Note: This post is dedicated to my very own bread-loving, exercise-hating, makes-life-worth-living, astonishingly gorgeous wife-to-be!
I’ll be honest here. I’ve been working on this post on grains for a long time now and I wanted to talk about what grains really are and how they became a staple and how they wreak havoc in our bodies and how they are the most evil things in the word and you know, other such usual blabber you would expect from a no-so-much-of-a-grain-fan as me. But then, I wasn’t able to do it. I tried multiple times but with no success. I had some sort of a block. Finally I realized, this wasn’t because I didn’t have the time to write or literature to back this up, but because I just didn’t really believe that grains were evil!
Picture credit: Pinch My Salt
As you guys know, I don’t blindly follow the herd but like to question beliefs and experiment everything on myself before recommending it to others. That being the case, I just found it impossible to write a post demonizing grains when I didn’t really think it was the case. This might come as a surprise to a lot of you folks considering I am known for hating grains and recommending against their consumption, but my argument here is really not for or against grains. It is about the all or nothing approach that is being applied towards grain consumption in general! You know, like the concept of distance running. It was once touted at the panacea for everything and now its being demonized and blamed as a cause of everything from Oprah’s bellay to Osama’s death!
So, Raj, are you just going from loathing to actually recommending grains?
Well, sadly, you won’t know until you read the rest of the post! So hold onto your horses for a second and read the post to fully understand my thoughts on the subject.
Firstly let’s look into the arguments generally used in support of and against grains and my thoughts on each one of these.
- Whole grains are heart healthy – In a country where leading fitness trainers recommend Faker’s Oats and companies compare thier cereal to the ever awesome egg, this is not surprising, but still, this claim is a bunch of crap! Why? Because the studies done to prove this were flawed! Any and every study that proved that whole grain consumption in test subjects improved health markers, compared people’s health when they consumed the standard junk food laden diet to a diet that had whole grains along with vegetables, fruit and lean protein.
- Whole grains are fiber rich: Ever heard of vegetables and fruit? Any idea how much fiber they contain? Check this!
- Grains are empty calories: True dat! No arguing here.
- Grains are high in carbs: Legit! But so are potatoes. And I think we all know carbs dont kill. The act of OD-ing on carbs (and anything else for that matter) is what kills!
- Paleo peeps didnt eat it so we shouldn’t eat it either: Meh! Too stupid to even reason.
So they’re not bad and they’re not good. Great Raj! Thank you! Now we’re back to knowing nothing!
Well, not so soon.
Considering all the scientific and anecdotal evidence we have and having read arguments for and against grains and having tried and tested grain consumption on myself, my clients and my loved ones and having looked at the Ayurvedic diet, the Vegan diet and (all forms of) the Paleo diet without bias, here is what we actually know today…
1. Though there is evidence of grains being consumed millions of years ago, grains were NOT a significant part of the paleolithic people’s diet and were, at best, nutrient sparse survival food.
2. Grains have been a part of the human diet for about 10,000 years and many (if not all) traditional cultures soaked/fermented grains and included them in their diets and lived long healthy lives.
3. There is enough scientific and anecdotal evidence to prove that chronic grain consumption is detrimental to health and prosperity.
4. Wheat consumption has been associated with various different minor and major health issues ranging from acme to asthma to IBS to celiac and has a bunch of published literature supporting it.
5. White rice, though completely devoid of nutrients, seem to be extremely benign for most people and all traditional cultures that have predominantly consumed white rice have experienced little to no negative health effects.
6. All studies showing negative effects in health due to grain consumption have looked at chronic overconsumption of grains. Anecdotal evidence shows that small amounts of grain consumption (< 10-15% of total calories) does not have any significant or measurable effects on one’s health. Note: Exceptions exist here based on health condition and type of grain consumed and they will be discussed shortly.
7. Many other factors, including but not limited to vegetable oil consumption, stress, sedentary lifestyle, pollution etc., have been proven to be much more harmful to health in comparison to grain consumption.
From this mixed bag of scientific, epidemiological and anecdotal evidence, I’m sure the following questions pop right into our heads.
- Are all grains detrimental to health?
- What about in small quantities?
- Are all humans allergic to grains at some level?
Honestly, I don’t have the answers. And I don’t think anyone has the answers to these questions. Let me rephrase that. I don’t think anyone has the right answers to these questions yet! I’m sure you can point me to blog posts and articles that talk about perils of grain consumption but, as mentioned above, even those articles are related to chronic and/or excessive grain consumption.
Gary Taubes, the greatest proponent of low carb eating and the author of Good Calories, Bad Calories and Why We Get Fat, when on Robb Wolf’s podcast asked this question (Note: not verbatim).
I get the paleo thing. But are you telling me that my health will drastically improve if I substitute the one tiny piece of pumpernickel bread that I have everyday with, say, sweet potato?
And thats exactly my point. No one knows! We all know grain dominance is a bad news for long term health, but is the poison in the dose? Can you get away with 1 cup of corn everyday? How about a slice of bread? Or how about a cup of oatmeal? Again, no one knows! And guess what – no one is going to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars designing and performing a study that analyzes the effect of 1 slice of bread in an otherwise very well controlled real food diet.
So, Raj, how do we find out what works?
Let me shoot that question back at you…
Just going by common sense, how would you find out what works for you?
And you’ll say…
And I’ll say…
You’ve abso-bloody-lutely got to find out what works for YOU! There is no substitute to that. But, while this is a part of the puzzle, its only a part! Some general guidelines need to kept in mind by all of us when it comes to grain consumption. So with merely common sense being the governing factor, here are some general recommendations.
* Realize grains are ‘unnecessary’ in a healthy diet. You can argue all you want, but grains have nothing to offer that you cannot get from real foods. ‘Nough said.
* Move the heck away from a grain based diet! Now this is key. Like I mentioned before, all data that points towards demonizing grains are actually demonizing chronic overconsumption of grains i.e. grain dominance. So whatever you do, do not eat a diet that is dominated by grains. And yes, this applies to whole grains too. As a matter of fact, this applies especially to whole grains.
* Realize the difference between fine wine and cheap liquor! Fine wine is prepared with great care and tastes like heaven and not readily available and only consumed in limited quantities purely for enjoyment and never for the ‘buzz’. Cheap liquor is, well, cheap and crappy and inexpensive and easily available and overconsumed and results in a whole host of issues from liver problems to orphans! If you didn’t get the analogy, eat exquisite and specially made grains that are well prepared and stay the hell away from junk grains! For eg. freshly baked sprouted sourdough walnut cranberry bread? Yes please! I’ll have a slice. A dozen bread sticks? Heck no! Thank you for trying to kill me.
* Nourish your body with whole real foods and supplement your taste buds minimally with grains (and sugars) realizing they aren’t helping you and possibly slightly hurting you. Stated differently, don’t eat a pasta/bread dinner every night and end up walking to celiacville. Instead, load up on meat/tempeh/seafood with roasted vegetables and have a spoon of a decadent chocolate cake/ice cream.
* For God’s sake know your limitations! No sane person will have a sip of alcohol (even the finest wine) if he/she has liver complications. And no sane person should have even a bite of any bread or any other grain, if he/she has gut related issues (IBS, leaky gut, celiac etc.).
* Understand health and work towards it! Health is a result of a real food based diet, stress free lifestyle, good sleep and happiness that spans over a lifetime! Sustainability. is. the. key!
* Stay true to your short term goals. If you are on a leaning out phase and are eating fewer calories than is required for optimal functioning of your body, stay the crap away from grains and sugars because they add empty calories and possibly weaken an already weak immune system. If you are an endurance athlete who needs 4500 calories a day but are adamant about not eating any grains and feel that your performance is dropping, stop kidding yourself and eat some cooked white rice! Yes you can get those carbs from sweet potatoes but for how long are you going to chomp on 3 lbs of sweet potatoes everyday? Once again… sustainability! Similarly, if your short term goal is gaining bodyweight, getting calories should be your primary concern and it doesnt matter if you get those calories from rice and beans or potatoes and cheese. Do what suits your body (bloating, gas, sleep, energy etc.) and yourlife style (cost, availability etc.). Keep it simple and sustainable!
* Understand preparation and do it! You wash your hands before you eat. You wet your hair before you shampoo. You better soak/ferment your grains before you cook ’em!
* Differentiate yourself from your ancestors. You can’t eat like your ancestors when you don’t move and cook like your ancestors did! Yes you should embrace your roots, but you should also understand that you’re not half as active as your ancestors were and the grain based meal you eat today is not prepared with even a fraction of the care and detail used to prepare grains back then.
* Be smart and understand that the success of a diet solely depends on physical nourishment and mental satisfaction. Customize your real food diet in a way that it keeps you healthy and happy! Healthy here is strong, immune, lean and disease/allergy/symptom free and happy here is giving you the leeway to eat your favorite foods.
* Listen to your body! If you eat a grain and it messes you up, stay away from it. This is not rocket science.
* When you start, create your diet with purely real food (vegetables, meats, eggs, fruit, nuts and organic dairy). Drop any and all form of unstable PUFa (vegetable oils). Throw the junk out. Remove all grains. See how you feel. Now try having a small serving of whatever grain you desire. See how you react. Bad? Dont do it again. No change? Perfect. Now, you can eat it every once in a while. This is exactly how I work with my clients. I don’t give them any random diet/meal plan and a macronutrient split. We work together. From the bottom up. And ten out of ten times, my clients find what works for them! I just merely facilitate it.
* Always remember that food is meant to nourish the body and the mind. Why do you think repressed emotions (anger, stress, jealousy etc.) result in health issues? Because such repression can change your entire gut flora leading to digestive issues and, since health begins at the gut, this paves the way for other diseases! Consume only foods that ensure health and happiness. Both the “H”s coexist and one cannot exist without the other. If you absolutely need to eat some rice/quinoa/oats to stay happy and consistent and if it only causes very minimal discomfort, then by all means include it in your diet. But only as much as or as frequently enough to not cause any considerable discomfort.
Customization is a requirement for consistency and consistency is a requirement for sustainability and sustainability is a requirement for long term health and fitness!
What about my diet?
From whatever experimentation I’ve done, I’ve learnt a lot about my body and the following are what I do to keep myself healthy and happy!
1. I know oatmeal destroys me! Maybe its the whole grain or the avenalin in oats, but having a cup of cooked oats makes me run to the little boys room half a dozen times! So the health va happiness graph is pretty crappy here and so I stay away from it.
2. But I know that white rice works like magic for me! Maybe its my roots or the fact that white rice is basically benign, I feel awesome everytime I eat white rice. In this case the health vs happiness graps looks pretty darn great and so I make it a point to eat white rice multiple times a week. Since I workout pretty hard, I mostly consume post workout in an effort to put the starch to good use, but if I am caught at a social event with crappy food, white rice is always my goto grain.
3. I’m 20 something. If I really want to eat pizza, I will eat pizza. Simple enough. But the key words here are “really” and “want”. I have pretty good self control and hence wont down a pizza everytime I remotely feel like eating one and I don’t tolerate the ‘Oh have just one slice! It wont kill you’ crap one bit and hence wont have any just because someone else thinks I should.
4. I’m not a fan of couscous or corn really, but if I do go to an authentic isereli/mexican restaurant and my host tells me their couscous/tamale is to die for, I’d order it without hesitation or guilt.
The way I see it, all food is good and all food is bad… either for the body or the mind. A food that nourishes you with nutrients but makes you feel deprived and stressed is just as bad as a food that gives you happiness but destroys your body. It all depends on the dose and the your physical state. This is what works for me right now and so this is what I do. If, at some point of time, this stops working for me or my experiments show me something better, I’ll certainly be happy to change things up.
1. Call a spade a spade. Grain consumption is not the issue. Grain dominance and dependance is!
2. Grains have nothing nutritious to offer and so don’t try to make it a part of your diet.
3. Grains are not evil and you needn’t avoid them like the plague! Be smart and eat grains for the experience/enjoyment and call it a day.
4. Cut your losses by soaking/fermenting grains before preparation and consumption.
5. Eyes on the goal. If grains throw you off, you better be ready to throw them out.
What are your thoughts? What grains do you love? How often do you eat them? What works for you? I’m very curious to know what you guys think about this. Do share your experiences and thoughts in the comments section and please take a moment to share this post on Facebook, Twitter and other networking sites!
Stay sane. Stay happy. Stay healthy. Stay fit!