Grain-free is the new gluten-free when it comes to diet trends. Gluten, a group of proteins found in wheat and certain other grains like barley and rye, can trigger allergic and autoimmune reactions in some individuals. But gluten may not be the only problem and the avoidance of grains all together may be a better solution for some people.
Grains are staple components of diets around the world, but they aren’t actually required for human health. Grains are composed primarily of carbohydrates with small amounts of fiber, fatty acids, B vitamins, and minerals. We can get these nutrients from other plant foods—like vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, and seeds—which are even better sources of fiber, fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals.
Eliminating grains from the diet can certainly have health benefits. Because gluten is only found in grains, grain-free diets are automatically gluten-free and can improve symptoms of illnesses caused by immune-mediated responses to gluten like celiac disease. Grain-free diets may also improve conditions unrelated to gluten and celiac disease. So far studies have shown potential benefits for maximizing athletic performance and treating patients suffering from irritable bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia, endometriosis, obesity, schizophrenia, and atopic illnesses like hayfever, asthma, and eczema.1
Grain-free diets can feel very restrictive and for most people they can be difficult to maintain long term. Eliminating grains from the diet often requires spending more time and money on food preparation and for some people it can limit social activities. A study that followed 260 people eating a grain-free diet found that most participants reported only minimal interference in daily function, relationships, and lifestyle, but eleven percent reported “high levels of interference with social leisure activities.”
Several grain-free diets already exist including paleo, ketogenic, carnivore, and Whole30. These plans eliminate other things as well and vary in the foods they allow. If you’re considering grain-free diet, you can follow a specific plan like one of these or you can simply stop eating grains. Here are four reasons to go grain-free.
#1 | You have prediabetes or type two diabetes.
Grains are mostly starch and they are quickly digested and absorbed as glucose, or sugar, into the bloodstream. As blood sugar levels rise, so does the hormone insulin. When insulin levels are too high for too long, the body can develop a resistance which may lead to metabolic disorders like prediabetes and type two diabetes. Replacing grain-based carbohydrates with other sources of carbohydrates like vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, and seeds—which are digested and absorbed more slowly—can minimize elevations of blood sugar and insulin. Lowering high levels of blood sugar and insulin is an essential step in the prevention and treatment of prediabetes and type two diabetes.
#2 | You’re overweight or obese.
High levels of blood sugar and insulin don’t just increase the risk of metabolic disorders, they also prompt the body to store fat. Removing starchy carbohydrates like grains from the diet helps to keep levels of blood sugar and insulin low, which prompts the body to burn fat for energy instead of storing it. This metabolic shift (which also requires the avoidance of sweets) is critical for weight loss. Other factors may be contributing to overweight and obesity, and it’s important to address those as well, but weight loss can only happen when blood sugar and insulin levels remain low.
#3 | You want to detox.
Toxins are chemicals in the environment that are harmful to our health. They start to
build up before we’re even born and continue to accumulate throughout our lives. Detoxification is the removal of these environmental toxins. Most of these compounds are fat-soluble and stored inside fat cells. In order to get them out of the body, they have to be released back into the blood stream. Once they reach the liver, fat-soluble compounds undergo chemical reactions that turn them into water-soluble compounds which can be excreted from the body. But toxins can only be released from storage when fatty acids are burned for energy, which only happens when blood sugar levels are low. Grain-free diets help keep blood sugar levels low, especially when sweets and other starchy foods are eliminated as well.
#4 | You’re already gluten-free but you’re not experiencing the results you expected.
While gluten may be the most problematic component of grains like wheat, there are others. Grains naturally contain compounds like phytates and saponins which can interfere with the absorption of nutrients like iron, zinc, calcium, and magnesium. Poor nutrient absorption can have negative consequences throughout the body.
Diets high in grains can also have a negative impact on our microbiome, the community of friendly bacteria that protect us from disease-causing bacteria. They also help digest our food, break down environmental toxins, manufacture essential nutrients, modulate the immune system, help regulate inflammation, influence the production of neurotransmitters like serotonin, and play an important role in appetite, satiety, fat accumulation, and energy usage. The microbes that live in our digestive tract eat what we eat and their favorite foods are high in fiber. Grain-based diets are usually not high in fiber, especially when they contain processed grains like foods made from flour. Replacing grain-based foods with higher fiber foods can have a positive impact on our gut bacteria, which can have wide-ranging positive effects on our health.
Niland B and Cash BD. Health benefits and adverse effects of a gluten-free diet in non-celiac disease patients. Gastroenterology and Hepatology. 2018;14(2):82-91. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5866307/
EWG (Environmental Working Group). Pollution in minority newborns: BPA and other cord blood pollutants. [Web page]. EWG website. https://www.ewg.org/research/minority-cord-blood-report/executive-summary. Accessed July 29, 2020.