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Aren't grains an important part of a balanced diet?

When I offer a patient my medical opinion that for whatever ails them they should eliminate grains, I often hear from the patient or the family, “But aren't grains an important part of a balanced diet?”

My answer depends on what you mean by balanced. If you want your plate to be evenly divided into color-coded thirds of red meat, green veggies, and a bland grain color, sure - that makes a nice color balance. If on the other hand, balance implies that grains are good for you and essential to a healthy diet, my answer is a resounding “No.” At their very best, grains are not at all essential; there is nothing they provide that can't be better obtained from other foods. At their worst, grains can have quite significant negative impacts on your health.

So how could grains be bad, you ask, when everyone says they are the basis, the ground floor of the food pyramid, the cornerstone, the centerpiece (you get the idea), of a healthy diet! My answer is that the reputation of grains derives from many things, including USDA agricultural promotional policies and subsidies, but since when did you trust advertising as a source of truth?

There are indeed some good nutritional components to grains. Mostly sugar, they also contain proteins, fats, fiber, vitamins and minerals. Proteins are better sourced from animal sources; fats are actually only in tiny amounts; and the fiber in fruits and vegetables comes interlaced with a much richer variety of vitamins, minerals, and anti-oxidants. If you turn to my current blog post, “Talking About Grains and Health,” you'll see a bit more detail about how grains can rob you of the very vitamins and minerals they are supposed to be offering!

The second question patients ask me, “So if I believe you that grains could be causing my health problem, what will I eat if I eliminate them? Does that mean all grains forever?”

The answer to this question is much simpler. I suggest eliminating all grains for a month long trial, during which time legumes should go for all the same reasons one would avoid grains. See how you feel after a month. If the elimination has made no difference, it's possible that grains aren't the problem. If the elimination has yielded some improvement, it's time to start the truly individual part of the equation.

Which grain do you miss the most? Learn to prepare it correctly, as discussed by Sally Fallon and Mary Enig in Nourishing Traditions, describing the length of time required for each grain to be sprouted (anti-nutrients disabled) and cooked to enable ease of digestion. Re-introduce grains one at a time, saving the gluten containing grains and legumes for last.

Most people are either happier without the health problem even if means avoiding grains, or find a happy medium where a smaller amount of grain is safe for them.

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