If it seems like all food – even the really nutritious stuff – is now under attack, it’s because to some degree, it is.
Why? Because two integral components of good health have been compromised: our food supply and our gut health.
We’ve talked a lot about gluten, dairy and other food sensitivities here. But there are other specific conditions that some of us endure, and a few other categories of foods that can be considered the culprits.
In general, I believe in eating the most varied diet possible. But as we know, some foods can wreak havoc on your gut, causing inflammation. Removing these foods, even temporarily, can give your body the chance it needs to heal.
In this first post in the series, we’re covering grains: why they cause trouble, when they should be eliminated, and how to replace them to ensure a balanced diet.
Why Grains Can Cause Trouble
A little back story. While eating “whole grains” has always been a government recommendation, that definition is used loosely. Today, having the term “whole grain” on a label can be misleading, as it still allows for a portion of the product to be refined (stripped of their nutrient-dense, fiber-rich bran and germ). Refined grains and starches – which account for most of the grain consumed in the U.S. – spike insulin levels which can create inflammation, reduced cognitive function, poor blood sugar management, fat storage and fatigue.
It’s true that 100% whole grains – in appropriate amounts – can be part of a healthful diet, providing B-vitamins, fiber and prebiotics (nutrients that the beneficial probiotics feed off of). But beware, they should not be the mainstay of our diets. And while it’s beneficial for some, for others they can be quite problematic.
Grains contain certain properties – phytates, lectins, saponins, and oxalates – which can:
- bind to minerals (e.g. calcium, magnesium), preventing proper absorption
- inhibit digestive enzymes and disrupt motility, contributing to constipation
- inflame the gut and contribute to the breaking down of the protective digestive barrier (known as leaky gut)
Oxalates, specifically, can:
- bind calcium-forming crystals that may have sharp edges – causing pain and inflammation with certain conditions (namely, gout and kidney stones)
- interfere with cellular function, leading to bigger systemic issues, including oxidative stress (an imbalance between the production of damaging free radicals and the body’s ability to counteract or detoxify their harmful effects), nutrient deficiencies, fatigue and a variety of inflammatory conditions and symptoms
Who Should Avoid Grains?
Again, keeping the most varied diet is the goal, but a grain-free diet – at least for a period of time to allow healing to take place – is recommended in the following circumstances/conditions:
- serious digestive issues, especially if any type of bloating is involved
- you have been diagnosed with conditions such as small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO)
- you are having acute flare-ups with inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis)
- you have severe autoimmune disease that isn’t responding to a gluten- and dairy-free diet (nor the removal of other foods you have known sensitivities to, discovered through lab testing/an elimination diet). NOTE: there are many other nutrients that need to be INCLUDED in your diet, and lifestyle changes that need to be made, to appropriately manage autoimmune disease. To learn more, check out these resources.
Whenever you are eliminating an entire category of food from your diet, there is potential for your diet to become deficient in important nutrients. It is essential that you learn to eliminate and then replace foods and nutrients in a healthful, balanced way.
For example, if you were to cut out grains but then simply eat a lot more meat (I see it commonly when people go Paleo or grain-free), you will miss out on critical elements grains can provide when you don’t have a condition that requires restriction of them.
Here’s what you could be missing when you cut grains from your diet:
- Carbohydrates: it’s important to note that a grain-free diet does not mean carbohydrate-free. While it is very possible your carbohydrate intake will lower – indirectly and beneficially – eliminating grains does not equate to a very low-carb (e.g. ketogenic) diet. This is especially critical to note if you have any adrenal dysfunction or thyroid issues, as it could result in an energy crash. I know from experience.
- Fiber: grains are good source of fiber. And for the majority of people who don’t eat the recommending 5-9 servings of fruits and vegetables per day, grains are likely the only sources of fiber.
- Prebiotics: prebiotics are the foods from which beneficial probiotics feed.
- B-vitamins: this group of vitamins are essential for energy and fighting free radicals. They can also play a role in hormone production, and in the case of vitamin B9 (folate), prevent birth defects. Grains can be a good source of some B-vitamins, so it is important to get them from other grain-free sources.
Steps For Success
The good news is that another category of foods – root vegetables – are a great source of all the nutrients listed above. They also taste great and can satisfy your starchy (and even sweet) cravings. Starchy root vegetables include:
- sweet potatoes
- cassava (you can find chips and other snacks made from sweet potato and cassava or make your own)
- fingerling potatoes, ideally a deep color like purple for anthocyanins (a special type of phytonutrient that gobbles up damaging free radicals and reduces inflammation).
- butternut squash
- parsnips (a surprisingly great cracker replacement for dips)
- Jerusalem artichokes
Other good foods to include: whole fruits and vegetables (for carbohydrates and fiber), nuts (for fiber and B-vitamins); garlic, leeks, onion, asparagus and dandelion greens (for prebiotics), and fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, and kombucha for beneficial bacteria and gut healing.
Some ideas to incorporate these foods while reducing grains:
- Use a spiralizer to replace traditional pasta with zucchini or other vegetables (you can even find them pre-spiraled in many grocery stores)
- Try cauliflower rice or cauliflower mashed “potatoes” (I’m currently a big fan of adding cauliflower rice to my scrambled eggs – tastes like hash browns)
- Enjoy open-faced sandwiches
- Use leafy greens for sandwich wraps
Most importantly, plan ahead and prepare your meals and snacks. When eliminating all grains, one of the first things you’ll notice is there are very few easy, conventional snacks to grab (think processed chips, crackers, granola bars). You’ll need to have real, whole food on-hand or find clean, specialty packaged foods.
Motivating for Lasting Change
I realize eliminating all grains may seem restrictive…and intimidating. To give yourself a fair shot to see the benefit this diet could provide, you need to find a deeper reason for making the change. Your bigger “Why.”
It’s helpful to ask yourself what the true reasons are for wanting to make changes in your health? How would it feel to be without the symptoms you’re experiencing? How would your life be different?
Since you’ve made it to the end of this article, my bet is that your Why goes deep.
Use that for motivation also knowing that, in most cases, once the gut has had time to heal, true whole grains can be enjoyed again.
You’ve got this.
Important note: for certain conditions – like SIBO or an intolerance to histamines or FODMAPS, certain fruits and vegetables and fermented foods may also need to be limited or avoided completely. It is always recommended to work with a registered dietitian or certified nutrition consultant well-versed in therapeutic diets before making changes.
For a detailed roadmap to life-long diet and lifestyle change to reduce inflammation, build a healthy gut microbiome, and take control of your health check out my book, INFLAMED: Discover the root cause of inflammation and personalize a step-by-step plan to create a healthy, vibrant life.