Whole wheat. Gluten free. Whole Grain. Heart healthy. Grain free. Multi-grain. What’s all this about? Should we eat grains or not? Are grains a beneficial part of our diet or no?
I’ve been eating grains my entire life, without thinking much of it. Grains were at the bottom of the food pyramid, which was telling us to eat 6-11 servings per day. We’ve been told that whole grains are part of a heart-healthy diet, right? If you look close enough, grains are everywhere! It wasn’t until I started eliminating them completely about six months ago that I realized this. From the food we eat, to the vitamins we take, to the make-up products we use…grains are everywhere!
After I was diagnosed with an autoimmune thyroid disorder about two years ago, I became very interested in my health. I wanted to know exactly what was going on in my body and why. It was through my research and desire for optimal health that I came across the Paleo diet, which eliminates grains amongst other things. But, of course, I wanted to know “why?” What I’ve learned since then has really opened my eyes and given me a new perspective…one that makes sense and is backed by science. It’s what has led me to my grain-free life!
First, let’s look at grains and what they are exactly. A grain is a small, hard, dry seed. Some grains have a hull, which is an outer protective layer, such as corn. Some examples of grains, like the ones I’ve eliminated include: whole grains, wheat, barley, rye, oats, spelt, rice, corn, soy and quinoa. Grains are very durable and versatile crops that have a long shelf life, can be transported easily, and are used to make a vast majority of the products that we use and eat every day. Although the human species emerged about 2 million years ago, it was only 10,000 years ago that we started seeing agriculture develop. It was at this point in our history as a species, that we started to see changes in our health.
Gluten-free and grain-free products have been popping up on grocery store shelves everywhere lately. So, what’s this buzz all about? I figured I would share with you some reasons why I decided to go grain-free, so that you can decide if it might be right for you as well!
Reason #1: Grains contain “anti-nutrients”.
“Anti-nutrients?” This sounds like a crazy concept considering the many marketing messages which claim grains (especially whole grains) are a very nutrient dense food and are easily digested. Sure, grains contain nutrients. They contain a good amount of fiber, and minerals which include calcium, magnesium, and zinc. The problem is that grains also contain phytates (or phytic acid). I know this sounds complicated but stick with me! These are the “anti-nutrients” I was talking about. Think of them as the plant’s defense mechanism or protective barrier. The phytates protect the grain plant against us, as well as other predators. Therefore, when we eat the grains, their anti-nutrients prevent us from being able to absorb the valuable minerals they contain. And contrary to what we’ve been made to believe, they are not easy for us to digest, causing many disruptions in the digestive process. Many grains require soaking, sprouting, and fermenting to make them suitable for digestion. Personally, I’d rather get my fiber from unprocessed whole fruits and vegetables. There are plenty of other places in our diets to get our fiber, vitamins, and minerals!
Reason #2: Grains are highly inflammatory.
When I hear the word “inflamed” I think of something that is swollen, painful, and red. Like when you suffer an injury or get a sinus infection. But did you know inflammation can also occur systemically (meaning throughout our whole bodies) without us even realizing it. This inflammation poses a real threat to our health when it is sustained over a long period of time. It is a known risk factor in many preventable chronic diseases and autoimmune conditions we see today. Before the beginning of agriculture and grain consumption people died of infectious diseases, because we didn’t have the medical knowledge and technology that we do today. But we’ve slowly exchanged the deaths from infectious diseases for deaths from chronic diseases, most of which are preventable through lifestyle and diet. The systemic inflammation caused by grains has a lot to do with the modern way grains are produced. A field of wheat has at least 10 applications of chemicals from start to finish which include fertilizers, hormone sprays, and fumigants. Modern grains have also been hybridized (or cross-bred) to produce more crop. These are far from the grains our ancestors ate.
Having a diagnosed autoimmune condition already (Hashimoto’s thyroiditis) puts me at a greater risk of developing another autoimmune condition as well. Grains are one of the biggest known triggers of autoimmune disease, therefore eliminating them will help decrease chronic inflammation in my body and decrease my risk of more autoimmunity. Persistent inflammation is also associated with several other diseases including cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome (high blood pressure, obesity, and insulin resistance), cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, and depression. We’re starting to see that these conditions as well as many others are preventable!
Reason #3: Advertising and marketing campaigns have given us the wrong idea about grains!
Grains started becoming a large part of the American diet around the 1960s after a flawed study by Ancel Keys showed a relationship between a diet high in cholesterol and coronary artery disease. The problem was that he started his research study with 22 countries but ended up getting rid of the ones that didn’t fit his hypothesis, skewing the results. Nonetheless, we took his findings and ran with them! It was at that point when we said “goodbye” to a breakfast of bacon and eggs and said “hello” to a bowl full of corn flakes. Breakfast cereals started becoming the new staple breakfast for Americans. They were being marketed as “low fat” and “heart healthy”. Vitamins and minerals were then added to make them even more enticing and, as if that weren’t enough, they threw a toy inside the cereal box to make them extra irresistible to kids! And so began the downward spiral into a primary grain-based American diet. Now it’s no doubt that whole grains are more healthy than refined grains. We’ve seen the research that shows a decreased risk for heart disease, Type II Diabetes, weight gain, and colon cancer from a whole grain diet compared to one that includes refined grains (such as white flour). This is where the argument for whole grains comes from. But what about the health benefits of a diet including whole grains compared to one that eliminates grains completely? We’d see significantly different results.
“Here’s the deal with ‘whole grains.’ Do grains contain some valuable nutrients? Sure. But so do tree bark, grass, twigs, and other foods that don’t jibe with human physiology. It’s not surprising that diets including whole grains result in better health outcomes than diets rich in refined grains, but that doesn’t mean they are an optimal choice – whole grains are just the lesser of some other Neolithic evils. Whole grains block the absorption of a lot of the nutrients we need and can increase your appetite. If we were comparing grain based vs. grain-free diets, the truth of their effects would come to light, much to the chagrin of every company touting the benefits of whole grains…which is just a marketing gimmick anyway.”
-Mark Sisson, author of The Primal Blueprint
Reason #4: Grains are addicting!
I’m not going to lie. Grains weren’t easy to give up. I definitely had cravings. Bread, pasta, baked goods, pizza…these things were once a normal part of my diet. And it’s no doubt that they taste good! That’s why it’s so difficult to explain why I’ve given them up. I’m sure you’ve all heard of gluten. Gluten is a protein found in many grains and can be converted to a morphine-like substance in the liver (called exorphins) making it addicting. Gluten is also the main problem for people with Celiac disease. But even the gluten-free products we see on the shelves at the grocery store contain other grain products, chemicals, and fillers. “Gluten-free” has become a marketing gimmick too. The bottom line is you must read your labels and ingredients list. This has been the biggest eye opener for me in my journey.
You may not realize all the ways that grains are affecting you until you eliminate them. It’s become such a normal part of the standard American diet, but that doesn’t mean that is how it’s supposed to be. It’s no coincidence that the beginning of agriculture marks the beginning of declining health in our species. From this point forward, our species lost height (we got shorter), our brains became smaller, we had a narrowing of the facial bones and jaw, and chronic diseases started to appear for the first time in history. It’s had a lasting impact and we now have an epidemic of preventable diseases in our country.
If you made it this far I hope you gained at least one new piece of information that you can apply to your own life. The goal of this post was to share with you some of the information I wish I had known sooner. While this grain-free lifestyle may not be for everyone, we can all benefit from a better understanding of the foods we put in our bodies. Thank you all for reading!