Rethink Grains & Sugar

By now, we’ve all heard cautionary tales about the dangers of sugar and the importance of watching our grain intake, particularly if someone suffers from a gluten intolerance or celiac disease. But what does this really mean, and what options are open to us when these products seem to be everywhere?

First, it is important to understand the role that the gut plays in our overall health. As Chris Kesser reminds us, “The trillions of bacteria that inhabit your gastrointestinal tract have received a tremendous amount of attention in recent years,” and gut microbia are finally recognized for the significant role they play in keeping our immune systems healthy and maintaining overall wellness. And, as Dr. Axe explains in Eat Dirt, when the gut lining becomes permeable, the result—known as “leaky gut”—can cause a serious immune response. Gluten turns out to be one of the main offenders when it comes to this condition.

Within popular culture, people tend to think about gluten in black and white terms. Either one is allergic or one is not. But as Kesser suggests in the Paleo Cure, “We now know that it’s possible to have gluten intolerance without having celiac disease…and that gluten intolerance is more a spectrum of conditions than a single condition…”(pg. 81). There is no single prescription one can give across the board: some need to avoid gluten at all costs, while others would do well to monitor their intake. In any case, understanding the range of physical responses to gluten can help us regulate what we put into our bodies.

The wheat we eat today is different from previous generations.

As we try to understand the reason that gluten intolerance seems so pervasive today, it helps to turn to Nina Planck, who says, “People didn’t have grains or beans until about twenty thousand years ago, and they didn’t begin to make bread until about eight thousand years ago.” (Real Food for Mother and Baby, pg. 33-34) Planck suggests that the historical precedence for digesting this type of food is much more recent than we may realize. Furthermore, as Eat Naked Now claims, the wheat we eat today is different from previous generations because it has been hybridized. “The result is a grain that converts to sugar more rapidly, contains entirely new (gut-damaging) forms of the gluten protein, encourages addictive patterns, and stimulates appetite.”

The primary takeaway when it comes to the topic of gluten and grains is that by reducing our intake, we minimize bloating and cravings while protecting the integrity of the gut lining. It can also help with autoimmune disease, weight loss, and skin health.

Does this mean that one must entirely eliminate grains from one’s diet? The answer, like most honest answers, is: it depends. Most healthy bodies can tolerate a small amount of grain, especially when prepared properly. However, it is essential to pay close attention to your body’s response. If you feel bloated and gassy after consuming grains and gluten, it is worth experimenting with further reductions. If you do decide to eat grains, there are great ways to improve their digestibility. By soaking, sprouting, or fermenting grains, you break down the detrimental phytic acid, which blocks protein and mineral absorption. As we now know, “Traditional societies usually soak or ferment their grains before eating them, processes that neutralize phytates and enzyme inhibitors and, in effect, predigest grains so that all their nutrients are more available” (Nourishing Traditions). To learn more about proper grain preparation to reduce phytate (and more on why this benefits your bones and teeth), check out this article on the Weston Price Foundation website.

Just as gluten and grains can wreak havoc on our gut lining, so can sugar which operates like a drug, addictive and devastating to our immune systems, tissue elasticity, teeth, and overall health. I recommend reading more on sugar on the Eat Naked Now blog. Understanding how much sugar impacts our health and destroys our good gut bacteria can help motivate you to make it an occasional treat.

Sugar operates like a drug, addictive and devastating to our immune systems, tissue elasticity, teeth, and overall health.

As is the case with grains, when it comes to sugars, there are certain things one should minimize and other things one should avoid completely. Experts in the field seem to be unanimous in cautioning us against artificial sweeteners. While the FDA claims that nonnutritive sweeteners do not cause cancer, a Purdue University study showed that these artificial sweeteners interfered “with the body’s natural ability to count calories based on a food’s sweetness.” (Eat Dirt, 86). Additionally, Dr. Axe suggests that sucralose (Splenda) has been shown to be highly addictive and detrimental to gut bacteria, contributing to weight gain and appetite stimulation, often causing the exact opposite of its desired effect. Chris Kesser reiterates this point when he claims that, “A comprehensive research study has now shown (almost unequivocally) that artificial sweeteners can in fact impact health via altering gut microbes.” The study shows that “consumption [of non-caloric artificial sweetener] in both mice and humans increases the risk of developing glucose intolerance and metabolic disease”. I understand not wanting to “drink your calories” and cringe to think of all the Crystal Light I used to drink, but there are plenty of enjoyable beverages like kombucha and iced, organic tea that have health benefits without many (or any) calories.

So how does one deal with the abysmal reality of sugar? How do you satisfy your sweet tooth while limiting your sugar intake? As an alternative to high fructose corn syrup, which should be avoided at all costs, there are plenty of sweet options. Raw honey and dates can serve as a terrific sweeter. And as Dr. Axe points out, local honey has the added benefit of inoculating you against local pollens and can help with allergies. “These gradual and natural immunizations from the microbes in the honey and pollen take up residence in your gut and help modulate your immune system to adjust to the local environment. Honey also provides an excellent source of prebiotics” (Eat Dirt, 59).  Just a note, make sure to buy raw, unheated honey as it is less processed and contains vitamins and minerals and feeds beneficial bacteria. Maple syrup can also satisfy the urge (but remember, grade B is actually better than grade A) and a little organic (ideally raw) dark chocolate is good for satisfying a sweet craving while providing nutritional benefits. Plus, sometimes when we are craving sugar, we are really just thirsty, so a cup of chamomile or mint tea can work wonders.

Every once in a while, it is important to indulge in the real deal, but on the whole, you will find that making small tweaks to your daily diet can drastically improve your health. If you continually ask yourself, how can I make this healthier?, you will discover creative, delicious alternatives that not only strengthen your body, but make your diet more interesting.

Action Steps:

  • Reduce the amount of grains and gluten you consume to keep your gut healthy, as well preserve the overall health of your body. To learn more about cutting out grains and the Paleo diet, check out Robb Wolf, the Sustainable Dish, or read The Paleo Cure by Chris Kresser
  • While avoiding gluten, don’t get lured into eating gluten-free pseudo-health products full of fillers and additives
  • If you continue to eat grains, avoid boxed cereals, which go through extrusion, a high-heat process that denatures proteins and damages fatty acids. Prepare organic oatmeal at home.
  • If you do continue to eat bread, opt for sourdough, which uses a cultured grain. Swap hamburger buns for lettuce-wrapped burgers.
  • Reduce your sugar intake and cut out all artificial sweeteners, replacing them with raw honey (Really Raw Honey is a great brand complete with pollen, propolis and honeycomb), cinnamon, or modest amounts of real sugar
  • At all costs, avoid high fructose corn syrup and soda
  • Replace diet soda with kombucha or sparkling water with lemon
  • Unfortunately grains like oats and brown rice don’t contain a lot of phytase which is needed during the soaking process in order to reduce phytic acid. It still helps (and beyond phytic acid, soaking still improves digestibility and neutralizes tannins and lectins) but it isn’t going to reduce a lot of phytic acid so I recommend not making oats a staple of your diet. As for rice, here is a way to improve your results when soaking. After soaking for 24 hours, keep roughly 10% of the soaking liquid and use it the next time you soak (keep it in the fridge between). Rinse the rice and prepare as you usually would. Next time you soak brown rice, add the saved soaking liquid to the new water you use. After three cycles of this method you should be removing about 96% of the phytic acid.
  • The above method works for brown rice but another idea is to eat white rice because the majority of phytic acid will be found in the bran. Yes, perhaps there are less nutrients in white rice but I like to think of grains as yummy fuel, and focus on getting nutrients from fats and proteins.
  • Eat lots of healthy fats to reduce sugar and carb cravings; remember, fat doesn’t make you fat!

Tips from my kitchen (and the kitchens of those I admire):

  • My healthier version of a key lime pie is a holiday favorite in my family. (It’s that good! It won 3rd place in the Beverly Hills pie contest.)
  • When it comes to gluten-free flours I prefer rice and coconut flour as they can take high heat better (e.g. baking bread) than nut flours, like almond flour, that have delicate fats damaged by high heat
  • Indulge in Wanted Chocolate, Sacred Chocolate, and the organic brand Alter Eco (not raw). Homemade ice cream is a great sweet treat, but my all-time favorite store bought brand is Straus’ Organic varieties. Pick up a carton of the vanilla and top it with fresh, organic raspberries, and you can’t go wrong!
  • Soak oatmeal overnight with 1 tbsp of whey to help reduce the phytic acid and make the oatmeal easier to digest.  Add healthy fat like ghee, butter, or coconut oil as well as cinnamon and raw, whole milk to help regulate blood sugar and make it a yummy, satisfying breakfast.
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