for a while, but over the long run grains are only good for you if you happen to be a bird.

  12. Ulfric

    “So, asks Harari, what did the wheat offer H Sapiens in return for being domesticated? Not better nutrition, nor security against violence, nor even safety from hunger and even starvation.”
    I thought about this a lot, over a few years.
    Cereal cultivation hugely reduces a mother’s anxiety when faced with feeding her children regularly.
    That is ALL that is required to leave any hunter-gatherer existence and get on the road to town-dwelling.

    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      Or it may have been a survival strategy when humans hunted so successfully, they caused a shortage of game animals.

  13. Susan

    Hi Tom
    Two ” great” articles published this week on the same day in our national newspaper The Australian. One on the cult of the anti statinists ( proud to be a member) and one on the astounding benefits of white bread. I can’t send you the links as it’s behind a pay wall. Is there anyway I can send the text to you?


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