Life without grains

A nutrition & fitness expert's foray into the gluten-free world

This article is sponsored by FitJoy Nutrition and authored by Dr. Chris Lockwood – president of LOCKWOOD LLC, an innovations, research, and consulting firm within the dietary supplement, nutrition and fitness industries. He has raised over $1.04MM in cash donations toward protein and dietary supplement research, is the lead inventor on five patents and pending applications, co-authored 58 peer-reviewed manuscripts and presentations, has authored 100s of consumer and trade articles, and is widely regarded as one of the foremost experts in sports nutrition and dietary supplements. He has previously served as Editor-in-Chief of Muscle & Fitness and M&F Hers magazines, Senior Category Director of the Diet, Energy, Food and Beverage category of GNC, Senior Brand Manager of ABB, and as Chief Scientific Officer of 4Life Research. 

For most of my life I struggled with digestive issues. When out with friends, I’d refuse to eat. I would rather face temporary ridicule than the lasting stomach discomfort that would otherwise follow most meals. Dates that included a dinner or meal? No way! Ordering significantly less food than your date is like taking a girl on the Autobahn to Insecurityville! Thanks, but no thanks.

Then, something clicked when I was about 30 years old. I came up with my own version of a high-protein diet that allowed me to indulge my love for berries, fruits and certain vegetables but restricted me from having most grains and starches.

Shortly after adopting the diet, I began to notice a shift in my well-being. Not only did my stomach issues almost completely disappear, but my focus, energy and mood became more consistent, my body fat stayed low, and recovery from exercise and life’s stresses improved.

Field of Discovery

It took a few years until I could confirm – by process of addition – what foods had been causing my digestive issues. The culprit(s)? Certain grains and processed starches, mostly. While I try to focus on richly colored fruits and vegetables for carbs, I also stick to organic black rice, black or red quinoa, purple yams and sweet potatoes, sweet potatoes, and millet or buckwheat when I am craving starches.

When I deviate from that way of eating, such as enjoying a few good microbrews with friends, the consequences are almost immediate and obvious.

What often makes fellow researchers or carb-loyal RDs insane is that I don’t have Celiac Disease (CD). I don’t have to avoid gluten-containing foods such as barley, rye, wheat, most oats, and nearly all processed starches (e.g., bread, pasta, cereal, etc.). But I would argue that I could be amongst the 5% (and growing) of people, worldwide, that have a Wheat Allergy or non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity, which generally defines any of the gluten-like proteins in grains as ‘potential triggers’. Whatever it is, I don’t need a formal diagnosis or label to know that the nutritional plan I’ve been following for more than 15 years doesn’t leave me uncomfortable, bloated or anxious to find the nearest restroom. Instead, I just enjoy life.

Improvements Abound

The truth is, when you reduce inflammation and your intake of high-glycemic foods, and feed your body what it needs to reproduce healthy cells, the evidence will show up in your face, literally. I once put an already beautiful, incredibly talented singer on my diet when she was preparing to launch her latest album. What I don’t think she was expecting were the changes she experienced with her skin and hair.

Below the skin, my personal experience with a diet notably limited in grains and high-glycemic starches is that I’m better able to get and stay lean, and keep my bodyweight and muscle mass in check. Though little human research exists to support the fat-burning effects of a gluten-free diet, the beneficial effects of low-glycemic diets are plentiful.

High-Glycemic Grains vs. the Gut

I agree with the conclusion that high-glycemic foods and certain types of carbs adversely affect the health of the gut, which causes local inflammation within the lining of the digestive system. As a result, it promotes an environment that fosters the growth of bad bacteria within the gastrointestinal tract.

When you repeatedly eat high-glycemic foods, the resulting inflammation can overwhelm the immune system. The first effects are noticeable within a person’s digestive function. Then, energy levels and mental focus wane, and the person will likely feel more sluggish. After that, the mirror begins showing the effects of the body’s attempts to grab as many valuable resources as possible in its fight against the unhealthy imbalance occurring inside. Eventually, the immune system fails to address other stressors, and snowballs until it affects overall health.

April 2017- The most recent physique photo I have of myself. Still following the same nutrition plan.

 The Art of Grain Swapping

I’m 46 years old now. I still follow the same approach to nutrition as I did 16 years ago.  My focus on limiting grains began and, admittedly, remains one of basal narcissism – to look and feel better. It just so happens the same physiological processes that help burn fat and support an active lifestyle, are the same mechanisms that keep your skin clear or hair beautiful, slow the aging process, support a more robust immune system, and otherwise promote great health.

The carb-containing foods I choose to keep in my diet are there because they reduce blood sugar spikes, contain fiber, and are a great source of phytochemicals, such as flavonoids and other polyphenols that ramp-up the body’s antioxidant capacity, improve gut health, reduce inflammation, and provide other functional benefits, such as promoting fat loss.

If you are looking to follow my lead, cut back on your grain intake and add healthier carbohydrates to your diet, here are a few words of wisdom:

  1. You don’t have to cut out the food you love. Instead, choose organic whole grain buckwheat (don’t let the name fool you), millet, amaranth, teff, or quinoa as the grains and flour in your bread, cereal, pancakes, and pasta. If you’re out to eat, don’t forgo the burger or sandwich because it has bread. Enjoy it on a lettuce wrap.
  2. Reach for organic natural starches that are rich in color on their insides. Purple yams or sweet potatoes, sweet potatoes, black rice, and black or red quinoa are all great options.
  3. Consume lots of raw or lightly steamed organic vegetables. Examples include red beets, kale, broccoli, greens, rhubarb, asparagus, green beans, snow peas, spinach, green seaweed, and peppers (technically, a fruit, but these culinary vegetables also contain trace amounts of nicotine and can help increase your metabolism).
  4. Reach for vibrantly colored fruit whenever you get the urge for something sweet. I like blood and mandarin oranges, which also contain phytochemicals shown to ramp-up calorie- and fat-burning, plums, peaches, mangos, papayas, and green kiwi.
  5. From frozen or fresh, include at least one of these a couple times per day: blackberries, blueberries, red raspberries, cranberries, pomegranate, and black cherries. Frozen black cherries make for a great after-dinner treat. Pour some in a bowl, let them sit for about 20 minutes, then enjoy. In addition to the anthocyanins that they contain, black cherries contain small amounts of the sleep-promoting amino acid, tryptophan.
  6. Don’t juice or blend your fruit and vegetables; doing so raises your blood sugar response to otherwise wonderful foods that provide a lower glycemic response when consumed whole.

Best of luck on your grain-free food endeavors!

Additional Sources Cited:

Freire RH et al. Wheat gluten intake increases weight gain and adiposity associated with reduced thermogenesis and energy expenditure in an animal model of obesity. Int J Obesity (Lond) 2016;40(3):479-86.

Vazquez-Roque MI et al. A Controlled Trial of Gluten-Free Diet in Patients with Irritable Bowel Syndrome-Diarrhea: Effects on Bowel Frequency and Intestinal Function. Gastroenterology 2013;144(5):903-11.

Imperatore N et al. Beneficial effects of gluten free diet in potential coeliac disease in adult population. Dig Liver Dis 2017;S1590-8658(17)30289-X [Epub ahead of print].

Alvisi P et al. Responses of blood mononucleated cells and clinical outcomes of non-celiac gluten sensitive pediatric patients to various cereal sources: a pilot study. Int J Food Sci Nutr 2017;1-8:10.1080/09637486.2017.1315058 [Epub ahead of print].

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