12 Things You Need to Know Before Starting a Grain-Free Diet
Some experts call abstaining from grains the health breakthrough you've been waiting for; others call it a huge health risk. But all agree you should find out the facts before embracing a grain-free diet.
Grain-free isn’t gluten-free
Going grain-free is exactly what it sounds like: The elimination of all grains from your everyday diet. Because it’s easy to confuse this approach with going gluten-free, let’s hit the basics: Gluten is a name for the proteins in wheat, rye, barley, and triticale (a cross between rye and wheat), which are found in foods including baked goods, pastas, and cereals, according to the Celiac Disease Foundation. (Here’s a list of nine surprising gluten foods.) People with celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity follow a careful “gluten-free” diet that eliminates products containing these proteins. Going “grain-free,” however, means cutting out all grains, even ones like rice and corn that don’t have gluten.
People ditch grains for different reasons
It’s becoming more common for people to try eliminating certain foods from their diets in an attempt to improve overall health, says Los Angeles-based nutritionist Vandana Sheth, RDN, CDE, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Clients usually try going grain-free because they believe it may help decrease bloating and GI discomfort, and could boost their weight loss efforts,” she explains. Among those who support going grain-free is William Davis, MD, author of “Wheat Belly: 10 Day Grain Detox,” who has observed improved mood, reduced anxiety, the lifting of “mind fog,” and even the lessening of seizures in patients, according to Rodale Wellness. But on the other hand, plenty of nutrition experts are big fans of grains and feel eliminating them could be a risky move that deprives us of much-needed nutrients. “Who says grains are a problem?!” says Nancy Z. Farrell, MS, RDN, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and founder of Fredericksburg, Virginia-based Farrell Dietitian Services. “If you go grain-free you’re potentially setting yourself up for deficiencies of important vitamins, minerals, and nutrients.” Expert opinions vary on the benefits and risks of going grain free, so let’s cover the con’s first.
You might miss out on key disease fighters
For starters, cutting out grains means cutting off a huge source of fiber, which is a key nutrient in combating a range of chronic diseases—just check out all the positive things fiber can do for your health. “We’re talking obesity, cancer, diabetes, heart disease—there’s a dietary fiber component to the prevention of all these condition,” Farrell says. “When I’m teaching my patients, I bring up the importance of fiber a lot.” Indeed, a 2015 study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine suggested that “aiming to eat 30 grams of fiber each day can help you lose weight, lower your blood pressure, and improve your body’s response to insulin just as effectively as a more complicated diet,” according to Harvard Health.
It could increase a pregnancy danger
Eliminating grains means running the risk of a slew of vitamin deficiencies. Because many grain-containing foods are either “enriched” (when manufacturers replace naturally occurring nutrients that had been lost through processing) or “fortified” (when manufacturers add nutrients that weren’t there to begin with), products ranging from cereals to hot dog rolls offer nutrients we need for good health. Folic acid, for example, is especially important for women of child bearing age because it helps lower the baby’s risk of spina bifida, an incomplete closure of the spine. Folic acid is also helpful in guarding against heart disease, Farrell adds. Discover six more ways to prevent birth defects.
You might feel sluggish or have skin problems
Grain enrichments and fortifications include other B vitamins that protect health. A deficiency of vitamin B1, also called thiamin, could cause the condition beriberi, which is marked by muscle weakness, tingling or pain in the arms and legs, and possibly memory loss, according to the Mayo Clinic. In addition, if you don’t get enough vitamin B2—riboflavin—you could develop cracks or sores at the corners of your mouth, or a rash or bumps on your skin, says Farrell. As if that’s not enough, low levels of vitamin B3, or niacin can trigger symptoms ranging from fatigue and indigestion to poor circulation and depression, says the University of Maryland Medical Center. While it’s possible to also get riboflavin from other sources (such as cow’s milk) and niacin from other sources (such as eggs and milk), thiamin is only found in enriched grains. And overall, few people drink enough milk to make up for the vitamins they’d lose out on by eliminating grains, Farrell adds.
You could suffer anemia, muscle aches, and more
Vitamins are an issue when you go grain-free, but don’t forget about minerals: Skipping grains could also mean missing minerals like iron, magnesium, and selenium, adds Farrell. Iron helps prevent anemia; low magnesium can cause symptoms from chronic headaches to constipation; and selenium is used by certain enzymes to keep your metabolism humming, according to the Mayo Clinic. While these minerals could also be found in other sources, from spinach to brazil nuts, Farrell worries that cutting grains would mean not getting enough of them. “If you’re not eating your whole grains, and you’re not eating these other foods, you could miss out on all these key vitamins, minerals, and of course fiber.”
You might eat more powerhouse foods
There are positives to going grain-free as well. While Sheth generally cautions against eliminating an entire food category, she acknowledges that by cutting grains you could create room to get more of your daily calories from other nutritional necessities like fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. For a guide, checkout the healthiest foods from each food group. For example, eating 10 portions of fruits and vegetables each day was associated with marked reductions in heart disease, stroke, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and premature death, according to research from Imperial College London published in the International Journal of Epidemiology. But Farrell worries that people don’t typically eat enough of these foods to compensate for the nutrients lost when eliminating grains. “I’m going to tell you, sitting in my office, people are not eating the vegetable quantities they should,” she says. “For example, it would be really hard to eat enough broccoli to make up for the fiber loss that would come from cutting out grains.”
You could get less sugar and salt
Because excess amounts of sugar and salt are often found in processed, grain-containing foods, like crackers and baked goods, shunning grains could coincidentally mean sidestepping those two dietary pitfalls, explains Sheth. Too much salt contributes to high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, heart failure, and kidney disease, says the Food and Drug Administration, and excess sugar has been linked to problems including weight gain, depression, and cavities—all ailments we could do without.
You could kick bad snacking habits
Cookies, breads, pastas, and other such grain-based foods are common culprits when it comes to over-eating, so eliminating grains also means eschewing these frequently indulged foods, adds Sheth. Such cutbacks could pave the way to weight loss. On the other hand, not all snacking is bad. Satisfy your next attack of the munchies with one of these guilt-free treats.
You might improve your mood
Avoiding grains could initially cause some depression as part of the withdrawal process, but there can ultimately be a substantial mood lift from eliminating some grains, according to Dr. Davis. Though the claims are somewhat controversial, Dr. Davis’s theory is that the absence of certain proteins in grains allow feel-good hormones in the brain to flourish. “This develops due to the removal of gliadin and other prolamin protein-derived exorphins, as well as increased levels of brain serotonin,” the article states. Learn about other successful strategies for overcoming depression naturally.
You should consult an expert
When considering whether to go grain-free, lactose-free, or whatever-food-free, talk to an expert such as a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) who can help evaluate your expectations for that diet, identify any red flags given your lifestyle, and make sure you steer clear of nutritional deficiencies. Not to mention nutritionists have loads of dieting tips. “The RDN is able to take the existing science, listen to your personal medical history, then put a diet prescription into a usable format you can follow at home, in a restaurant, and when you travel,” says Farrell. You can start your search for an RDN in your area through the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
You’re not the same as your neighbor
You’ll often hear about diet successes and failures from your Facebook feed or a friend over coffee, but it’s important to remember that not everyone is the same, and your body’s reaction to a change such as eliminating grains could be different from even that of your sibling. While the emerging field of nutrigenomics is seeking to better understand how nutrition impacts each person in particular, for now your best guide is talking with an expert. “A dietitian will treat each person as the individual they are and make recommendations specific to them,” says Farrell.