These days, the grain controversy is at the center of nutritional debate. For decades we’ve been told that grains were the foundation of a balanced diet, great for heart health and a significant source of fiber. Fast forward to today and we’re told that grains are actually bad for us. “Grain-free” seems to be the new “gluten-free” and is widely perceived as a healthy dietary preference.
For starters, it’s helpful to understand what foods are considered grains. A grain-free diet is different than a gluten-free diet. Many grains include gluten, but some do not. A grain-free diet means excluding all grains, even those that are gluten-free. Below is a list of common grains found in a western diet.
Amaranth, buckwheat and quinoa, while not technically grains, are seeds with very similar nutritional values and characteristics to grains, thus are typically excluded in a grain-free diet.
So what’s the problem with grains?
Grains are not what they used to be
Unfortunately, the grains we eat today are much different than the grains consumed by our ancestors. The way they are grown, processed and prepared has evolved in a way that significantly reduces their nutritional value. Grains can be whole or refined. Whole grain means that the primary components of the grain (bran, endosperm and germ) are still present and are in the original proportion. Processed grains have been milled, removing the bran and germ which are the most nutritious components of the grain. This increases shelf life, decreases cost and helps to achieve a smoother texture. Unfortunately, 85% of the grains consumed in the current US diet are highly processed or refined (Cordain et al., p. 343, 2005). In addition to processing, modern non-organic grains are almost always sprayed with herbicides. If you want to read more on why organic is important, check out this blog post.
Grains can irritate the gut and lead to inflammation
Grains contain a protein called lectin. Lectins are sticky proteins that bind to your intestinal walls during digestion. This binding can cause damage to your intestinal walls, contributing to leaky gut symptoms, fatigue, brain fog and systemic inflammation. Some people are more sensitive to lectins than others, but irritation can also depend on the amount and frequency of grain consumption in your diet. Other foods that contain lectins are nightshades and legumes, so if you’re sensitive to these you may also be sensitive to grains.
Grains also contain phytic acid. Phytic acid is present in many vegetables, grains and legumes as a defense mechanism to potential “predators.” Phytic acid is often a subject of debate because it has both positive and negative qualities. On one hand, it can act as an anti-nutrient, preventing us from absorbing certain minerals such as zinc, iron and calcium. This could mean if you’re eating grains with every meal, you might be at risk for developing mineral deficiencies. On the other though, phytic acid can act as an antioxidant and has some cancer-fighting properties. There are many sources of antioxidants though, so you’re better off getting them from something that doesn’t inhibit mineral absorption.
Sprouting, soaking and fermenting are three methods of preparation that can significantly reduce levels of phytic acid and lectins in our food. When buying grains or legumes, look out for pre-sprouted options or try to soak or sprout them at home.
Grains can spike your insulin level
Grains are high in carbohydrates. When we consume carbohydrates, the body breaks them down into glucose (aka sugar). This glucose enters our bloodstream, causing a spike in our insulin. Quick refresher on the function of insulin – insulin is a hormone responsible for signaling our cells to absorb glucose from our bloodstream and convert it into energy. If we consume more glucose than our body needs, it will be converted into fat for storage. This means if you’re consuming too many grains, it may promote fat gain. To be fair, if you consume too much of anything, it will promote fat gain- but grains may promote this more than other types of foods due to their high carbohydrate content.
Refined grains are the biggest offender when it comes to spiking your blood sugar. When it comes to grains, it’s about choosing wisely and eating in moderation. Refined grains should always be avoided. Whole grains in moderation can be a great source of nutrients, but should they be the foundation or majority of every meal? No.
Most grains contain gluten
Gluten is a protein found in most grains. While celiac is acknowledged as a serious autoimmune disease, there’s much debate around gluten-sensitivity for people without celiac. One study in particular identified “systemic immune activation and epithelial cell damage” in people who consumed wheat but did not have celiac disease (Uhde, et al., p.1936, 2016). However, it’s important to note that many people eat gluten daily and experience no sensitivity at all. When it comes to gluten, it’s important to listen to your body. Take note of how you feel after eating it and adjust your diet accordingly.
So are all grains bad? And should everyone stop eating them?
No & no. Going grain-free depends on your sensitivity to them and your personal dietary goals. While the above information is all true, organic, whole grains can still be a great source of fiber, vitamins and minerals.
Consider how you feel after you eat grains. Fatigue, bloating or other digestive symptoms could all be signs of grain sensitivity. Try going grain-free and see how you feel. If you feel fine after eating grains, focus on eating whole grains only and consume in moderation. This will help you avoid blood sugar spikes and ensure you’re not depending on grains for every meal.
If you’re interested in trying out a grain-free diet, there are some great brands/products out there that can allow you to still eat your favorite foods without sacrificing taste or quality. Here are a few of my favorites:
- For chips & tortillas: Siete Foods
- For sweets: Guiltless Goodies, Simple Mills
- Pancakes or waffles: Simple Mills, Bob’s Red Mill paleo line
- For granola: Purely Elizabeth, Wildway, Paleonola or check out one of my recipes here.
- Crackers: Jilz, Flackers, Simple Mills
All grains are not created equal and they have a different effect on everyone. Going grain-free may be the right move for some people but not others. Following a diet that best serves you, grain-free or not, is always the ultimate goal!
Uhde, M., Ajamian, M., Caio, G., De Giorgio, R., Indart, A., Green, P. H., … Alaedini, A. (2016). Intestinal cell damage and systemic immune activation in individuals reporting sensitivity to wheat in the absence of coeliac disease. Gut, 65(12), 1930–1937. https://doi.org/10.1136/gutjnl-2016-311964
Cordain, L., Eaton, S. B., Sebastian, A., Mann, N., Lindeberg, S., Watkins, B. A., … Brand-Miller, J. (2005). Origins and evolution of the Western diet: health implications for the 21st century. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 81(2), 341–354. https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn.81.2.341