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. I guess my stance is – I agree with the vast majority of what the paleo diet promotes. However, I think there is more to diet than just eating like a caveman. There is certainly biochemical individuality and there is no one right diet for every person.

    To condemn natural foods like brown rice (a staple food for centuries in the Asian cultures, well known for being among the healthiest and longest-lived), 100% whole grains, sweet potatoes, oatmeal, legumes and so on for healthy carb-tolerant people, especially those who are highly active and already reasonably lean, doesn’t make a whit of sense to me.

    Also, how is there a paleo supplement line and paleo protein bars? That’s kind of an oxymoron, don’t you think?

    I want to finish by saying I love the site and I love how the internet has built such a large health community. I definitely subscribe to the idea that no one should be eating any processed foods!

    Living Determined wrote on May 24th, 2012
  2. I love reading posts like this where mark really tears into the CW ignorance.

    Great read!

    Randall wrote on May 24th, 2012
  3. This always creates a never-ending circle of questions. The only people who seem to ask me why I don’t eat grains are the people trying to explain why I’m wrong. I inevitably get asked, “well if you’re not eating grains, what do you eat?” I answer with “A juicy, flame-grilled t-bone, with stir fried zucchini and mushroom on the side.” What happens then…I get an explanation of how I need to watch out for red meat and all that fat. If I answer with any fish, I get told abou mercury. That leads to the everything in moderation topic, then back to grains, then on to something unrelated, then eventually I just get an eyeroll like they’re sure I’m dying at 30 from heart disease or malnutrition. I almost wish I lived in a cave like Grok. Then if anyone approached me and questioned my food, I could just club them and be on with my day.

    The big question/comment that makes my head want to explode is “I can find you any study to support or oppose any position you want.” I try to answer with “yes, but if you read the details of the studies, you can figure out which ones are correct and which ones are loaded,” but they usually started ignoring me by then.

    William wrote on May 24th, 2012
  4. I cheated today after being 15 days Primal. I had a small sandwich thinking it was a TREAT and now I feel like iv swallowed a big bowl of broken glass. I’m bloated and in a lot of pain. NEVER AGAIN!!How about that for a response.

    Bellawebster wrote on May 24th, 2012
  5. I love sharing info but am sick of the questions from people when you can tell they think you’re weird or a science experiment (versus true curiosity). I’ve been on a gluten free diet for almost a decade so it’s just getting old. The other day at a dinner party someone asked “What can you even eat?!?!?” (as I was loading my plate full of food right in front of them… what a mystery) and I waved her off and said it wasn’t worth getting into. I hope I wasn’t rude about it but what the hell is the point? I’m going to explain, they’re going to act like it’s so bizarre or life debilitating, tell me how they could never do it or how emotionally distraught it would make them… great. What a pointless conversation. These intelligent responses in the article are awesome and things I would use if I was trying to convince an ill family member to give the diet a shot. Random people at dinner parties acting like you’re a weirdo, who cares. Let them think you’re weird, nothing you’ll say will likely convince them otherwise. I only open the door to the conversation with the politely curious, the interested and fascinated, the frustrated-with-the-status-quo-and-motivated, not the kind of person Mark describes at the beginning of his article. Those people I like to befuddle even more by eating bacon, smiling and talking about how I’ve lost fat and gained health and leaving it at that.

    Jen wrote on May 24th, 2012
  6. Fantastic article mate!

    Kevin of wrote on May 25th, 2012
  7. My husband and I and our two young children are all Primal/Paleo. This is the comment I get all the time…”don’t you think you are making it hard on your children when they have to go to school or to their peers houses and they see what everyone else eats?” I know. Crazy isn’t it? I’m the one making it hard on my kids. Wow. I don’t even know how to respond to this without offending the person asking the question.

    Nikki Zavitz wrote on May 25th, 2012
    • Assuming your kids rarely get sick, if I was in your situation, I’d respond with something like “Yeah, life’s rough for them because they never get sick or sluggish from eating dull, chewy, bloat-inducing grains.” Since you’ve already been insulted, the offenders are fair game, IMO 😉

      Lyndsey wrote on May 26th, 2012
  8. HAH! Pro article! Steak and eggs for breakfast is what I’m having right now.

    Silly grain eaters.

    John Wade

    John Wade wrote on May 26th, 2012
  9. “Besides, do a rib-eye, some buttered broccoli, and a glass of red wine sound like deprivation to you?”

    Mark, although I think this may very well be the best source of information on health and nutrition on the net (or anywhere), I’d have to disagree with you here.

    If giving up pasta and bread and pizza weren’t deprivation, many more people would have given these things up a long time ago. The fact is that they are comfort foods and they make us feel good when we’re eating them. And probably many people are addicted to these foods.

    I have strong cravings for them at times and find it nearly impossible to give up bread/pasta/pizza completely.

    And something else. If you put broccoli and pizza in a cage match, your broccoli will get killed in the first round. No one on the planet prefers eating vegetables to pizza. We just force ourselves.

    So I disagree. There is a certain amount of deprivation involved in the Paleo diet. Clearly, the more disciplined you are in restricting the bad foods, the better health will result. But let’s not deny that there is a certain amount of willpower and discipline and deprivation involved.

    And that’s why there will always be x% of the population that will say “screw this diet.” They’d rather enjoy their pizza and bread and pasta throughout their lives and suffer the consequences later.

    But a rib-eye and a glass of wine I’m sure everyone will agree is not deprivation. However, many people even in the US can’t afford steaks for their families on a regular basis. So economic issues play a big role. And you did mention it in your article.

    Fantastic site. I love your writing and your research. I’ve made some major adjustments in my diet and I would have to say you are the greatest positive influence.

    Thanks and keep it up.

    panda wrote on May 27th, 2012
  10. So just to add something to my previous comment.

    The Paleo diet comes from “what did Grok eat?”

    But the problem is that Grok didn’t have temptations of donuts, pizza, junk food, french bakeries at every corner.

    And Grok didn’t grow up eating pizza and then later in life logged on to to realize his diet sucked.

    The Inuits only ever had access to seal meat and blubber.

    If not eating pasta is not deprivation, why do you have a recipe on your site for mock pasta with zucchini strips? Clearly, it’s because people are feeling deprived of pasta.

    Personally, I won’t bother with the mock Primal versions of carb poison. I’d rather have the real thing, but only occasionally.

    I think one meal a week letting yourself go and eating whatever you like is fine and won’t cause any harm to long-term physical health. And it’s good for emotional well-being.

    panda wrote on May 27th, 2012
  11. Oh, panda, the Inuit had far more available than seal meat, and if you meant seal “blubber” there’s really no such thing. Muktuk, commonly called blubber, is from the whale. Seal fat liquifies into oil at room temperature, and has always been used by the northern people to preserve field greens and berries picked in summer so they can be eaten year-round. In addition to seal, walrus, and fish (for example, cod), they also had crab, clams, and other seafood. They had eggs gathered from the nests of colonies of murre and other wild birds. I know this because I was told about it in great detail by a man I knew for years, who grew up in the old culture, and who described how they lived. Paleo to the max, until “contact” introduced tobacco, condensed milk, pilot bread crackers, candy, liquor, and other poisons.

    Linda wrote on May 27th, 2012
  12. Linda, I may have been wrong about their diet but that was my main point. They were Paleo until the poisons were introduced.

    What do you mean by “contact”? First time I hear that expression.

    So you agree with Mark then that we should avoid all these poisons that we’re constantly tempted with at all times? You’ve been successful at doing this for how long now? When’s the last time you had pizza? And do you ever wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat dreaming of one?

    panda wrote on May 28th, 2012
  13. Wow, don’t I wish my adult children would show some concern about my diet. I did the best I could when I was raising them to give them home cooked meals, homemade lunches and not being depriving when it came to eating other things. Now, I see them swigging juice and slathering on the low fat margarine or worse eating vegetarian and all I can do is keep my mouth shut and eat my primal and wait for the day when we’re out somewhere together and people mistake us for siblings! I agree with Jan above. One suggestion I’ve heard is to have business cards made up with names of websites and other info you would tell them. Give it to them and let them do their own info finding.

    Terry wrote on May 28th, 2012
  14. Mark,this is all great and I’m sympathetic too and considering going paleo. However,what do you make of the fodd habits of the Greek monks that live on Mt Athos ? Tons of bread( often white by the way),lentils and no meat. The result ? Vanishingly small levels of cancer,heart disease and dementia. It’s these guys that hold me back from a more primal approach to diet,so I’d love peoples thoughts.

    Bo wrote on May 28th, 2012
  15. I recently contacted Mark regarding fatigue from heavy lifting and having been told by a team mate “you need to eat more carbs, introduce grains.. gluten free oats, quinoa, etc.” I asked Mark what his suggestion is and he referred me to his post of Safe Starches as well as this one.

    In response to his question, “what else do people say when you tell them you don’t eat grains, and how do you respond?” That same team mate told me that perhaps eating paleo/primal is more of a fad/suggested way to eat and that there really is no research or evidence to prove the benefits. While I know this is not true, my only response (because I cannot pin point the research done) was that I feel like a different person while eating paleo. Honestly, black and white, night and day and that is evidence enough for me!

    Melissa wrote on May 28th, 2012
  16. The best one is the “everything in moderation” mantra, because of course you sound like a crazy person if you try and argue that moderation is bad…..right?? Mark’s response was the perfect ammo I will use next time my overweight family members come at me with that crap (because responding with “moderation is obviously working for you” in a very sarcastic tone of voice is probably counter-productive) :)

    Wylie Edwards wrote on May 28th, 2012
  17. @Wylie Edwards,
    Moderation is a loosely defined term that could mean anything. To some people, moderation means 2 slices of bread a day rather than 8 servings of whole grains a day.

    So that doesn’t mean total abstinence is the only necessary alternative either.

    For me, “moderation” of less than optimal foods means 1 meal a week where you’re allowed to eat just about anything you like. To me, this will have minimal negative impact to health and will allow a strict diet such as Paleo to be more sustainable in the long-term.

    But that’s just me. If you can give up pizza for the rest of your life, knock yourself out.

    I honestly don’t think you HAVE to. I think you can cheat a little. But these people who say “everything in moderation” are cheating too much. They have a little bread here, a Coca-Cola there, a Big Mac here, and by the end of the week it adds up to way too much poison.

    A dose of mercury is fine.

    panda wrote on May 28th, 2012
    • But for me, that one meal makes me sick and I do not like being sick. So I do not have the need to cheat. I would rather feel good.

      Jeff wrote on August 8th, 2012
  18. First decision is whether I am wanting to convert someone is just politely answer their query. If the latter, it is a simple – “for health reasons” – get very few questions after that, occasionally some condolences.

    If I am wanting to convert, I have found the first rule of influence someone else’s behaviour is to empathize. I usually ask if they experience heartburn, cramping, bloating (these are people I know, not strangers in an elevator), or mid-afternoon energy crashes (almost universally positive response to this one). I then tell them I had those conditions as well and since I made a lifestyle change (I avoid the word diet like the plague it is), I have completely eliminated those conditions.

    Then I wait for them to ask what the lifestyle changes were. I start by saying “I finally had enough of the pain and low energy – after doing some research that showed almost everyone has some level of sensitivity to grains, I eliminated them as a test. I was amazed at the results … yada, yada, yada.

    I have had more people asked for a reference for web site from this approach than any of the others I have tried.

    Egalitaire wrote on May 29th, 2012
  19. So the other day i was speaking with my aunt about eating grain. She asked why not eat somethig that God created? I told her – God created tobacco too, so why dont you smoke?
    Im a bit sarcastic as you can probably tell. =)

    Grace wrote on May 30th, 2012
  20. I can say I’ve done this one and couldn’t agree more. I started with grain free for other reasons (mainly a hormone test), and found it amazing.

    I’ve been an athlete all my life but found myself in my late 40’s & 20 lbs heavier than ever. I stopped the grains (& cheese too) and lost it all.

    Now, when I do eat an occasional something due to holiday or some other momentary reason, I do feel the bloat, the yuck in the gut.

    It’s good habit to adopt.

    Jt Clough | Big Island Dog wrote on May 30th, 2012
  21. What about beans? Would you give beans the greenlight or cut those out of the diet as well?

    Are beans “primal”, as you say?

    I ask because I eat a lot of beans (and grains unfortunately) and I would like to start making shifts in my diet.

    Sutter Kane wrote on May 30th, 2012
  22. mark wrote a blog about beans. just type beans in the search engine and it will come up.

    panda wrote on May 31st, 2012
  23. Although I agree with the grain free thing – al least gluten free for most – I cannot understand the concept in pushing more meat, especially bacon – it is rare to find this unprocessed. Has anyone read The China Study??? And I don’t think there is one right way for everyone to eat – it is very dependent on the culture you were raised in and your blood type. Our wheat in the US was stripped in the 70’s which i think may account for the amount of gluten allergies today – when I travel in Europe, I can eat bread without bloating because it’s made from ancient wheat and I walk for hours.

    Joy DuPuis wrote on June 4th, 2012
    • If you are basing your opinions on meat using the China Study you should really read Denise Minger’s analysis of it. Very enlightening. Saying that I would definitely agree that the quality of meat you get is fairly important, the less processed it is the better it is for you.

      Abe wrote on June 4th, 2012
  24. My fave response: “I love love love cheese and bread and eggs- they just don’t love me. Hate me in fact- major gastric distress. Beans too…”

    Usually by now I can tell I’ve made my point by the scrunched up face of fear I’ll describe the GI distress in detail. Which I’ve done. I admit it.

    lori wrote on June 5th, 2012
  25. My 157 pound weight loss speaks for itself. When folks see the new me they can’t argue with my lifestyle. I carry around a stack of cards with my blog web address on them. Rather that get into a lengthy conversation, I say Low Carb High Fat (LCHF) it’s all on my blog, read it.

    I have posted a link to this article on my blog.

    Dan Moffett wrote on June 6th, 2012

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