Should You Be Avoiding Grains?
Unless you’ve been living on a deserted island for the last five years, you’ve undoubtedly heard of the controversy surrounding gluten-free diets. Gluten, a protein found in grains such as wheat, barley and rye, is linked to a host of inflammatory health issues including digestive issues, brain disorders, skin conditions and insulin resistance.
With the rising popularity of the Paleolithic diet, another question emerges: should we be avoiding grains altogether?
Paleo-style diets eliminate grains entirely, whether they’re gluten-free or not. The notion behind this is that our ancestors didn’t eat them – humans have only been cultivating grains for the last 10,000 years – and that grains can be detrimental to our health. Many grain-free diet proponents claim that grains can cause a similar array of health issues that gluten does (digestive, cognitive, immune, etc.) and grains are not a health-promoting food.
However, there is also a range of evidence that shows gluten-free grains such as brown rice, millet and sorghum, along with pseudograins like quinoa, buckwheat and wild rice can have a multitude of health benefits.
So should you avoid grains? Let’s break down some of the pros and cons.
A grain-free diet can lead to some of the following health benefits:
- Better digestive function
- Improved cholesterol status
- Weight loss
- A reduction in inflammation and autoimmune conditions
- A better gut ecology, or microbiome
- Decreased intake of anti-nutrients such as lectin and phytic acid, which can lead to better nutrient absorption
Grain-free diets aren’t all sunshine and rainbows. Here are some of the negative aspects:
- Low grain intake can result in increased consumption of conventionally-raised feedlot animal products, which can be pro-inflammatory
- One must be strictly grain-free for maximum benefit, which can be challenging
- Increased consumption of nuts, and these can be difficult to digest if eaten in large quantities or if they aren’t soaked to release anti-nutrients
- Difficulty eating out or at other people’s homes (though there are definitely ways you can deal with this)
Grains are a rich source of nutrients, including fibre, B vitamins (they help with stress and boost energy levels), and minerals like magnesium and iron. Some of the benefits of eating grains are:
- Better pooping and regularity, due to the high fibre content
- Improved overall longevity
- Blood sugar balance, satiety and reduced risk of Type 2 diabetes
- Improved weight management
- Protection against cardiovascular disease
- With proper cooking techniques, anti-nutrients can be reduced or eliminated
One thing to keep in mind is when we say ‘grains’, we mean grains in their whole form, not processed refined flours and starchy foods like bagels and English muffins. Think a pot of quinoa or brown rice, not a product with the healthwashing term ‘whole grain’ splashed on the label.
Carbo-tarians may experience some of the following negative health effects:
- According to the Specific Carbohydrate Diet, grains can cause an overgrowth of bad bacteria in the gut
- Reduced nutrient absorption, due to the content of anti-nutrients in grains
- May cause tooth decay
- Refined grain consumption can lead to obesity, blood sugar imbalances, mood changes, heart disease and inflammation
Want to Reduce Grain Consumption?
If you’re wondering how you can hop off the sandwich-cereal-toast-pasta train, here are some suggestions for grain-free eating:
- Use lettuce to wrap burgers and sandwiches
- Make deconstructed sandwiches by scattering your sandwich toppings over greens
- Use slices of zucchini, eggplant, sweet potato or butternut squash to replace noodles in lasagna or pasta dishes
- Form pizza and pie crusts using cauliflower, ground nuts or ground seeds
- Make pizza crusts using chickpea or lentil flour (these also make great pancakes or crepes)
- Use ground cauliflower or parsnips in place of rice
- Use almond flour, coconut flour, or sunflower seed flour in baking
As you can see, there is a lot of evidence in both camps that indicate grains can be either helpful or harmful. A great way to figure out whether a grain-free diet is right for you is to try it. You’re always your own best health expert, so experiment, tune in and see how you feel when you eat them.
Do you eat grains? Why or why not? What are your favourite grain-free substitutions?
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11 responses to “Should You Be Avoiding Grains?”
I continue to eat grains although in smaller quantities. I find that not being too restrictive is better for me mood-wise (I already have food allergies and, in addition, avoid gluten, soy, most corn and dairy, plus sugar and yeast). I have had eating/body-shame ‘issues’ in the past and prefer to live with as much freedom as possible, if that makes sense. I also was vegetarian 23 years during which time I ate a fair amount of grains but a year and a half ago began eating some meat which brought a little more balance to my life.
I decided I needed to make some lifestyle changes and 3 weeks ago gave up all grains, starches, dairy and refined sugar. While my body is adjusting, I have been tired and/or cranky at times. I have lost over 10 lbs. I have been enjoying trying new recipes and eating really well (no hunger). I want to keep it up for at least 60 days, then slowly reintroduce a few things and see how I feel.
I am puzzled by the word GRAINS used so freely. The grains of todays hybridised wheat are NOT the grains of biblical times, they completely different and contain GLIADIN,which causes problems! Perhaps your experts would care to investigate, I recommend Dr Mercolas website for good advice!
Forget all of the studies about pros and cons for grains. Argue the fact that ranchers take their cattle to feed-lots 90 days before slaughter, to fatten up their cattle. They are not feeding them vegetables but grain! If it makes a cow fat, why wouldn’t we think it makes us fat. Also the tooth decay statement is validated by looking at these animals teeth at time of death. They are completely ground down. Why do you surmise there are more dentists today than ever before in our history. The cows are sick or they have been given antibiotics to keep them alive to make it to slaughter. We are not even close to eating the grains our ancestors ate.
Wow…so the cons of not eating grains are basically that it’s not easy? Of course it’s not easy in today’s society considering how much grain is in everything and the food industry wants us to eat grain because of the low overhead!!! This world does not need more doctors, it needs more nutritionalists.
If we were cows eating grains such as wheat would be fine, they live off the grass genus in the wild, but unlike cows humans don’t have 6 stomachs which allows cows to break down the proteins that can damage a human stomach and inflame the intestines thus resulting in reduced nutritional absorption.
To think healthy you need to think how you would eat in the wild WITHOUT access to food that requires a lot of processes to become palatable. fruit (pick it then eat), vegetables (pick them, wash and eat), fish (gut, descale, clean and cook) all simple processes that only require very simple tools.
I’m wrecked because I thought eating all the wonderful grains were good: quinoa, millet, spelt etc. They along with sugars could be culprits of high blood pressure!!!!!! I’ve gotta regroup!
Hi Sharon! Whole grains like quinoa and millet are great – it really depends on your unique health situation. As we mention in the post, there are pros and cons to grains, and it’s worth assessing and paying attention to how you feel when you eat them.
I am 73 and within the past year my digestion has changed, though my diet essentially has not. I am always experimenting and keep a daily log of diet. I plan to cut back on grains more, but do not want to drop any weight, would like to gain some. Any suggestions?
Hi Joie! It’s best to connect about this with a health care practitioner, who can create a customized protocol for you based on your health history and unique needs.
Letting go of grains has helped my body in many ways, especially digestion. I have not found that any of the items listed as “Cons of Avoiding Grains” have happened at all. Many people are seeing gluten as a serious problem, not seeing that the huge increase in gluten intolerance is really due to all the Glyphosate in food since the 80’s. Any non-organic wheat, oats, barley, rye is likely to be loaded with Glyphosate, since it is sprayed right before harvest. Glyphosate is one of the biggest health challenges out there, but it is generally not realized or ignored.