Are Grains Killing Your Brain?

A new book argues that eating wheat sets you up for Alzheimer's and other brain diseases. Should you go grain-free? Nutrition Diva reviews the evidence behind this latest theory.

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS
4-minute read
Episode #255

In his new book, Grain Brain, David Perlmutter argues that a diet high in grains (especially modern wheat) may be a hidden cause of Alzheimer's, dementia, migraines, and ADHD. In fact, he's convinced that these conditions are primarily driven by dietary choices and that you can prevent or reverse them all by following his program.

Those are some pretty big promises. So I thought it would be worth checking out the evidence to support them.>

Did Cavemen Get Alzheimer's?

Perlmutter starts out with a familiar Paleo refrain: Our digestive systems are not adapted to grains, which entered the human diet roughly 10,000 years ago. According to this theory, any food that wasn't part of the human diet then is potentially toxic. This makes it sound as if the Paleolithic Era were a sort of magical moment in history when the human body was perfectly adapted to its environment. But that's kind of silly when you think about it.

See also: Pros and Cons of the Paleo Diet


Just like us, our Paleolithic ancestors had certain genetic traits that worked to their advantage, others that slowed them down, and still others that were (at the moment) neither helpful nor harmful. And just like us, Paleolithic humans didn't all have the same genetic traits and didn't all live in the same environments or have the same diets. 

Is Modern Wheat the Real Problem?

Apparently, eating grains didn't actually cause too much trouble for the first 9900 years that they were part of the human diet. 

But the whole Paleo debate is really moot because, as soon as Perlmutter lays out this argument, he abandons it for a different, conflicting argument - one that you'll recognize if you read William Davis' book Wheat Belly.  Apparently, eating grains didn't actually cause too much trouble for the first 9,900 years that they were part of the human diet. But now, modern strains of wheat, which are higher in gluten, are causing widespread health problems. Davis points out that the rise in obesity and diabetes in the 20th century parallels the increasing use of these modern strains.  Similarly, Perlmutter observes that Alzheimer's, migraine, ADHD, and other neurological ailments have increased over the last century. 

Now, of course, the fact that two things occurred at the same time doesn't mean that one caused the other. The increase in Alzheimer's and dementia could also be explained by improved detection and diagnosis, dramatically increased life expectancy, or any other aspect of our diet and lifestyle that has changed over the last 100 years...which is to say, all of them. But not to worry: It turns out that modern wheat is only part of the problem...


About the Author

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS

Monica Reinagel is a board-certified licensed nutritionist, author, and the creator of one of iTunes' most highly ranked health and fitness podcasts. Her advice is regularly featured on the TODAY show, Dr. Oz, NPR, and in the nation's leading newspapers, magazines, and websites. Do you have a nutrition question? Call the Nutrition Diva listener line at 443-961-6206. Your question could be featured on the show.