Grain-Free Vegan: An Oxymoron?

grainfree vs. grains for vegan diet on rickiheller.com

[Grain-based and grain-free coexisting in harmony. Clockwise from top: pumpkin seeds, whole millet grain, millet flour, oat flour, almond flour, whole almonds, walnuts, and rolled oats in the center. Sprinkled with goji berries and pumpkin seeds on the burlap.]

Unless you’ve been living in a cave somewhere, you’ve likely heard of the Paleo diet. (See what I did there? Heh heh.).  In its “pure” form, Paleo is the very antithesis of a vegan diet, eschewing many vegan staples such as grains, legumes, and soy products (really just another legume). Similarly, other popular diets that limit or remove grains (and often legumes as well) include GAPS, AIP, SCD and others.

These diets are decidedly not vegan by nature. Remove grains, and you ostensibly remove a huge component of any common vegan diet. Ginny Messina, RD and JL Fields, in their wonderful book Vegan For Her, recommend 4+ servings of grains per day, for instance.

I’m here neither to defend nor diss any of these approaches. Instead, I’d like to address both the pros and cons of eating grains, whether grain-free is a viable option for vegans, and whether grain-free can fit comfortably into a vegan anti-candida diet.

The first time I was diagnosed with candida back in 1999, the diet hadn’t yet evolved to the point that it forbade all grains. In fact, many people still ate whole wheat bread, thinking it was  a healthier option to refined white bread. By the time I’d begun my second round of the diet in 2009, my naturopath prescribed a period without most grains for the first two to four months.  As a baker and dessert lover, I knew immediately that it would be a difficult transition for me (to say the least!).

First Comes Love: Why We Love Our Grains

Let’s face it: most of us have grown up on grain-based foods–lots of them. As a child, I crunched on cereal (sometimes with toast) for breakfast, munched a sandwich for lunch, and chowed on “meat-and-potatoes” type meals, frequently with rice, barley or pasta, for dinner. Then, of course, there were the desserts (cake, cookies, etc) after and between meals. When I lived on my own in my twenties, my standard breakfast consisted of cereal or a bran muffin with peanut butter; I basically subsisted on Ramen noodles and oatmeal chocolate chip cookie dough throughout that entire decade. For many people, it’s not uncommon to eat grains at every meal.

Besides familiarity, for most of us grains are also comfort foods. Sure, they provide some fiber, bulk, vitamins and minerals as well as antioxidant benefits (though only whole grains will do all that); and starches that can boost our blood sugar and provide energy we need during the day. But a key effect of eating grains is that the carbs they contain trigger serotonin production (the “feel good” chemical), one reason why so many of us crave carbs when we’re feeling blue.

But there’s even more to our love affair with grains. For many of us, eating grains is, to a great extent, habitual. Like TV or the internet, grains are ubiquitous, and we turn to them when we’re bored or just want a distraction. In addition, we’re totally accustomed to the familiar taste and texture of grain-based foods, with their neutral, goes-with-anything flavor and pleasing mouthfeel. Why would we want to give all this up?

grainfree, candida, vegan, sugar-free cookie dough recipe

[Grain-free, High Protein Raw Cookie Dough Snack.]

We’ve Lost That Loving Feeling: Problems with Grains

A problem with grain-based foods is that they can cause physical or psychological distress for many people. Some of the more common reasons are listed below.

Gluten:  Many common grains (wheat, rye, barley) contain gluten. As we’ve learned in recent years, people with bowel diseases such as Crohn’s, colitis, or celiac, can suffer intestinal damage from eating gluten. Recent research also suggests that the primary protein in gluten can also damage the intestinal tracts of even healthy individuals, eventually leading to leaky gut (intestinal permeability, or tiny holes in the intestinal lining) as well.

Part of the problem is that most of the glutinous grains available today are not the same as those our ancestors consumed. Even if you avoid genetic modification by buying organic (most corn in the US is GMO), for many people, overconsumption has created sensitivities or allergies that can be detrimental to health.

Wheat has been hybridized to increase the gluten it contains, and gluten can be irritating to the digestive tract (whether or not you have celiac disease–”gluten sensitivity” is on the rise, too.).  Since most people with candida may already suffer from leaky gut, eating grains that contain gluten is a decidedly bad idea.

In addition, even though gluten-free grains are more popular than ever before, we may end up seeing similar sensitivities to gluten-free grains as well with time, since we’re more likely to develop sensitivities to foods we eat frequently.

Phytic Acid: Whole grains also contain phytic acid, a compound that prevents us from properly digesting the grains by inhibiting digestive enzymes and making many of the minerals in the grain less bio-available (ie, absorbable). For anyone eating conventionally-prepared grain-based products or processed foods, this issue will apply, and the nutrients in the grains won’t be properly absorbed (which may explain why so many grain-based foods are “enriched” or have missing nutrients added back in).  If you’re dealing with candida overgrowth, you may already suffer from poor digestion, so you want to avoid anything that might interfere even more with the digestive process.

Blood Sugar: Finally, many refined grain-based products are high on the glycemic index (have a high GI), which means they convert quickly to glucose and can spike blood sugar levels. People with candida need to keep their blood sugar levels even to prevent spikes that could feed the candida.

candida diet, grainfree, sugarfree roasted green bean salad recipe

[Roasted Green Bean Salad with Citrus-Balsamic Reduction.]

We’re Not Breaking Up; We’re Just Taking a Break

When I first started the anti-candida diet, I restricted grain consumption significantly for the first few months to allow my body to heal. Some people choose to eliminate grains altogether at the beginning.

For me personally, eating grains remains a key part of my diet, although I’ve definitely changed which grains, and how I consume them, these days.  I no longer eat glutinous grains. I also try to soak my grains before cooking them as often as I can since soaking decreases the anti-nutrients and renders the grains much more easily digestible (I don’t always succeed, but I do try). For a great tutorial on soaking your grains, see this post from Kitchen Stewardship.

Even after six years on one version or another of the diet, I sometimes feel that my body could use a break from grains, especially after a period in which I’ve eaten too many refined-grain products (such as when I was testing for my last cookbook, Naturally Sweet and Gluten-Free). I find that a grain-free period allows my system to relax and reset.

Does that mean I give up all treats and baked goods during those times? No way! In fact, there are many grain-free baked goods, snacks and treats already on this site.

Happily Grain-Free (But Not Ever After): Living Grain-Free

How can you cut out all grains and still enjoy your favorite foods? It’s easier than you think, even on a vegan diet. Here are some of my favorite tips and tricks for cooking and eating grain-free.

Shift the Focus

We may be accustomed to grain-based foods as the focal point of many meals, such as pasta for dinner, sandwiches for lunch, or muffins for breakfast. Take a look at the other ingredients in your meal and increase those instead. For instance, create smoothies chock-full of fruits and vegetables using hemp seeds, chia or legume-based protein powders instead of grain-based ones; spread your nut butter on a sweet potato instead of toast; or eat your legume-based stew over shredded greens instead of pasta. There’s no law that says we have to include grains as a major part of any meal!

Grainfree, sugarfree, vegan, glutenfree, candida coconut flour biscuits

[Grain-free Coconut Flour Biscuits.]

Keep it Familiar

Still, I do understand the appeal of the familiar dishes. Keep in mind that there are many equally convenient ways to reproduce the familiarity of grain-based foods. I love a good collard wrap instead of a sandwich, or a lettuce taco instead of the grain-based ones, and they’re just as easy to prepare (and collard wraps transport beautifully in containers for lunch). Similarly, I’ve learned to rely on a few really quick and easy breakfasts, such as almost-instant porridge, high-protein pancakes, or (if you have a bit more time on the weekend) variations on the Toronto Sandwich. These days, it’s easy to find recipes that reproduce standards like pizza or pasta completely grain-free, too. No need to deprive yourself!

It’s Okay To Be Nutty

A quick glance through my blog and you’ll know that I’m a huge fan of nuts (which turns out well for the HH, too). Once I learned about the wonderful nutritional qualities and heart-healthy oils in these superfoods, I, too, jumped right into the nutty bin.

Health food stores and many conventional supermarkets carry nut-based flours these days, so it’s easy to use them in baked goods or other recipes. If you can’t eat nuts, seed flours often work just as well (and don’t forget coconut flour, too!). Nut or seed flours also offer a great protein boost to your foods.

Use Your Bean (and Legume)

Bean and legume flours, such as chickpea or garfava flour, are also becoming more and more accessible and work beautifully in your baked goods, working to bind the baked goods together, as well as offering high protein and high fiber. Chickpea (garbanzo) flour may be my all-time favorite legume-based flour, perfect in a huge variety of recipes to replace grain-based flours entirely. While it’s best in savory recipes, you can add a little to some sweet goods, too, without noticing any “beany” flavor.

Candida diet, grainfree collard and fava beans on rickiheller.com

[African Spiced Pumpkin and Fava Beans on a Raw Collard "Tortilla".]

Get Back to Your Roots

Some root vegetables and root-based flours and starches are also useful if you’re cutting out grains. In fact, many Paleo diets allow all kinds of vegetable starches or flours.  I use many of these as thickeners in sauces, but I also rely on the root vegetables themselves to replace some grain-based foods (such as thinly sliced sweet potato instead of crackers). Starches combined with nut- or seed-based flours can also produce some really lovely baked goods.

Remember “No Grain” Means “No Gluten”

Just like grain-based gluten-free flours, grain-free flours require extra binding power to stick together. If you’re used to adding a binder like guar gum or xanthan gum to your gluten-free baking,  you could probably continue with them during your grain-free hiatus (most xanthan isn’t grain-based).  Another binder I’ve discovered in recent years that’s become my go-to gluten replacement is psyllium husks. They don’t add flavor, but they do bind your baked goods perfectly while contributing extra fiber to your meals.

Enjoy Your Grain-Free Interlude!

If you do decide to give grains a rest for a while, be mindful of the “why” behind your choice, and your meals will be much more enjoyable. Enjoy all the delicious grain-free options available to you instead of focusing on what you can’t eat. For instance, I have come to appreciate beans and legumes so much more than I did when I ate grains at every meal! I love all my grain-free choices and never feel as if I’ve “given up” delicious, healthy eating while I’m in a grain-free period.

grainfree, vegan, candida pizza crust recipe on rickiheller.com

[Grain-Free, Bean-Free Pizza Crust.]

Looking for Yummy Grain-Free Recipes? Here Are Some Favorites to get you started:

Breakfast:

Lunch/Dinner:

Sides:

Snacks:

Desserts:

Next time, I’ll share a fabulous grain-free snack recipe with y’all! Here’s what’s in store (and thank goodness “grain-free” doesn’t mean “chocolate-free”!) ;)

candida diet, sugar-free, grainfree chocolate protein balls on rickiheller.com

[Grainfree Chocolate Protein Bites, two ways.]

In the meantime, I’d love to know your take on the “grain-or-no-grain” controversy. Are you a grain groupie or do you go against the grain?  Have you noticed any impact on your health from eating or cutting out grains?

Please share in the comments!

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Comments

  1. Fantastic article Ricki! I definitely relate to finding comfort in grain based foods and did find it tough giving most of them up for the few months I followed an anti-candida diet. I still have some weird digestive issues though and do wonder if giving grains a rest could help. You certainly don’t make it look like a hardship with all those delicious recipes you listed, and I learnt a lot about cooking grain-free while testing for your upcoming book.
    *Side note* I had no idea about phytic acid and just read that article only to terrify myself! It seems all the foods I eat contain anti nutrients! Beans/legumes, whole grains, nuts, seeds, even fruit!

    • Thanks, Emma! Yes, it can be tough for people when we’re so used to so many grain-based foods in our diet, I think. And I know what you mean about the phytates and oxalates–you could drive yourself a little crazy with all that stuff if you let it get to you! Nowadays, I try to soak/sprout my grains, legumes and nuts/seeds as much as I can, but I don’t stress about it if I don’t (or if I eat nut butter, which I think tastes so much better made with toasted nuts). I think it’s very important for people with major digestive issues, but if your digestion is working well and you’re healthy–don’t sweat it! :)

  2. Thanks for this great article Ricki, it’s certainly appropriate for me so all of your tempting recipes will add to my enjoyment of this healthy lifestyle. Interesting about the legumes. I’ve been grain free for over 10 year and find it quite easy but have recently gone back to low fat vegan which has really helped with gut issues. I’ve been doing really well but have stomach issues this morning after having lentils last night.. I’d even sprouted them to help with digestion. As much as enjoyed my meal being pain free really takes the shine off grains and legumes. It’s a constant battle of finding what works and what doesn’t.

    I have a question though, I ate some of them as raw sprouts and some where cooked in a stew. Do you think the raw ones would have been more likely to cause the problem than the cooked? I was just wondering as I have found that in the past but I now sprout them for much longer until they almost have green shoots thinking that that will make them more nutritious and easier to digest. Thanks..

    • Hi Karen,
      Hmmm. . . I’m not really sure about whether long-sprouted legumes are better/worse/the same as just-sprouted ones, to be honest! I know that some people do have more trouble with raw foods, whether sprouted or not, so I’d go with what your body tells you. If it were me, I’d try cutting them out for a few days, then introduce first one type, then the other, waiting a day or two in between, to see what kind of reaction I had. That way, you’d know what agrees with you (or doesn’t). There are so many other factors that could be affecting this, too, so keep in that in mind as well!

      • Thanks so much for the reply Ricki, Yes I agree with you. That’s what I did, I don’t usually eat them for that reason, had them Saturday night (first in many years) seemed ok, so it must have been the handful of raw ones I ate that did it. O’well, will give this one time to heal then back to the drawing board with some cooked ones.

        I was just really inspired by your Hippocrates post and stay that I got back into the sprouts.

  3. Great article Ricki! I limit the amount of grains I eat to about once or twice a week now. It’s funny really because years ago when we first became vegetarian I bought a book called Diet for a Small Planet (it still lives on my bookshelf). Combining proteins from grains and legumes seemed to be the “thing” in those days. Now I find that I’m eliminating more and more foods from my diet to the point that I’m honestly becoming a little paranoid about what I eat.

    I look forward to exploring your grain-free recipes you’ve listed, I don’t recognise some of them!

    • That’s so true about the protein combinations, Vicky! But legumes plus nuts/seeds are also a complete protein, and I think in recent years, we’ve discovered that vegan diets provide all kinds of protein from other foods, too (such as dark leafy greens or sweet potatoes, for instance). The general consensus these days is that if you eat a well-balanced and varied diet throughout the week, your body can combine the amino acids into complete proteins for you without any problem. I hope you enjoy the grain-free recipes! :)

  4. great article ricki – grain free seems to be the new gluten free and it can be confusing. what I find most confusing is trying to work out which flours have grains and which don’t – a list of grain free flours and grain flours would be really useful (tried to find a link to one in the article but maybe missed it if it is there)

    • Thanks, Johanna! I hadn’t thought about grain-free as the new gluten-free–ha ha! So true. And what a great idea for a future article–I will get on that topic! Thanks for suggesting it! :)

  5. Frederique says:

    LOVE this post! I have to add my two cents thought. I first become gluten/dairy free because of this book : http://www.greystonebooks.com/book_details.php?isbn_upc=9781771640183 which was a revelation. Thus, it is not the lactose in dairy that make us sick, but the casein (which is also cancer causing if you have read The China Study or seen Forks over Knives) and as for Gluten, it is HIGHLY because of the fact that it is crazy GMO here as compared to Europe. I went to France for two weeks last year to see my in-laws and ate bread EVERY DAY whilst there and had NO issues at all. I could never say the same as when i eat wheat here: itching, gas, etc. I am gluten sensitive. However, most healthy people can enjoy wheat in europe thanks to non-GMO laws. More importantly, the author of the book says that in people who are prone to imflamation/have an imflamatory disease, the gliadins (the wheat protein – not JUST gluten is bad) have free amino acids that form toxic compounds upon being transformed by heat and in presence of fat and or sugar. Enter acrylamide and other cancer/inflamatory toxins of its groups. Hello chips, baked goods, and all things yummy containing starches and high heat. In any case, going grain free isn’t bad for anybody. Going Gluten free should almost be universal. It is simply sad to see that what we eat can nourish OR destroy us.
    Didn’t mean to be a bummer thought! Love your post!

    • Thanks so much, Frederique. I think it’s important to note that GMO wheat supposedly doesn’t exist in North America (it’s not legal–even though this article suggests that it may be sneaking into our food supply). The reason wheat is so hard on our digestion is because it’s been hybridized to increase the gluten. And yes, definitely other factors besides gluten can cause digestive distress! However, I wouldn’t want people to think that problems with acrylamide are limited to wheat and gluten-based grains; most baked plant-based foods, gluten-free or not, contain acrylamide. So to avoid all acrylamide would mean avoiding things like baked potatoes, french fries, or even coffee. :)

      • Frederique says:

        You are right Ricki, but avoiding Glycotoxins (what acrylamide is) is important for people with leaky gut .. which does mean limiting coffee and abolishing high cooked meats, baked goods containing cereals (baked gluten free goods do not contain acrylamide) and obviously french fries. The important thing is not to entirely forego things like potatoes but make lower heat versions of them (baking potatoes at temperatures lower than 100 degrees or with liquid which inhibits acrylamide formation) using your crock pot as much as possible and limiting the joys of the maillard (caramelization) process. Its a new lifestyle but it does make a difference. All im trying to say is though gluten is bad for most of us, a lot of other stuff is as well, and eating healthy doesn’t JUST mean cutting one type of ingredient (like grain) out. I think the most important thing is to listen to our bodies more carefully and stay away from what makes us feel sick/unhealthy/tired no matter if it makes sense in a logical or dietary viewpoint. I can have my morning coffee everyday, but if i have one in the afternoon as well, my tummy hates me all of the next day. Doesnt make much sense, but i have to listen to it and limit myself to one. Science and medecine is not ANYWHERE close to diagnosing every food sensitivity we may have and why, so its up to us to figure out what to eat to make our body happy!

        • Frederique, I can’t find anything anywhere that says gluten-free grains don’t form acrylamide (just as glutinous grains do). Do you have a link to a source, or a reference, for where you’re getting that information? Thanks!

          • Frederique says:

            Hi Ricki, sorry for the delay but had to find the book’s sources… Acrylamide is a glycotoxin formed from the maillard reaction with a limiting factor being free asparagine (an amino acid). This amino acid is found predominantly in gluten, with very LOW quantities in gluten free “grains” such as rice, buckwheat etc etc. So though french fries, coffee and roasted almonds contain high doses of acrylamide as well, limiting coffee, eating boiled or low heat roasted potatoes and raw almonds solve the trick. However, not very many people can elliminate the maillard reaction with wheat – that is – most of the wheat/rye/oats/barley we eat is processed at high temperatures even BEFORE baking (flour and flattened oats for example) well there isn’t many other options than to elliminate them altogether. Gluten is bad for us for other reasons as well, but these grains are majorly responsible for the majority of acrylamide in our diets. Here are some links that will show you:
            http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?pfriendly=1&tname=george&dbid=260
            http://jxb.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2012/02/16/jxb.ers011.full
            http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/mnfr.200500152/abstract

            Most articles always mention wheat, potatoes and coffee as the major culprits anyway – more than likely due to the fact that the starches containing free asparagine are mostly found in these foods.
            Hope that helps!

          • Thanks so much, Frederique, and for going to all this trouble to reply! It’s great to know that most gluten-free foods are low in acrylamide! I actually asked because a couple of sources I read cite corn products (which are gluten-free) as among the highest sources of acrylamide. So, while we gluten-free folks can relax a bit, I think it’s important to note that corn snacks and cereals can be culprits, too.

  6. Great article Ricki! I definitely try to limit my grains as it just feels better, and I do my best to eat them whole when I can. Thanks for shedding some light on the subject. I love baking with almond flour and pumpkin seed flour, but can’t leave behind my beloved oats :)

    • I’m with you on that one, Maggie! I actually LOVE pumpkinseed flour! And oats are a favorite, though I have to eat them far less often than I used to nowadays. :)

  7. Hi Ricki,

    Great insights! I love this article. I eat a vegan diet but limit my grains as I feel better when I do. I probably eat 0 to 1 servings per day on average, and eat gluten-free for the most part but do enjoy a piece of rye bread on occasion. I do love my beans though and find that they can easily replace the grains in my diet. But I do cook my own beans from scratch, soaking them first and then freeze them so I don’t have to eat the canned ones.

    • Thanks, Cathy! That’s exactly what I do with my beans, too. (I do have a few cans on hand for those times when I forgot or run out, though!) ;-) I also feel better when I’m grain-free or low-grain. I have to admit that I love grains, but they just don’t love me back as often. :)

      • I hear ya Ricki!! We are all different. It’s just finding out what works for us sometimes that is tricky. My 40+ yr old female clients generally do better with less grains I find. Most people have a hard time with no grains at all so I prefer to take a more balanced, less restricted approach.

  8. Wow, what a line-up Ricki! I’m not grain-free, but there are some tasty dishes on here that I would love any day.

  9. Great post! I don’t eat much grains, sometimes porridge or raw buckwheat for breakfast but pretty much grain free other than that or the odd bit of brown rice. I have much more stable energy levels throughout the day when I’m not eating as many grains.

    • Great to know, Lauren! I think we each need to listen to what our body tells us. I know lots of people who are great on grains, and I can handle them in moderation, but not all the time! :)

  10. What A great article, thank you! After about 2 years of following the Paleo diet, I am just now able to tolerate a small amount of grain. While I cook grain free at home, when we go out to eat we are only gluten free.. it’s really hard to eat out and not eat grains or dairy!!! But we feel much better when we follow the Paleo diet and I think it has tremendously helped me and my son! I’ve been following your site for a long time and I LOVE your recipes, thank you!!!

    -Cassidy

    • Thanks so much, Cassidy! I agree, eating in regular restaurants can be a challenge on a special diet. :) And I’m so glad that you decided to comment (and appreciate your kind words!). So glad you enjoy the recipes! :D

  11. Frederique says:

    Right Rickki! I forgot to mention that the book ALSO recomends to banish Corn out of our diets as well. I have to say that it’s quite difficult finding corn-free gluten stuff, which is why 90% of the time i bake myself!

  12. I have been grain-free and vegan for some time. I have been vegan/vegetarian for 20 years, and went gluten-free about 5 years ago, but found that my body reacted not just to gluten-grains, but to all grains. I am allergic to some nuts, pineapple, dates, and have to be careful about what other fruit I eat. Some other dietary quirks as well.

    But I am okay with buckwheat and quinoa (not part of the grass family), and my baking is generally done with buckwheat, arrowroot, coconut, psyllium, and bean flours. (I don’t do a lot of baking.) I eat lots of potatoes and beans. I am so much healthier this way, it is all worth it. There are still many, many options. I don’t starve! And if I’m craving something, I find a way to make it.

    • Thanks so much for your perspective, P.D. I agree, there are still many other options! I think it’s so important to go with what works for our own bodies. . . each one is unique, and what works for one may not work for another. So glad you’ve found a way to make this work for you. :)

  13. what a great article! I’m glad that I am not the only one feeling the need to give up grains. For me, they are just too many carbs and set me up for craving more and more and weight gain. Although I’ve been gluten free for the past 10+ years, I just gave up grain about 8 weeks ago. I also gave up fruit and find that my blood sugar is much more stable. Don’t know how long I can live without fruit, but I do feel so much better without it. Thanks for the article, it was very helpful

    • Thanks so much, Judee–glad it was useful for you! I’m not 100% grain-free, but I do go for periods where I have no grains or grain products at all. Summer (with all the abundant produce) is the perfect time to cut back on grains, too! :)

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