When I had no improvement in my symptoms doing a dairy-free and gluten-free diet, my primary care doctor suggested I try a grain free diet.
Since my childhood, I had been plagued with stomach pain and headaches. As a teen, I had bloating and diarrhea on and off. After a traumatic surgery, I developed chronic pain in multiple joints. (You can read the full story about my medical trauma here.)
I knew that I felt better when I didn’t eat. So I inferred that my symptoms had something to do with my diet.
One semester in college, I had a 48-hour stomach bug and my symptoms went away for almost a week. The other odd thing was that whenever I gave blood, I felt better for the rest of the day.
By my early twenties, I acquired multiple autoimmune diseases. It was obvious that I had leaky gut, but I didn’t know the root cause. I tried all sorts of functional medicine protocols but made little progress.
However, I felt better while eating grain free… for a while. Some of my digestive symptoms lessened, but I continued to have chronic pain, fatigue, migraines, and intense food cravings.
In my thirties, I discovered that I had been suffering from mold poisoning.
What I’ve learned is that going grain-free can be a helpful tool as a short-term diet, but there are many reasons why it may not be sustainable long term.
My hope with this post is to share my story of bio-individualized nutrition. We are all different and have different needs as we walk through the seasons of life.
And after going through this, I no longer think a particular diet is meant to be forever.
What Is a Grain-Free Diet?
While there isn’t a consensus on the definition of a grain-free diet, it also should not be confused with a low-carb diet or a paleo diet.
The grain-free diet is broader than a paleo diet. The paleo diet typically also restricts processed foods, nuts, and dairy.
A grain-free diet is also not the same as going low carb. A grain-free diet can still have sufficient carbs through carb-rich vegetables like carrots, pumpkin, squash, sweet potatoes, etc.
Overall, it avoids whole grains and products made from grains.
What The Grain-Free Diet Avoids
In general, a grain-free diet avoids ingredients like:
- Wheat (and Gluten Containing Grains)
The grain-free diet avoids all flours and processed foods that come from these crops.
But some of the gray areas of the grain-free diet that some people include, but others don’t are:
- Sweet potatoes
- Alcohol fermented from grains
Because I had pre-diabetes, I also cut out sugar (except that naturally occurring in fruits and vegetables) and artificial sweeteners. Not all of the grain-free diets do that though.
There aren’t peer-reviewed studies (yet!) on the effects of a grain-free diet on humans.
The majority of peer-reviewed studies are on grain-free diets for pet food.
I hesitate to list benefits that others claim because there aren’t data behind them. I only share my experience.
My Grain-Free Diet Slump
When I went grain free, my energy crashed. During my first month of going grain-free, I couldn’t sleep through the night. The insomnia was intense. I never had sleep issues before.
So I ended up adding potatoes back into my diet.
However, eating potatoes plateaued any improvement I had. I still had intense food cravings.
I was fortunate to have a practitioner who knew to check my b vitamins and magnesium nutrient levels. I got my sleep back on track with good supplementation. Once I was sleeping through the night again, I cut potatoes because my blood sugar was still at prediabetic levels.
I also had to be intentional about getting carbohydrates through other sources in my diet. I increased vegetables like squash to make my meals more filling.
While I didn’t have this issue, I want to mention it because I’ve heard it may be common for others: Some people struggle with constipation when they go grain free because they aren’t getting enough fiber.
However, I did have some improvements on the grain-free diet.
My Grain-Free Diet Improvements
I had 3 main improvements in my first year of going grain-free:
- Significant decrease in digestive symptoms
- Balanced blood sugar leading to remission of pre-diabetes
- Sustained weight loss
Although I still had joint pain, the joint stiffness went away. However, through experimentation, I realized the stiffness was caused by cane sugar, not grains.
Looking back, I think that going grain-free gave my digestive system a break. I healed some of my leaky gut and reverse some food sensitivities.
A couple of years into my grain-free diet, I did NAET (Nambudripad Allergy Elimination Techniques) which did help me add dairy, legumes, and lentils back into my diet.
But NAET did nothing for my non-celiac gluten sensitivity or issues with most grains. I’ll explain why I now think that was. But first, there are some things I wish I had done differently in my grain-free diet.
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What I Wish I Did Earlier
First, I wish I had gradually gone grain free instead of eliminating grains all at once. Maybe I wouldn’t have had insomnia and sleep issues that first month. As I’ve gotten older, I prefer to make health changes in a gentler way.
Second, I wish I had increased my protein. Initially, I tried swapping grains mostly with vegetables like cauliflower crusts and lettuce wraps. This is part of why I felt so hungry all the time.
I cringe when I remember how I thought a cup of broccoli was a substantial breakfast.
Now, I’m much more satiated when I eat grass-fed beef, raw cheese, and pasture-raised eggs as staples.
Third, I wish I had increased my nutrient intake of minerals when I went grain free. My blood work showed low potassium and sodium but regular electrolytes weren’t enough.
It wasn’t until years later that I realized I also needed a boost from trace minerals like:
Fourth, I wish I had focused on whole foods instead of spending money on processed foods. I didn’t realize all the advertising from food companies for foods that weren’t very nutritious. I feel more satisfied when I eat high-quality foods.
Overall, I think that going grain free for a time lowered the inflammation in my gut and allowed my digestive tract some time to heal.
If I had discovered the mold poisoning earlier, I don’t think I would have stayed on the grain-free diet for as long. Here’s why.
The Link Between Grains and Mold
The hypothesis that makes sense in my case is that the mold poisoning may be the reason I was reacting to grains.
You see, some of the moldiest foods with the highest levels of mycotoxin contamination are:
- Dried spices and fruits
I can’t help but wonder if my immune system cross-reacted mold with grains. Did my body associate grains with mold?
We believe all the mold I was exposed to had colonized in my nasal cavity. I always had a post-nasal drip until I got out of moldy environments.
In other words, I had mycotoxins dripping down my throat into my stomach. No wonder I couldn’t heal my leaky gut!
In addition to grain-free diets being gentler on the gut lining, perhaps reducing moldy foods in my diet reduced my digestive symptoms.
If you feel better initially when you go grain free and haven’t discerned the root cause of your health issues, I’d recommend looking into mold toxicity.
About a year into taking binders for mold, my practitioner suggested I try adding rice back into my diet. I was hesitant to try any grains, but rice wasn’t showing on my food sensitivity testing anymore.
Adding Grains Back In
My food sensitivity testing was still showing antibodies to wheat, corn, and sorghum. I also knew at this point that I was reacting to high oxalate foods like sweet potatoes and quinoa.
It looked like the gentlest way to add grains back into my diet would be to start with white rice. I knew from reading Katie’s blog that I should soak my rice to reduce phytates.
The first time I only ate two bites and had no new symptoms for 5 days. Then I ate half a cup without issue.
Now, I probably average 3-4 cups of white rice a week. I try to vary the types of rice with long and short grains.
And to my delight, I haven’t had issues with my blood sugar. I was nervous that adding grains back into my diet would bring the pre-diabetes back. But I’ve been able to handle the increase without issue.
I did have 5 pounds of weight gain but I’m still well within a healthy range. It’s been half a year and I haven’t gained any more weight so I think it’s my new normal.
RELATED: Get the recipe for this grain-free pizza crust here.
My Diet Lessons
Here’s what I’ve learned in the last 15 years of trying different diets.
- Just because a diet gives you short-term improvements, it doesn’t mean that the diet is best for you long-term.
- The best diets focus on eating whole foods like high-quality meats and seasonal plant foods.
- The foods that feel best in your body will change depending on what season of life you are in.
- Beware of religious devotion to particular diets and broad sweeping statements that aren’t backed by science.
Is the Grain-Free Diet Right For You?
If you are struggling with your health, I’d encourage you to talk to your practitioner to get individualized testing. Food can have a massive impact on your health.
You may have food sensitivities that are causing you inflammation or even celiac disease.
The key to optimal nutrition is personalization and rotation. I’ve come to the conclusion that a grain-free diet is best used as a short-term healing diet.
Consider how you can eat whole foods more seasonally to give your body breaks from certain foods naturally.
Maybe you will feel better rotating a keto or paleo diet for a few months.
But never cut something out of your diet permanently unless you have a clear medical reason to do so.
Recently, I’ve discovered that I’m reacting to oxalates (which is very common in mold poisoning.) So I gradually cut oxalates from my diet (never do cold turkey on oxalates!) so I don’t end up oxalate dumping.
But I hope to add some foods with oxalates back into my diet eventually.
In our family, we try to eat as many different plant foods as possible to give our microbiomes diversity. I try to serve food for every color of the rainbow each week.
Now that I’m addressing the root cause of my health issues, I’ve been able to add more variety, like grains, back into my diet without issue.
Have you tried a grain-free diet? How long was it helpful for you? Share your experiences in the comments below.
- Fazekas, B., Tar, A. K., & Zomborszky-Kovács, M. (2002). Ochratoxin a contamination of cereal grains and coffee in Hungary in the year 2001. Acta veterinaria Hungarica, 50(2), 177–188. https://doi.org/10.1556/AVet.50.2002.2.7
- Hou, L., Liu, S., Zhao, C., Fan, L., Hu, H., & Yin, S. (2021). The combination of T-2 toxin and acrylamide synergistically induces hepatotoxicity and nephrotoxicity via the activation of oxidative stress and the mitochondrial pathway. Toxicon : official journal of the International Society on Toxinology, 189, 65–72. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.toxicon.2020.11.007
- Ráduly, Z., Szabó, L., Madar, A., Pócsi, I., & Csernoch, L. (2020). Toxicological and Medical Aspects of Aspergillus-Derived Mycotoxins Entering the Feed and Food Chain. Frontiers in microbiology, 10, 2908. https://doi.org/10.3389/fmicb.2019.02908