I stopped eating grains.
How could a rice-eatin’ beer-guzzlin’ cheese-and-cracker-lovin’ person such as myself ever fathom such a thing as giving up grains, you might ask?
Grab a drink, have a seat, and settle in–I’d like to tell you.
Let me set the scene with a little bit of my medical history: I followed a vegetarian (sometimes pescetarian) diet for about ten years of my life, and a strict vegan diet for one of those years. While I was vegan, I was studying dietetics at Florida State University. I had a pretty darn good idea of how many kilocalories and grams of protein, carbohydrates and fats I was consuming during per day, and I knew how much of those things I was supposed to be consuming, too. I was a well-studied vegan; I knew what was up, and I followed the rules. But I felt unhealthy. I’d often feel light-headed after eating, especially after breakfast. I saw a doctor and had bloodwork done: my blood was clean and clear and I didn’t have any kind of blood sugar disorder. It was good news, of course, but it left me with no answers.
My weird spells of brain-foggy lightheadnesses continued and made it difficult to focus or think, or you know, appear human-like and normal in social situations. I finally had a consultation with a nutritionist on campus, and she told me I needed not to eat MOAR PROTEIN, but to be more conscious about when I was eating that protein. Instead of snacking on some carrots, she said, dip those carrots in some hummus. Instead of nomming a banana monkey-style, make it more substantial with some peanut butter. I heeded her simple advice and began to feel a lot better.
Fast-forward with me to just a couple months ago. I had weird symptoms and I couldn’t explain them, but this time, I was eating a colorful, balanced diet of whole foods, and remained ever mindful that each meal and snack was accompanied by an adequate amount of protein. My hormones were wackass crazy, I felt exhausted without reason, and I’d get weird and light-headed after eating. I felt lethargic. Often. I didn’t have digestive problems to speak of, but I’d often get that familiar brain fog after eating, despite consuming ample protein. I’d feel it in my eyes, a pulsing or fluttering, like a strange swimmy-spacey feeling, accompanied by foggy confusion. I decided to see a doctor, who ordered a couple diagnostic tests and some extensive bloodwork. Several hundreds of dollars later, my results came back: on paper, I was perfectly healthy.
But I still had weird symptoms, still couldn’t explain them, and neither could that doctor.
My general feelings of unhealth culminated one morning after I ate breakfast. I had eaten a slice of a long-rise, no-knead bread with two fried eggs on the side, and after that meal I experienced the most intense eye-fluttering, out-of-body mind fog I have ever felt. (I can remember trying to interact with Bret and oddly hearing myself spout out strange and belligerent things.) After that point, I began paying much closer attention to when I felt the fog–what did I just eat? have I felt this before when I’ve eaten this? if I get ample protein on the side of this thing, do I still feel this way?–and I made some important discoveries. Oatmeal, whether or not I’d stirred in massive gobs of peanut butter for substance, always gave me a terrible head fog. White potatoes made my stomach burn. Wheat sometimes made me feel like death. I thought I might have a sensitivity to wheat and oats. I avoided those for a while and replaced them with gluten-free substitutes, but the hormonal issues and general feelings of tiredness persisted. I felt oppressed and uncomfortable with my own body.
I had to do something. I needed to heal my body, and I thought I might be able to do that by cutting out all grains and by preparing other hard-to-digest foods (like legumes, nuts, and seeds) properly to reduce their anti-nutrients. Starting in mid-June, I avoided grains and grain products. did not eat any grains or grain products, and began taking a probiotic supplement daily to restore a healthy balance to my gut flora. I replaced my usual beds of brown rice with sautéed cabbage and other leafy greens, and chose roasted or hashed sweet potatoes in place of bread. I started shedding fat almost immediately. I felt awesome. By early August, I’d lost about fifteen pounds and felt more nourished than ever. My post-meal brain fogs were long-gone, and so were those inexplicable bouts of exhaustion. After a while I realized that my chronic aches and pains (that I just assumed were part of my body and part of my life) had lessened considerably. Perhaps the most surprising change was noticing my hormones begin to regulate. I felt clean, light, and truly healthy.
And of course, it’s not all sunshine and dandelions (although, it totally mostly is). There’s been a bit of a learning curve living grain-free gracefully. At first we were buying a lot of exotic groceries and things that weren’t quite practical (like grain-free flours). Analogues just aren’t ever the same as the “real” thing; I’ve learned that a loaf of “bread” made with almond flour just can’t compare with the delicate crumb of fresh quick bread made with wheat, so I don’t bother. Simple and good is what I gravitate toward instead–eggs and spinach, beans and greens, tempeh and veggies. Our wallets are happier and healthier this way, too.
Something else that’s been a little difficult for me eating grain-free is the sharing part of food that I love so much. The majority of dishes I encounter socially (in restaurants, parties, potlucks, dinner with friends, etc.) are grain-based, if not wheat-based. I think food brings us together, and I think we connect to other people through what we eat, so when I see a beautiful and summery fresh tart or a homemade tofu pot pie that a friend lovingly prepared, I really wrestle with wanting to partake in the social experience (not to mention the delicious part) of eating it.
I broke my grain-free streak when our dear friend came to visit a couple weeks ago. He brought us one of his signature tofu pot pies. He makes them with love (and whole wheat flour)! I knew it was going to hurt, but I decided after
much very little deliberation that I definitely wanted to partake in that feast.
And so I did. For the first time in almost two months, I ate wheat. It was delicious, and I was glad to share in that meal with people I care about, but unfortunately, my body wasn’t as receptive as I was. I was astonished at how stuffed I felt after eating just a third of what I’d served myself. I felt absolutely horrible, like I’d eaten bricks and cardboard boxes and burlap sacks. And that strange, melty brain-fog came back without missing beat, as if it had been waiting for the last two months in the back of my skull for grains to feed on. The next day, I weighed three pounds more than I did the day before, and I’m not claiming to have gained three pounds of fat from one serving of pot pie, but I do think the wheat and the overload of carbohydrates has a highly inflammatory effect on my body. That was affirmation enough for me that I should be staying away from conventional grains.
I’ve eaten grains a couple times since that pot pie, and sure enough, I feel horrible every time. My body pain comes back in full force; my joints ache, my teeth hurt, my muscles are sore. My stomach burns until it digests the offending meal. However, I made another important discovery in my trials (and errors): I can eat soaked, sprouted grains without any adverse effects. As a test, I made crêpes with sprouted buckwheat flour and sprouted Einkorn (unhybridized wheat) flour, and felt no pain, burning, or mind fog after I ate them. I even ate one of them on an empty stomach! I was really impressed, and really, really happy.
I don’t think grains are the enemy. Wheat isn’t evil. But, I think, failing to prepare grains (and legumes, nuts, and seeds) properly by soaking/sprouting/souring can really mess with your body. I’m going to continue eating mostly grain-free and allowing my body to heal. I finally feel
healthy truly healthful and I no longer wear an unyielding, carbohydrate-sustained layer of blubber. I do plan on sharing a few special meals of carefully prepared grains, like pupusas con curtido and maybe even an Einkorn pizza, so long as I continue to feel healthy and good after I eat them!
Thank you for reading and for sharing my journey with me. I‘d love to hear if you’ve considered giving up grains (or any other category of food, really)–what made or makes you want to give it up? Did you (or will you) give it the boot? Please don’t hesitate to share your food adventures with me, too; I’d love to hear them!