Grains are often considered a staple ingredient in the typical western diet. For many, it’s pretty challenging to even fathom a meal that doesn’t include some type of grain, whether it’s pasta, bread, rice or cereal. But with grain-free diets — such as the trendy Paleo or keto diets — on the rise, many people are have begun taking the leap and cutting grains from their diet in an effort to achieve better health.
What is a grain-free diet?
Going grain-free means going a step beyond a gluten-free diet to eliminate all grains, including wheat products, rice, corn and oats. Meanwhile, foods like quinoa, amaranth and buckwheat, which are actually considered seeds, can still be included in small amounts.
Many types of grains have been linked to inflammation, opening the door to a slew of other problems such as leaky gut, autoimmune disorders and chronic disease. Wheat, in particular, is a common culprit of digestive distress, especially in people who are sensitive to the effects of gluten. Refined grains are also high in calories and carbs, yet offer little in terms of nutrition, contributing to issues like weight gain and insulin resistance. Plus, other types of grains also contain anti-nutrients, which can interfere with the absorption of essential minerals in your diet and increase the risk of deficiencies.
Most people give the grain-free diet a shot looking to ease digestive issues, relieve inflammation and balance the gut microbiome. But not all grains are created equally, and incorporating a good variety of whole, sprouted grains into your diet can actually provide a wealth of important nutrients without the negative side effects that come with consuming heavily processed and refined grain products.
So should you ditch the grains altogether or simply modify your meals? Here are a few of the top pros and cons to consider before making the switch:
Benefits of going grain-free
For many people, grains can be difficult to digest and can aggravate symptoms of digestive disorders like irritable bowel syndrome. Gluten, a type of protein found in wheat, can also cause issues for those with celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity. Limiting your intake of hard-to-digest grains may provide relief if you suffer from stubborn symptoms like diarrhea, constipation, nausea or bloating.
Grains can be quite calorie-dense, which is why nixing them from your diet almost inevitably leads to weight loss. Swapping out refined grains, in particular, for nutrient-dense foods like vegetables and legumes can also cut caloric intake, curb cravings and keep you feeling full to enhance weight loss even more.
Some research suggests that following a grain-free diet can help support the beneficial bacteria in your gut to maximize the health of your microbiome. In addition to improving digestion, fostering a healthy gut microbiome has also been shown to boost immunity, improve brain function and even keep blood sugar under control.
While acute inflammation typically means that your immune system is working hard to fight off foreign invaders, sustaining high levels of inflammation long-term can contribute to chronic disease and worsen symptoms of autoimmune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis. Animal studies show that wheat, in particular, may drive up levels of inflammation and contribute to the development of disease.
Read more about how a grain-free diet can benefit your health.
Risks of going grain-free
Grains supply a good chunk of fiber, which helps support regularity and keeps things moving through the digestive tract. By going grain-free, you’re cutting out a big source of fiber, which could contribute to constipation if you’re not replacing it with other high-fiber foods in your diet like fruits, veggies and legumes.
Low energy levels:
One of the most common side effects of a grain-free diet is low energy levels. Because grains are one of the main sources of carbohydrates, the main source of energy in the body, significantly slashing your intake can result in fatigue and sluggishness. That being said, rounding out your diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, healthy fats and protein foods can help sidestep symptoms and keep energy levels up. (Breakfast idea: Try this Grain-Free Blueberry Crumble.)
Grains are an excellent source of important vitamins and minerals such as iron, folate and thiamin. While it’s definitely possible to meet your needs for these key micronutrients even without grains, it may require a bit of extra planning and effort to fit everything into your daily meal plan once you go grain-free.
There are both pros and cons associated with a grain-free diet, and many factors to consider when it comes to your health. For most, however, cutting out grains completely is not necessary. Instead, making a few simple swaps on your grocery list can optimize your diet and help you minimize any adverse side effects associated with the consumption of unhealthy grains.
To get started, try opting for healthy gluten-free grains like quinoa, oats, sorghum or brown rice instead of highly-processed and refined wheat products. Selecting sprouted grains at the supermarket or soaking and sprouting your grains at home are a few other options that can help enhance the digestibility and bump up the nutritional quality of your grains.
Finally, be sure to keep your intake in moderation and balance your diet with a good variety of fruits, vegetables, protein foods and healthy fats. These foods can help supply the important vitamins and minerals that your body needs, regardless of whether or not you decide to go grain-free.
What about Fido? Read about benefits of a grain-free diet for pets.