Should we give up gluten, whole grains, all carbs—forever? The pros weigh in on this growing diet trend.
Now joining the ranks of fat, dairy, sugar, and other dietary outcasts: grains—that huge and diverse food group that encompasses everything from farro to Frosted Flakes. Some critics claim that even whole grains, long the sweetheart of the American Heart Association, are public health enemy No. 1.
Take cardiologist William Davis, MD, author of Wheat Belly, who contends that wheat is a key cause of obesity. His theory goes that the wheat we eat today was hybridized 50 years ago, and now contains gliadin, one of two proteins that make up gluten and which binds to opiate receptors in our brains and stimulates our appetite. Or talk to David Perlmutter, MD, a self-proclaimed “renegade neurologist” and author of Grain Brain, who has put forth a theory that all carbohydrates—a category that includes grains—are poison for the brain. In a nutshell, he says, carbs raise blood sugar, which triggers inflammation and leads to a variety of diseases, including Alzheimer’s.
Both doctors are partially right. Low-carb diets are as effective as other diets (though no more so in the long run) at helping people lose weight, which can mitigate many of the health problems associated with obesity, such as diabetes and even low energy, says Julie Miller Jones, PhD, a professor emerita of nutrition at St. Catherine University in Minneapolis, who researches grains. And refined grains have been linked to disease-causing inflammation (as have processed meats, sweets, and fried foods).
But the anti-grain movement is held up by cherry-picked evidence that in no way paints a complete picture, says David Katz, MD, author of Disease-Proof: The Remarkable Truth About What Makes Us Well. “Proponents of grain-free diets look for the studies that show the negative effect of excessive refined grains and then apply it to all grains, or they use research on the potential adverse effect of genetically modified wheat on lab animals and then make sweeping generalizations about the adverse effect of all wheat on people,” says Katz. “People love [the conclusions] because finding a nefarious element in the food supply gives them a single scapegoat for all of their ills.”
The plain truth is, grains can be good. “The scientific link between routine consumption of whole grains and better health is very strong,” says Katz. Numerous studies have associated whole grains with reduced inflammation, risk of heart disease, and even overall mortality. And to Davis’s point about gliadin, all varieties of wheat—even so-called ancient varieties like kamut—contain the protein, so it’s nothing new. It’s also true that gliadin can cause our bodies to produce an opiate-like substance, gliadotropin, but our intestines don’t have the type of transporter needed to absorb it, so it never reaches the brain’s opiate receptors to cause that supposed appetite boost. (The study Davis uses to back up his theory used rats injected with gliadotropin.)
The health foe, then, is not grains per se, but the amount and type we eat. On average, Americans eat seven servings of grains daily—one more than what’s recommended in a 2,ooo-calorie diet, according to the USDA’s 2o15 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. More isn’t better in this case, especially because too many of our servings come from refined grains and flours, which, unlike whole grains like millet, quinoa, barley, and brown rice, are stripped of their fiber-rich bran and nutrient-rich germ, leaving only the endosperm for small amounts of vitamins and minerals. Refined grains are present in a lot of Americans’ favorite foods, like pizza, cookies, and other top-selling prepared snack foods. They’re typically combined with a hefty dose of fat, sugar, and salt—more pleasure-producing ingredients that make food even harder to resist—and wrapped in a convenient grab-and-go package.
All that to say, it’s time to reconsider your grain intake. Evaluate how much and what types you’re eating—keep notes for a day if it helps, or check nutrition labels to get a true assessment. Then use our tips below for incorporating grain-free meals into your weekly menu and avoiding some pitfalls of the Standard American Diet. And to make it easier, try our four grain-free recipes, which offer flavorful alternatives to dishes typically loaded with the refined grains you should be nixing.
TIP 1: Start with breakfast.
Whole grains include fiber, which slows digestion, helping to release sugar into your bloodstream at a steady pace throughout the day. The carbs in refined grains, on the other hand, digest rapidly, turning into simple sugars and leading blood sugar to spike, then drop quickly. If you don’t want to switch to whole-grain breakfast options, combine refined grains with protein or fat, such as white toast with nut butter (fat/protein) or avocado (fat). Like whole grains, protein or fat decelerates digestion and prevents a sugar dump into the blood. Another nutritious strategy for blood-sugar management: Opt for a low-carb morning meal and avoid refined-carb-heavy breakfast favorites like pancakes, pastries, cereal, and toast. For instance, fuel up with protein-rich coconut-flour carrot muffins or scrambled eggs and sautéed spinach.
See also Carrot-Walnut Muffins
TIP 2: Find new convenience foods.
Create fast, flavorful meals by seeking healthy substitutes for go-to staples like white bread, cereal, crackers, and pasta. For instance, instead of a dessert of cake or cookies, try chia pudding topped with berries (pour 1 cup milk over 3 tablespoons chia seeds and gel in the fridge for several hours). Or, use cauliflower “couscous” as the base for a stir-fry, and you get a day’s worth of vegetables (2–3 cups) in a single meal.
See also Zucchini "Pasta" with Mint Pesto
TIP 3: Fill up, not out.
Because most of us eat more grains than we should (one extra serving a day, on average), we could be downing more calories per day than we need. To keep calories in check and still satiate your appetite, swap traditional grains, such as rice or wheat flour, for non-starchy vegetables or fruits, recommends Georgie Fear, RD, author of Lean Habits for Lifelong Weight Loss. Substituting one cup of zucchini noodles for wheat-based spaghetti saves you 2oo calories and almost 4o grams of carbohydrates, while still providing a substantial amount of food.
See also Cheesy Cauliflower Bowls
TIP 4: Slash inflammation.
“From a nutritional standpoint, we can show that a diet full of doodles, Ding Dongs, and donuts can increase inflammation,” Jones says of the products packed with refined grains. On the other hand, Jones points out, research shows that whole grains decrease the risk of disease-causing inflammation, as do the fruit-or-vegetable replacements for grains in meals. For a sweet snack, nix donut holes and pulse 1 cup almonds and 1 cup pitted dates in a food processor until a coarse meal forms, then roll into bite-sized balls.
See also Hazelnut-Crusted Berry Pie
Kerri-Ann Jennings, RD, is a freelance health and food writer, and yoga instructor based in Burlington, Vermont.