By: Sara Gottfried, MD
Should I Try a Grain-Free Diet?
If you have given up gluten but got a partial response, or don’t feel like you got the relief you wanted in terms of weight loss, brain fog, and/or autoimmunity, I’ve got another strategy for you. It’s time to go Grain Free.
Why Grain Free?
Are you thinking about taking the next step and adopting a grain-free lifestyle, and wondering what that would look like? Don’t be daunted! There is now a mountain of evidence showing that going grain-free can be the answer to many of the health problems women face. The truth is, gluten-free might not be enough; if you are cutting gluten out for overall health gains, you aren’t doing yourself any favors by using, say, rice flour instead of wheat flour. A cookie is still a cookie.
What about Grains Is so Bad?
Phytates, lectins, and nutrient density.
We’ve been told that whole grains are good for us. It’s a complex issue, because we’ve all heard of studies claiming that whole grains are healthy. The problem with a lot of these studies is that they compare diets of whole grains to diets of refined grains. Of course the whole grains will be healthier in this situation, because a whole food will always be healthier than a flour made from just the starchy part of the seed.
Why do some people decide to eliminate these grains from their diet? Because they want to lose weight, improve energy levels, get relief from stiff joints and foggy brains, find the root cause of their tummy troubles, get better sleep, find out why they have been plagued with skin problems, or any of a hundred other reasons. What do grains have to do with any of these seemingly unrelated health issues? A lot.
Grains contain naturally-occurring chemicals called phytates that block the absorption of minerals (calcium, magnesium, iron and zinc); lectins are chemicals that aren’t broken down in the digestive system and bind to the lining of your intestines, causing damage to microvilli, where nutrients are absorbed:1this damage allows your intestines to become somewhat permeable (“leaky gut”) and the escaped food particles cause your body to mount an immune system response to these foreign invaders it doesn’t recognize. This, in turn, sets the stage for the development of autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis or lupus,2 and creates chronic inflammation throughout your body. Remember your damaged microvilli? They can’t properly absorb nutrients from your food, leading to nutrient deficiencies. Your now-damaged small intestine cannot send the proper chemical signals to your gallbladder to release bile, necessary for the breakdown of dietary fats. This causes bile to back up and crystallize.3 All of this, and we haven’t even mentioned the blood sugar spike caused by high glycemic index foods like bread, crackers, cookies, and rice, (including gluten free) and the effect this has on your insulin levels and therefore, fat storage. Wildly fluctuating insulin levels then affect other hormones, like leptin, cortisol, and adrenaline.
Grains are also very low in nutrient density – how many nutrients you get from a food, given the number of calories it contains. It’s the opposite is energy density – or “empty calories.” Put another way, grains contain a lot of calories, but not a lot of nutrients.
Lectin, its effect on the hormone leptin, and why it matters.
Leptin is a hormone secreted by fat cells that works in the hypothalamus in the brain to regulate appetite and inhibit fat storage – energy balance. So, the more fat cells you have, the more leptin you have. However, as more leptin is produced by increasing numbers of fat cells, those same fat cells become less sensitive to the leptin they are working hard to produce, creating leptin resistance. This means the target tissue no longer responds to the effects of the leptin. Your brain doesn’t know the energy status of your body. (jackkruse)
Insulin and leptin are closely intertwined in this fat burning vs. fat storage cycle. Here’s where this gets very interesting: lectins (from plants), attach to the same receptors on our fat cells that insulin attaches to. But once insulin does it’s job of telling the fat cell to either uptake or make more fat, it detaches from that cell and moves on. The lectin does not detach, it just stays there, continually telling that fat cell to store fat. This, in turn, leads to the production of more leptin (the hormone), which leads to leptin resistance, which leads to not losing weight even when dieting and exercising. This is a bad cycle that you can exit by ditching the grains! Grains also have a high glycemic index (GI), which can cause blood sugar spikes an hour or two after eating them, which in turn also affects insulin levels. Another way these two hormones are tied together? A study in 2013 found that being leptin resistant predicts obesity,4 and it always precedes the development of insulin resistance.5 These are two hormones you want working for you, not against you, and by cutting the cord on grains, you will be able to burn fat – not store it
So… What Am I Going to Eat?
Now that the grains are gone, what will you replace them with? The bottom of the familiar food pyramid has pictures of bread, rice, cereal, crackers and pasta.. Unfortunately, they break down into glucose. Literally, sugar. Make no room for theses kinds of foods on your plate – crowd out the simple carbs by eating clean proteins, healthy fats and complex carbohydrates with some starchy veggies. If you fill your plate with these foods, there’s no room for rice, or bread, or pasta. You won’t want a piece of cake when you’re done your meal – because you are full of good stuff. Here are some simple swaps:
Instead of this: Eat this:
|Flour/breading for chicken, fish||Dip meat in egg, then coconut or almond flour|
|Wheat or rice crackers||Crackers made from nut meal|
|Bread or tortillas||Wraps made from lettuce leaves, seaweed,|
Portobello mushrooms, collard leaves
|Croutons||For a crunchy texture, try pork rinds,|
crumbled bacon, or crispy sweet potato
|Breadcrumbs||Pan fry almond meal in a bit of olive oil|
|Candy bar Dark||Dark (> 80% cacao) chocolate|
|Pasta||Pasta Zucchini noodles (spiralized)|
Long pieces of eggplant or zucchini
These are some quick and easy alternatives; if you enjoy cooking, you have limitless options for eating filling, nourishing and delicious grain-free meals and treats