I’ve been grain-free for nearly three years now. Oh, every once in a while, I’ll have a bite or two of bread at a restaurant (it had better be really good bread though and even then I’ll still douse it with olive oil or real butter) or a couple of chips with guacamole – mostly just as a vehicle for delivering the precious emerald mixture to my mouth. I might even have a few sushi rolls with sticky white rice from time to time. But for the most part I stay far away from grains. No cereal ever, no pasta ever, no wheat, barley, rye, corn or anything of that sort. My exodus from grains was gradual, starting about five years ago, but it increased in fervor and resolve as I discovered more and more through my research how inappropriate grains were as a component of the human diet.
All throughout my youth and just up until a few years ago, I had also suffered from occasional intense, sometimes debilitating, gastrointestinal cramping that I had always chalked up to stress. The classic Irritable Bowel Syndrome or IBS. You know how some people claim to carry stress in their necks, their groin or their shoulders? I simply believed I carried stress in my gut and that that was the main cause of my IBS. I missed school some days as a kid. I’d take a day off work once in a while years later. I even missed races occasionally as a result of it. As recently as three years ago, I spent several sleepless nights doubled over in excruciating pain during a stressful period when I was producing 50 episodes of my TV show within a very compressed time frame. As I look back now, I was still eating bread (sandwiches) and whole wheat rolls (at dinner) during that time. Hmmm.
I had basically lived on grains for 50 years, during 20 of which I had to cram down all the bread, pasta, rolls and cereal I could to obtain the 1,000 grams of carbs a day I needed to fuel my athletic pursuits. On a day-to-day basis, I felt fine. In all that time it had never occurred to me that my gut-wrenching stress episodes might have also had something to do with grains in my diet. I didn’t make the connection because I could go for many months at a time without an IBS episode, and yet I always had the grains in my diet. It wasn’t until I completely eliminated grains that any form of IBS fully disappeared – even during very recent times of significant stress. So it wasn’t just the grains and it wasn’t just the stress; it was the two combined that set off the alarm bells.
I had a real experience of that again just last week, though, and the connection became even more apparent. I was off on an organized weekend “self-discovery” retreat. I had signed up on the advice of a good friend and really had no idea what I was in for, except that it would be somewhere up in the mountains and we would be challenged on multiple levels. A few hours into the first night I realized that for the next few days one of the challenges would be the Spartan diet of nothing but granola, water and a few slices of fruit. My first inclination was to forgo these meager victuals and use this as a fasting (IF) weekend, but not knowing whether we were in for “Survivor”-type challenges, long nights shivering in the cold or forced 15-mile marches, I decided I might need the calories in whatever form I could take them. So I started downing the granola with the rest of the participants. I knew what I was doing, but I thought “how bad could three servings of rolled oats each day possibly be?” Oh, Lordy.
Everything was copacetic for the first 24 hours, but by Sunday morning, I was noticing a sensation I had thankfully not experienced for three years – the doubling over in pain and the urge to purge. By the end of the course Sunday afternoon, I was completely preoccupied with the pain and unable to participate in any of the post-event discussions as I tried to meditate my way to a “happy place”. Several trips to the bathroom provided only marginal relief, and it wasn’t until I got in my car to drive home Sunday night that I could see light at the end of the tunnel. The cramping continued sporadically well into Monday and only subsided as I resumed my regular diet.
I tell you all this to reiterate that the problems that arise from eating grains aren’t always obvious. As I have said here, the fact that you can eat grains for years and manifest no symptoms doesn’t mean they are not having some small insidious effect. In my case, it has always been the combination of stress and grains that has caused the red flags to go up, but I think there was always something going on even when it didn’t manifest itself in IBS. In the three years since I have been grain-free, the arthritis in my fingers – that I had already had for five years and had always assumed to be a natural result of getting older – has disappeared. I never get sick anymore, even when I’m stressed. I maintain my body fat level so easily it’s almost criminal. Yes, these could be due to other factors as well, but this past weekend really opened my eyes once again.
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.