Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
19 Nov

Grain Pain

Bowl of Oats and GranolaI’ve been grain-free for nearly three years now. Oh, every once in a while, I’ll have a bite or two of bread at a restaurant (it had better be really good bread though and even then I’ll still douse it with olive oil or real butter) or a couple of chips with guacamole – mostly just as a vehicle for delivering the precious emerald mixture to my mouth. I might even have a few sushi rolls with sticky white rice from time to time. But for the most part I stay far away from grains. No cereal ever, no pasta ever, no wheat, barley, rye, corn or anything of that sort. My exodus from grains was gradual, starting about five years ago, but it increased in fervor and resolve as I discovered more and more through my research how inappropriate grains were as a component of the human diet.

All throughout my youth and just up until a few years ago, I had also suffered from occasional intense, sometimes debilitating, gastrointestinal cramping that I had always chalked up to stress. The classic Irritable Bowel Syndrome or IBS. You know how some people claim to carry stress in their necks, their groin or their shoulders? I simply believed I carried stress in my gut and that that was the main cause of my IBS. I missed school some days as a kid. I’d take a day off work once in a while years later. I even missed races occasionally as a result of it. As recently as three years ago, I spent several sleepless nights doubled over in excruciating pain during a stressful period when I was producing 50 episodes of my TV show within a very compressed time frame. As I look back now, I was still eating bread (sandwiches) and whole wheat rolls (at dinner) during that time. Hmmm.

I had basically lived on grains for 50 years, during 20 of which I had to cram down all the bread, pasta, rolls and cereal I could to obtain the 1,000 grams of carbs a day I needed to fuel my athletic pursuits. On a day-to-day basis, I felt fine. In all that time it had never occurred to me that my gut-wrenching stress episodes might have also had something to do with grains in my diet. I didn’t make the connection because I could go for many months at a time without an IBS episode, and yet I always had the grains in my diet. It wasn’t until I completely eliminated grains that any form of IBS fully disappeared – even during very recent times of significant stress. So it wasn’t just the grains and it wasn’t just the stress; it was the two combined that set off the alarm bells.

I had a real experience of that again just last week, though, and the connection became even more apparent. I was off on an organized weekend “self-discovery” retreat. I had signed up on the advice of a good friend and really had no idea what I was in for, except that it would be somewhere up in the mountains and we would be challenged on multiple levels. A few hours into the first night I realized that for the next few days one of the challenges would be the Spartan diet of nothing but granola, water and a few slices of fruit. My first inclination was to forgo these meager victuals and use this as a fasting (IF) weekend, but not knowing whether we were in for “Survivor”-type challenges, long nights shivering in the cold or forced 15-mile marches, I decided I might need the calories in whatever form I could take them. So I started downing the granola with the rest of the participants. I knew what I was doing, but I thought “how bad could three servings of rolled oats each day possibly be?” Oh, Lordy.

Everything was copacetic for the first 24 hours, but by Sunday morning, I was noticing a sensation I had thankfully not experienced for three years – the doubling over in pain and the urge to purge. By the end of the course Sunday afternoon, I was completely preoccupied with the pain and unable to participate in any of the post-event discussions as I tried to meditate my way to a “happy place”. Several trips to the bathroom provided only marginal relief, and it wasn’t until I got in my car to drive home Sunday night that I could see light at the end of the tunnel. The cramping continued sporadically well into Monday and only subsided as I resumed my regular diet.

I tell you all this to reiterate that the problems that arise from eating grains aren’t always obvious. As I have said here, the fact that you can eat grains for years and manifest no symptoms doesn’t mean they are not having some small insidious effect. In my case, it has always been the combination of stress and grains that has caused the red flags to go up, but I think there was always something going on even when it didn’t manifest itself in IBS. In the three years since I have been grain-free, the arthritis in my fingers – that I had already had for five years and had always assumed to be a natural result of getting older – has disappeared. I never get sick anymore, even when I’m stressed. I maintain my body fat level so easily it’s almost criminal. Yes, these could be due to other factors as well, but this past weekend really opened my eyes once again.

Further Reading:

The Definitive Guide to Grains

2 Minute Salad Video

My Knee is Killing Me… No Really.

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Thank you for relating the personal experience Mark! That always helps make it more human. Its amazing how we forget how something we gave up long ago makes us feel until we lapse and it returns with a vengence.
    I have my own theory about why people think they are addicted to grains or can’t do without grains from a culinary standpoint (remember I am not a scientist!) and I will be posting on it very soon. Hint… its not actually the grains you like.

    The SoG

    Son of Grok wrote on November 19th, 2008
    • I too had horrible IBS and was having to up my meds which was not exceptable to me. I soughtbalternative healthier alternatives. First I found Kefir, then Kombucha tea, then I remembered being introduced to Paleo and rad Mark’s book next.

      I am now symptom free of IBS and rarely have arthritis symptoms. Grain free is great!

      Tracy wrote on June 10th, 2012
  2. interesting post. I must say I enjoy reading about “anecdotal evidence”. sometimes I almost wish I were older than 22, because whenever I try telling someone of the benefits of a low carb or no-grain diet, I’m being told to wait until I’m at the same age as whoever I’m talking to… too bad these people usually can’t be bothered to read up on folks like Mark, Art or Jack (or visit the blogs of many other successfull low-carbers/paleo/primal dieters who might not be as famous)

    Vasco wrote on November 19th, 2008
  3. I’ve also heard/read about grains making people bloated and swollen (not getting fat, although it makes them look like they weigh more). It almost comes off as if it were an allergic reaction of sorts.

    Jane wrote on November 19th, 2008
  4. Just out of curiosity, was this an NWTA event? I did a similar weekend retreat with them. The insight I gained was awesome, though the nutrition did leave something to be desired. At least at the end of mine there was a “feast” of roasted chicken and a spicy lamb and root vegetable curry which I prepared. Oh, and also pizza, pasta, and potato salad… You can’t escape that stuff even in the mountains.

    Ben wrote on November 19th, 2008
  5. Mark,
    Thanks for sharing your experience. That definitely shows proof how bad grains are to one’s health. I don’t know why so many people think that granola is healthy, it’s “NOT.” I understand your situation, you had to eat to survive, you were between a rock and a hard place. Sorry that happened to you, but, your story is a certainly a big eye opener, thanks again Mark for sharing this. I think that’s happened to us all one time or another, being out in the middle of where ever that you can’t eat the way you want. YES, not eating grains definitely keeps the body very healthy and not get sick, I am never sick, i have to say that’s the case with me.

    Donna wrote on November 19th, 2008
  6. I’ve had exactly the same experience with my IBS. I was diagnosed at 14 (I’m now 33) and I’d become resigned to it turning up regularly, usually when I was stressed by something. I went on a low carb diet a few years ago which, of course, meant cutting out grains. I not only lost nearly 4 stone over the course of a year but I didn’t suffer once during that time with IBS symptoms. Normally I would expect a good 4-6 attacks of varying strengths in that time. As soon as I loosened up my diet to include bread and rice again I found myself doubled up in agony. I now restrict my grain intake generally and avoid refined grains like the very devil. It’s like finally being free of curse.

    Erykah wrote on November 19th, 2008
    • Erykah, do you realize that you likely have Celiac disease? In fact, most people who are ‘diagnosed’ with IBS (there is a REASON that the bowel is irritated) are gluten intolerant/Celiac.

      Some people with gluten intolerance can eat oats, but a lot (including myself) cannot. In fact, I am pretty much carb intolerant (other than carbs form vegetables.

      Ursula wrote on January 21st, 2011
      • I had IBS and was finally diagnosed with celiac disease. Got better but not all the way. I think after reading this I should go grain free. Maybe there is hope.

        Charis wrote on May 1st, 2014
    • How come rice is that bad? It is naturally gluten-free. Isnt the whole story against grains behing gluten as the main source of all evil ????

      stev1989 wrote on November 14th, 2013
      • Rice and oats (and basically all grains) can be bad for people because “gluten” is not simply only found in wheat and those other grains that they mention, in relation to celiac/gluten intolerance. “gluten” is found in every single grain because what gluten actually is is the protein of the grain… however, the deceptiveness lies in the fact that all these different proteins found in various grains have different scientific names for their protein… so, for example, the protein found in wheat has a different scientific name as compared to the protein found in oats… and its interesting to note that wheat contains about 60-70 percent of its protein whereas oats or rice (cant remember specifically which is which) contains only like 5-10 percent and 30 percent of their proteins…. which could explain why some people dont have as much of a perceived reaction to rice or oats, compared to other grains. There is a video out there of a doctor/scientist explaining all of this… i will try to post the link, it was very detailed and informative.

        Anthony P wrote on November 7th, 2014
  7. not to gross anyone out but: I suffer from intense chronic constipation, i often only have a bowel movement once a week. ive tried laxatives, high fiber diets (usually very high in grains), special exercises and nothing ever helped for long. Last month I decided to “go primal” by cutting out grains.

    It’s unbelievable. My condition has almost completely gone away. The only time it comes back is when I slip up and eat a roll of bread at dinner or something. Thanks for all the advice mark!

    B wrote on November 19th, 2008
    • b, I have chronic constipation too. I go for 2 weeks at a time before I finally resort to laxatives. I have been a couple days free of grains and dairy. How long until I see stomach results? I still am constipated and feeling discouraged.. :(

      mollie wrote on May 9th, 2015
      • For me, it helped to increase both the veggies and the fats.

        DaliaMaria73 wrote on June 15th, 2015
  8. Thanks for this illuminating post! So many are shy to talk of their experiences with IBS. I think you’re right about grains aggravating that medical condition. Since I’ve cut the majority of grains out, I’ve been alot better and more happy. Thanks.

    Earth Beauty wrote on November 19th, 2008
  9. I’ve given up grains for about 3 weeks now. My IBS went away instantly. I used to think that my IBS was caused by the tomatoes in spaghetti. Turns out, it was the pasta.

    I also dropped 10 lbs easily. I feel like a poison as been removed from me.

    Thanks Mark.

    Rob wrote on November 19th, 2008
    • I was diagnosed with IBS about four years ago after having a number of severe attacks and multiple trips to multiple doctors. But when I was diagnosed I was told that IBS is the diagnosis they give when they don’t have an answer for what is causing so many digestive issues. And that I would just have to learn what I can and can’t eat. My question is, if you’re not eating any grains what are you eating? Because fruits and vegetables also give me attacks. Red meat also gives me attacks. Dairy also gives me attacks. What is left, fish and chicken??

      Jenny wrote on July 7th, 2012
  10. Been strugling with grains for many years, but health has dramatically improved since it has been cut out of my food.

    LowCarbism wrote on November 19th, 2008
  11. Interesting, and definitely something to think about. I think this “still doing something — even if you’re not aware” phenomenon is what happens to most people with unhealthy eating habits, no? People don’t realize until they eat healthier (though we all have our own interpretation of this haha) how much better they feel doing it.

    Which always leaves me wondering if I’ll discover raw eating to be a Godsend one day… 😉

    Amanda wrote on November 19th, 2008
  12. Yikes – I was considering a month of grains for reasons I won’t go into here (but which I will be posting about in due course) but your story is definately making me think twice. In fact I was already thinking twice and this is adding a third…I wonder whether being primal for a while makes our bodies foget how to deal with the garbage we used to eat?

    Methuselah - Pay Now Live Later wrote on November 19th, 2008
  13. Jane wrote:
    I’ve also heard/read about grains making people bloated and swollen (not getting fat, although it makes them look like they weigh more). It almost comes off as if it were an allergic reaction of sorts.

    It is essentially fermentation of the undigestable material in your gut. Lactose can do the same thing. Loose stool is another sign.

    Robert M. wrote on November 19th, 2008
  14. This happened to me too for years! I am 27, and the last 4-5 years I used to be woken up every morning around 6 am with an excruciating stomach ache that lasted for about 30-45 minutes before I could fall back asleep. The last year I have given up wheat 95% (still have the smallest piece of bread occasionally), and the difference has been night and day. I hardly ever get those stomach aches anymore, until this morning. I racked my brain trying to figure out what I had eaten with wheat in it when I remembered the beer I had before going to bed! I’ve given up beer as well in favor of red wine, so last night’s beer was a rare event. I haven’t gone off other grains yet – I am going to do that gradually. Wheat was definitely the biggest allergen for me, though. I eat quinoa about once a week and it doesn’t give me stomach pains. In any event, so glad that I discovered this site and a couple others that taught me how bad grains are for you. My little reminder last night made me so happy to have been able to eliminate the source of my excruciating early-morning stomach aches.

    Charlotte wrote on November 19th, 2008
  15. Hey Mark,

    When I first started reading today’s post, I thought that it was a guest post, then as I read along further, I knew it was yours. I wonder if your abdominal stress and accompanying mental anguish were due to the grain/s (I’m curious: just oats, or oats & wheat?) or insulin rush, or too much fructose (e.g., many sports drinks containing fructose, versus just glucose, can cause abdominal cramping as I remember too well with my X’s bouts on some epic mountain bike rides, and hikes.)

    Personally, I avoid most grains (especially wheat which I think is the worst); however, I do eat oat groats and quinoa [both gluten free]on occasion, but soak first for 2-3 days [with daily water changes] before cooking & eating. Also, I eat rice w/o soaking, but as when I eat any grain, always doused with healthy fat and accompanied with protein to slow the insulin response. I agree with Stephan over at Whole Health Source about rice being the primary grain that is OK for most people to eat in moderation.

    Anyway, thanks as always for sharing your experiences and knowledge–much appreciated.


    Calvin wrote on November 19th, 2008
  16. Here is a link to just one article on Stephan’s great site (Whole Health Source) regarding grains, gluten, etc.


    Calvin wrote on November 19th, 2008
  17. Since others paved the way for this poo post….

    I’ve heard from many friends that actually they seem to have a “loose stool” when following a paleo diet. Compared to when they are eating some bread and pasta. Anybody have any insights to that?


    Marc Feel Good Eating wrote on November 19th, 2008
  18. Hi Mark,
    I had almost the exact experience as you regarding IBS. Doctors were not much help and I basically found this out by myself. I used to double over over the throne and cursing god once every two weeks, sometimes even once a week. However, as I weaned myself off the grain, these episodes have vanished. Now whenever I eat any significant amount of grain, especially wheat, the dreaded feeling would come back. So as you can bet, my wheat intake is pretty much nil now.

    Mike wrote on November 19th, 2008
  19. that’s right :)
    prior to my ‘life without bread’, on a grainy diet I was sure the flatulence is something given with age, like grey hair or something. This is why they coined a phrase ‘old f*rt’, ain’t it?
    And one of the benefits I noticed while low-carbing was … silence ;-D

    zbiggy wrote on November 19th, 2008
  20. Marc, I have the same problem on paleo. Loose stools, but strangely my stomach still feels full (probably from all the meat sitting in it). Maybe it’s all the fat?

    For me, what’s worse than grains is dairy: it makes my stomach “churn,” seems to mess up my skin, and affects my breathing.

    When I have the occasional sandwich or other grain, I definitely notice the need to sleep an extra couple of hours per night, but that’s about it. On paleo, I’m good with 5-6 hours of sleep; add grains and I’m tired even after 8. This happens even if I have small amounts and much earlier in the day (i.e., the increased need for sleep is more than an insulin-induced food coma – which I also get if I eat too much)

    For me, the general feeling of wakefulness is the number one reason to stay on paleo. My workouts suck, I’m always hungry (I feel unsatisfied even if my stomach is full), and I have loose stools, but I’m still scared to eat grains as I love this steady energy.

    ebrunner wrote on November 19th, 2008
  21. Ummm… if you have loose stool on a high-fat diet, it’s possible you aren’t digesting lactose properly either. Lactose intolerance is a known side-effect of Coeliac disease. If you have greasy stool, then you aren’t digesting the fat properly which suggests the villi are still damaged. Since we’re talking about turds here, you can’t really tell the difference if they are floating or not, but greasy will leave an oil film in the bowl if you don’t flush right away.

    If the villi are damaged you are probably iron deficient too. Biopsy is the best way to diagnose the health of the small intestine.


    Coelics have to go 100 % wheat/rye/barley gluten free for 4-6 months to stop their immune system trying to reject their intestines and re-grow the villi.

    Robert M. wrote on November 19th, 2008
  22. I have had the same experience as what you described, Mark. For 30-some years I’ve assumed that my body just needed an occassional ‘purge’ and so it went into cramping and purging. Thankfully this all resolved when I took on a primal diet. I eat very little grains now, compared to what I used to, and make sure that they are not overly refined. My first clue that I have eaten too much grain is that my very regular bowel becomes ‘irregular’….enough said. Also, I find that I can not tolerate pasteurized dairy anymore. I’ve had raw dairy for about 7 months.

    I do think that the healthier our digestive system is, the less it tolerates unhealthy feeding.

    new_me wrote on November 19th, 2008
  23. Hi Mark. I have been reading a lot of your writing on grains and think you make a lot of good points. Over the last year I made the switch from white pasta, bread, cereal etc to the wholemeal varieties.

    After reading your blog I have made further cutbacks in the last month or so. I no longer eat grains on non-training days. However, I still don’t think they should be completely cut out of a diet because there’s not many other meals better than a wholemeal sandwich when you need an on the go pre-gym snack. Meat and vegetables are good for when you have the time to sit down and eat but I think a wholemeal sandwich is a good compromise when you have to walk and eat.

    Tom Parker - Free Fitness Tips wrote on November 19th, 2008
  24. Thanks to all so far who have shared their grain experiences here. It’s amazing, isn’t it? How many of us (and our docs) never made the connection because we felt grains were a normal and healthy part of the diet?

    As for loose stools on paleo/primal, there could be many reasons. As mentioned here it could be after effects of unrepaired intestinal villi, lactose, dysbiosis (too few healthy gut bacteria or too many of the bad guys) and on. If you haven’t read Konstantin Monastyrsky’s book I highly recommend it. Among other things, you’ll learn that a large amount of a healthy stool is bacteria and water and that fiber needn’t be present in large amounts to keep you regular and comfortable.

    Calvin, I’m certain the abdominal issues were grain-related and not fructose or insulin.
    zbiggy, pull my finger….new me, interested in your experiences with raw dairy when you couldn’t tolerate pasteurized.

    Mark Sisson wrote on November 19th, 2008
  25. In response to your query, Mark:
    I used to tolerate pasteurized dairy just fine, until I switched to raw. Now that I make my own yogurt and kefir and use only raw milk, I find it very hard to ‘stomach’ the pasteurized stuff. (On rare occassions, we have run out of raw and have purchased pasteurized.) I wouldn’t say that I have an intolerance, officially, but it just doesn’t ‘sit well’ within me. My father and one daughter find it the same for them. We don’t consume large amounts of dairy–1 cup, rarely more, per day. I love to put my home made yogurt, butter and raw cream in so many things and I can definitely feel all those wonderful bacteria working in my gut. I miss them if I go without.

    I think that my body has gotten very accustomed to being fed well and it protests when I slip up or get into situations with little option for eating primally.

    new_me wrote on November 19th, 2008
  26. an addition….

    I do personally know of three cases where individuals have been able to tolerate raw cow’s milk when they had been diagnosed as lactose intolerant and could not consume pasteurized milk.

    new_me wrote on November 19th, 2008
  27. I agree. The problems that arise from most things in our daily routine aren’t always obvious. There are so many variables, most of the time, that it’s hard to pinpoint the culprit in any given situation.

    Thanks for the post!

    All the Best,

    Andrew R

    Andrew R wrote on November 19th, 2008
  28. Robert M: people with celiac disease have to go 100% gluten free for the rest of their lives.

    Personally, I think that MANY people fall somewhere within the spectrum of gluten intolerance, with celiac disease at one end, and mild digestive discomfort on the other.

    Heather wrote on November 20th, 2008
  29. Well, it’s good you discovered the source of your problems.

    Most of us have no problems with grains, however. For Europeans you see how this must be true, since for a couple thousand years most people (peasants) lived on litle more than grains, beans, a few vegetables, some dairy products, and the occasional sour fruit.

    The paleo-type diets are probably a good thing for a minority of the population that can’t handle grains, but most of us definitely can. And grain eaters live a long, healthy time, too.

    Walter Pittman wrote on November 20th, 2008
    • I wonder if this grain-gut epidemic has anything to do with the mass production of grains? The reason we are getting sick could be that the grains are rancid. We also have added a ton of different chemicals to preserve/prevent mold, and an interesting article to look at would be:
      There is also the WAPF explanation that ancient societies soaked and fermented their grains to make them more digestible. Using these methods reduces the phytic acid content and makes nutrients from the grains more bioavailable. Modern man does not do this anymore because it’s too much of a hassle.

      Ania wrote on March 22nd, 2014
  30. Retreats are a real problem for me because they are so carb and wheat heavy.

    I’d like to go on an extended camping/canoe trip, but the food one must eat is always that de-hydrated high-carb stuff.

    Do you have any suggestions for eating the primal way while backpacking/camping (meaning you carry all the supplies on your back)? There’s beef jerky, but I’m not sure of what else. A frozen piece of meat will last an afternoon, but days two and three would be difficult.

    David wrote on November 20th, 2008
  31. David,
    For backpacking, jerky and nuts are awesome. Canned fish is also great to bring i.e. sardines or kipper snacks. Powdered eggs…
    There are a lot of good primal options!

    The SoG

    Son of Grok wrote on November 20th, 2008
  32. David,

    check on hunting/fishing regulations where you will be going. Some places/seasons don’t allow it, and some that do have safety issues meaning you can’t. Still a squrrel or fish here and there will do a lot when you can work out all the details.

    Henry Miller wrote on November 20th, 2008
  33. Mark, thank you for writing this. I do eat one grain–brown rice. But for many many years I had terrible migraine daily. Eventually diarrhea started. Had a blood test. Found I have celiac disease. Stopped eating wheat, barley, rye, and oats (because of possible cross-contamination). Migraine ceased instantly. Who would have made the connection–besides another celiac that is?

    Fran wrote on November 20th, 2008
    • Same here. In school I’d get migraines a bit less than once a week. After ending school and getting enough sleep it went down to once a month. Since going primal (7 months ago) I haven’t had a single migraine.

      Sofie wrote on August 19th, 2011
  34. I know I’m a bit late to the party.. I have been following your site for about 8 months now. I find it to be very helpful and informative.
    I was struck by this post… I had the SAME problems as a teenager.. Horrible tummy pain, very upset digestive system, sometimes vomiting-It landed me in the ER more than a few times. The Dr’s I saw tried about 9 different pills to “cure me”. None worked. I had Upper GI scans done, blood work you name it.
    My sister started on the then popular “Atkins”, I joined her in 1999…. within 2 days I was a different person. Amazing transformation. I do not have Celiac’s but my body does have some opposition to gluten.. Minus the occasional Sam Adams, I do my very best to keep gluten out of my body!

    KZeee wrote on November 20th, 2008
  35. Amazing. I have also noticed that a lot of my ailments have simply disappeared since been on Paleo!

    Dr Dan wrote on November 20th, 2008
  36. Mark:

    Interesting personal account of your experience with grains.

    Since you are getting personal here, I wonder if you have every shared your blood chemistry profile (stuff like triglycerides, HDL, LDL (puffy and not puff), CRP, etc.).

    Would be interesting to see.


    Gary wrote on November 21st, 2008

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