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Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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September 15 2008

Dear Mark: Visting Family – Primal Compromises and Grain Alternatives

By Mark Sisson
46 Comments

Dear Mark,

Browsing the Crossfit nutrition forums, I recently came across an interesting discussion about buckwheat, a possible Primal-friendly grain alternative. It caught my eye because I’ve been on the lookout for alternatives to pasta and bread ever since I found out that my Standard-American-Diet family will be visiting for an entire week (!) next month. What are your thoughts on buckwheat in particular and my conundrum at large?

I’ve previously covered a number of popular grain alternatives in my post about quinoa. In that post you’ll find suggestions like eggplant, butternut squash, crustless quiche, sweet potatoes and stuffed mushrooms. These are good go-to options when you are feeding family members that are used to starchier foods, or when you are making the transition to Primal eating and are finding it difficult to not revert back to eating your usual biscuits, pasta dishes, pancakes and croissants. But what of buckwheat?

At first glance, buckwheat certainly looks promising. Unlike grains, it’s not a grass, but rather a flowering pseudocereal. The triangular seed from the buckwheat plant, called a groat, is harvested and can be milled into flour or used whole in cereals. Seed? Seeds work, right? Not necessarily. While I love most seeds for their high fat content and protein, they do have to be low in carbs to pass the test. Buckwheat groats are decidedly starchier than, say, flax (another story altogether) or pumpkin seeds, so we must use caution. Buckwheat’s glycemic index is 54, which is still fairly high despite being lower than actual grains.

Historically speaking, buckwheat certainly isn’t paleo. You can put lipstick on a pseudocereal, but it’s still a high-carb, high-glycemic-loading grain wannabe. It also requires significant amounts of processing (grinding, roasting, rinsing, sprouting) to become edible to humans, and the earliest known domesticated cultivation of buckwheat was in Southeast Asia, probably around 6000 BC, well after the advent of agriculture. A wild form obviously existed before, but – as with grains and legumes – not in large enough quantities for it to become a regular food source for early man.

Is there a place for buckwheat in the modern Primal diet?

If you want my strict Primal answer, then, well, no. But your question had another nuance: that you have family visiting, and that these loved ones can’t imagine eating a meal without a starchy side. So you are looking for some sort of middle ground. If you desperately need a grainish backdrop for a meat dish, I guess you could throw in a little quinoa or buckwheat. But my guess is that your family members might be turned off more by these pseudo-grains than they would be if you prepared something genuinely Primal for them – think steamed, sauteed or grilled veggies galore with clean cuts of meat prepared in dozens of ways. (Check out my Recipe category for scores of suggestions.) With quinoa, buckwheat, or even rice for that matter, it is likely neither you nor your family will be satisfied; you because it isn’t truly Primal, and they because they had to eat… buckwheat and KEEN-WAH.

You don’t have to get all preachy on your family about what they ingest, but you could use this visit as an opportunity to subtly inform them about their foods choices. That is, just prepare Primal foods and see if they even notice. My guess is they’ll be begging for seconds without even knowing how healthy they are eating. Who knows? By the end of the week they may feel better than ever.

I’ve addressed the social dynamics of eating in the past. Here are a few of the most relevant:

Dear Mark: How to Eat a Healthy Dinner with My Family?

You vs. The Mob: Mob Eating Mentality

10 Simple Steps to Help Motivate a Friend

Diet Change and Partner Dynamics

Give advice to your fellow Apple in the comment boards!

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TAGS:  gluten

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46 thoughts on “Dear Mark: Visting Family – Primal Compromises and Grain Alternatives”

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  1. I had my favorite fried rice on friday night for the first time since going primal (wife is Thai and makes a killer fried rice). It was an enlightening experience. It didn’t fill me up, I wanted to eat a lot more, my body felt sluggish, tired and over-all icky and I had my first anxiety attack since going primal. I was at a highschool football game I went to watch my youngest brother participate in and started freaking out about all the people when it wasn’t even really that busy (brain chemical imbalance?). I never fully believed the negative effects of grains until this experience. I am much better off without em and don’t need a substitute grain… primal all the way! 😉

    1. Unbelievable, I hope you don’t mind me ‘chipping in’, but I have had almost exactly the experience with a anxiety attack (after consuming buckwheat)in a lovely village where it was just so bizarre and I thought I was going ‘nuts’, I had to take deep calming breaths and mentally transport myself to somewhere in order to be calm. No-one else seemed to have experienced this before and I think it is definately something to do with the carbohydrate content. I have blood sugar issues, I am also vegetarian/vegan but am trying to follow or find out more about primal, not because I want to eat meat, but because I just cannot take the high carbs anymore. I am now suffering from inflammation as a result of wheat etc that I ate for awhile and wished I hadn’t. I can’t even seem to take pseudograins either, or too much cheese so at the moment who knows where my diet will go. But thanks for sharing, It is good to know someone else has suffered a similar experience.

      1. I don’t know why people are so happy to accept low carb flu but remain blissfully ignorant of the obvious fact that when you suddenly eat more carbs than your body is used to you will get a reaction.

    2. Same here, i tried making a homemade pizza the other day, the next day, i started getting heart cramps!!! I’ve had those cramps daily since i was 12 – 13 years old, and doctors called it a nervous heart back then… Now i’m 33, have been doing Paleo on and off for 3 years, to really see all those difference it does to the body ( 24 Things and still testing ) and then it took 2 freakin days for the pains to go away again, NO MORE!!!

  2. Listen, I know that when I take a visit back to my hometown and my grandmother has chicken noodle soup on the table for me, I do not pass that up. Is it okay to deviate from the primal diet occasionally?

    1. What sort of question is that? It is this type of question that makes me realise the cult like behaviour of you extreme dieters.

  3. Figured buckwheat was kind of like oatmeal, one of those things touted as healthy, but still boils down to a carby, carby food. And Jen, I occasionally deviate from the primal diet (usually in the form of beer), for me the important thing is to know when and by how much I’m deviating!

  4. Mark said: My guess is they’ll be begging for seconds without even knowing how healthy they are eating.

    I think Mark is right. I’ve been making low-starch and starch-less meals for several years now, for my own family and anyone else who happens to be here. Many people already know how I cook and eat, but not everyone (in which case I often don’t say anything unless someone comments). I never get any complaints and am often complemented on my cooking, either verbally or with clean plates and requests for seconds and thirds.

    I think the key is having enough other tempting food choices, so that people can feel like they have “filled up”. I generally make an extra side dish or two when having guests, so that there is a lot of variety to choose from, in case they aren’t wild about everything (or the main course – which is always protein-based and plentiful). I make it easy on myself with some vegetable side dishes that are easy to make in advance/great as leftovers, such as marinated salads (cole slaw, broccoli bacon salad, fennel-kumquat salad), crudités, etc.

    I also frequently make a side dish with cauliflower, prepared in such a way that it resembles a potato or rice dish, such as a gratin, mashed, puréed, etc. Low carb cookbooks are filled with delicious faux-starch variations with cauliflower (be sure to drain cooked cauliflower well for best results and don’t overcook).

    Breakfast is perhaps the really tricky meal, because not everyone is into eggs or protein for breakfast, and people often have very set breakfast habits and don’t adjust as well at this meal. Some are die-hard cereal junkies and we just aren’t going to change them (yet). I don’t stock prepared cold cereals anymore, but I try to have some melon available as well, or some sort of seasonal lower sugar fruit, plain yogurt, cottage cheese, or some nice slicing cheese (dairy is the non-paleo indulgence in our house). Baked egg custard or a frittata (crustless quiche) is another good option, easily prepared in advance or good as leftovers. Usually I have enough tempting foods that the lack of cereal isn’t too much of a problem. But as a last resort, I also usually have some sprouted whole oats on hand to make oatmeal, if a guest insists they *need* cereal for breakfast. It’s easy to soak whole oats the night before, and show how fast unprocessed or even steel cut oats will cook when soaked overnight. I can live with serving sprouted oat porridge.

  5. This was SO my weekend! I was visiting family in Chicago, so what was on the menu? Italian beef sandwiches, cheese slathered french fries, potato chips, beer, pancakes, chocolate, pop… and the list goes on. I tried, and failed to find a vegetable in that house. I did sort of indulge, I ate part of my roll with my Italian beef, but nothing really filled me up. I was hungry all weekend. (I’m never that hungry when I’m all primal!) If I’d known it would be like that I would have brought 3 lbs of broccoli with me. Luckily I’ve been going primal for a while now, so I can have higher carb days, but I don’t get the crash. But I hate being hungry and having no veggies around!! It’s so frustrating being around people that are the opposite of primal.

  6. Dr. J, yes we do, but one dinner at those places will cost as much as I can feed the entire family for days, if not a week. When dining out, I want food at least as good as I can make at home, if not better. Otherwise the only advantage is not doing the dishes.

    I know, picky, picky… 🙂

  7. I have an acquaintance that goes into anaphylatic (sp?)shock if she touches buckwheat. We have had to take her to emergency several times when she mistakenly ate some.

  8. One person goes into anaphylactic shock after eating buckwheat. Another thrives on it. We are not all that same.

    Like my forebears, I’m an omnivore. Buckwheat isn’t a huge part of my diet. Nothing is. But I DO eat buckwheat, because:

    1. I like it.
    2. I feel great when I eat it.
    3. It doesn’t fog my brain.

    Science is wonderful, but our primal forebears didn’t have the benefit of today’s biochemistry. They had to use…well, a more primal form of the scientific method–namely, eat something, and then see what happens.

    The three criteria I’ve listed above pretty well cover it. In the end, those are the criteria that determine what I eat.

    1. Quote: ” I DO eat buckwheat, because:

      1. I like it.
      2. I feel great when I eat it.
      3. It doesn’t fog my brain.”

      I am the same, it is one of the few grain type foods that agrees with me and I feel great when I eat it, I don’t get brain fog, I don’t bloat, it doesnt make my tummy hurt or make me break out in hives like most and I feel full and satisfied for hours after consuming it 🙂 Plus I LOVE the taste

  9. Egads…not all “the” same, I should have said. Alas, for all its other benefits, I guess this post system is…er, “primal”. No editing capability. Feh.

  10. On a side note… for women with PCOS or other female hormonal imbalances (like me) buckwheat is high in D-chiro-Inositol which has had promising results for many women in regards to insulin resistance and hormone stabilization.

    So I eat it. There are some potential medicinal benefits to eating buckwheat in addition to the compelling reason of I LOVE THE TASTE! 🙂 And have to agree with Nigel: it doesn’t give me foggy brain either. Cheers!

  11. By letting sprout buckwheat for one to two days and rinsing it a lot during these one or two days, you get rid of a lot (most?) of the starch. And this way the taste of buckwheat becomes very good (and very different) too.

    Since I learned this way of preparing buckwheat I love to eat it several times a week: it doesn’t give me a foggy brain and it feels very good to eat it. This way buckwheat feels very paleo to me 🙂

  12. Foggy brains on grains:

    I found that the issue for me wasn’t carbs at all but specifically gluten.

    Wheat, barley, and rye (and stuff made from them) are all gluten-containing.

    Every other starchy thing I’d been eating didn’t cause the crash that gluten did. Most people don’t notice because gluten is so prevalent in the SAD. They just chalk it up generically to carbs.

    If you’re not going Primal then at least try gluten-free for a week or two and see if you don’t notice the difference.

    I wrote about my experiences here, if you’re interested: http://wisdomwebsite.com/observations-gluten-sensitivity-why-you-might-have-it-too/

    I’m just starting to go Primal and am really enjoying feeling satiated for a long time for a change.

  13. Buckwheat is technically a grass like wild rice. It requires not much more processing than the current types of wild rice available. It is not as “starchy” as you seem to erroneously believe, especially if you are eating whole roasted groats.

    1. That is actually incorrect, Buckwheat, with the botanical name Fagopyrum esculentum, is a plant cultivated for its grain-like seeds.

      I don’t really get why it doesn’t fall under paleo…

  14. Grains and grasses are completely very different by the way, not one and the same category.

  15. Buckwheat is most certainly NOT a grass, technically or otherwise. It is a member of the Polygonaceae family that also contains sorrels, docks, smartweeds, and rhubarb. Grains – rice, wheat, corn, rye, sorghum – are all members of the Gramineae family.

    Buckwheat and grains are very different and not very closely related. You are somewhat correct in that grasses and grains are different. Grasses are the plants, grains are the seeds of grasses.

  16. I think we should all take a break from the quinoa. Many reports have come about showing how the new fascination with quinoa is leaving some South American people hungry. Local prices for quinoa have skyrocketed in South America…bad news for the locals who heavily depended on this nutritious crop. Let’s not starve people out. Find something else to eat! or let’s all come up with a solution!

  17. I know it doesn’t contain glulten, but what about lectins and phyto acids in Buckwheat?

  18. I just don’t see how meat and veggies can’t work for everyone at a dinner table*? And isn’t it a little rude to expect your host to have your normal breakfast on offer, if you’re that particular?

    *Except for vegetarians…. I just slow cook a stew for them made up of mostly veggies and either quinoa, adzuki beans or split peas.

  19. I make sour buckwheat pancakes that are delicious. I grind the buckwheat into a flour in the Vitamix, mix with water and organic full fat yogurt and let that sit in a covered bowl for a night or two. I take most of the fermented mix and add eggs, coconut oil and real salt and a pinch or two of baking powder. I cook the cakes with blueberries and walnuts. I eat ’em with organic butter and a bit of salt. DELICIOUS. I put more ground buckwheat and water in with what I left in the original (no eggs, etc) bowl and keep it going. I make a crepe variation by omitting the baking powder.

    1. Oh, your dishes all sound so delicious! I just made my first buckwheat recipe today and like the bread quite a lot.

      Could you share your ricipes with me or maybe tell me where you got them from? I’d appreciate your generosity a lot!

  20. I haven’t had this experience yet as most of my family live abroad but for a dinner I would make Roast Chicken with sides of broccoli, mashed together carrot and swede (believe it’s rutabaga or yellow turnip in the U.S., I’m in the U.K.) and roasted parsnip wedges, roasted until crispy. I think that the mash and parsnip fries would satisfy any carb eater.

    For breakfast I would make pancakes and bacon. I’ve tried just about every paleo/primal pancake recipe there is and have found the very best tasting and texture one! Here’s the recipe for anyone who wants it:

    1/2 cup coconut flour
    1/2 cup pumpkin puree
    6 Eggs
    1 Tsp Vanilla Extract
    1 Tsp Cinnamon
    1 Tsp Pumpkin Pie Spice (in U.K. mixed spice)
    1 Tsp Baking Powder
    1/2 Cup Water OR 1/2 Coconut Milk OR 1/4 cup Heavy Cream (Double Cream in U.K.) plus 1/4 cup water
    Mix the dry stuff in a bowl, mix the wet stuff in a bowl and then mix it all together.
    Fry on a medium or medium low heat in butter or cocnut oil, wait until bubbles are showing on top to flip over.

    I have made other recipes that look more like traditional pancakes but didn’t taste so good. All the almond flour ones taste bitter to me and plain coconut ones too eggy. These with the coconut and pumpkin are just right! They’re also quite easy to flip in the pan unlike the others and taste wonderful fried in butter and with a little maple syrup and served with bacon and/or eggs.

    You could also serve burgers topped with bacon, cheese (if you eat dairy) and avocado or a steak with salad and sweet potato fries.

    A recent discovery was celeriac (think it’s celery root in the U.S.) fries. Had had celeriac in other forms but just tried fries the other day, really good. Preheat oven to 325f (gas mark 3) Chop up a celeriac into fries, chop a couple of cloves of garlic and a tablespoon of fresh rosemary, melt 2 tablespoons of coconut oil or animal fat (I used beef dripping, very cheap in any supermarket in the U.K.) and stir the herbs and garlic into the melted oil or fat. Grease a baking tray or even better line it with greasproof paper, and toss the celeriac fries with the herby garlicky oil on the tray then spread out and cook for an hour until they crisp up, retossing and respreading out after 30 mins. Really nice.

  21. p.s. the roast chicken and sides is exactly what we’re having for dinner this evening, yum!

  22. p.p.s, for people in the U.K. who are wondering where they would get pumpkin puree, they sell it in large Tescos in the world foods section in the American foods bit, although I got loads of it much cheaper in a special in Aldi!. You only use about a quarter can in the recipe, so seeing as it’s quite expensive here you’re probably best off freezing the rest in 3 portions so you can just pull out and defort one portion every time you want to make the pancakes.

    Ok, I’m done now!

    1. You can also get the same pumpkin purée (Libby’s 100%) in Waitrose for the same price.

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  24. Banning something on the basis of its glycemic index makes zero sense. That index measures the blood sugar effects of foods eaten *alone*. In the real world, nobody eats grains/groats/quinoa alone.

  25. Buckwheat is probably the most confusing “grain” out there – not a grain, but a fruit/seed…apparently both according to what I’ve read :P. I’m confused at Mark’s recommendation…especially after he labeled v8 with it’s traces of BPA in the can as “primal” and glass noodle made from mung bean the same because of it’s resistant starch – something that buckwheat is high in, not to mention it’s 20% protein, which is pretty damn high compared to most other grains and near identical to seeds and nuts, and almost 100% daily recommendation of magnesium per cup? That’s awesome, isn’t it?Ok. So I’m just wondering why isn’t buckwheat primal? Because it’s a “pseudograin”? As in it’s used like a grain but actually is not in any way? Maybe I’m just ?!?! after labeling v8 primal and nixing buckwheat because of it’s processing – as if a can of v8 doesn’t go through more crap than a buckwheat groat. I don’t eat it that much but this sorta railed a bunch of holes in his recommendations. Fucking BPA-contaminated dead tomato juice is primal? Come on…

  26. Can’t say I agree with the conclusions drawn in this post. Buckwheat is included in the Perfect Health Diet (Jaminet) not as an eat all the time food, but as a regular food to stave off boredom with your diet. Personally I like the taste of it and I find it really agrees with my digestive tract. As with everything, listen to your body first and foremost.