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. Thank you for your great site/blog! I’ve been eating Primal for over a year now, not perfect, but pretty good. My question is about those who say that soaking, sprouting, and fermenting grains in order to neutralize phytic acid and allow nutrient availability. It sounds like a good argument? Wanted to get your opinion on that…would soaking, sprouting and/or fermenting a grain or legume render it more digestible, less toxic, and closer to Primal? Thanks for your input!

    Laurie wrote on June 6th, 2012
    • Sure, soaking, sprouting and/or fermenting probably render grains MORE digestible, and LESS toxic. That is a far cry from being healthy for. Less bad for you is still bad for you.

      Abe wrote on June 9th, 2012
  2. I went on vacation to see some friends and they were amazed how I look (ideal weight and younger in appearance were some statements.) Until the restaurant. When I offered away the tortillas from the fajitas (only Primal meal there), they began to act shocked when I stated I don’t do grains. My response was…All I know is that all the IBS symptoms requiring a daily Anti-D pill, the pain in my joints, and double chin are gone, and my blood lipids measure just fine. Oh, and I sleep real good now. They refrained from any further questions and congratulated me.

    Radrev wrote on June 6th, 2012
  3. When I tried eating primally, to my surprise I ended up being hungry most of the time — even though I was eating large quantities of meat and veggies. I am thin, and frequently had loose stools and/or diarrhea with no physical cause that could be found by the medical profession, and was thus diagnosed as IBS. A fan of this website turned me on to the “fodmaps” concept, which includes non-gluten grains as well as potatoes. I found that if I added potatoes or non-gluten grains to each meal I could then be sated at least until the next meal, and my digestion was much better. We are all individuals.

    Susan wrote on June 6th, 2012
  4. I am new to all this and reading a ton. Just talked to my husband this morning who is very supportive.
    Here’s one thing you all have going in your favor—you’re all having a lot more fun!!! I have been laughing out loud at comments on several posts. Can’t say as I would do that on a vegan site.

    Kimberly wrote on June 6th, 2012
  5. MY response:

    Grains are for poor people. I am not poor. If I was a starving third world kid, then I would eat them…

    Jamie wrote on June 6th, 2012
  6. I love this article about grains. I’ve recently stopped eating various grains with corn being high on my list. My reason, I have allergies to them, especially corn. Slowly and deliberately over a period of time I noticed what certain foods were doing to me. The more grains I ate the sicker I got. Since stopping, I haven’t had allergies, I feel healthier and I’m not on antihistamines anymore either. I’m still finding it hard to eat what I would deem a clean diet as I still have the mentality to reach for things like pasta but stop myself. Not out of deprivation but out of habit. At least I’ve started a new habit of eating foods that heal and nourish rather than harm me.

    Sandhya wrote on June 7th, 2012
  7. I gave up grains last year, and feel great!! I noticed the last time I ate bread (one little slice), in just a few hours, my knees were in so much pain and my stomach felt like it was in a knot. After giving up grains, my skin has pretty much cleared up, my feet have stopped looking so peely, and I do feel better.
    I simply reply with, “I’m allergic to wheat” when people see me not eat bread when it comes with a meal. Perhaps I should start mentioning some of these facts to those who ask??
    Thank you for all the wonderful advice!!

    Bethany wrote on June 7th, 2012
  8. Animanarchy wrote on June 9th, 2012
  9. I’ve had a few people respond with, “Well, I wouldn’t wanna do that because then it just makes you more sensitive to all that stuff.” What’s the scoop on developing more of a sensitivity to foods like gluten after eliminating them? My hunch is that the fear is bogus. My response is, “Yeah, but the consequence of eating them regularly is worse than an increased sensitivity to something I eat rarely as a cheat.”

    Michael B wrote on June 13th, 2012
  10. A reaction I hear often is “Well so and so ate grains etc. and they lived to an old age and never was ill” or “I eat all I want and I’m never sick” or “everybody eats grains, so everybody is wrong” and all kinds of variations of this, in reaction I mostly say that they just should give it a chance for a month or so and see how they feel and leave it at that, but any suggestions on another/better reaction is welcome.

    All I can say is that I myself wish someone introduced me to Primal Living way way sooner, could have spared me alot of grief, to me it just made sense, a 2 million year old tried and tested diet vs. 10.000 year old diet (grains) vs. 60 year old diet (dutch food guide), wich one would you pick?

    Remco wrote on June 23rd, 2012
    • Oh and I forgot, the fact that I’m at a normal weight for the first time since I was about 6 (35 now, lost 152 lbs), can’t convince them either and believe me I tried all kinds of diets and all included whole grains and were low fat, as a kid I even stayed in a hospital for the summer and went to a shrink, all with no succes.
      Read The Primal Blueprint (and Syndrome X by Jack Challem) 2 1/2 years ago and bam, the penny dropped, lost all the weight, without ever being hungry or doing insane workouts and now I feel healthier and stronger than ever.

      Remco wrote on June 23rd, 2012
  11. I was just told the other day that if paleo were really primal, I should be eating bugs and insects not farmed beef and chicken. I didn’t know how to respond at all. What would you have done?

    Tracy wrote on August 8th, 2012
    • Well, I would’ve said that our paleolithic ancestors would mostly eat bugs and insects when meat wasn’t available, but I can always get meat, fish etc. so I never have to eat bugs or insects, but I have to say that I would if they were easier to get here in the Netherlands and also much cheaper, because the sellers I found are very expensive.

      Hope that helps.

      Remco wrote on August 8th, 2012
      • Oh and if they make an issue out of the fact that the meats are from farmed animals, ask them what the difference is between meat from organic grass-fed or pasture raised animals and that of the meats from cattle/chicken our ancestors ate, and what about game meats, I eat a lot of that also, nothing farmed about that, same for wild fish.

        Remco wrote on August 8th, 2012

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