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What is the deal with eating grains?

celiac gluten gut health nutrition May 11, 2016

Back in the not so distant past, the vegetarian diet was considered a cure-all for many illnesses. This was back when we believed that carbs were good and fats were bad. It all sounded like such a great idea… the problem was that clinically it just didn’t work!

We all read articles in magazines in the 1970’s and 1980’s about how vegetarians lived a long healthy life, or some marathoner who was a vegetarian etc. I was a vegetarian for over 20 years! 5 of those years were vegan! The problem was that despite my meticulous vegetarian supposedly healthy diet, I was fatigued, moody, spacy, with achy muscles and joints plus I needed a nap almost every day. If that weren’t bad enough I carried some extra weight on my hips that I was not so thrilled with.  But there I was trying to save the world by being a vegetarian. “Diet for a Small Planet” was a dog-eared well used book in my household as I was growing up. So was the “Moosewood Cookbook” and other vegetarian cookbooks of that era. We believed we were saving the world, but we were feeling crummier and crummier! And I won’t even cover in this article the issue of eating way too much soy. Or seitan which is pure wheat gluten and very common in imitation “meats”.  Because I personally wasn’t eating much in the way of soy or seitan, but still felt crummy! But it COULDN’T be the vegetarian diet! Oh no! We were a stubborn bunch! And I stuck with that mindset for decades!

After attending a professional conference I decided to add meat back into my diet. I started to feel a bit better. But it wasn’t until I became pregnant and breastfed for 3 years (!) that I added back animal protein every day (I was growing an entire human being inside of me and knew enough about the human body to realize that it would all be taken from my muscles and bones if I was depleted nutritionally!)

It wasn’t until much later that I gave up grains almost entirely. That was the point when my health improved radically. I had energy to climb 14,000 foot mountains for the first time ever! That horrible bloating and cramping finally went away pretty much for good! And I finally regulated to a healthy weight for my body size and type. I started reading more and more about Paleo diets and learned that my personal health journey (n=1) was shared by many people. Then I started working with Paleo diets with more and more of my patients as my practice shifted to gut health and autoimmune disease. Again I saw so much improvement in my patients’ health levels. The proof and evidence was undeniable.   And then I started to wonder why.

Here are a few possible reasons why eating grains may not be so great for you:

  1. Modern agricultural practices – we have hybridized cash crops such as grains so that they can withstand heat, water, mold, draught, and pesticides. And this is not even considering GMO crops which require an even higher level of pesticide and herbicide use. Perhaps the proteins in these grains have also become indigestible. Some people blame Glyphosates (Roundup) pesticides, but I also see patients of mine reacting to organic grains. If this were solely the case, then my patients would not have any problems with organic grains or with fermented grains.
  1. Zonulin is a protein contained in grains that causes gut inflammation in pretty much everyone, celiac or not. It could be that chronic repeated exposure to zonulin contributes to chronic gut inflammation, which contributes to leaky gut and developing more allergies. Eliminate grains from your diet and perhaps you eliminate Zonulin exposure.
  1. Chronic inflammation of the gut (from zonulin or grains in diet) has an effect upon neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are the chemicals your body secretes that control and influence mood and brain function.  This is why “grain brain” and brain fog often clears up in patients who eliminate grains from their diets. I have also seen Multiple Sclerosis symptoms radically improve in patients who adhere to a Paleo diet. I have also seen patients with various mood disorders stabilize on the Paleo diet as long as they adhere to this diet. It is certainly not a cure-all, especially for severe mental illnesses, but it often helps. A lot.
  1. Folic acid supplementation of flours. Since the 1990’s we have “enriched” many grains, usually wheat, with cheap folic acid to prevent neural tube birth defects. While this has been effective in preventing neural tube defects, patients with the MTHFR mutation are unable to process plain old folic acid. In sensitive patients, this can have severe detrimental effects upon people’s health. Autoimmunity, Cancer and Mental illnesses may have the MTHFR mutation as a component making these patients more susceptible to symptoms and worsening health when they consume grains, especially ones “fortified and enriched” with basic folic acid. This can be a complicated issue so it is recommended that you test for MTHFR and work with someone like me who has knowledge of how to treat these conditions.
  1. Maybe not last and probably not least, grains are high in carbohydrates which can increase insulin sensitivities and contribute to increased cravings for carbs and sugars and eventually to weight gain. Obesity and Type 2 Diabetes levels are rising in the United States and these rates have exponentially increased since we started using more corn sweeteners in our foods. These raise the glycemic levels dramatically which increases hunger and contributes to overeating.

So with all of the benefits to at least limiting grains in the diet – decreasing autoimmunity, inflammation, improving mood disorders, and improving gut health as well as contributing to maintaining a healthy weight, it is no wonder that Paleo or Paleo-ish diets have really caught on with health conscious people!

Have you experimented with a grain free diet? Please share your experience in the comments section whether (or not!) you were helped by a grain free diet. I would LOVE to hear how it has worked for you!