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. Mmm I agree grain free/ starch free helps my IBS and stops sugar crashes & craving ( I’m sooo pleased) but I couldn’t go totally paleo and I felt awesome but was constipated & full feeling for weeks that didn’t resolve ( I passed a tiny bit but incomplete. I added quinoa back in & I was good then bad again & carb craving . I now have a pea protein shake for breakfast so maybe a little unpaleo but feel great. Ibs plays up if I do a little rice or rice protein shake. I’m have fructose malabsorption . The Q : I’d love to go totally paleo but the meat is too much for my digestion. What can I do ?

    Cat wrote on December 8th, 2013
  2. Interesting article. I find that for me at least an excessive amount of grains is the problem. I eat a whole foods, plant based diet (vegan) and have found that this is settling my stomach better than when I obliterate grains/legumes from my diet and eat lots of meat and other animal products. I typically avoid eating more than two servings of grains a day and this works well for me and I dramatically up my intake of green veggies. I just wanted to put in my two cents because so many people think that avoiding grains means you can’t ever have them (although you definitely could avoid eating grains completely on a vegan diet) and that you must replace the grains with more meat. I used to eat more of a paleo-esque diet and although it works wonders for some people, I ended up gaining weight and weight just falls off of me when I eat vegan. (I don’t try to restrict fats though, I just avoid using oil when I can). But congrats to those who have found success w primal/paleo.

    Olivia wrote on March 12th, 2014
  3. I recenty noticed bad intestine pain the morning aftef eating white rice, Its the only grain I allow because I have to stay low oxalate and get very depressed anxious shaky on primal with no high carb meal, i cant have potatoes or sweet potatoes and nuts and many of the squashes. Anyway the rice keeps my hormones going well but now I see the connection with my gut pain. I am not sure what to do, I also cant have dairy, my food choices are very slim its emotionally distressing in itself.

    Mel wrote on July 9th, 2014
  4. I’ve been diagnosed with IBS in the past. I only suffer from mild symptoms such as bloating, chronic diarrhoea etc. I have once or twice in the past suffered bad abdominal cramps too. I have visited the doctors on many occasions about this issue and have been blood tested for coeliac disease etc, but basically it always comes down to that they don’t really care as my condition is far from life threatening.

    I have tried lactose-free, gluten-free (separately), most things, but they didn’t seem to solve the problem. I’m currently eating only rice and oats as my ‘grains’ as well as cutting out dairy, caffeine, and basically any kind of junk food – and I must say that I am a LOT better than I used to be – although I most definitely still have very noticeable symptoms. I also eat a lot. A hell of a lot, a lot more than some people twice my weight, although I am 23 years old and lift weights heavy weights very often – of course most doctors won’t take you too seriously if you tell them that you eat too much when you’re of a healthy appearance and aren’t losing weight.

    Currently, I eat a big bowl of porridge every morning with almond milk, and huge amounts of rice and rice noodle or sweet potato meals throughout the day. Knowing about the bloating effects of carbs I have considered going carb-free totally, although experimentation in the past has left me worrying about the fatigue that this has left me in the very short term, as well as the difficulty that it may pose in gaining/keeping muscle mass – I’ve never really tried it for more than a few days. Despite having many doubts, reading about Mark and his previous conditions and large food intake due to a very active lifestyle, I can’t help but feel that we may be very alike. I wonder if perhaps it is the amount of grains that we’ve eaten in the past that has caused us noticeable symptoms, which has exemplified their ills as explained on this site.

    Again, I cannot say that I am yet totally sold yet but given Mark’s experience and those of the commenters on this post, I am definitely going to give the Primal Blueprint diet a try. Although I am not sure quite how I am going to afford it based on my lowly PhD student income! But hey, I hope everything said turns out to come true for me, I will be sure to let you know how it goes.

    One last thing, I am a little concerned that I may be intolerant/allergic to eggs as large consumption in the past has seemed to result in my symptoms, as has an allergic response to the flu jab (which is build using egg proteins). So any (high protein) breakfast ideas to replace my current oats that isn’t eggs would be highly appreciated.

    One more last thing! I wish I could write this much for my thesis… but I have definitely found that conventional ‘healthy eating’ of wholegrain carbs has been bad for me. My symptoms improved drastically, especially bloating, when switching to white carbs, not sure if anybody else has found this…?

    Connor wrote on March 25th, 2015
  5. Interesting and I can relate. Except I struggle with willpower. I have cleaned up my diet majorly in the last 2 years and do not experience the same stomach pains I used to. 2 months ago I did a 2 week “diet” of dairy/grain free and I felt fantastic. However I travelled for work and due to limited options fell back into eating grains again. I’ve managed to stay off dairy. I started eating gluten free grains again, but the stomach pains are back with a vengeance. Day 1 of no grains again! Work in progress. Hopefully I can build up my willpower to say no to grains! Dairy is easy for me.

    Michelle wrote on November 20th, 2015

Leave a Reply

If you'd like to add an avatar to all of your comments click here!

© 2016 Mark's Daily Apple

Subscribe to the Newsletter and Get a Free Copy
of Mark Sisson's Fitness eBook and more!