The pasta under your sauce, the bun holding your hamburger, the cereal in your milk and the flour in your cake. While rarely the star of any meal, grains play a strong supporting role in the American diet. They pervasively show up in nearly every meal and most of us are convinced that they are an important part–no, an essential part–of any balanced, healthy diet.
That’s why the Paleo lifestyle can seem so intimidating and scary. How and why do Paleo fanatics survive without pitas, sushi, oatmeal, chocolate chip cookies and pizza? While there are many delicious, Paleo-friendly alternatives to processed grains (cauliflower pizza or Paleo pizza anyone?), it might help to understand the reason behind the no-grain mantra before one begins a Paleo journey.
The truth is, grains have been a part of the human diet for just half of a percent of our time on this planet. Humans were hunter-gatherers for more than two million years, and domesticated grains became a staple just 10,000 years ago. The transition from a diet of largely meat, eggs, nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables to one including wheat, corn and potatoes was a slow but significant one that lead to a sea change in society. Hunter-gatherers eventually had few reasons to roam the countryside following food. Grains were grown in a field and stored to last throughout the winter and animals were tied up or fenced in. People learned to plant grains, gather their seeds and replant them, resulting in a relatively easy source of food. You could call it the early version of fast food–dinner was just outside of the tent and no longer required a long hunting trip and time-consuming foraging quest.
According to the USDA, grains should be the backbone of a healthy diet. They reduce the risk of heart disease, help ward off constipation and help with weight management. They provide dietary fiber, B vitamins and essential minerals. These are all noble and important goals. However, grains are not the only, or even the best, way to ward off heart disease, constipation and nagging extra weight. And they certainly aren’t the best source of nutrients–but we’ll get to all of that later.
As mentioned earlier, humans only started eating grains about 10,000 years ago. They weren’t widespread in Western Europe until about 7,000 years ago and weren’t a main staple of the American diet until 300 years ago. That’s hardly enough time for a species to adapt to a new food source, and here’s why: most plants contain toxins. Since plants can’t move, their defense systems are internal. Instead of sharp claws or quick feet, they have to develop toxins that are dangerous to mammals. Toxins occur in many popular vegetables: raw green beans and tomatoes, for example, both contains toxins that could kill if eaten in large enough quantities. Toxins are a weapon for plants, but the plants that humans have been eating for millions of years are no longer a threat to us. Our species has evolved to successfully eat them, digesting the nutrients and suffering few ill effects from the toxins.
The human population can only evolve so fast, however, and grains haven’t been present in the human diet long enough to become safe.
Grains contain two important toxins: gluten and lectins. Most people have heard of gluten by now as gluten-free rhetoric is widespread. Gluten triggers celiac disease, a dangerous disorder that affects 0.4% of the population. For a celiac sufferer, their immune system reacts negatively to gluten which, over time, causes inflammation and subsequent damage to the small intestine. The initial symptoms are mild–bloating and diarrhea because nutrients can’t be properly absorbed. Eventually, a person’s vital organs can be affected.
While celiac disease affects a small portion of the population, a more mild form of intestinal inflammation occurs in a large majority of people after eating grains. The damage grains cause to the intestine allows bacteria and toxins to slip into the bloodstream, which isn’t deadly for most but uncomfortable. Bloating, diarrhea and mild pain are among the annoying symptoms up to 83% of people experience after eating gluten.
Beyond gluten, grains contain lectins. Lectins occur almost everywhere in nature but are concentrated in grains. These toxins also increase inflammation and cause discomfort. They can even lead to “leaky gut”–breaking down the intestine walls and allowing more junk from the gut into the bloodstream. In extreme cases, they can lead to diseases like IBS and Crohn’s.
Grains also wreaks havoc on insulin levels. Most grains have a higher glycemic level than table sugar and lead to a sharp increase in blood sugar. Rapid spikes in blood sugar can cause weight gain in the short term and lead to much bigger problems like diabetes or heart disease. In addition, grains contain opioid peptides, which act like heroin or morphine. Have you ever experienced the uncontrollable urge to down an entire basket of Olive Garden breadsticks? You can blame opioid peptides.
It’s clear that grains can make you feel like crap, but according to the USDA food pyramid, they are a vital component of any diet. According to the Whole Grains Council, a varied diet of grains provides 14 essential vitamins and minerals. The five most significant are protein, fiber, magnesium, selenium and manganese. These are vital parts of a healthy diet, but you don’t need grains to get them. Listed here are some easy substitutions, but these are not meant to be limiting. Vegetables, fruits and meats provide an insane amount of vitamins and minerals that can easily replace the need for grains–these are just a few examples.
Fiber: 1 cup of cooked peas has double the fiber of 1 cup of whole-wheat spaghetti
Protein: 100 grams of beef has up to four times the protein of 100 grams of bread
Magnesium: 1 cup of cooked spinach has double the magnesium of 1 cup of brown rice
Selenium: 1 cup of canned tuna has more than double the selenium of 1 cup of wheat bran
Manganese: 1 Tbsp. of cloves contains more manganese than 1 Tbsp. of wheat germ
It’s clear that grains provide some things that our bodies really need. But, with the myriad of negative effects, does it really make sense to consume them? Eating a diet of varied fruits, vegetables, meat and nuts can fill the nutritional gap left by kicking grains out of your diet.
Obviously, we don’t just eat for nutrients and vitamins. Most people get some degree of pleasure out of food, as well. Greasy pizza never makes anyone feel great, but for many the taste and social aspect of eating it is worth it.
But don’t worry–you don’t have to give up pizza, pasta and cereal to treat your body better and give your gut a break. The modern Paleo diet has existed since the 1970s, so countless people before you have taken the time to find suitable substitutes for grains, tinker with recipes and make the Paleo lifestyle easy. That being said, the transition to a Paleo diet isn’t simple and likely won’t happen overnight. You can start with some simple substitutions to get a feel for the Paleo lifestyle and progress into a more advanced version as you grow comfortable with the concepts.
If you’re worried about giving up pasta, start by substituting cabbage or zucchini for noodles in some of your favorite dishes. Cabbage can be shredded and zucchini can be sliced into any shape you desire. Boil them briefly to cook. They won’t taste the same as your favorite spaghetti or penne, but they are a great substitute to stir into your favorite noodle soup or pasta salad as you begin to wean yourself off of grains. They create a similar full feeling in your stomach and are almost flavorless–just like traditional pasta.
Cereal and bagels are breakfast staples in the U.S. On the Paleo diet, neither of these grain-filled sins are acceptable. Cereal is an easy one to replicate by making your own. You can toast a combination of nuts, coconut oil and coconut flakes to create the same texture as cereal. Drizzle with a little honey or maple syrup and you might find it even more delicious than your favorite granola (Paleo Bars anyone?).
As for bagels and other pastry indulgences, countless flour substitutes exist to create your own Paleo breakfast treats. Coconut flour and almond meal are two examples that you can likely find in your local healthy grocery store or online. Beware: you can not substitute these ingredients directly for flour in your favorite recipes. Paleo baking takes a lot of experimentation and it won’t taste identical to your old treats, but your body will love you. There are thousands of Paleo baking recipes available online. With a little experimentation and searching, you can certainly find a substitute for your morning dose of grains.
Pizza is another indulgence that can be accommodated on a Paleo diet. You can make a delicious, crunchy crust with spinach, cauliflower or arrowroot powder and almond meal.
You might see a common denominator in this advice: a lot of time in the kitchen. A Paleo diet is nearly impossible to follow if you don’t cook your own food. Following a Paleo diet isn’t the only reason to spend more time in the kitchen, though. Michael Pollan’s “Food Rules” is an easy read to explain why cooking your own food and avoiding prepackaged crap is essential to a healthy life. It can seem overwhelming to spend so much of your time hovering over the stove, but cooking connects you to your food and ensures you eat more satisfying, healthy meals. Besides that, setting aside a few hours of the day on Sunday allows enough time to cook for the entire week so you don’t have to worry about dinner after a late day at the office.
Above all, the Paleo diet is largely about how it makes you feel. The best approach is to cut out what you can and note how it affects you. After completely cutting grain from one’s diet, many people feel symptoms of a detox in the first few weeks–headaches, lack of energy and intense cravings. Push through. After three weeks, the withdrawal symptoms should disappear and you should feel 110% better than before.
Many people can reintroduce a small amount of grains back into their diet and feel fine. A number of Paleo-ers live by the 80/20 rule: 80% of their food is full Paleo and 20% of the time, “cheating” is allowed. This flexibility allows for an important part of meals: socializing.
Meals in most cultures are a social act of sitting down and enjoying delicious foods with the ones you love. Transitioning to a Paleo lifestyle does not mean giving that up. You can look for Paleo options at a restaurant or pick around the buns and cake at a potluck, but you’re not always going to be able to avoid grains. When your grandma makes a special loaf of banana bread for you, eat a slice and don’t feel guilty. Pay attention to how your body feels, but realize that Paleo is a lifestyle and a long-term change, not a strict diet that infringes on your social interactions. Focus on eliminating the grains over which you have daily control, and don’t beat yourself up when you make a mistake or indulge with a loved one.
For more information:
USDA grain recommendations: http://www.choosemyplate.gov/food-groups/grains-why.html
Why grains are necessary, according to the Whole Grains Council: http://wholegrainscouncil.org/whole-grains-101/whole-grains-an-important-source-of-essential-nutrients
Grains and human evolution: http://wholehealthsource.blogspot.com/2008/07/grains-and-human-evolution.html
Explanation of toxins in wheat: http://perfecthealthdiet.com/2010/07/bowel-disease-part-ii-healing-the-gut-by-eliminating-food-toxins/
Explanation of lectins: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/lectins/
How wheat affects insulin levels: http://www.eatnakednow.com/eatnaked/2012/10/23/the-myth-of-the-healthy-whole-grain/