Every couple of years, it seems that a new nutritional study or diet craze begins influencing food labeling. Lately, an increasing number of foods and diet plans are pushing the idea of going “grain free” — that is, excluding grains from one’s diet. While this can have demonstrative health benefits for some people, is it really the best choice for everyone?
The Celiac connection
Many, though not all, people who adopt a grain free diet suffer from a condition called Celiac disease. This is a medical condition in which a person’s body reacts strongly to gluten, a protein naturally found in wheat, barley, and many other grains. Some people benefit from excluding only those that contain gluten, while others prefer to avoid grains entirely. The increasing number of people diagnosed with Celiac disease has contributed to the idea that grains, as a whole, are unhealthy for the general population. The Paleo diet, for example, requires followers to exclude grains and stick purely to foods that would have been available to preindustrial societies.
Are grains actually unhealthy?
Grains make up almost an entire food group unto themselves, and it’s not a good idea to exclude entire food groups if it isn’t medically necessary. Grains are a source of carbohydrates, fiber, thiamin, niacin, riboflavin, folate, iron, and magnesium. If you choose to eliminate grains entirely, it’s important to make sure your diet includes other sources of these crucial nutrients. Without them, you could run the risk of issues like high cholesterol, decreased fertility, constipation, and vitamin or mineral deficiencies.
Healthy grains, unhealthy grains.
Though grains in general aren’t bad for you, not all grains are equal. When they are processed, much of their nutritional value is lost. Stripping the bran and germ from wheat, for example, leaves you with white flour which then has to be enriched to replace the lost vitamin and mineral content. Refined flours have a greater impact on blood sugar levels, and offer none of the benefits of their fiber-rich, unrefined counterparts. For this reason, choosing to not eat grains at all may be less beneficial than choosing the right kind to eat. The World Health Organization recommends about six ounces of grains per day, at least half of which should be in the form of whole grains.
Are there any benefits to going grain free?
All of this is not to say that cutting out grains can’t have some up sides. People with difficulty controlling their blood sugar may find that they have an easier time doing so with a diet based around protein, fats, and fiber. People with a condition called SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth) can benefit from reducing the amount of easily-fermentable foods in their diet, grains included. Avoiding grains may also improve dental health for people susceptible to cavities. Some who experience bloating may find that they bloat less without grains.
Grains and weight loss
The National Institutes of Health has found that going grain free does not contribute significantly to long-term weight loss. While some adherents may notice weight loss in the beginning, this is generally because a grain free diet limits the ability to eat nutrient-light, calorie-dense foods like cakes, cookies, and other baked goods. It’s also important to remember that foods labeled “grain free” are not automatically healthier or lower in calories than their grain-based alternatives. These foods can still be loaded with sugar, as well as artificial flavors, colors, and preservatives. Ultimately, unless refined grain products are eaten to excess in the first place, cutting out grains is unlikely to have any real weight loss benefits.
If you have a verifiable medical condition that requires you to stop eating grains, doing so can dramatically improve your quality of life and long-term health. Otherwise, you’re better off including them in your diet. Stick to reasonable portions of whole grains, and limit the consumption of refined grains. Not only will it be healthier for you, it’s healthier for the planet, too — growing and harvesting grains require less space, water, and energy than many of the foods trying to take their place.