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Health Tips

Grains: health dynamo or demon?

4 min read

This week, let’s talk about the most popular food, at least in the modern western world: grains. Please note I am not just talking about wheat or gluten. Rather, all things made with grains, the seeds of grass plants. Wheat, corn, barley, rice… In the modern western diet, this includes primarily things made with grain flour e.g. bread, pasta, crackers, wraps, rolls, pastries, cookies. But for this discussion, I also want to put whole grains in there too e.g. oatmeal, brown rice, whole wheat.

Grains are ubiquitous in the modern diet. Included in nearly every meal or snack. And the foundation of many popular meals… pizza, spaghetti, sandwiches, hot dogs, nachos, hamburgers, pancakes, waffles, lasagna, burritos, risotto, egg rolls, dumplings, tabbouleh, pita’n’hummus. Plus a snacking society where Starbucks, Panera, and Dunkin’ Donuts are readily available to help you add a low-fat muffin, cookie, or pastry to your “coffee break”.

I’ve written before about wheat and gluten (several times), and indeed, many of our clients discover they have food sensitivities to these foods. But the larger question at hand is this: if you were to take grains out of your diet entirely, would you feel better? Would your energy zoom? Would you readily lose weight, especially body fat? Would your little annoying symptoms go away? Only you can decide, and the only way to know for sure is simply to eliminate the foods. Cold turkey. For about a month. And see what your unique body has to say.

We consume so many grains for a wide variety of reasons. Inexpensive. Easy to prepare. Conveniently available everywhere (especially in refined flour forms). Generally benign, pleasant flavor. And especially in the refined flour forms, we may self-medicate with grains in order to give the body a surge of calm energy. Of course, over-consuming grains can give you a “carb coma” that requires a nap – or eases you into a few hours of TV couch-time at night. But a moderate serving actually allows us to self-medicate with a surge of blood sugar (for energy) and also a surge of serotonin – a calming, feel-good neurotransmitter that soothes anxiety and promotes feelings of well-being.

The challenge, however, is that different foods affect people in different ways. For nearly everyone, highly refined carbohydrates like muffins and breads are going to give a surge of energy and calming that is unfortunately quickly replaced with a energy trough or low mood (that requires more self-medicating – see the cycle?). But what about whole grains? For some, truly whole (still intact) grains are low-glycemic and yield a lasting wave for energy. For others, grains are simply too carbohydrate-dense and contribute to weight gain and insulin resistance that can create type 2 diabetes over time.

What about GI health? For some people, grains are relatively easy to digest, while others are surprised to learn that grains are responsible for their post-meal lower energy and flatulence or perhaps bloating or acid reflux. Modern grains also contain high amounts of phytates which can bind with minerals in the gut and impair absorption and also create a variety of frustrating GI symptoms. Grains also include a variety of lectins which – in some people – can cause GI discomfort, trigger exaggerated immune system responses which generate inflammation (maybe the cause of your achy joints or headaches?), and cause blood cell “agglutination” or clumping (just like antibodies do – and obviously NOT good for smooth, uninflamed operation of the cardiovascular system). In fact, one common lectin called wheat germ agglutinin (WGA) promotes platelet activation and aggregation which increases the blood’s thickness and tendency to clot.

At Purpose, we usually recommend that all of our clients with chronic autoimmune activation eliminate all grains from their diet. This is to avoid the possibility of these foods contributing to chronic inflammation (and thus intestinal permeability that causes autoimmune activation) and also potentially exacerbating any imbalance of microbes in the gut. We usually find that both food sensitivities and gut microbial imbalance are at play in actually sustaining the autoimmune activation, and substantial improvement can be gained by reversing these two dynamics.

I am not arguing for or against grains overall but simply posing the question: Do you know how grains really affect your own personal health at this time? If not, seize the opportunity this month to explore and learn. Eliminate all grains (all forms) from your diet for one month and see how you feel. You do indeed need to make the elimination as close as possible to 100% (“cold turkey”) to have a valid trial; just “cutting back” is usually not enough to give you a clear answer.

It’s not as hard as you might think; it just takes an intention and some planning. Note this experiment is not about switching to a “low carb” diet, just a grain-free one. Continue to consume carbohydrates to a level that resonates with you, choosing a rich variety of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and perhaps beans/legumes. A piece of fruit and a small handful of nuts makes an excellent snack. Use slices of cucumber or daikon radish for enjoying guacamole or salsa or hummus. Put your favorite, rich spaghetti sauce on top of steamed green beans or shredded zucchini or roasted spaghetti squash. Consider enjoying vegetable starches like sweet potato if you have a hankering for more “rib-sticking” satisfaction. Explore what Eating on Purpose really means to YOU!