There is lots of discussion in the past year especially about the health benefits of a grain-free diet. This article will outline some of the reasons that this may be beneficial for your health.
First of all, before I get into the details, I do not believe that there is one perfect diet for everyone. That is why we have such strong advocates for different diet plans – vegan, paleo, vegetarian, gluten-free, etc. The key for me is to provide you with information to make the best choice for your health right now. I also believe that it is important to be flexible with your diet – what is working right now, may not be the diet that is right for you forever. I know for myself, that my own diet has evolved many times depending on life’s circumstances and health issues.
There are quite a few medically documented reasons to consider a grain-free diet, for your brain, mental health, gastrointestinal health, immune system, blood sugar regulation, and even hormone balance. I will outline each of these below. Please bear in mind, that these are only brief explanations – there are many books and articles written on this topic!
1. Brain health: As per the popular book “Grain Brain” by Dr. David Perlmutter, the increased intake of grains in our diet may be associated with increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease. This may be due to inflammation caused by grains, but also the affect that their consumption has on our blood sugar levels and then incidence of diabetes. Alzheimer’s is recently nick-named “Type 3” diabetes, as the role of impaired blood sugar metabolism becomes more understood.
2. Mood and mental health: Gluten-containing grains in particular affect the mood and mental health in susceptible people. Gluten affects the opioid receptors in the brain, and is actually ‘addictive’, creating cravings as well as withdrawal symptoms when it is withheld. In many people with mental health challenges, the avoidance of grains will support more stable moods and a reduction in depression and anxiety especially. Please note here, that it may take up to 3-4 months to notice a significant improvement in your mood after making a diet change. Most people notice an improvement in ‘brain fog’ first.
3. Gastrointestinal health: Grains contain a protein called lectins which are an irritant to the intestinal lining, and associated with intestinal permeability or ‘leaky gut syndrome’. Avoidance of lectins is a key phase to repairing intestinal permeability which will improve not only digestive function, but very importantly improve autoimmune conditions such as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis and rheumatoid arthritis. Removing gluten is the most important first step, but going grain-free for many people will show much greater benefit. A grain-free diet is also helpful for those with inflammatory bowel disease such as Crohn’s and colitis.
4. Immune system: The lectins found in grains (and also in legumes, dairy and night-shade vegetables) can also cause immune system stress, especially with autoimmune diseases. Many autoimmune conditions appear to be lectin sensitive. It is theorized that the mechanism for this stress is via intestinal permeability, leading to more immune system stimulation. Hashimoto’s thyroiditis in particular is very often a lectin-sensitive condition. In all cases of autoimmune thyroid disorders, I recommend a strict gluten-free diet, and in some cases grain-free may also be needed.
5. Blood sugar regulation: Grains, and especially wheat products cause rapid spikes in blood sugar levels, which over time cause stress on the pancreatic regulation of blood sugar levels. The initial stage of poor blood sugar regulation is called ‘insulin resistance’. This is created by eating too many concentrated carbohydrate foods over a prolonged period of time. Grains in particular cause this type of immune systems stress. A grain-free diet in many cases will be a tremendous start in regulating blood sugar levels, to reverse both insulin resistance and even non-insulin dependent (type II) diabetes.
6. Hormone balance: There are two scenarios where a grain-free diet can improve hormone balance. The first is with polycystic ovarian syndrome, a very common hormone imbalance consisting of irregular ovulation, high androgen levels, and often underlying insulin resistance. A grain-free diet will correct the insulin resistance, which results in better overall hormone regulation. The other scenario where a grain-free diet may be indicated is in cases of infertility related to autoimmune conditions. When the immune system is over-reactive as in an autoimmune condition, it can prevent pregnancy by creating inflammation, preventing implantation of a fertilized embryo or causing early miscarriage.
The bottom line:
The bottom line with all of these health conditions is that for many people grains are inflammatory, and where there is inflammation health suffers. The benefit is also in the elimination of processed foods, sugar and simple carbohydrates when the grains are removed from the diet, which will make health gains for everyone. If you are eating grain-free and increasing your intake of meats as protein sources, it is very important to choose meats from grass-fed or wild animals in preference to industrially farmed meats.
There are also some scenarios, where excluding grains, and increasing animal proteins in particular may not be the best choice. The balance of studies and evidence in people with cancer, still tips towards a vegan diet or at least a mostly-plant based diet being most beneficial. In this scenario, I would not recommend increasing animal products and fats, in order to cut out grains. I would however recommend eating a gluten-free diet, as the immune system benefits of eating gluten-free are clearly documented. In cases where we are working on cancer prevention, I would still recommend a plant-based diet, meaning a great increase in plant-based foods, along with elimination of processed foods, sugar and dairy. Where to draw the line with animal protein would be an individual call, depending on other health issues.
I hope this article has been thought provoking for you. As always, there is so much information out there about different diets, and health plans. There is however, a great deal of scientific back-up to the grain-free diet, and you may want to consider it for your health.