Remember when Wonder Bread was good for you and nobody had heard of food sensitivities? Ahh, the good ol’ days.
(Ignorance is bliss. And ignorance can also be brain fog, joint aches, eczema, headaches, constipation… sigh.)
Our emotions and nostalgic memories make complicated diets tricky, right? We want comfort food that tastes dang good… but we also don’t want it to harm our bodies. Bread is probably the ultimate comfort food, but so many in today’s culture are avoiding it. Should they?
This – are grains bad for you – is perhaps the trickiest of subjects to tackle for a real foodie*. And, to be honest, it will probably be a process that involves some trial and error as you figure out what works best for you.
*My own personal definition of “real food” that I created for my ebook 10 First Steps to Real Food (+ 10 More for the Brave) is this:
“Real Food = food that comes from the earth (plants and animals) that remains as unadulterated as possible while providing as much nourishment as possible.”
Remember: Bio-Individuality Requires Flexible Thinking
I firmly believe that there is a spectrum of real food diets that can lead to optimal health. Human bio-individuality (the idea that humans don’t all achieve ideal health in identical ways) invites some room for deviation because we’re not all the same, we don’t all have the same ancestry, and we don’t have all have the same genetic tendencies passed down.
I tend to believe that consuming grains are one of those areas that can be different for different people. Some people may thrive best with being grain-free, but others may thrive best with some properly prepared grain in their diet. Are grains bad for you? It depends.
What’s the Alleged Problem with Grains, Anyway?
Whole grains naturally include anti-nutrients that make digestion difficult. This is the plant’s natural defence mechanism. An example of this is the hull of rice found in brown rice, or the husk of wheat found in whole wheat.
This study, published in the Journal of Food and Science Technology, describes this:
“Phytic acid is known as a food inhibitor which chelates micronutrient and prevents it to be bioavailable for monogastric animals, including humans, because they lack enzyme phytase in their digestive tract.”
The study then goes on to mention traditional preparation methods that can significantly reduce phytic acid, such as soaking and souring (fermenting).
When our body tries to digest grains (specifically whole grains that aren’t soaked, soured, or sprouted) it can be difficult on the gut, which can lead to intestinal permeability (leaky gut), inflammation, and many kinds of health issues and diseases in the long term.
Note: the term Leaky Gut is a somewhat controversial one in the current medical world. Doctors have been resistant (even mocking) of this concept, yet a flood of new research is coming out to support what traditional/natural health advocates have been saying for years: that it’s real, and that our diet and lifestyle affects it.
This article from Harvard Health supports this notion, too:
“An unhealthy gut lining may have large cracks or holes, allowing partially digested food, toxins, and bugs to penetrate the tissues beneath it. This may trigger inflammation and changes in the gut flora (normal bacteria) that could lead to problems within the digestive tract and beyond. The research world is booming today with studies showing that modifications in the intestinal bacteria and inflammation may play a role in the development of several common chronic diseases.”
Sally Fallon Morell – one of the most authoritative voices in the WAPF camp – writes in an article on the WAPF website:
“Grains require careful preparation because they contain a number of anti-nutrients that can cause serious health problems. Phytic acid, for example, is an organic acid in which phosphorus is bound… Untreated phytic acid can combine with calcium, magnesium, copper, iron and especially zinc in the intestinal tract and block their absorption…
Other anti-nutrients in whole grains include enzyme inhibitors which can inhibit digestion and put stress on the pancreas; irritating tannins; complex sugars which the body cannot break down; and gluten and related hard-to-digest proteins which may cause allergies, digestive disorders and even mental illness.”
What About Non-Whole Grains? Are They Better?
In theory, you can avoid this issue by eating only the “white” of the grain, like white flour, white rice, etc. HOWEVER, because these foods are mostly pure starch, so they will spike your blood sugar and can cause weight gain and other long-term issues.
It’s basically like eating a high sugar diet, which has its own set of serious issues, and isn’t something I recommend. Some white grains in your diet in conjunction with other grains that slow the insulin response is fine – relying solely on those is not.
Wait, But I Thought Whole Grains Were Healthy?
This is a major myth that’s pervasive in our current society’s understanding of healthy food. Even the government guidelines miss the boat on this one, touting whole grains as the best thing since sliced (white) bread.
The idea of consuming a whole grain as opposed to just the inner portion (usually the white/starch part) is that you are supposedly getting more nutrition that way.
Unfortunately, the nutrition in the grain is “canceled out” – so to speak – by the high levels of phytic acid in grains that cause harm.
As mentioned above, phytic acid is a natural substance that binds to minerals like calcium, zinc, and iron. It is associated with causing mineral deficiencies.
The good news, as we’ll discuss more below, is that phytic acid can be greatly reduced through traditional methods of grain preparation, such as sourdough. This recently published scientific study outlines several distinct health benefits to sourdough, declaring it more digestible.
What Do the Main Real-Food Diets Say About Grains? Are Grains Bad for You?
There are a few ways to approach grains in a real food diet:
- Omit them altogether, including potatoes, rice, etc. (like with Paleo/Primal)
- Include them in your diet, but only when properly prepared, a.k.a. soaking, sprouting, or sourdough (like with the Weston A. Price Foundation, and many, many indigenous cultures around the world)
- Omit grains but keep “safe starches” like white rice, potatoes, and tapioca (like with the Perfect Health Diet.)
There are other opinions in the debate as well, but those three encompass the main schools of thought within the real food community.
Can You Eat Grains on the Keto Diet?
Keto is another super popular diet right now. It excludes all grains (like in Paleo/Primal) because they are too high-carb. The only reason I didn’t reference it above is that I wouldn’t consider it to be an inherently real food diet. It certainly can be (and often is!) but there are a number of people sharing their Keto diets on social media that focus more on carb counts and less on nutrient density.
(There’s a surprising amount of junk food one can get away with eating on Keto, should one choose to do so. Artificial sweeteners have no carbs, but BLECH – they’re terrible for human health.)
What About Grains and Inflammation-Based Conditions?
If you are dealing with any sort of illness that includes autoimmunity, inflammation or chronic pain, fatigue, or gut health issues, then examining how you consume grains is even more important.
Some people find that excluding grains makes a huge difference in how they feel. The Whole30 is a good program with lots of support online for those who want to try a temporary grain-free diet to see if it’s helpful.
Of course, you may choose to try switching from conventional grains to properly prepared grains (like sourdough) to see if that works for you before excluding them altogether.
Healing Diets like GAPS, AIP, etc.
If you think of the Whole 30 as a sort of trial run for being grain-free, the next level is a dietary protocol specifically designed for gut healing.
Several of the real-food diets have longer-term (as in up to 2 years) healing protocols that remove grains on a temporary basis. WAPF has the GAPS Diet (which ends up adding properly prepared grains back in), and Paleo has the AIP Diet (which does not add grains back at all). Both of these diets are meant as shorter-term protocols, not life-long diets.
However: a word of caution from someone who has been there, done that – these diet protocols are intense. They can be extremely isolating, and can lead to burnout.
Also, something that’s just not talked about enough in the real food community is orthorexia (an eating disorder – an unhealthy obsession with perfect/healthy eating), which is (in my opinion) too common in these communities. Sometimes these diets are necessary (and incredibly helpful and life-changing!) but be sure to head down that road fully prepared for the mental and financial burden, and only when strictly necessary.
Recommended Ways to Consume Grains Safely
According to proponents of safe grain consumption, in order to consume grains in a way that your body can use, and that isn’t harmful, special preparation methods are necessary, such as soaking, sprouting, or fermenting.
Scientific studies have shown that these actions break down the phytic acid, lectins, and other anti-nutrients, which allows the body to digest the grain easier and better absorb the nutrients.
They also claim that since grains have been included in the human diet for at least 10,000 years that excluding them altogether is excessive.
Conversely: The Argument Against Consuming Grains
The grain-free camps disagree with this take, and assert that soaking, sprouting, and souring does not adequately resolve the digestion issues, nor does it address the nutrient-density. (And that not only are grains less nutritious, they also often push more nutrient-dense foods off your plate altogether.)
One of the most current and trustworthy sources on the Paleo and AIP diet is Dr. Sarah Ballantyne from The Paleo Mom. Among other impressive credentials, she holds a PhD in medical biophysics and has published a number of peer-reviewed scientific papers as well as books.
She wrote a three-part series arguing why grains are bad for you. You can find Part One here, with the rest linked in the article.
There are few vitamins and minerals found in grains, and any that are present can be found in greater quantities in meat, eggs, vegetables, or fruit. According to Dr. Ballantyne, many vegetables even have as much fibre as grains, which means grains are outshined every time.
The potential harm that grains can cause our bodies along with the relatively low amounts of nutrients present in them combine to create a compelling rationale for choosing to ditch them altogether, as the Paleo and Perfect Health Diet camps have done.
Nonetheless – there are other factors to consider in this decision, like overall diet sustainability, budget, and more, which we’ll discuss below.
Can You Eat Grain-Free on a Tight Budget?
Honestly – it’s extremely difficult. We’ve had seasons of forgoing all grains in an effort to address various health issues, and our grocery budget absolutely sees a significant increase. Despite knowing pretty well every trick in the book for frugal, from-scratch cooking, being totally grain-free is just plain costly.
With a family of six, and in a high cost-of-living area – it’s especially challenging! Our grocery budget increased by around $500/month when on restrictive healing protocols like GAPS or AIP, and that’s just not sustainable for most people without great sacrifice in other areas.
How We Approach Grains in Our Family
While I don’t claim perfection in my own diet by any stretch of the imagination (seriously), I also will go on record to say that I believe that consuming grains without proper preparation is truly unhealthy. Are grains bad for you? Conventional grains – yes.
Our household is strictly gluten-free (due to celiac disease) so grain consumption has historically been limited around here. I tried gluten-free sourdough years ago and it was an epic fail. I didn’t even manage to get a starter going properly – it was just more hassle than it was worth in the end with a million questions along the way, and very little information or help available that I could find.
Because I didn’t want to regularly feed my family a lot of grains without proper preparation, I defaulted to doing mostly grain-free baking. For a few years now I’ve used almond flour and coconut flour as my go-to’s for baked goods, and just accepted the increased cost (while stressing out about it).
Unfortunately, as with all things in life, nothing is without drawbacks. It turns out that almond flour has fairly high levels of phytic acid as well (irony!), and that coconut flour-only baked goods have a very specific texture that many find undesirable. Also – coconut flour recipes use a large amount of eggs, and I’ve recently discovered that I have a sensitivity to egg. (They make my eczema noticeably worse.)
Not even a week in, I’m already finding more success than my previous failed attempt years ago. The difference? The course is incredibly comprehensive and well-taught by someone with a decade of gluten-free baking experience, who lives the gluten-free sourdough life authentically and fully. I’m LOVING it, and the impact it’s having on my family.
My sourdough starter is on day 4 and the bubbles are really starting to go crazy – right on schedule!
So What’s the Bottom Line? Are Grains Bad or Good?
You can decide which approach to grains resonates with you the most. Do you generally feel fine without any chronic gut health complaints? Do you enjoy grains and are willing to put in the work involved with soaking/sprouting/souring? If so, then great!
The bottom line for me is this: I think a grain-free diet is fine, nutritionally, and can be helpful for periods of leaky gut healing. There aren’t any nutrients in grains that aren’t also available in other foods. The drawbacks are that it’s expensive, and can be isolating and difficult in the long-term.
I also believe that properly prepared grains can be part of a healthy lifestyle. They are an excellent convenience food (portable, freezable, kid-friendly, etc) and more importantly – they provide nutrition and comfort all in one. Furthermore, fermented foods (sourdough) confer extra desirable health benefits.
In addition, perhaps one of the biggest factors for myself (and many of you) is that keeping grains in your diet is a major help in keeping your grocery budget low. Perhaps it even allows you to funnel money toward a different area that gives you more bang for your buck – like grass-fed meat from a local farmer, or organic dirty dozen produce, or some specific, targeted supplements you otherwise couldn’t afford.
Maybe you really aren’t sure which approach your body needs, and are simply compelled by the evidence in either direction on an intellectual level to start.
Whatever you decide, there are plenty of resources out there to learn more. It’s a complex question with no easy answers. Lastly, remember too that it’s not a moral issue, and that guilt should never be an ingredient in your diet. Take your time to learn, experiment, try new things, and give yourself plenty of grace for figuring it all out.
How I’m Learning Gluten-Free Sourdough
A friend of mine from way back in Tiny Town days, who also went gluten-free for her oldest child around the same time we did is a self-taught gluten-free sourdough baker with years of experience in her farm kitchen and b&b. She partnered with the Sourdough Schoolhouse to offer an online gluten-free sourdough course!
She reached out to me a few months ago and asked if I’d be interested in reviewing the course. You know those moments in life when everything just collides into one, big YES PLEASE moment? Where the timing, the information, and the space in your life waiting to be filled all just align perfectly?
This was that. After a rough 2019 with a bout of unemployment, we are starting off 2020 hopeful (new job is amazing!!) but needing to be super careful about our grocery budget. This sourdough course is… not to be overly dramatic, but… a perfect fit.
Maybe you’re interested in learning gluten-free sourdough too? Instead of googling it and ending up with epic fails and frustration and wasted ingredients (ugh, nothing burns me up like wasting food!), why not invest in yourself and your family by taking this course with me?
And my kids are already salivating at my explanations of foccacia, sandwiches, cinnamon buns, bagels, pizza, and more. All gluten-free, and traditionally sourdough-fermented. Hallelujah.
The next class is officially in session on January 13th, 2020.
The course materials themselves are top-notch (the video demonstrations are MAJORLY helpful for a visual learner like myself) and the recipes are ones that have been tested hundreds of times. They even include a vegan option, so I can make things without dairy and egg (currently avoiding for eczema).
The experience so far has been seamless and easy – exactly what a busy, from-scratch cook needs.
You can check out the course here.
Update: use the code REDANDHONEY for a 20% discount!!
(If you decide to sign up be sure to let me know, and follow me over on instagram where I share about my learning process.)