Gluten-free and grain-free lifestyles have been growing in the past decade. Americans on a gluten-free diet, without celiac disease, have almost doubled, growing from 44% to 72% .
The popularity of going grain or gluten-free can often be attributed to weight loss, less bloating, and reduced IBS symptoms (although the science has yet to catch up).
In this article, we’ll explore which foods are grains, which are refined grains, and an alternative for those who aren’t interested in ditching grains completely.
What Are Grains?
According to choosemyplate.gov (a USDA site), grains are
Any food made from wheat, rice, oats, cornmeal, barley or another cereal grain is a grain product. Bread, pasta, oatmeal, breakfast cereals, tortillas, and grits are examples of grain products.choosemyplate.gov
If you were like me at the start of my health journey, then your pantry might have lots of grains. Maybe even mostly grains. I remember tossing my cereals, crackers, and pasta out and being left with mustard and olive oil. It can feel restricting at first, but if your health improves as a result, then it may be all the motivation you need.
It’s important to note that grains affect people differently and one size does not fit all. Some seem to do better without grains, and some don’t. It also should be noted that the fiber and important nutrients lost from not eating grains should be made up, in part, by eating more fiber-rich fruits and vegetables.
Common Reported Negative effects of Grains
Common Reported Benefits of Going Grain-free
- Weight loss
- Healthier gut microbiome
- Reduced inflammation
What Are Refined Grains and Why Are They Bad?
The process of refining grains involves striping the bran, germ, and endosperm (AKA the outer bran layers or “shell”) from the grain. This results in, “substantial losses in essential minerals, vitamins, and phytonutrients”  (phytonutrients are beneficial nutrients from plants).
Many manufacturers try adding the lost vitamins and minerals back into the refined grains, which are then called enriched grains. The above evidence shows is not the best way to get those nutrients.
Despite the number of success stories on ditching grains, the science is not conclusive, which is why there’s such a large debate.
Fortunately, there is some evidence for an alternative.
Whole Grains are Better Than Refined Grains
If you’re looking at ditching the refined grains, and not currently interested in a grain-free lifestyle, then whole grains might be a good middle-ground. There’s much more evidence on the benefits of whole grains than going grain or gluten-free.
There is consistent epidemiological evidence that whole grain foods substantially lower the risk of chronic diseases such as CHD, diabetes, and cancer and also play a role in body weight management and digestive health.PubMed
This source also goes on to mention that, “After a little time their taste grows on you and refined foods will no longer satisfy you.” I can also vouch for this from my own experience with refined grains.
So compared to refined grains, eating the whole grain is regarded as much healthier. Especially whole grains in its unprocessed form, instead of flour, bread, or pasta. In general, the less processed a food is, the better its bioavailability or our absorption of its nutrients.
Evidence for grain-free diets is not conclusive. But compared to refined grains, there is evidence for an alternative–eating whole grains, especially those which are unprocessed and not treated with pesticides.
For those who decide to go grain-free, the fiber and important nutrients lost can be made up partially by eating more fiber-rich fruits and vegetables.
Grains affect people differently, so there’s not a single approach that works. It’s encouraged to consult your primary physician before changing your diet.