You’ve all seen those food plates giving recommendations on how much of each food group we should be eating each day. You know the ones: they look like a colorful pie diagram with slices cut out to represent different food groups. They vary somewhat depending on the country, making it even more confusing to know which advice we should be taking. Check out the difference between the UK, Canada and US guidelines. The US still has a very definitive ‘dairy’ section, while the UK has at least acknowledged ‘dairy and alternatives’ while Canada has no such section at all. It’s also worth noting that Canada has recently updated its daily intake recommendations within the last year. The UK is continuously amending a 2016 version but is not scheduled to fully review it until 2022 and the US has not updated theirs since 2011…literally almost a decade ago. Read into that as you wish.
Another interesting point is the emphasis on grains. In the US guide, there is no emphasis on the grains being whole grains. In fact, they separate the daily intake recommendations into ‘whole grains’ and ‘refined grains.’ The UK guide names the section ‘starchy carbohydrates’ and recommends to choose ‘high fiber wholegrain varieties’ but the food plate graphic still includes refined grains. Canada does not include refined grains at all in their guide. I think it would be safe to assume grains features in most, if not all country’s recommendations of daily intake. So why is there this growing debate of if grains are good for us or not?
It’s starting to feel like that time the Daily Mail released the front-page headline ‘116 things that cause cancer’ and terrified an entire nation and beyond into believing that stepping outside your front door was as likely to give you cancer as working in a coal mine. Now, the credibility of that newspaper’s editorial is questionable in general, but it doesn’t change the fact that it has a lot of readers. If you actually took the time to look into where they got that list from, you see that they simply took every single Group 1 carcinogenic (things that are definitely carcinogenic to humans) and said these things cause cancer. Not a lie. For sure they can, but what the newspaper fails to mention is how much exposure to each thing increases your risk of cancer. So basically you need to spend considerably more time outside in polluted air than you do down a coal mine to reach the same risk level.
My point is, I do not believe everything I read at face value, and neither should you. So we’re being confused further with this diet and that diet, no carbs or only carbs, carnivore or vegan, whole grains only or no grains at all, Paleo, Keto or South Beach?! Who. Even. Knows. Well, I certainly do not. So I just do my research and try things that first of all align with my personal views (i.e. not consuming animal products) and see how it feels for me and my body. I’m certainly not here to tell anybody to change their diet based on my experiences, I’m simply telling my experience.
So I gave up grains in January this year. I often choose a ‘challenge’ to do at varying points in the year. This time it was to kick grains, something that featured heavily in my diet at every meal and in pretty large quantities. When I did eat grains, it was almost exclusively whole grains; but I couldn’t ignore the amount of evidence I was seeing that grains could have a whole host of negative effects including increased gut inflammation and blood-sugar levels, headaches, anxiety, hormonal imbalance, and weight issues. In his book Grain Brain, David Perlmutter refers to grains as the “terrorist group that bullies our most precious organ; the brain.” What the frack?? My whole-grain rice curry is not only wreaking havoc on basically my whole body but it’s also bullying my brain? I did not want to believe this. The jury is still out on this and there doesn’t seem to be a consensus on whether or not a grain-free diet is conclusively beneficial or not. There are strong arguments and a lot of research that says grains are beneficial for our health, but only if they are whole grains. From my research it appeared that it is the gluten that is so often present in grains that cause the negative issues from consumption of refined grains. These are grains which are “missing one or more of their 3 key parts; bran, germ, or endosperm” through mechanical processing, thus containing less than a third of their original nutritional value. So then whole grains, it is? No need to cut them out entirely? Well, I did it anyway.
It wasn’t difficult, I have to say. I did not have midnight rice cravings or food envy at someone eating overnight oats. Even before I did the grain-free month, I didn’t each much bread as celiac disease runs in my family, so I really didn’t miss grains at all. I used pasta made from lentils, peas, or black beans and substituted quinoa instead of rice. Now, some of you might be yelling “but quinoa is a grain!!” I hear you. At the time, I believed it was a seed, but it is argued by many to be part of the grain family while others have labeled it a pseudo-cereal. But it features heavily in many grain-free recipes and dietary studies so really….who frickin’ knows….I am not here to persuade you either way!
What Happened When I Stopped Eating Grains For A Month
My energy levels were very, very steady during that month. Previously, I was used to some drops throughout the day and definitely suffered from the post-meal slump and need of a hard nap. I felt more alert and consistently had energy. I would sometimes feel symptoms of low blood-sugar levels; light-headed, faint, dizziness, etc, if I hadn’t eaten for a few hours; but during that month I didn’t experience it at all.
I also noticed my moods were more balanced. I didn’t really understand why at the time, but I’ve since read Woman Code by Alisa Vitti and I now understand the effects that carbohydrates have on your hormones, which in turn enormously impacts your moods. Her recommendations for healthy hormone levels were to steer clear of grains and sugars in the evening. As grains are one of the key food groups for carbohydrate intake, it makes sense that I was consuming fewer carbohydrates that month since cutting out grains.
My diet improved significantly. As with when I went vegan, giving up grains pushed me to be more adventurous with food and try things I perhaps hadn’t tried before as I was removing an entire food group from my diet. I ate more nuts and seeds every day for fiber and protein so my nutrient intake went through the roof. Especially as I was eating this grain-free granola by the bucket load!
I lost weight. I was already a very healthy weight to start with and certainly didn’t need to lose anything. It was not something I intended to happen nor was I expecting it, but nevertheless, it did! It wasn’t much, more or less a kilo (a couple of pounds), but I really noticed it because it was so effortless. I was working out the same; doing light yoga every day, running once or twice a week and doing a kettlebell class once a week. All of which I have done pretty consistently for years, so I know for sure it was the diet that caused the weight loss.
I experienced less bloating. A pretty usual thing for me was having a food baby belly after a meal. You know exactly what I’m talking about! That disappeared completely during the grain-free month. I never had that post-meal heaviness in my stomach and my gut wouldn’t distend like it often would even when I didn’t feel full.
I’m not here to say all of this will happen to other people if they try it. And I should also point out that I didn’t continue with the diet after the month ended! It took a lot of meal planning and consideration of where I could eat out. But I do generally still avoid grains. Quinoa remains the staple grain/seed/pseudocereal at home and I continue to choose a grain-free option for pasta. Bread still remains a rare component in my diet. I might not be experiencing the results to the same degree as the grain-free month, but I really notice when I do eat a grain-heavy meal. I will get really sluggish and bloated and I will be in dire need of a nap around 3pm. That alone is enough for me to steer clear for sure!
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Photo: Rebecca Botello