Against the grain


One of the strangest ideas I came across when I first started researching nutrition a few years ago, was that humans could be perfectly healthy whilst not consuming cereal grains. I was puzzled and surprised. I had eaten grains nearly every day for most of my life: cereal and toast for breakfast, sandwiches for lunch, the occasional biscuit as a snack, maybe pasta for dinner. It had never occurred to me to not eat products made from wheat, oats, rye, etc., nor that these foods could be in any way unhealthy. I had heard of celiac disease, which I assumed affected very few people who were unable to eat gluten-containing foods.

After all, is not bread an essential staple food eaten all over the world in one form or another? Well, it may be eaten all over the world, but it turns out that it’s not essential.  Nor is it particularly nutritious, not even brown bread or wholegrains. In fact, wholegrains can be less nutritious because, although the bran has more micronutrients, it also contains substances that the plant produces as a defence against predators, which can mean that the micronutrients are less accessible to humans, and may be an irritant for some.

When I started to do my own research, I found it helpful to take an evolutionary or ancestral perspective. Humans have been around on planet Earth for about two million years with similar genes and biology to ourselves. Sure, there have been different species like Neanderthals, but there have been lots of biological similarities. Two million years is about 66,000 generations. Agriculture and the systematic cultivation of grasses only began at most 11,000 years ago, about 366 generations, or about 0.5% of human history. Some parts of the world and some populations didn’t eat significant amounts of cereals until a few hundred years ago (and the few remaining hunter gatherer cultures still don’t). The modern, heavily grain-centric, diet didn’t take off until the Industrial Revolution was in full swing, about seven generations ago, or 0.01% of human history. Now most people in the Western world eat large amounts of processed grain-based food. Such is the dependence on grains that modern bread is often made from strains of wheat that have been bred or genetically modified to speed up baking time and contain substances to increase shelf life in the supermarket.

So, depending which way you look at it, one of the cornerstones of the modern Western diet has only been so for less than half of one percent of human history. Given that, is it any wonder that not all humans are biologically adapted to such a diet? In its most extreme form, this lack of adaptation manifests as celiac disease (CD); in less severe form, as non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS). CD is estimated to affect about 1% of the US population. Estimates for NCGS are less precise but it is thought that as many as 10% of people may fall into this category.

I know that I don’t have CD. I don’t know if I have NGCS or not; I have never been tested. I just knew in 2013 that I was not feeling as well as I wanted to. So, I decided I would do an experiment on myself, and I stopped eating anything made from or with cereal grains. Instead I had fruit and eggs for breakfast, salad for lunch and I stopped eating pasta for dinner. I also avoided biscuits or other grain-based snacks. I think that this was an important part of my own healing process of becoming fitter, stronger, more resistant to infection, and recovering from tinnitus.

I discovered that I could live perfectly well without cereal grain products. Most people who make this kind of change find that they lose weight without trying, until they reach a weight that is right for them. They also find that they eat a more nutritious diet; without the ‘full feeling’ that comes from eating grains, they naturally compensate by eating more of other foods like eggs, salads, vegetables, nuts, meat and fish (exactly the kind of nutritious foods that our hunter gatherer ancestors lived healthily on for millions of years). The combination of a more nutrient-dense diet, and avoiding the ‘anti-nutrients’ in grains adds up for most people to a healthier gut, a more normal weight, clearer skin and an amelioration of other ailments.

About a year after giving up grains I found myself craving a bread-like substitute. I discovered that it’s possible to make delicious bread using almond flour in place of wheat, using eggs as a binding agent in place of gluten. Now I usually have a slice with my breakfast; boiled eggs taste better with bread!

What about you? Have you tried a grain-free nutrient-dense diet? Let us know in the comments below.


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