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

Top 8 Most Common Reactions to Your Grain-Free Diet (and How to Respond)

As I’m sure you’ve seen, eyes raise and questions arise when you order a burger wrapped in lettuce or discard a “wrap” and eat the contents. And then, when you answer with “Oh, I don’t eat grains,” minds boggle and mouths gape as they stumble to grasp the notion of someone who doesn’t eat bread or pasta. Eventually, though, they fire off responses, challenges, questions, and proclamations. This isn’t right, this isn’t possible, this doesn’t agree with their idea of how people should eat. It just isn’t normal. You’re not normal, and you should be ashamed of yourself for introducing a new paradigm. But not all are personally offended by your decision. Some are honestly curious and flabbergasted. Some just want to know why someone would give up grains and how they get along without them.

So, what kind of stuff do we hear out there in the wild?

Rather than just linking to yet another MDA post, maybe on why grains are unhealthy or how to give them up, let’s take a look at the eight most popular and prevalent questions and then try to come up with some good responses to them. I’ll give both longer ones and succincter ones (that you can fire off in an elevator).

“Oh, is that a low-carb thing?”

While grains represent an easy, cheap source of carbohydrates (that most sedentary people simply don’t need), they also contain “anti-nutrients,” proteins and lectins and other nutritional factors that impair digestion, perforate the intestinal lining, increase inflammation, and can even exacerbate or (possibly) induce auto-immune diseases. Since the purpose of life is to reproduce and that grain has to make it into the ground to germinate and turn into a plant, grains don’t want to be eaten, and they use the anti-nutrients to dissuade consumption in lieu of the running, climbing, flying, crawling, biting, and stinging that animals use to survive.

Response: “Kinda, but it’s more than that. In order to survive and spread their genes, a grain uses anti-nutrients to dissuade animals from eating them. Some animals have adapted quite well, but humans haven’t, so I choose not to eat them.”

“I could never give up bread. And aren’t grains the staff of life?”

For the past several thousand years of human history, bread has been a staple food. The ancient Egyptians baked it. The Greeks and Romans made it. You probably grew up with it. It was – and is – cheap and filling. Today, because billions simply need calories from wherever they can get them, grains are the ticket, the “staff of life.” But it’s not like we’ll wither away into nothingness, all because we failed to heed the biological dietary necessity to eat grains ordained by some higher power. Grains aren’t the staff of life in an inherent sense, but rather because they’re cheap, reliable, and easy to work with. They provide calories and a modicum of nutrients to people who absolutely require those calories, regardless of any nutritional downsides. Having joint pain and bloating because you ate some whole wheat, while unpleasant, is better than dying of starvation because you refused it.

Response: “An unfortunately large number of people are forced to subsist on grains as a staple, because they’re cheap and plentiful and calories are scarce, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best way to eat. Grains aren’t necessary if you have access to plenty of fresh animals and plants.”

“Where do you get your fiber?”

As if only cereal grains contain non-starch polysaccharides. As if all the world’s inulin, pectin, chitin, beta-glucans, and oligosaccharides are found solely in wheat, barley, rye, rice, oat, and corn. As if some of the richest sources of soluble fiber – you know, prebiotics, or the kind that our gut bacteria can ferment and convert into metabolically-active short chain fatty acids – aren’t fruits, roots, nuts, and green vegetables. And, as if the richest sources of insoluble fiber – the metabolically-inert stuff that pretty much nothing can digest and which serves only as a bulking agent for improving the robustness of our bowel movements – aren’t whole grains.

Response: “I get my fiber from fruits and vegetables. Best of all, our gut bacteria can actually digest the fiber from fruits and vegetables, thereby producing short chain fatty acids that improve our metabolic health. Grain fiber is just a bulking agent that fills your toilet bowl.”

“What about the USDA food pyramid?”

What about it? Take a look around you. The obesity rate is the highest it’s ever been, and almost everyone who’s not obese is “just” overweight. Diabetes is on the rise. People live out the end of their lives relying on a complicated cocktail of pharmaceuticals and medical apparati just to eke out a few more years. All this, despite the majestic, all-powerful USDA dietary recommendations informing everything we put into our collective mouths. How’s that USDA food pyramid working out for us so far, I’d like to ask. I’m not necessarily assigning a causative role to the pyramid (though it certainly plays a role, in my view) in the obesity epidemic. I’m just saying that it has done absolutely nothing to stanch the rise of diet-related illness. I’m saying it doesn’t have a real impressive track record.

Response: “Since the USDA food pyramid was released in 1992, the obesity rate has increased unabated. What about it?”

“That must be terribly inconvenient. What do you eat for breakfast? What about sandwiches? What about dining out?”

Well, you see, all you gotta do for a bread-free sandwich is spread a little mayo on your right hand, some mustard on the left, and pile on the avocado, the deli slices, and the tomato slices in between. Easy as pie. Seriously, though, I don’t get this question. Have these people never heard of bacon and eggs? Omelets? A steak and salad? Do they think a sandwich is indivisible? That once you place the final slice of bread atop the meat, lettuce, and cheese the sandwich can never be altered, that you physically cannot pry the bread off the innards? Have they ever even witnessed the creation of a sandwich? Are they going to weird fascistic restaurants that force you to consume the bread and pasta? I just don’t get this one. I really don’t.

Response: “Just take off the bread and eat the other stuff. Bam.”

“Everything in moderation, I say. I don’t like to deprive myself of anything.”

Ah, yes, the eminent voice of reason. “Everything in moderation”, they say. Trans-fat? Bring it on, or else it’s deprivation! Margarine? Slather it on my veggies! Must not deprive! Arsenic? Sure, I’ll have a bite! Why not? That said, I’m just not seeing where the deprivation comes in. I fail to see how not eating a food that leads to poor health, digestive upset, and bloating is somehow deprivation. You could say that I’m technically depriving myself of feeling like crap by not eating grains, but that’s a good kind of deprivation. If you want to be quite literal, eating grains deprives you of a full, healthy existence.

Response: “When I eat grains, I feel terrible, bloated, and not like myself. The way I see it, I’d be depriving myself of a full, rich, healthy, happy life if I were to eat grains in moderation. Besides, do a rib-eye, some buttered broccoli, and a glass of red wine sound like deprivation to you?”

“I’ve been eating grains all my life and don’t seem to have a problem.”

You may not have an obvious problem now, but that’s only because you’ve grown accustomed to your body and it to your diet. The signals of discomfort are dulled, and the intensity of the pain has reduced. You’ve gotten used to the stomach upset, the intermittent bouts of diarrhea. You know how all those “things just happen” as you get older, a view that is reinforced when you see the same thing happening to everyone else around you (all of whom also happen to eat grains)? How you start going downhill at 40, it becomes hard to lose weight, all that stuff. Spend some time looking at what everyone is eating – grains, grains, and more grains – and you might notice a connection.

Response: “I felt the same way until I tried ditching them for 30 days. All those little niggling aches and pains and complaints that I figured were just an inevitable aspect of life have disappeared. I feel better than ever.”

“Where do you get your minerals?”

Although whole grains may look nutrient-dense, simply looking at the mineral content of a whole grain on a nutrition website tell you very little about how your body absorbs (or doesn’t absorb) those minerals. Remember those anti-nutritional factors present in most whole grains? Another one is called phytic acid, which binds to minerals in the grain and prevents their absorption in the gut. Calcium, zinc, magnesium, iron, and several others are susceptible to the lure of phytic acid, and research shows that cultures who rely on grains for the bulk of their macronutrients and micronutrients display deficiencies in these and other minerals.

Response: “Since they’re bound up to phytic acid, the minerals in grains aren’t really even all that bioavailable to your body. What you see listed on the nutritional facts isn’t what you’re actually absorbing and assimilating. I get my minerals from plants, fruits, and animals, which our bodies can actually absorb.”

Whenever you deviate from the norm, people are going to ask questions and try to challenge you. That’s fine and totally understandable. Remember – there was a time when all this Primal stuff sounded crazy to you, too. We are different. And people are going to react. They’re going to be defensive, inquisitive, accusatory, or all of the above. Try not to be defensive yourself. Try to maintain composure and think back to when the idea of giving up grains was utter madness, take a nice diaphragmatic breath, and respond. This is a time to educate, and perhaps even inspire. Utilize it.

I know I didn’t cover everything. I must have missed more than a few. So, readers, tell me: what else do people say when you tell them you don’t eat grains, and how do you respond?

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. Love your writings. I’ve been Paleo and been grain /dairy free for about 6 months after doing heaps of reading. Feeling really good too. A couple of weeks ago I thought I’d try some bread….had a headache and sharp pains in my stomach for the next 2 days. On Monday I thought I’d try another couple of slices and bingo stomach pain and headache. I cannot believe I was so de-sensitised . Keep up your inspirational work. Im spreading the word, her on the North Shore in Auckland NZ. Cheers

    Rowena wrote on May 23rd, 2012
  2. When I’m with a certain group of people, we always have coffee and cake, and I always (or almost always) refuse the cake. They are mostly overweight or obese, and they look me up and down and say something like ‘but certainly, YOU don’t need to diet’. Well, no, because in their eyes I’m on a constant diet. When I tell them about it and emphazise the eggs and bacon for breakfast, they reply ‘but I’d want a piece of bread with that’. Well, yes, I guess you would. I’ve just learned to bite my tongue and change the subject.

    Ulla Lauridsen wrote on May 23rd, 2012
  3. Yes in my determination to give up grains to get rid of aches and to heal my son’s chronic eczema, this is just what I needed to stave off my annoying mother-in-laws incessant complaints that what I am doing is not healthy or appropriate for my kids. Thank you :)

    Mindy wrote on May 23rd, 2012
  4. My family doctor: “Your diet must be so hard/expensive/depressing. If I was in my 30s I wouldn’t want to be stuck with those constraints.”

    Me: “Um, what? It’s easy. It costs about the same because I don’t eat grain replacements. My diet cured my depression!”

    Jody Ruttan wrote on May 23rd, 2012
    • I’ve noticed that this “diet” actually saves me money.

      1. Reduced meds for my son (about $75 per month).
      2. Higher fat foods, more calorie dense, more satiating, end up eating less.
      3. Harder to find restaurants that are friendly to this lifestyle, eat out less, eat at home more.

      Aaron wrote on May 23rd, 2012
  5. From my 91-year old Dad, “Are you having problems with your “sugar”? No, Dad, I’m trying to AVOID having problems with my “sugar”. With a lot of attention on gluten-free or gluten sensitivity most questions I get are not about going grain free. I get the most odd looks and PASSIONATE discourses about my fat consumption and particularly, saturated fat, consumption. Butter instead of Smart Balance? Bacon? Really? Nuts and avocados? Watch the fat! You will get fat and develop diabetes! So it goes. Grok on, everyone.

    David wrote on May 23rd, 2012
  6. So much win.
    I think I will share this with my friends, to answer their ceaseless questions. Thanks a bunch, Mark!

    Jazz wrote on May 23rd, 2012
  7. Wow, read 5 pages of these comments last night and finished them up this morning. The information and encouragement I’ve read is wonderful. I’m very new to the Paleo/Primal scene and slowly working my way through it all. My chance to use this information will be this weekend when all my wife’s side of the family comes over for a cook out this weekend.
    Thanks to Mark for this site.

    FredS wrote on May 23rd, 2012
  8. How timely! Twice this week I was told “you need grains for health.” One even made the old “everything in moderation” statement. I responded o.k. but would have done better with this information.

    Angela Einwachter wrote on May 23rd, 2012
  9. I can usually answer all of those remarks easily but I am a Christian and I get this question when I teach people about the trouble with grians……”If grain is bad why did Jesus say he was the BREAD of life?” Very frustrating trying to answer that one in Biblical perspective to give satisfaction to those addicted to wheat…

    Dusty wrote on May 23rd, 2012
    • Simple answer: God didn’t make the grains that we use today. The grains available today are genetically-modified horror-hybrids that no one really bothered to test the long-range effects of before supplanting the real stuff with Frankenstein’s monster in grain form.

      AndreaLynnette wrote on May 23rd, 2012
      • And we no longer prepare the grains the same way. Major portions of the process were cut in the name of convenience.

        james wrote on May 23rd, 2012
    • Don’t forget Jesus told Peter to put out his nets, and that the catch was FISH. And the Passover Supper was LAMB. And He fed the people with loaves and FISHES!!!!!!!!

      Cain sacrificed the fruit of the land, but Abel sacrificed one of his herd – which was more pleasing to God? So we can’t simply “cherry pick” things from the Bible. All of creation is good. All food is good. Some of us can eat a little more grain than others (80/20???). Some can eat more meat/fish than others. That’s just the way it is – makes sense, no?

      Barbara Hvilivitzky wrote on May 23rd, 2012
    • bread is an english word, Id be looking for the greek or hebrew word and reading the scripture in context.

      I dont know but Im betting that “bread” was an interpretation not a actual meaning…

      for eg in some parts of the bible the word for love is agape (godly love), and in others its philli (brotherly love) and rayah (female friend love)

      just a thought….

      Jane wrote on May 24th, 2012
  10. I’ve gotten the whole “simple and complex carbs” speech a few times from friends. Yawn.

    Caleb wrote on May 23rd, 2012
  11. Went primal: September 2011.

    After reading this, I just realized my knee hasn’t bothered since December.

    Come to think of it, I haven’t woken up with a sore neck/shoulders, either!

    This leads me to believe you *may* be on to something! Not that you back it up with research!
    [/end sarcasm]

    Thanks Mark! We appreciate your efforts! :)

    Tom wrote on May 23rd, 2012
  12. I haven´t gotten many comments. I just say they make me sick and that´s enough for everybody around me.

    Trying to convince others that grains are making them sick, too, is another thing altogether. I see them with weight problem and sugarcrasches (which I resolved going lowcarb/paleoish), migraines, allergies (I lost my asthma somewhere along the way), inflammations and aces and pains. But it wouldn´t work for them, right? I don´t even try. I just answer questions if anyone is curious on my newfound vibrancy.

    Just over a year ago I was on my way to beeing middleaged, fat, sick, unhappy and all the aces and pains that were creeping up was just age. I thought. I felt better when the pounds came off and that´s why I didn´t have acing knees. Or so I thought until I ate some bread last fall. It all came back! Gas, bloating, munchies, joint pains. From a slice of bread?! I tried it a couple of times after that, just to make sure I wasn´t imagining things. I wasn´t.

    I´m 46 years old. Feel like I did when I was 25. Grains make me feel like I´m 65. 😉 It´s a no-brainer: I keep away from the stuff like it´s poison.

    Elena wrote on May 23rd, 2012
  13. Sticking with fruits and vegetables as my primary source of carbohydrates made huge difference in my overall health and energy levels. Give it a try. It’s life changing experience. You won’t turn back.

    Milan wrote on May 23rd, 2012
  14. I’ve spent a lot of time in hospital in the last year.(UK hospitals feed their patients for as little as possible, and so meals are mainly carb or plastic meats.)When I go in, I speak to the head nurse and ask her to arrange my meals — no excuses or explanations or pleadings –I just state that I am ‘severely starch and sugar intolerant’. Pretty well the whole world knows by now that you deal with a food intolerance by not eating that food, so now I don’t get starch/sugar.

    edella Sutcliffe wrote on May 23rd, 2012
  15. I plan on going grain free with the Julian Bakery’s new grain free bread called The Paleo Bread….comes out June 15th.

    Jay M wrote on May 23rd, 2012
  16. Thanks so much for these detailed responses! As a Personal Trainer spreading the no grain gospel I needed both the brainy version and the watered down one! You have a way with words Mr. Mark! Grok on!

    Katie wrote on May 23rd, 2012
  17. I did a similar piece on “Top 5 Questions (and reactions) to eating Paleo/Primal”

    Chris wrote on May 23rd, 2012
  18. Example of pressure from the family : “now that you have reached your weight goal, stop eating like this, and eat normally with and like all of the family members”. My usual response would be something like “it’s not a diet, it’s a change in the way I feed myself, I don’t feel like stopping right now and I’m not sure I will, keep eating white death (=sugar) if you feel like to.”

    Peter wrote on May 23rd, 2012
    • Reply: “So since I finally have success, I should go back to what made me gain in the first place?”

      Aaron wrote on May 23rd, 2012
  19. Love your blog Mark :-)
    Just wondered…Does anyone have any vision problems living grain-free? I do about a week and then I notice I have a little trouble focusing properly, I then have a small amount of brown rice (1oz) and the next day my vision is fine again. I don’t know anyone else experiencing this on grain-free, do you? Any ideas would be very welcome, thank you.

    Amanda wrote on May 23rd, 2012
  20. I’m sure there are others, but I’ll just name one … What about quinoa? They say it’s so healthy. A “Good carb.” Do you disagree?

    D wrote on May 23rd, 2012
  21. I’m astounded by the resistance I’ve encountered since eliminating grains from my diet. In the past at one time or another I’ve given up dairy, desserts, deep-fry, meat, caffeine, alcohol, etc. and never had a backlash. This time, wherein I’ve lost 10+ pounds in a couple of months and I FEEL great, I’ve encountered all kinds of hostile opposition. It’s weird!

    Sandy wrote on May 23rd, 2012
  22. You know what I often hear? You’ll never be able to stick to no grains. It will be impossible.

    Identicalsplus1 wrote on May 23rd, 2012
    • Usually from the people most anxious to sabotage you. They know they need to change, but they’re addicts. Addicts can’t see other people go off the stuff because that means that they can, too, and they don’t want to. Because they’re addicted.

      AndreaLynnette wrote on May 23rd, 2012
  23. Word up! Keep slingin’ the truth, Mark.


    TJ wrote on May 23rd, 2012
  24. This usually comes from an overweight person, so I like to say, “Well, I don’t eat grains, look at me. You do, look at you. Who do you think is right?

    Cory wrote on May 23rd, 2012
  25. I tell people I’m allergic to gluten, and they usually only ask me what I eat. I’ve had some variation of these questions sometimes when I order at restaurants – usually from the server. So when I say “Meat, veggies, sometimes fruit” when they ask me what I eat I usually get a light bulb-face. It’s almost like they could eat like that and understand. My “diet” doesn’t seem so sparse. Then usually it goes away quickly when they realize they’d have to give up some vices. My dad and younger sister are also allergic to gluten. Family gatherings are usually really easy. A family that has allergies (in common) together… can eat together. :)

    Holly J. wrote on May 23rd, 2012
  26. Good stuff as usual. But there are also teaching moments to be exploited. Best not to always be on the defensive when you encounter them.

    I got a different type of comment the other day at Radio Shack when the clerk asked

    “Dude do you do P90X or something? You look like Bruce Lee”.

    I was quickly able to reply that believe it or not, I hardly work out at all. My secret was healthy animal fats supplemented with fruits, vegetables, and “one ingredient foods”. Without any defensive posture from me, the interested party was eager to hear more and we continued the conversation for several minutes. Based on his reaction to my open and non-defensive insights, I’m thinking we may have another success story in the making.

    Kill ’em with kindness, before they kill themselves with food. That’s how I roll…

    Deuce wrote on May 23rd, 2012
    • +1 for a great attitude and kind approach. I like the way you roll. I need to keep that in my heart, too.

      Joy Beer wrote on May 24th, 2012
  27. This is awesome! I always get questions like this.

    Valerie wrote on May 23rd, 2012
  28. Under the moderation question you wrote “I’m just not seeing where the deprivation comes in.”

    This touches on a very overlooked topic many paleo experts have little experience with, which is the emotional aspect of food. Many of us have our food tied in with our emotions so many feel deprived when they’re forcing themselves to eat in a completely different way than they’re used to (i.e. dieting). I am a compulsive over-eater and am trying to live as paleo as I can given my emotional background. If I deprive myself too much of what I want I end up binging, so sometimes non-paleo things are good in moderation because they prevent big over-indulgences in them later.

    Unfortunately we are human and self-control is finite no matter what issue you are tackling, whether it be controlling your eating or tackling another type of addiction. Those who don’t have emotional issues with food may not feel deprived or need moderation, but there are tons like me who do. Hopefully you will recognize the emotional aspect of food in your future articles.

    AP wrote on May 23rd, 2012
  29. When I tell people I don’t eat grains or processed sugars, most people I meet look at me quizzically or with a scrunched face and say, “I’m sorry. What do you eat?”

    On my cynical days I say, “Don’t be. I’ve learned to subsist on shards of glass.”

    On my better days I say, “It’s actually been a boon for my health. I feel great, and I don’t miss them at all. I’m stronger now, and I recover better from workouts. I have filled that empty space on my plate with more fresh vegetables, fruit, and healthy fats.”

    By the end of the conversation, many people begin confessing to me their health and diet woes. Funny how that works.

    Matt wrote on May 23rd, 2012
    • I usually answer “well, let me ask you… if I told you that you had access to as much meat and vegetables as you wanted, how many different meals could you come up with?”. Its interesting to see them stop and think about it.

      james wrote on May 23rd, 2012
      • On the other hand, it is kind of sad to see how many can’t come up with anything other than salad.

        james wrote on May 23rd, 2012
  30. I give very similar answers to those to people who are interested in pursuing it or who are curious and open. If they are challenging and/or closed to it, I get much more dense and really start quoting facts and stats at them… You know what they say, baffle them with brilliance. 😉

    james wrote on May 23rd, 2012
  31. As far as sandwiches are concerned, in Venezuela’s Maracaibo bay they have a great grain-free solution (although probably not strictly primal): patacones. These are regular meat, cheese, onions etc, but instead of bread, the contents are held by two plaintain sorta “tortillas”. Genius and yummy.

    Allan wrote on May 23rd, 2012
  32. My mother hit me with a story of her friend’s husband, that when he went “low carb” he had a heart attack and a quintuple bypass. Typical, somebody else story without any science at all, just worry.

    paleo charlie wrote on May 23rd, 2012
  33. I carry my before and after photo around, me in bikini at 80+ kg and me 12 weeks later at 56kg in same bikini.

    I say see this… this is what happens when you stop putting grain in your stomach, and put bacon and eggs in it instead.

    Then I show them my fingernails, better than any acrylic ones, and my clear skin, shiny hair, and tell them what I’ve eaten that day, and plan to eat that night.

    I also add, Ive been 56kg for a year, and my recurrent constipation that I used to suffer with has completely gone..

    If they are still standing there, I keep at them until the leave with a piece of paper with Mark’s Daily Apple written on it.. my phone number and they give me their email, so I can email them a list of eat this:
    and don’t eat this:

    I am a BIT of a hard sell, but so far I’ve converted all of my best friends and some of their friends, my two kids, my relatives and so on.

    If you believe in something, then I feel it’s your duty to share the love…

    Im always surprised at how many of them come back for MORE information. A sign that Im not scaring them off I think.

    Jane wrote on May 24th, 2012
  34. Mark, this post was fantastic. And hilarious. I actually read it to my mom(who is grain and dairy free). I was cracking up. “Arsenic? Sure, I’ll have a bite!”

    Ben Young wrote on May 24th, 2012

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