Grain-free diets like the keto diet and the paleo diet are gaining a strong foothold in mainstream culture. But is grain-free the way to go?
When it comes to making a healthy lifestyle change, there are two types of people in this world: modest and extreme. Some do well with slow-progression and make small changes over a longer period. For example, you could cut 250 calories every day to lose 10 pounds over the course of 5 months. It’s a small change with a big impact. But it takes patience.
The other half of us need an extreme push to break bad habits. These are the folks that tend to gravitate toward the hottest diet and fitness trends and may do well on a grain-free diet! But the grain-free diet is not for everyone. Let’s take a dive into the pros and cons of going grain-free to help you decide whether it’s right for you:
If you’re a “go big or go home” kind of person, you may be thinking about adopting a grain-free diet. In doing so, you’ll stop eating refined carbohydrates like cookies, pasta, white bread and cereals in exchange for more fruits, vegetables, lean proteins and healthy fat. And that’s a good thing! Recent research suggests that cutting carbs can reduce inflammation and low carb diets like the ketosis diet have been linked to cancer prevention. When you eliminate refined carbohydrates, which often contain added sugar, you’ll also be cutting calories and could see some weight loss.
While eliminating refined grains is a good idea, you may want to think twice about saying goodbye to whole grains. Whole grains—like brown rice, amaranth, quinoa, faro, wheat and oats—are full of nutrients like B vitamins, manganese, iron and fiber. Can you get these nutrients elsewhere on a low-carb diet? Yes! But you’ll need variety. If you go grain-free, I recommend seeking low-carb options that contain these nutrients (seeds, lean proteins and green leafy vegetables). Finally, if you are already following a restrictive diet, like vegan or vegetarian, I recommend against eliminating grains since it will be that much harder to make up the nutrient deficiencies.
Here’s the bottom line: If you’re feeling like you need to make a change, going grain-free might help you get out of the habit of eating refined carbohydrates and desserts. Research suggests that a diet low in refined carbs is linked with better health, so if you need to go completely grain-free for a while to stop eating refined carbs, then I say go for it. However, be open to introducing whole grains back into your life once you feel like you’ve gotten a handle on a healthy eating pattern. Here are some helpful suggestions on grain-free eating:
Find Foods You Love
New followers of a limited-grain diet often complain of lingering hunger. Sources of healthy fat, such as cheese, peanut butter, dark chocolate or avocado, can eliminate that feeling and deliver protein at the same time. At lunchtime, sprinkle seeds on your salad. At dinnertime, starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes and squash offer more bulk to meals.
Satisfy Pasta Cravings with Bean-Based Pastas
Pasta cravings are real. Luckily, pasta from beans and lentils are available and are an easy substitute, containing more protein and fiber than traditional pasta. Make sure you follow the directions on the package–every formula cooks differently, and getting the right texture is essential to that pasta experience.
Branch Out at Breakfast
One major source of refined grains is America’s favorite breakfast: cereal. If you’ve been eating cereal for breakfast since you were a kid, this habit may be hard to kick! So, if you need your cereal fix but want to stay grain-free, opt for a grain-free granola containing nuts, seeds and natural sweeteners like maple and honey.
Have Fun in the Kitchen
A quick Google search reveals that the creativity of the health-conscious knows no bounds. From spiralized vegetables to shredded potato hamburger buns to cauliflower pizza crust, there are plenty of recipes that push the limits of common ingredients and turn the idea of traditional carbs on its head. Experiment in the kitchen and have fun with others’ ideas! Transforming the way you think about grains doesn’t have to be restrictive–it’s an opportunity for exploration.
Stephanie Ferrari, MS, RDN is a Boston-based registered dietitian and the co-founder of FRESH Communications. When she’s not working, you’ll find her knee-deep in toys and leading sing-alongs with her husband and daughters. All images courtesy FRESH Communications