What’s All the Fuss About Gluten-Free and Grain-Free?

Happy not-so-New Year!  Was my last post really in 2010?  Yes it was.  And 4-Hour Body author Tim Ferriss put it on his Facebook page and tweeted it, which was awesome.

If that’s how you found the site, great.  Maybe you can chime in and help me with something.

The unsexy gluten-free rage

iStock 000014769178XSmall 200x300Gluten-free and grain-free strike me as just about the most boring diet premises one could dream up.  Especially for vegetarians, for whom grain is one of the last bastions of comforting, cooked food, nixing it sounds terribly unappealing.

So the fact that everyone (including top endurance athletes) is talking about getting the grain out of their diets has left has me thinking that maybe there’s something to it.  Drastic improvements in endurance and recovery, perhaps?

Grain-free is a central premise of the Paleo diet, and one that requires no modification in my vegetarian version of Paleo.  Among the other credible sources in my universe who advocate low-gluten or low-grain: Brendan Brazier, Rich Roll, Tim Ferriss, and Brian MacKenzie of CrossFit Endurance.

In the case of gluten, a protein composite primarily found in wheat, the main rationale for avoiding it is that it’s difficult for our bodies to process it.  Wheat allergies and Celiac’s disease are the extreme cases, but proponents of a low-gluten diet say that wheat is an inflammatory in everyone, and it can slow us down and cause weight gain.

Why I’m not yet a No-Wheat Athlete

Only in the past few months have I really started listening to any of them.  I’ve reduced my wheat intake to the point where it’s a cheat food, something I’ll eat only on binge days.  (Spelt pasta is a nearly indiscernible alternative to whole wheat, spaghetti freaks. [UPDATE: Spelt is actually a form of wheat -- so not gluten free, but I still think it's healthier than most whole-wheat products.)

But I'm hesitant to give up other grains.  I mean, brown rice?  That's an absolute staple for me.  (My latest snack/meal obsession: brown rice, avocado, Bragg's amino acids, and lime juice.)  Even quinoa, not technically a grain but a seed, is banished under the strictest plans.

But that's the not biggest problem.  When I get to the point where I'm convinced that my long-term health or performance as an ultrarunner can be improved with a diet change, I'm usually pretty good at exacting that change.  (Coffee being a notable blemish on my record.)  That's why I went vegetarian, and why I'm tending recently towards vegan.

No, the problem isn't that it's too hard.  The problem is that I'm just not convinced.  I can't truthfully say that I've noticed a single benefit since cutting out the wheat.  In fact, I've just found it harder to fill the plate with enough calories.

I'm hoping a few success stories will inspire me and others to stick with it, or that enough stories of failure will convince me that it's not for everyone.  So that's what I'd like to hear from you about.

Have you experienced significant changes in your energy levels, your endurance or strength, or y0ur recovery time since going gluten-free or grain-free?  And while I understand the idea that gluten is an inflammatory agent in our bodies, what's the deal with gluten-free grains?  What's the rationale for avoiding them?

Grain-free cannellini bean curry

While we’re talking grain-free, here’s a recipe for a fantastic dish I made for the second time last night.  It’s grain-free, not on purpose really, it just happens to be that way.  It can accompany rice or naan if you like, but I’ve served it alongside broccoli or spinach.

I’d classify it as non-spicy Indian, which is one reason it’s one of my wife’s favorite dishes we’ve had recently.  It’s from Anjum’s New Indian, and (sadly) it will be the last recipe I can post from that book.  But up next is Vegetarian Times’ Everything Vegan, so have no fear.

This curry uses cannellini beans, which is slightly odd-seeming since “cannellini” doesn’t exactly sound Indian.  But it works, and that’s sort of what makes Anjum’s book unique; for example, you might remember the black-eyed pea curry recipe I posted a while back.

A few other notes: If you don’t have asafoetida, Anjum says you can skip it.  It’s mainly a digestive aid.  And if you don’t have curry leaves, she often recommends substituting basil leaves, so that’s what I did here.  I also added a little bit of lemon juice before serving.

Give this one a try.  It has a very subtle, coconuty and lightly sweet flavor.  Which of course I had to lay waste to with a big pinch of cayenne pepper.  Just how I roll, I suppose.

From Anjum’s New Indian, Anjum Anand, John Wiley and Sons, 2008

Serves 4-6

  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil
  • good pinch of asafoetida (I skipped this)
  • 1 tsp brown mustard seeds
  • 14 fresh curry leaves
  • 1 small-medium onion, peeled and chopped
  • 1/4 inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped
  • 5 large cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped
  • salt, to taste
  • 1/2 tsp ground turmeric
  • 1/2 tsp pure red chile powder
  • 1 rounded tsp ground coriander
  • 2/3 cup coconut milk
  • 2 cups cannellini (white kidney) beans, drained and rinsed
  • 10 cherry tomatoes, halved if large or left whole if small
  • 1 tsp brown sugar or jaggery
  • 3/4-1 tsp tamarind paste, or to taste (some brands are really strong)
  • handful of fresh or frozen grated coconut, to garnish
  • handful of fresh cilantro, chopped

Heat the oil in a large nonstick saucepan.  Add the asafoetida and, once it sizzles, add the mustard seeds.  Once they start to pop, add the curry leaves, then the onion and cook until these are soft and golden, around 8-10 minutes.  Add the ginger and garlic and cook for 1 minute over medium heat.  Add the salt and powdered spices and stir for 30 seconds.  Add the coconut milk and 3/4 cup water and bring to the boil, then simmer for 10 minutes.

Add the beans and tomatoes and simmer for 5 minutes, allowing the flavors to marry.  Stir in the sugar and tamarind paste, then mash some beans against the side of the pan to thicken the curry a little.  Taste and adjust the tartness, sweetness and seasoning to taste.  Garnish with the grated coconut and fresh cilantro and serve.

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Comments

  1. I will be so interested to see your readers’ comments on this topic. I agree that when you eat a mostly plant-based diet, leaving out grains sounds awful.

  2. I’m a gluten-free athlete, not because choose to be, but because I’m intolerant to gluten. It sure cuts out a lot of junk that I’d otherwise be tempted to eat. But there’s no way that I could teach fitness classes and participate in endurance events without my grains. Athletes need good carbohydrates for fuel, and I can’t imagine getting enough without the grains. I love rices, quinoa, buckwheat, and I bake with all sorts of alternative flours like sorghum, brown rice, quinoa, and some bean flours. I actually believe my diet is a lot broader because I can’t just default to wheat. I have to be creative, and I love it.

    They say that one in every 130 people has a gluten intolerance. They just don’t realize it.

    • I completely agree with Heather. I’m gluten intolerant as well, and it is a huge pain in the butt. I really don’t know what I would do if I had to cut out all the other grains listed above. And it really does make you more creative with your meals. If anything, it has improved the variety of my diet since going gluten free.

      Since going gluten free, I’m not in a “fog” for half the day. I can think clearer, and it really keeps me from eating even more sweets when we go out to eat most of the time. The bloating has gone away as well! Well, unless I eat dairy. I’m also lactose intolerant.

      They say that it takes 6 months of being off gluten for your body to stop craving it. It is like a drug!

  3. I’m not ready to tackle the grain beast, even experimentally, either! Grains make up a huge portion of my intake!

  4. I became vegan after reading the Engine 2 Diet and Thrive. Shortly thereafter, I realized that I was also intolerant of gluten and each time I eat it, I experience pretty severe symptoms.
    This summer I became quite anemic and my performance began to suffer greatly. I was not able to take in enough calories to sustain the training I was doing for ultramarathons.
    As a result, I decided to go more vegetarian than vegan until I can become more versed in providing my body with the appropriate amount of calories and nutrients it requires to train and still have energy for the rest of my day.
    I do eat quinoa pasta, brown rice, and other gluten free grains. I don’t see how else I could sustain a healthy balance otherwise. I don’t see a problem with grains. They are plant-based.
    Admittedly, I do look forward to being completely plant based in the next month or so. Personally, it is what works for me the best.

  5. One benefit to demonizing gluten… you’ll demonize most junk food in the process. IMO gluten containing foods are junk food. Tasting like cardboard all alone makes them nothing but a vehicle for unneeded/unwanted empty calories. They provide me with nothing(nutrient wise) I can’t easily get somewhere else, and I’ll feel better to boot if I choose other foods.

    I think my personal problem with gluten (and maybe grains in general) is my large consumption. I consume so much, the damage comes very quickly. My knees will sound like a handful of gravel was tossed in, and my sinuses will inflame (bleed & infect) in no time.

    Again, I feel gluten grains provide zero benefits, so there is no reason to consume them. If you do, I suggest proper preparation to reduce some of the drawbacks of consuming them. Look no further than places like Weston Price. They can provide a wealth of good information even if you don’t believe in consuming and animal products. Here’s a great article on reducing phytic acid I stumbled on a while ago: http://bit.ly/fZ1plc

    • Grok, I like the argument that since it tastes like cardboard, it doesn’t do anything for us. Never heard that one before, but it makes sense. But then, what about nuts? I know some have some taste, but it’s not much at all if they’re not roasted and salted. As nutritious as raw almonds are, I wouldn’t say they taste any better than plain eggless pasta does. Thanks for the link; lots of great info there.

      • Well, I’m a nut lover… but I have to agree somewhat on the almond thing. Although gluten free, that article points out that nuts have even more phytic acid than the grains, so it’s probably a good idea to moderate them as well.

        The GF gourmet scene (paleo too) loves to load up on the nut flours. Many wonder why the weight doesn’t come off while they are “eating paleo”. I say… “Hello people, it’s still a damn cupcake!”

        Nuts used in moderation (like sprinkled on salads or other dishes) can add a lot of flavor/enjoyment. Some people even find a few as a satiating snack. I can’t remember the last time I sprinkled whole grains on a dish to add flavor ;) Well, maybe HFCS laced granola… and it was probably on a dessert.

  6. For me, eating gluten is simply out of the question. I can’t tolerate it in any amounts so I don’t bother.

    I have reduced(not cut out) grains from my diet because I don’t think they’re even nutritionally comparable to fresh fruits and vegetables. I’m always going to eat cookies and brownies when I make them, so I figured swapping my daily oatmeal for a banana and some nut butter was a good way to reduce grains.

    I think Grok’s right in that eliminating grains gets rid of most junk foods. And I’d say that if I eliminated them entirely and swapped my desserts for apples/oranges I’d probably be a little healthier. But I’m not interested in being the perfect picture of health and don’t think a moderate amount of grains are dangerous to anything.

  7. Didn’t the gluten-free trend arise when people were realizing they had gluten intolerances and celiac disease?

    I’ve written a post about this (why wheat/soy/gluten/etc.-free doesn’t equal healthy or delicious: http://s.rvxn.org/2010/10/08/why-soy-wheat-fat-sugar-gluten-free-doesnt-equal-healthy-or-delicious/ ) because I think it’s obviously important for people who HAVE allergies to soy, gluten, wheat, etc., to have access to those foods, but for those who aren’t intolerant/allergic, I feel like it’s just another food trend, or that gluten has become another thing– like soy– that has been demonized. Every body (literally) is different, and there are entire cultures who have thrived on soy– unfermented soy, at that!– and wheat gluten (which makes up the bulk of many a Chinese Buddhist vegetarian’s diet). There are individuals who don’t thrive on them.

    Personally, I’ve had some gluten-free foods before and I thought they tasted awful. Besides, I really enjoy grains!

  8. jon Weisblatt says:

    I can only speak anectodately obviously, but when I changed carb loading from wheat pasta to quinoa,lentils, and gluten free bread for my last marathon, although the performance aspect wasn’t markedly different, I didn’t feel as full or bloated carb loading with these. For my wife, going gluten free has helped her psoriasis tremendously.
    I agree most gluten free bread (I find Udi’s tastes pretty good) and cookies are tough as far as taste, and gluten free bread has slightly less carbs than regular bread.
    However, we must enjoy life some. You know what happens to be people who go animal protein free, gluten free, caffeine free, alchohol free, fat free, and sugar free? Yup, they die eventually anyway.

  9. @Jon, those people don’t live longer, their lives just seem interminable! LOL! In all seriousness, I have no opinion on grains, gluten, etc, but the recipe provided looks AWESOME and I can’t wait to try it!

    • jon Weisblatt says:

      Hey Sharon,
      I’ve heard that joke before. I love that one! My good friend who’s a fun loving, meat eating, wine drinking gal always says her body is a temple too, she just prays to it differently.

  10. gluten gave me harsh brain fog, and other grains (and even seeds, like the reverant and hallowed quinoa, made me bloated and gave me stomach pain). it’s kind of tough to be an endurance athlete at the top of your game when you don’t feel all there mentally and you’re contending with a messed up tummy.

    • Quinoa did the same thing to me! … much to my surprise and dissapointment …. I’m trying to figure out how to get enough calories since cutting out wheat (quinoa, etc), sugar and dairy.

  11. Hey, Matt, I agree with a lot of what you are saying, but quinoa and brown rice are DEFINITELY wheat and gluten free!! I think you are crossing some of the 4HB and wheat free ideas.. Under Tim’s plan, ALL grains are banned,,, Wheat free usually means no gluten, which allows rice quinoa, buckwheat etc… the difficult ones are the “hidden” wheat/gluten in ingredients in food.. . By the way, I was “almost gluten free” for quite some time but did not see the performance benefits until going completely GF for a month.
    http://www.glutenfreeathlete.com

  12. Having owned a bakery, having relatives who own a gluten free bakery, and a wife who doesn’t tolerate wheat gluten well has lead us to do a lot of exploration in this area.
    1, Yeast fermentation chamges the protein structure in bread. Modern flours allow for a 20 minute “rising” in commercial loaves. Most people who have wheat intollerences are much, or cmpletely improved if they bake their own wholemeal breads with long fermentation times. Even your breadmaker will allow an hour plus fermentation for a wholemeal loaf
    2, If wheat protein still worries you, switch to spelt.
    3, Most people don’t understand that most grains contain gluten, especially oats. I know people who are on “gluten free” diats and start the day with porridge! Suffice to say there is a lot of ignorance in this matter.
    4, I really need the 13% protein content in bread. That’s where I get a a good bit of my protein during the day.
    5, We have on occasion gone gluten free, and it made no difference at all to my running times. Certainly the prospect of a gluten free breakfast doesn’t make me hurry home from my morning run.
    6, If you have an ongoing cronic health condition start by avoiding comercial breads, then move to spelt, and then if you see no improvement start cutting out grains one by one and see what happens.
    7, Of course, keep it wholegrain and organic!
    Hope that helps.

  13. I’ve been Gluten-Free longer than I have been vegan/vegetarian, but this was because it was suggested to me by a holistic nutritionist that I could be allergic to wheat or gluten, so I cut it out of my diet just to try it. The results were really good: I slept better, felt less bloated, and had less digestive disturbances, which I can believe helped my athletic performance (and I even had better-looking skin, stronger nails and less frizzy hair). Later when I attempted to reintroduce wheat, I actually had an allergic reaction. So I stayed Gluten-Free.

    This is not to say that it would be the same for everyone, but my own allergies were so subtle while gluten was in every part of my diet (bread, pasta, cereal, baked desserts, etc) I never noticed them until I had completely removed Gluten from the equation (I was gluten-free for a solid 5 weeks before attempting the reintroduction). If a Gluten-Free diet shift helped one perform better athletically, I would dare say that person may have the same allergy/intolerant issue that I experience.

    I’ve been officially Gluten-Free since 2004.

  14. I’ll keep it short and sweet: I just graduated from an intensive raw vegan chef program at 105degrees Academy. For 61 days, I ate nearly 100% raw. No gluten, no refined sugars, no legumes, and of course no animal products. What happened? I gained 6 lbs. Of FAT. On my small frame.

    I love raw food, and I’m keeping my diet HIGH-raw, but the mere inclusion of grains and legumes since my return has made me feel worlds better. More energy, less bloating and fatigue.

    Everyone’s different, but I, like you, and thoroughly UNconvinced that those of us who are NOT gluten-intolerant should avoid it or other grains.

    • This fat gain actually doesn’t surprise me. Don’t have to look far to see long termers that end up dumpy, muscleless, gaunt, skinny-fat, and low-energy in the raw gourmet scene. Gourmet certainly has it’s place, but gourmet is gourmet no matter what the diet.

      You’d have lots more energy if you ate raw 811. I just came off 6 months (100%) of it last week, and will going back on next week. Wouldn’t have come off at all, but I just moved and the fruit here is dreadful in the winter.

      • Grok – I was under the impression you were a Paleo diet fan. Interesting to hear you have done, and intend to keep doing, the 80/10/10 plan. Would love to hear more about it from you. Thanks for your posts.

        • I am a paleo diet fan. I’m any real food diet fan. Look no further than my random ramblings on twitter or my site :)

          I’ve hit the full spectrum of realfood diets from carnivore (zero-carb) through 90/5/5. I’ve even survived almost exclusively granulated sugar too (seriously).

          811 has been great for my exercise recovery, mood and many other things. I’ve always loved sugar & huge volume meals, so it seemed like a good match. It’s a very easy diet to stay on [if] you have good fruit. The only drawback is it’s slightly inconvenient. Every diet has its drawbacks.

  15. I just wanted to share that I have been recently experimenting with this as well, and I am currently in the same place Matt is, but maybe looking for a little more athletic/performance results and guidance. I did want put out there (to complement the gluten-free taste issue, plus gluten free brownies don’t make them healthy argument) that I recently purchased a cookbook from a vegan gluten free baking company in Seattle called “Flying Apron.” You can purchase this cookbook on Amazon, I checked :) It is incredible. There are no simple flours, weird binding agents, fillers etc. All the recipes are very simple, and very healthy (I have hypoglycemia and I am SO grateful to finally see gluten free/vegan recipes that are made with whole grains, garbanzo bean flours, and only natural sweeteners). The book includes varies baked good recipes as well as breads, soups, salads, and cultural dishes. Anyways just wanted to share because any healthy gluten free curious person would benefit a lot from it. I have been fueling my long runs with their buckwheat seed bread which I am loving, and it ties in a lot with Matt’s previous topic of lowering sugar intake and teaching the body to burn far as fuel.

  16. I feel like the gluten free thing has become a gigantic trend – no need to give up whole grains in order to dispel junk food and junky white bread etc. from your diet. Next year someone will find a reason to stop eating fruit, whatEVER! Foods from nature and not from a factory, that’s more like it.

    • I agree!

      Speaking of people who tell you not to eat fruit.. that’s a lot of what’s behind Paleo/slow-carb/etc. diets, another food/diet trend on the rise.

    • Funny you should mention someone saying stop eating fruit…Tim Ferriss does in 4-Hour Body. That’s part of his fat-loss diet though, which I’m not doing since I’m in it more for endurance and strength gains.

      • interesting, because you just had the Fruitarian post and now the post from the guy who tried no fruit. I find all of this very confusing and at times extremely frustrating. I also think there is a big difference between no-gluten and no-grain. If someone is gluten intolerant then it makes sense to eliminate it, but healthy whole grains seem like a very important part of a vegetarian diet. just my thoughts….

        • I’ve done reasonably long (or long) stints of no grains, nearly all grains, no gluten, no fruit, all fruit, no vegetables, almost all vegetables, zero-carb, very low-carb, hyper-carb, hypo-caloric, and hyper-caloric. Hell, I even did no groceries for two months.

          I gained weight on most, lost weight on most.

          Here is what I’ve learned:
          1.) Grains = inflammation (especially gluten) at least for me.
          2.) Eat real food and you’re probably pretty good to go :)

      • well the Atkins diet also had us believe that eating fruit was a bad thing due to the carbohydrate content. There are many ways to lose weight, like ketosis, not all of them are really healthy. I’m more a believer in the calories in/calories out theory when it comes to losing weight (the only thing that ever worked for me was eating less and exercising more).

  17. I’m gluten-free and vegan have have been for over a decade. I can’t tolerate any gluten at all, but it’s due to celiac disease. My husband, who’s been with me over 11 years, has been tested for allergies and isnt allergic to wheat but feels sort of sick if he eats too much of it. I think people can get this way if they eat too much of a certain type of food. I noticed this happening to me with soy and rice. I took a break from them and only eat in moderation. I think we have to be careful not to eat too much of certain grains. Also I’ve read that the type of wheat grown now has a lot more gluten than the heirloom varieties.
    I say, if you feel better off a certain food, then cut it out. But be sure to expand your other choices in response, like try to eat more variety in beans and veggies.

  18. Matt, sorry, but my last comment dropped, maybe a double post, so sorry.. But you say under-Why I am not yet a no-Wheat Athlete and then say…”But I’m hesitant to give up other grains. I mean, brown rice? That’s an absolute staple for me. (My latest snack/meal obsession: brown rice, avocado, Bragg’s amino acids, and lime juice.) Even quinoa, not technically a grain but a seed, is banished under the strictest plans.”… I think you are getting the 4HB and being wheat free mixed up… Both rice and Quinoa ARE wheat free, so live it up and know that you are still a wheat and meat free athlete!

    • GlutenFreeAthlete, I just found your other comment; it went to spam because you put a url in it. I thought I had it set so that it allowed one url to be included, so I’m not sure why it ended up there but I think the url is probably to blame.

      Anyway, you’re right; I guess that “Wheat-Free Athlete” header is confusing…I thought it was funny and in my hysteria at my own joke, I guess I didn’t realize that of course, I am pretty much wheat free. I’m aware of the difference (hence the distinction in the title of the post), but yeah, that subhead makes it seem like I’m confused.

  19. I’m another gluten free no meat athlete. After suffering with strange stomach pains for over a year my doctor finally figured out in November that I’m allergic to gluten. I cut it from my diet and most days I feel great. It is wonderful to be a person again and not rolling around on the floor in pain all day/night. I am very sensitive and if there is any contamination I will get sick. We don’t eat out very often and when we do I don’t get to eat the yummy stuff any more.

    Thanks to my diagnosis we were also able to find out that my daughter is allergic, too. She is 21 months and has been having health problems since birth. With taking away gluten she is finally able to eat regular meals and not be sick afterwards.

    There are times when I would love to have a pretzel or a regular old pb&j, but feeling as good as I do is definitely worth not having it!

  20. I was really interested to read this, as I too have noticed the rise of the paleo diet and the backlash against grains.

    My stance has always been avoid too much of any one thing, and that’s especially the case with wheat. It is so prevalent in modern-day food that I avoid it wherever I can in favour of things like spelt and brown rice, so that when I do consume it, I’m not going overboard. I also eat a lot of pseudo-grains (thanks Brendan Brazier!). But having gone vegan a few months back, I just don’t know what I’d be left to eat if I cut out this stuff altogether. Legumes? Well, those are apparently bad news too..

    I know that paleos would argue that if I’m struggling with my diet, then it’s the veganism which is at fault, not the veto on grains or legumes. And so if there is something to this, then I wonder whether my ethics are pulling me in one direction and my health in the other. If so, that would suck.

    Really knotty debate — glad you got into it!

    Alison

  21. I find this topic really interesting!! As I can’t seem to drop my little 10 pounds and I have fluctuating levels of energy.

  22. Matt,

    I’ve read through the comments, and, while anecdotal experience makes for good conversation, didn’t believe that anyone has answered your question: What’s the big deal about grains? I’ll try and outline it very briefly here.
    The premise of grains as harmful to the body comes from evolutionary ecology principles. Seed-bearing plants (namely, here grasses)develop strategies to ensure seed dispersal. For grasses (corn, wheat, some other grains)…well, let’s take wheat for example, since that’s what we are discussing. Wheat’s strategy is to produce ‘toxins’ or substances that discourage digestion, thereby allowing the seeds to pass through the digestive system and be dispersed in scat. This is fine for grazers and ruminants (whose bacteria process the toxins), but for humans it means gut irritation.

    A good example is that for every gram of wheat bran eaten (the bran is the outer shell), fecal weight increases by 5.7 grams. It turns out that wheat bran increases the amount of undigested matter in the stool. Interesting. Well it turns out that wheat toxins are most abundant in the bran.

    There are three main wheat related toxins: gluten, opioids (yep, scientists are beginning to learn that wheat can be addictive. get your bread fix today?), and wheat germ agglutinin (WGA).

    WGA interferes with Vit. D action and has been shown to damage intestinal epithelial wall cells.

    Gluten does all sorts of things. Here’s just one: it inhibits cell proliferation and increases cellular oxidation products (read: cells don’t reproduce at normal rate, and produce more free radicals and such).

    Studies estimate that 83% of the human population develop observable gut inflammation after eating wheat gluten.

    Just something to chew on (pun intended). There’s lots in the peer-review literature about the effects of grains (esp. wheat), and there are a few books out there that are lay-accessible that outline some of the risks of grain consumption.

    I do want to speak quickly to people who are saying that athletes ‘need their carbs’. Yes we do; however, we don’t need nearly what people eat, or think they need. Matt, you just did a post recently on burning fat for fuel (about a man running across the US): Fat is the primary and preferred source of fuel for cell mitochondria (energy center of cells).

    Interestingly, cancer cells prefer sugars (carbs) as fuel and will die when deprived of sugars, even in a fat rich env.). Our bodies store ~130,000 calories of accessible energy in muscle (processed mostly as fat by the body), but only about 2000 calories of accessible liver and muscle glycogen. Now, why would our bodies do that? Because carbs aren’t the bodies preferred fuel.

    Carb needs for an average person are between 2-600 calories/day (300 is a safe number). For athletes, we are on the higher end. If we use 500 carb calories/day as the baseline (for athletes), for ultra athletes, we may need, as a rule of thumb, about 100 extra carb calories per hour of exercise per day. Most people’s carb consumption is in the 1000′s of calories, which is way too much. The extra is stored as fat in adipose tissue (read: feeds your ponch, your spare tire).

    The idea is that living on a lower carb diet allows your body to use the fuel it prefers–fat. A fun side note for vegetarians: most of the veggies you eat are fermented by bacteria which eat them and release short-chain fatty acid’s which our bodies use for food. So when you eat veggies, you’re getting (good) fat.

    As a good example, I just ran a brutal trail marathon on just two small LaraBars and had plenty of energy. I’ve been living on reduced carbs for 19 months, and don’t worry about bonking. I may get tired, hungry, thirsty–but I don’t bonk.

    Love the blog. Keep it up.

    -Matt

    • Matt, this is great info, most of which I’ve never read before. Lots to digest here (yet another bad pun, sorry). The fecal weight thing is actually kind of interesting. Any idea what the weights are for other types of foods?

      I’ve started to be able to run with very little food intake too (and even very little water intake, something that I didn’t expect to happen but that I’ve since read about). It’s a pretty neat feeling.

    • Thanks for taking the time for that thorough response. Spot on.

      The kicker:
      I ran/biked low-carb for about a year. Bonking wasn’t really an issue, but I also wasn’t fast or explosive and muscle recovery was not great. Acid production (reflux) was also an issue that I didn’t really realize until after I started running on carbs (via fruit) again.

      I’m not really running right now, but am cycling a decent amount. I’ve found that 200 cals (50-ish carbs) via 3 medjool dates every hour, is justbarely enough to keep me feeling good. I don’t see myself fueling with processed foods anymore, so I’ll need to do some more testing.

      My best results (at least for mood & cycling anyway) seem to come after a 1,500 cal low-fat breakfast (like pile of bananas & dates) 90 minutes or so pre-WO, followed by the date fueling above.

      I never really say never, but I don’t see myself being lower-carb again anytime soon. It was just too hard to get motivated to workout, and workouts felt like work.

    • This is so interesting and I am very much interested in where some of your sources are. You obviously have read a lot on the matter, can you point me in the right direction of specific books/websites?

      One thing I wanted to add is that I really can believe this very easily, because on the short time I have been experimenting with low grain/very low sugar intake I have had a remarkable change in my appetite and mental state. I now know what Brenden Brazier was talking about when he describes his experience limiting sugar – a almost meditative state emerges and I have virtually no unhealthy cravings and no dramatic dips in energy (unless I need to eat a snack because I need calories). I am certainly still eating carbs and a small amount of grains, usually first thing in the morning, but I would say my calorie intake is similar to what you said is appropriate. Very interesting!

  23. Ahhhh

    “The problem is that I’m just not convinced.”

    This is me. Me and raw, me and the gluten thing …

    I’m vegan because I think it’s good for the SOUL. I can’t say the same thing about going raw or cutting out gluten.

    the fact is, I don’t eat much gluten, cause really … the stuff is costly! I never buy bread and it’s easier to keep rice and quinoa around (and my new love, grits/polenta..). I’m trying the quantum wellness cleanse at the moment, so we’ll see how many days I get in, but that’s no sugar, gluten, alcohol, or caffeine.

  24. I’m not an ultra or endurance athlete, just a beginning runner and longtime yogi. However, I notice a huge difference when I exercise on or off gluten – and, yes, largely it’s the inflammation factor. Specifically, whenever I cut out gluten, my joints feel more mobile and my athete’s asthma is much, much less likely to trigger. For the first time ever, I can breathe when I run. But… I still eat non-glutenous grains/flours because I don’t see a good reason to stop.

    • It’s interesting that so many people have mentioned trouble breathing or mucous. I’m one who always notices immediate improvement when I put on a Breathe-Right strip, and also have a very poor sense of smell, I think due to nasal passages being clogged. It’s something I never thought to observe when I’m eating very little wheat/grain, but I’m going to have to start taking note to see if it improves.

    • You guys want to breath like you’ve never breathed before? Go 811 (ie.. fruit diet). After about a month you’ll breath so much better you might have to concentrate on not hyperventilating.

      • yes! i don’t think i’ve ever breathed so clearly in my life. no more stuffy nose or chest congestion. EVER.

        • For sure. I’ve been off 811 for a week now (due to crappy fruit) and can already tell the difference. I woke up this morning as clogged & sticky as an old drain. I’m still 100% vegan (70%+ carb) and not eating junk food either.

          In full disclosure, I believe I’m going to have my second and final love affair with a couple gluten wrapped vegetarian burritos when I head into town shortly ;)

  25. Even on a high-raw food diet grain free is hard. As for gluten free, I’ve really only head of people with allergies cutting it out. But, hey if people are doing it for purely nutritional reasons, that might even help my little raw, vegan, gluten free energy bar company even more! :) Once I start running and cycling again (out from injury) I might have to look into this more.

  26. I wouldn’t say it’s a fuss as much as it is a conscientious evolution in eating habits coming from personal experiences. My diet has been a progression since I was a child, 33 now, and I am very happy with where I am. It is human nature to question what is not familiar and logically, to seek answers. No one will convince anyone else of anything. It is self awareness and personal experience that leads to the acceptance or rejection of a new idea, especially when it comes to the basic human need of food.
    I am Vegan, gluten free and grain free. Mostly raw too. My second pregnancy was fueled with this diet and I worked out intensely 6-7 days a week, even competing in a duathlon and mountain trail race in the third trimester. There are endless possibilities in the world of produce for human fuel. Variety, creativity and abundance is key for me.
    Check out Michael Arnstein http://www.thefruitarian.com and Tim VanOrden http://www.runningraw.com …two endurance athletes, fruitarian and raw foodist, respectively…these guys are great. I admire and love the way they LOVE food. I mean, really appreciate and get excited about the whole unbroken beauty of produce. Produce ROCKS! I have a background in fruit and veggie agriculture so I am a little bias in my love of produce. A great resource for science based articles and info in relation to grains is (although not a vegetarian community) http://www.marksdailyapple.com (paleo is their thing)

  27. Madeleine says:

    I am already vegan and am so NOT going to give up grains. Re gluten, it makes sense to give up if one is intolerant but otherwise I think it’s just a fad.

  28. Brianna O. says:

    I don’t know if this was mentioned already but curry leaves are the same as cilantro leaves. :-)

    • Wow that is so great to know! Thanks! And I’ve been substituting basil all this time, thinking I’d have to wait until I made it to an Indian market…stupid me.

      • Brianna O. says:

        My boyfriend is Indian. I felt really stupid when he asked my to pick up curry leaves and I didn’t know it was cilantro. Now we know! hehe

  29. Matt,
    I don’t know about other grains, how they increase fecal weight. It is indeed fun to be confident that you can go and go…and go without a thousand goos in your pocket. I’m reminded of the African hunters described in Born to Run. If I remember correctly, they track run down antelope which can take most of the day–without much to eat.

    Grok,
    I’m glad you’re that in tune with your body, to know what works for you. I haven’t experienced motivational issues on a low(er) carb diet. In fact, it’s been the opposite for me.

    Beth,
    Lots of folks say similar things as you: When they reduce grains and/or (especially) sugar, they feel loads better. My changes in diet were facilitated by a grim diagnosis of Ulcerative Colitis–I had to change my diet, or the disease would have incapacitated or eventually killed me. Thus, also the impetus to read so much about diet and health. I started with Breaking the Vicious Cycle, by Elaine Gottschall. It’s a diet, the Specific Carbohydrate Diet, that focuses on healing Colits, Crohn’s, Celiac, IBS, and is even effective with autism and schizophrenia (probably b/c it avoids all grains). Today, I’m medication free and control the disease with diet, exercise, and some few dietary supplements like Probiotics.

    There are oodles of resources out there. I’m trying to think where you could start… Well, lots of those things I wrote came from a Paleo(ish) book by Paul and Sou-Ching Jaminet (both PhD), The Perfect Health Diet. Never mind the really fad-ish name. The book is fantastic. They aren’t vegetarians. They are Paleo eaters, but the book focuses on how diet affects disease–changes in diet can mitigate, reverse, or prevent disease, and you’ll learn a ton. There are some 600+ references from the peer-review literature in the book you can follow. They also write a blog with the same title as the book. perfecthealthdiet.com

    If you’re looking for a really intelligent blog to follow, they are at the top of my list, next would be a blog called The Healthy Skeptic, by Chris Kresser. You can branch out from there.

    Hope this helps. If you, Matt, Grok, or Beth want to talk more about this stuff you can contact me through my blog: naturaldigestivehealing.com/blog

    Cheers,
    Matt

  30. I eliminated wheat from my diet due to dermatological concerns and though I do “cheat” with wheat I notice a difference when I add it back in. You mentioned spelt pasta, perhaps I read things wrong but spelt is wheat. Brown rice and quinoa pastas are good options.

  31. I’m another meat free, gluten free athlete. I gave up gluten last summer, after fighting this diagnosis for about a year because I loved bread, bagels, etc. My tests came back inconclusive (some positive, some negative) so the doctor said to try it and see if the problems cleared up. They did, and accidental ingestion of gluten causes the same problems as before, so for me gluten is not going to reappear in my diet. She did say I could add gluten back in and be retested for celiac, I passed on that offer. As a result, and probably because it eliminates my favorites like cookies, brownies and muffins, I lost 15 pounds.

    It does seem like it’s the new popular thing to give up gluten but some people really do have celiac, allergies or intolerance and feel so much better without gluten in their lives.

  32. I can only speak from my experience, I’m sure wheat affects everyone differently. I have rheumatoid arthritis and I noticed a significant difference in joint pain and inflammation after eliminating gluten and grains for three weeks. Whenever I have them now, even if it’s just a little, I flare up within a few hours. Even when I didn’t know that a product or meal I was eating contained gluten or grain, I would flare up within a few hours, grow suspicious, and always find a hidden ingredient that I missed. I think you are a little confused with the gluten/grain free diet. Quinoa, rice, and corn are allowed with a gluten free diet; corn, rice, and gluten are not allowed on a grain free diet, and spelt is wheat. I only noticed the benefits when I eliminated them completely for three weeks. No cheat days. Cheat days only return the inflammation to your body, so of course you will not notice a difference. It’s probably healthy for everyone to give up gluten, but not entirely necessary.

  33. I’m not sure why people are grouping quinoa and consequently banning it as part of a grain-free diet when quinoa is NOT a grain. It’s a seed.

    I think what happens is people take things to the extreme when devising eating plans. This happens in all walks of life. People think if a bit of something is good, then a huge amount will be even better.

    buckwheat, quinoa, amaranth and wild rice are SEEDS, not grains. Grouping them into ‘grains’ is just ignorant.

    Most of you guys IMO are suffering from information overload. Stop reading so much crap on diet and taking it all so seriously. Start enjoying your diet. People who eat unhealthy food enjoy their food. Yet the few of us who want to eat real food end up making it a chore and getting stressed out over it all which is very detrimental.

    Thought is very powerful therefore. When you think something is bad it generally will be bad for you. When you eat show appreciation and love as you eat and believe that what you’re eating is a perfect food for your body and will make you feel fantastic. Try it, it works :) Why do you think we always enjoy meals created with love, by our grans, mothers etc?

    Also, the best thing to do when deciding on the quality of the information someone is giving you is to look at the person. Are they happy, healthy. What do they do, what’s their skin/eyes like, how do they sound. Use your intution to guide you and you won’t go wrong.

    I personally like Brendan Brazier. He looks fantastic, about 10-15 years younger than he is, he’s happy and talks with enthusiasm and he seems to LOVE LIFE. Plus he’s set course records on ultra marathons. I noticed some of you saying when you cut out ‘grains’ you had no energy to run etc. This is because you’re not enjoying your diet and you’re limiting too much and not eating enough. You really don’t need grains for energy. Just eat more bananas, mangoes, dates before exercise and hemp + greens etc post-recovery.

    The main message here is to stop taking it all so seriously. Learn to love life and love food again and the rest will come.

  34. im currently on a grain free diet to an autoimmune disease (working with acupuncture/naturopathy) and western medecine. since starting grain free i have lasting energy throughout the day and my muscles have a higher level of endurance and recovery, i can easily carry out physical tasks, after being very weak and tired prior to my health treatments. I am also avoiding sugars and beans (legumes). I think you will struggle vegetarian sources of protein (or you will be eating lots of eggs, yoghurts, labneh etc). good luck anyway, its worth a try!!

  35. Spelt is not gluten free.

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