[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?
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.
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!
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.
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.
Looking for Yummy Grain-Free Recipes? Here Are Some Favorites to get you started:
- Raw Pink Breakfast Bowl
- Soy-Free Breakfast Scramble
- Grain-Free Lemony Almond Pancakes
- Grain-Free Coconut Flour Biscuits
- Chickpea Flour Quiche (or “Quizza”)
- African Inspired Spicy Squash and Fava Beans on Raw Collard “Tortillas”
- Vegan Roast
- Grain-Free Pumpkin Gnocchi
- Grain-Free, Bean-Free Pizza Crust
- Mock Liver Pate
- Roasted Green Bean Salad with Citrus-Balsamic Reduction
- Kale Salad, Fully Loaded
- Roasted Potato Salad with Avocado “Pesto”
- Warm Chickpea and Artichoke Salad
- “Cacao Bliss” Knockoff (chocolate-coconut spread)
- Grain-Free, High Protein Raw Cookie Dough Snack
- Creamy Raw Almond-Pumpkinseed Pate
- Easy, Smoky BBQ Kale Chips (can be made in the oven)
- Chocolate-Cherry Ice Cream (no ice cream maker required)
- Raw Chocolate Fudge-Topped Brownies
- Grain-Free Hazelnut Biscotti with Cinnamon Glaze
- Orange-Goji Chocolates
- Caramel Ice Cream (no ice cream maker required)
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”!)
[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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