Increasing numbers of people are adopting a grain-free lifestyle. However, a grain-free: is it a step too far? The Paleolithic diet (Paleo/ caveman/ stone age) is promoted by many as the diet that has given them the most health benefit. The idea is to replicate the diet eaten by our ancestors, before the dawn of the agriculture era, over 10,000 years ago. The claim is that after millions of years of evolution on this diet, our bodies are still best adapted to these foods. Consequently, the modern and processed foods of dairy products, grains, legumes, processed oils, refined sugar and too much salt are to be avoided.
Grain-free: is it a step too far?
I would first like to say that I know many people who have adopted a grain-free lifestyle with great benefit. I have no argument with them. But an interesting question is: how come they ended up on this path? Usually it is from personal experience with chronic illness, after trying many other routes to good health. Usually, they have experienced the benefits of gluten-free. But were still suffering some symptoms, or subsequently relapsed. They have found that a no-grains-diet works for them. Or even a ketogenic diet.
There is suspicion that the gluten-like storage proteins from all grains (in addition to wheat, rye and barley) can cause symptoms in some people, indistinguishable from gluten symptoms. To date, over 600 food allergens have been described, and when our immune systems go awry, we can mount an inflammatory response to nearly everything we eat. We become more at risk for this the older we are, and the longer that we have exposed our bodies to the inflammatory effects of smoking, highly processed foods, obesity (promotes low level inflammatory signals), food additives and preservatives, pollutants, antimicrobial drugs, chronic stress, repeated infections …
However, I ask you to have a look at the people that I see in my clinic. Children come to get help for a wide range of problems. Yes, I am sure that most would respond well to a Paleolithic diet. Yes, processed foods are laden with salt, fat and sugars which will be making them unwell with chronic underlying inflammation. Yes, they need to change what they are eating to get well again. But what steps should they take. My answer is “baby steps”.
The first step is gluten-free.
In my opinion, the first dietary step is a gluten-free diet. But before that it is important to do comprehensive blood tests: looking for non-dietary disease; looking for celiac disease and gluten-sensitivity; and looking for another food allergy and intolerances.
Gluten is an inflammatory protein and at least 10% of us react enough to it to cause us symptoms. Transition to a gluten-free diet is relatively easy with a bit of coaching (that is why we wrote the book: “Going gluten-free – how to get started” .
But takes a mental effort to start reading food labels, allergen warnings and understand ingredients. Most people eat food by habit, by price and by taste/texture. We all love fat, sugar and salt! In my experience, the children and families cope with the change to gluten-free without too much difficulty. It takes them a month or so to get most foods sorted out. The rapid change in the children makes it all so worthwhile. The children are compliant because at last they feel well.
Their parents say things like: “I’ve got my old child back again”; “I am amazed how good he is”; “No more sore tummies”; “Her eczema is gone!”; “His behavior is so much better”.
Baby steps work.
Most of these children get better gluten free. They do not need to have further dietary changes. Can you imagine if I suggested a paleolithic diet at my initial consultation! Too hard. Overwhelming. No buy-in from the family or child.
Gluten-free is well tolerated by these children. They usually do not feel deprived, and they begin to learn about what foods are made from. They get to know about ingredients. They find out about cross-contamination.
In the future they may well need to learn about FODMAPs and grain-free. Joining the gluten-free community is their first step. Grain-free: is it a step too far? This is a journey.
I make the argument for gluten-zero in my book “Gluten: ZERO global”
by Rodney Ford