I received this question quite a while ago, and then again recently from a couple of people, so here it is! For the record, I don’t think grains are terrible at all, but they might not be the most optimal foods for some people, and I have found this to be true for us.
Throughout my teens and twenties, I was a vegan, a Fruitarian, a vegetarian, and bumbled along on the low-fat bandwagon for a good long time.
But when my life totally fell apart in my mid-twenties, and when the love of my life (Lee!) became seriously ill with a mysterious immunological disorder, my research into food and health brought me to the traditional foods movement and the Primal/Paleo way of eating. For someone who had been convinced that low-fat, low-cholesterol diets were the key to health, it was a real revelation to keep coming across research and information that seemed to accurately point to relatively high-fat, high-cholesterol, and high animal- protein diets as being the most compatible for digestive health, immunity, lowering inflammation, dental health, and general human flourishing.
There is *so* much information out there about the Paleo/Primal eating and nutrition, so go ahead and do your own research and please don’t take this as official in any way (I am not a health professional or a doctor, this information is not intended to treat or diagnose!!). But the following is a little run-down on the main reasons why we avoid grains.
Grains contain proteins and anti-nutrients that can exacerbate digestive problems.
Gluten, for example, is a protein found in wheat and other grains that can increase the gut’s permeability, and can cause inflammation and digestive issues, which are considered by many to possibly be at the root of a whole host of health problems from skin disorders to mental health issues, to auto-immune disorders to infertility and more.
Lectins are another kind of protein found in plant foods. Lectins bind to carbohydrates, but also to the lining of the intestinal wall, which can cause damage to the gut, and can have a detrimental effect on long-term health, potentially leading to disorders like Chrohns disease, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, etc.
The anti-nutrient Phytic Acid is present in grains and legumes (and to some extent, nuts and seeds) and binds to minerals thereby hampering their absorption.
In a more general sense, many believe that a diet high in carbohydrates can lead to insulin resistance, weight gain, and inappropriate or unnecessary fluctuations in appetite.
And perhaps most fundamentally, grains, when analyzed next to organically-raised grass-fed animal products, or green cruciferous vegetables, have relatively poor nutrient density. Grains are comparatively low in vitamins, high in phosphorous (which can cause bone loss), and possess low mineral bio-availability.
The difference between a meal that is made up of organic free-range chicken, broccoli and sweet potato vs. a meal of organic free-range chicken, broccoli and rice, is that my kids are getting less nutrients from the latter meal. There are no nutrients that are *only* found in grains. Vegetables, fruit, meats, and organic raw dairy can provide my kids with all the vitamins and minerals they need, without the filler.
It is absolutely true that soaking and sprouting grains can reduce some of the natural toxins and anti-nutrients in the grains. But sprouting and soaking do not alleviate *all* of the inherent nutritional deficiencies in grains, and for me, the effort would be far greater than the return.
Many people point out that going grain-free is expensive, and to an extent this is true–rice, bread, potatoes (considered by some to occupy a similar rubrick as grains–starchy & white!) provide affordable bulk . But I would argue that we actually eat less food all-told, once grains are eliminated. While we do include animal products in all of our meals, we don’t eat a *lot* of food, and vegetables and fruit make up the highest percentage of what we consume. Also, we are very fortunate to live very close to, and have access too, several organic farmers from whom we buy our meat in bulk, at a reduced price. We also keep our own chickens, so we have fresh eggs which which we prepare in many different ways to make up a large part of our diet.
Another benefit for us–which I think *is* related to diet–is the fact that our kids have never been sick, which does end up saving both money and time.
Removing grains from our diet has improved every aspect of our health, and has had a dramatically positive effect on Lee especially, who was told that the only way to treat the symptoms of his health condition (Sarcoidosis) was through pharmaceuticals.
Furthermore, I love the simplicity of our meals, and the fact that preparing meals takes so little time, compared with the mixing and waiting and baking and the mess to clean up afterwards when it comes to making foods with grains and flours. I have a lot going on in my life, and while I love to occasionally go all out with a special meal, I have happily discarded the daily grind (!) of preparing elaborate grain-based meals, in lieu of focusing on writing, art, etc. Just 5 minutes ago, I literally smeared a tablespoon of duck fat on top of a whole chicken and threw it in the oven. I’ll be back in 2 hours, and we’ll sit down to eat it along with a huge green salad. So easy!
I have come to believe very strongly that emotion, trauma and the mind play the most salient role in our health, and that physical ailments are *always* a manifestation of psychological and emotional imbalance. Food is important, but mind-peace is the utmost. And while we are very clear on what we buy and what comes into our house, when we go out into the world, visiting with others or socializing, I really make an effort to be grateful for whatever we are offered. Friends and family know how we eat, and I really appreciate their respect for our dietary preferences, but I also want my kids to receive the message that the very fact that we are able to choose our foods puts us in a position of extreme privilege, and that while we do politely decline non-foods (candy, junk) as much as we can, when we are offered a gorgeous home-made pizza at a friend’s house, we dig in, and enjoy the treat.
I do feel, increasingly, that our obsession with food is perhaps unhealthy in and of itself, and that we would all do well to think less about it! Food certainly is political, but I don’t want my little children feeling the weight of those political decisions at our dinner table. I have tried, and I continue to try, to create a really strong family food culture, so that there is not a lot of confusion about what we eat, and thus, very little conflict or complaints about food. I don’t make special kids meals, I don’t use food as a bribe, I don’t force my kids to eat anything. Food is primarily fuel, and if it tastes good, great!
If you are interested in reading further on Paleo and Traditional Foods, I urge you to start with the Weston A. Price Foundation Website, which I think is probably one of the best resources out there, including information on traditional diets and kids, infertility and more.
I also highly recommend the book “The Vegetarian Myth” by Lierre Keith, as well as the “Wellness Mama” website, which is excellent. For more of a macho take on paleo, the Bulletproof Executive also has some interesting and accessible information, and we actually buy our coffee through BE, which Lee feels is great for him, and allows him to indulge without exacerbating any of his symptoms (BE is also an example of marketing genius, which I find quite interesting!). Mark’s Daily Apple is another good web resource.
Anyway. If there is any interest, I will be posting some more specific recipes and ways to prepare foods that are simple, traditional, and, apparently, acceptable to my kids, anyway!