Despite having settled down in the headlines (largely down to the food industry’s mega-crusade against sugar), gluten free is still storming – placed by Euromonitor at £362m in 2016. Despite the rising popularity in other areas of free from such as dairy free and vegetarian, Euromonitor still predicts phenomenal growth for the gluten free industry – predicting it will reach £578m by 2021.
In recent years, increasing numbers of people are developing their gluten free diets further – into grain free ones. Grain free diets are what they say on the tin – diets which exclude grains, and form the basis of the Paleo diet, a diet excluding anything produced through processed agriculture. Although there is some debate regarding what constitutes a grain, it is largely accepted that any grains, pulses, pseudocereals and seeds should be avoided.
The principal reason for this is the argument put forward by some that the human body isn’t adequately designed to process grains, meaning any foods derived from or containing grains are not fully digestible. This has been claimed to lead to a variety of health problems upon consumption, ranging from mild digestive discomfort to intestinal issues, fatigue, skin complaints and full blown intestinal damage. The grain free diet is therefore thought to be easier on the digestive system, and mitigate these effects. Scores of celebrities, authors and even some dietitians have come out in support of the diet, inspired by William Davis’ controversial Wheat Belly. But is the diet all that it seems?
There are many who argue that the damage supposedly caused by grains is non-existent in those without diagnosed intolerances, and some even claim that following a grain free diet unless under strict supervision or for medical necessity can do more harm than good. Now that the diet is further along in its life cycle (in publicity terms), although increasing numbers of people are still adopting the diet, increased numbers are beginning to criticise it, too.
The grain free diet has been called out for leaving some followers deficient in vital nutrients present in large quantities in grains – for example iron and folate. In addition, many grain-containing products such as bread and cereals are often fortified with useful vitamins and nutrients. Grains also contain a significant amount of dietary fibre, vital to a healthy, balanced diet. Cutting out grains increases the risk of becoming fibre deficient, which itself can play host to a whole range of problems.
In addition, an emerging argument is one that tries to undermine the main premise of the grain free argument – that humans and our digestive systems simply aren’t designed to process grains. They argue that taking this statement into account by itself is problematic – there are those who claim that there is a whole range of things our bodies aren’t supposed to process – meat and dairy are commonly cited here, as are a range of things – just what do we believe, if anything? Secondly, even if it is true and our bodies aren’t designed to process grains, we have been doing so for centuries and only very few people proportionately have experienced any kind of adverse reaction – it would certainly seem that in those not intolerant to grains, the benefits of their consumption far outweigh the negatives.
Of course, this is not to say that grain free diets are intrinsically bad – many find themselves benefitting from cutting out grains, intolerances or no intolerances – this article is simply exploring the bad rap grains have received over the last few years, and exploring whether or not it is justified. As with adopting any significant dietary changes, it is strongly advisable to do so under the instruction or supervision of a qualified dietitian or GP – and of course, not everything will work for everyone.
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