My Big Food Experiment started with a month without meat. Eager to move on, next up on the food group cull list was grains.
I’ve eaten and enjoyed grains all my life, mostly in the form of bread, cereal, flour and pasta, and more recently in the form of rice and noodles in Thailand and Asia.
20 years ago giving up ‘heart healthy grains’ would’ve been absurd, but things have changed since then.
Food enemy number one has shifted from fat to carbohydrates, and numerous charges have been filed against grains by the food police – that they promote inflammation, that they contribute to an unhealthy level of carbohydrate intake leading to health issues, that many people react badly or are allergic to them, they make you bloated, their vitamin content is far surpassed by fruits and vegetables, that our bodies have not adjusted to eating them since their introduction to our diets roughly 10,000 years ago and that generally our bodies react badly to the gluten, lectins and phytates that grains contain.
Now I’m not saying all these nasty things that are being said are necessarily true and I’m not particularly interested in debating them for now. All I want to know is how I react to grains, and how dropping them from my diet will impact my mind and body. So the day after my no meat month, I started my no grain month.
The first interesting thing was people’s reaction when I mentioned I was cutting out grains. Many people would just look confused and ask “why?” Not wanting to get into any long-winded conversation or debate (unavoidable, sometimes) I would just say I was trying it out. Some people would just stand there looking puzzled, wondering why anyone would do such a thing. I didn’t get this when discussing meat, something we’ve eaten for far longer throughout our evolution, so it was interesting that grains elicited this response.
So meat was back in and grains were out – I was happy to get my meat back and the changes I felt were immediate and positive. By eliminating grains I was mostly forced to take the healthy choice. No more cereal, bagels or croissants for breakfast, the only thing on the menu in the local cafe that passed the no grain audit was salad. Even the sauces had grain-derived ingredients so my salads went sauce free. At first it tasted a bit bland, but I found that fruit and vegetables for breakfast filled me up nicely until afternoon.
Grains, on the other hand, have me feeling hungry shortly afterwards and sometimes even make me hungrier. I’ve been a bit peckish before, eaten a bagel, and been full on starving afterwards (yes, even wholewheat bagels for those who asked after my last article).
I believe the poor hunger control often caused by grain and processed food consumption is due to blood sugar levels rising quickly and the resulting insulin production causing a crash, resulting in food cravings and more consumption. Repeat this often enough for a long enough amount of time and the blood sugar level rollercoaster will put you on course for weight gain, insulin resistance and diabetes.
As much as I’ve always enjoyed bread, pasta et el, they’ve always left me feeling pretty bloated and heavy and certainly not primed for peak performance. By eliminating them I benefited from increased energy levels and felt lighter.
Now, I realise this comes across as flagrant grain-bashing but please understand that I don’t think grains are awful and terrible. My current view is that grains are fine, but it’s excessive consumption that causes problems. ‘Excessive consumption’ is relative to how active you are – a marathon runner or labourer can safely consume more than a sedentary office worker who rarely stands up.
Now I consume grains in moderation and I feel I’ve struck a nice balance in my diet now that suits me. However, some people eat cereal for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch, a big bowl of pasta for dinner and numerous grainy, high-carb snacks in between and think this is a good, healthy diet and can’t understand why they’re gaining weight and feeling tired.
My only rule during this month was no grains. I didn’t diet (other than fasting for 24 hours every 1-2 weeks) and I didn’t monitor or worry about carbohydrate consumption during the month, but I still lost weight, just over 2kg. I didn’t worry about deserts or other ‘naughty’ foods and ate freely, but I discovered that most unhealthy, indulgent food has some form of flour, bread or cereal in it, so that seemed to largely keep my healthy eating in check.
Most highly-processed foods were off the menu, which again contributed to my positive experience with this experiment. I found myself having to check ingredients lists closely and almost all packaged food had something like ‘rice vinegar’, ‘wheat extract’ or some other grain derivative. This checking process made me more aware of what I was consuming and was a valuable education. I don’t think we give enough consideration to what we put in our bodies, but this month I was forced to check to ensure I didn’t inadvertently consume grains. Occasionally there’d be no grains, but the list would contain so many chemicals I couldn’t pronounce that I couldn’t bring myself to eat it. This is one of the biggest things I took from the month – being aware and mindful of what I was consuming.
Overall I felt great, had lots of energy and was losing weight, but I did crave grains at times. Towards the end of the month I started to enviously see people wolfing down sandwiches, pizza or pasta. Perhaps my body was craving the nutrients and energy, or perhaps I missed the taste and flavour of those foods. I introduced grains back into my diet after the month ended and now I eat them in moderation. By ‘moderation’, I mean a lot, lot less than the average person. If bread is served with soup and it looks tasty I’ll eat it. If it looks cheap, very white or full of preservatives, I won’t. If I’m eating out and I want grains, I’ll have them, but my intake has reduced dramatically. I’d estimate that my current grain consumption is about 30-40% of what it was pre-experiment, and I’m especially careful to avoid them earlier on in the day as I feel they set me up for a day of hunger. I’ve continued to see improvements in body composition and health without totally cutting them out and I can still eat the foods I enjoy.
Another way to put this is that I feel I’ve found the carbohydrate and grain consumption level that works for me, and I’m reaping the benefits of that.
My conclusion from this is that different people have different tolerance levels for grains and carbohydrates. Some react terribly, whereas some seem to be able to get away with consuming more. This idea of experimentation and accepting that people react to foods differently sounds so simple, but is so often forgotten with nutritional advice.
I have learned so much about myself and my body over these two months and would wholeheartedly recommend these kind of food experiments to anyone. Not necessarily no meat or no grains, but just play around with your diet, eliminate food groups for a while and see how you feel, try fasting or just keep a food diary and monitor weight, mood and energy level changes. You’ll learn so much about yourself you’ll never again pay attention to the drivel that’s often found in newspapers and magazines regarding nutrition, and that can only be a good thing.
Not wanting to halt my food journey, I had an interesting food experiment in store for part 3. Will fill you in soon…