Is a No-Grain Diet Healthy?
New York City restaurant Hu Kitchen launched their first grain-free bagel last week.
It’s a bold move in a city that prides itself on this breakfast staple.
But the eatery already offers an array of grain-free foods, from 100 percent grass-fed beef burgers on “faux-caccia” buns to treats like banana nut muffins and berry crumble.
Beyond its grain-free options, Hu Kitchen is at the forefront of many food trends. It describes its offerings as organic and “preindustrial,” with no GMOs, gluten, soy, dairy, emulsifiers, canola oil, or processed salt.
“Don’t knock it until you’ve cut it,” said Jordan Brown, the business’s co-founder and chief executive officer.
He told Healthline that people need to experiment with their diets to find out what works best for them.
“Our approach at Hu Kitchen is, ‘What has made us feel better?,'” he said.
Brown noted that when he cut grains from his diet, he had more energy, a better complexion, and less joint pain when he exercised.
He doesn’t shun all grains — Hu Kitchen serves breakfast oatmeal, for example — but there are dieters who do.
The paleo diet, popularized by scientist Loren Cordain, Ph.D., excludes grains and numerous other foods based on the theory that it’s healthiest to eat as humans did during the Paleolithic era.
And proponents of gluten-free diets, such as author Dr. Mark Hyman, readily suggest that people with certain medical conditions try cutting out all grains, while celebrities like actress Gwyneth Paltrow tout grain-free recipes.
But there’s plenty of evidence that grains actually have health benefits — and going grain-free may carry its own risks.
What’s in a grain?
The grains we typically eat in foods like bread and breakfast cereal begin as the seeds of grasses belonging to the Poaceae family.
The most common types are wheat, corn, rice, rye, oats, and barley. Others have also become popular, such as sorghum, farro, and spelt.
Some, like wheat and barley, contain gluten, but others, such as oats and corn, don’t.
There are also “pseudo-grains,” popular in niche health foods, such as quinoa, amaranth, and buckwheat. They are seeds from different plant species.
Most grains have a similar nutrition profile, providing a source of B vitamins and fiber, some minerals like selenium and copper, along with carbohydrates and varying amounts of protein.
Where things get more complicated is the difference between whole grains and refined grains.
Any food labeled “whole grain,” whether it’s flour or pasta, should contain all parts of the grain seed.
Refined grains like white rice and white flour, on the other hand, contain only portions of the seed. This strips the grain of about a quarter of its protein and at least half its nutrients.
Refining, the Whole Grain Council reports, leaves the grain “a mere shadow of its original self.”
There’s overwhelming scientific evidence that whole grains are good for you.
This past June, a research review published in BMJ that included 45 high-quality cohort studies found that eating whole grains is associated with lower risk of heart disease, cancer, and death from all causes.
Studies have also linked diets high in whole grains to healthier cholesterol levels and reduced odds of having type 2 diabetes.
Conversely, diets high in refined grains may actually increase the risk of many of those health problems.
Cutting all refined grains from your diet is a reasonable and healthy choice, according to Angie Murad, a registered dietitian nutritionist with the Mayo Clinic Healthy Living Program.
But she emphasized that whole grains are important to a well-balanced diet.
“I really worry about people who exclude entire food groups,” Murad told Healthline. “Having grains is fine. Choosing the right type of grains is a bigger factor.”
Around the world, it’s become common for people to stop eating certain foods, often because they believe the change will improve their health.
A Nielsen survey released last month found that nearly two out of three global consumers exclude specific ingredients from their diets.
Grain-free eating is part of that trend.
Another Nielsen report found that over a 52-week period ending July 30, 2016, sales of products that included a “grain-free” label claim went up more than 75 percent.
But there are risks when people cut entire categories of food without making sure they’re getting all the essential nutrients they need.
Going grain-free seems to be at the crossroads of the paleo diet and gluten-free trends.
In small studies, “eating paleo” has shown promise for improving risk factors for heart disease and blood glucose levels in people with diabetes. But the diet has also been criticized for its high saturated fat content, and for putting people at risk of calcium and vitamin D deficiencies.
Gluten-free diets are vital for people with celiac disease, a serious autoimmune condition, as well as those who have gluten sensitivities.
There’s also evidence that gluten increases intestinal permeability, which some believe may be related to other autoimmune issues.
But for people who need a gluten-free diet, there’s virtually no evidence that cutting non-gluten whole grains, like oats and brown rice, is helpful.
In fact, people who go gluten-free without eating other sources of fiber may, ironically, end up constipated.
Murad told Healthline that people are often interested in these trendy diets for weight loss but give up because the rules are too challenging.
She said it’s possible to get the nutrients found in grains from other sources, such as legumes and tubers, but it’s hard.
“Eliminating a food group, or even decreasing it, is pretty difficult to do,” she added.
Benefits for digestive problems
For most healthy people, evidence is sparse that going grain-free will be anything but inconvenient.
But for people with certain digestive disorders, some research suggests that eliminating grains eases symptoms.
Last year, a case series in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that the Specific Carbohydrate Diet — which excludes all grains and pseudo-grains, among other requirements — may help manage inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
The researchers looked at data from 50 people with IBD who followed the eating plan and were in remission. More than 92 percent believed the restrictive diet helped them stay healthy.
Mindy Fleder, a 60-year-old New Yorker, believes her special diet has warded off digestive troubles.
Both her mother and sister have Crohn’s disease, and Fleder had polyps in her colon when she was in her 40s.
After seeking medical advice, Fleder gave up dairy and gluten, and later went entirely grain-free.
“It’s basically due to my family history,” she told Healthline, adding that she has colonoscopies every few years with good results so far.
To help stick with her diet, Fleder orders meals from Food Matters NYC, a gourmet delivery service that offers grain-free options.
Tricia Williams, the service’s founder and executive chef, told Healthline that about 80 percent of their clientele are grain-free.
People come to Food Matters NYC with many different health concerns, she explained, and her team designs meals to support those clients’ needs.
“I wouldn’t demonize grains,” Williams told Healthline, but she added that many of her clients report feeling better without them.
By Jenna Flannigan