Pros and Cons of Grain Brain, Wheat Belly and the Paleo Diet

Diet books are tempting. They tell you the reason you’re overweight, what foods are “toxic” and how to get rid of them while strolling down the yellow brick road to lasting weight loss and good health. But there’s one main issue – many of these books aren’t based on scientific evidence but instead theories that are pulled out of thin air. “But my neighbor lost 50 lbs. following Paleo!” Well your neighbor cut out potato chips, beer and fried food in the process so of course he lost weight. The Paleo diet just gave him a convincing (even if scientifically inaccurate) reason to cut these foods out.

All of these diets have some pros and cons which I expand upon in this TV segment I did for Fox 5 and below the video:

Gluten is a protein formed from other proteins (gliadins and glutenins; any single wheat plant may produce > 100 gliadins and > 50 glutenins) naturally found in wheat foods when wheat flour is mixed with water (the mechanical action of mixing plus the water are necessary). Other proteins that are similar to gluten are found in barley (hordiens) and rye (secalins). Gluten gives dough it’s tough elastic structure and contributes to the light and fluffy texture of baked goods. If it sounds complex, it is but here are the important points:

  • Wheat today doesn’t have more gluten (or create more gluten when mixed with water) than varieties from 70 years ago unless the manufacturer adds vital wheat gluten back to the food itself (J Plant Reg 2012;6(1)).
  • Wheat breeding is complex and focuses on creating varieties of wheat that meet what food makers and consumers are looking for – a flaky pie crust or nice soft wheat bread for instance.
  • Gluten isn’t an easy to digest protein (there are many foods we eat that are not completely broken down) but, this isn’t a problem for most people – only those with celiac disease, wheat allergy and non-celiac gluten sensitivity (which might not be due to gluten alone but instead FODMAPs).

Paleo: What You Need to Know

The Paleo diet is based on one main principle: if we eat like our hunter-gatherer ancestors who lived between 2.6 million to 10,000 years ago, before the start of the agricultural revolution, we will avoid modern diseases such as heart disease as well as infections.

This diet is based on grass-produced meats, fish/seafood, fresh fruits and vegetables, eggs, nuts and seeds and “healthful” oils. Everything else is off limits.

Paleo’s Glaring Oversights:

  • there was no one single Paleo diet – diets varied based on region and time period (check out Christina Warinner’s TED talk on this)
  • In several regions, well over 10,000 years ago and possibly even a few million years ago, people ate grains and legumes.
  • Examination of mummies tells us that all people from this time period had clogged arteries.
  • The fruits, vegetables and meats we have today look nothing like what our ancestors ate (ex: fruit were small, tough and bitter).
  • Our ancestors hunted and gathered food – in other words, their daily lives included physical activity (both strength training which builds muscle and bone and aerobic exercise).

Paleo – What’s Good:

  • The Paleo diet cuts out our top sources of calories in the US including alcohol, desserts and sugar sweetened beverages.
  • It’s loaded with protein which will keep you full for a longer period of time after eating and help you build muscle.
  • Plenty of fruits and vegetables!

Paleo – What’s Bad:

  • No legumes (peas, beans, lentils and peanuts) – legumes are rich in fiber, potassium, magnesium (some), iron (some), antioxidants and more.
  • No grains. Grains provide a good bit of the fiber in the average American diet in addition to folate, other vitamins and antioxidants.
  • No dairy – our top source of bone building calcium and vitamin D. Now, I know what some self proclaimed nutrition experts will say here – people in Africa (or insert other country here) don’t consume much calcium and they don’t have as many cases of osteoporosis as we do in the U.S. Go to Africa, conduct dietary recalls (to see what they are indeed eating) and then follow a group of women around for several days. The women I met from Africa a few years ago were big and strong thanks to farm work (in their particular country the women do all the farming). They walked (far) with buckets of water on their head daily (fantastic way to build bone density in the spine!). I don’t know any females in the U.S. who get near the bone building activity these women are getting on a daily basis. So, this is far from a valid comparison. (SN: I haven’t even bothered to research the incidence of osteoporosis here vs. Africa because I’d be comparing a largely sedentary desk-sitting population to one with different genetics that also gets bone building activity for hours each day).

Diet magic? Follow anything that makes you cut calories and you’ll lose weight. Eat more protein and you’ll tend to lose more fat than muscle.

4 thoughts on “Pros and Cons of Grain Brain, Wheat Belly and the Paleo Diet”

  1. If you were someone living with chronic pain, within a few years was more than double her natural weight and still eating healthy according to the Canadian Food Pyramid, in addition to being very active / regular at the gym, you would of written a very different article.

    Grain sensitivities / allergies are very real and it took my being hospitalized and off work for a month for the Drs to take me seriously.

    First they ran tests: Crohns; cancer testing; IBS; parasites; etc…..all came back normal. Skin was breaking out in hard lumps. Hair was falling out.

    Finally 2 of the 3 doctors came to the same diagnosis: food allergies.

    Grain, corn and starchy foods plus other allergies are at the core of my demise.

    So even though I was already eating whole foods, I needed to tweak it and remove honey, corn, ALL grains including one seed: Quinoa, and cooked potato.

    Raw potatoes is very good for you. A prebiotic actually. Yummmmmmmy!!

    So in response to your article: following the Wheat Belly way of life (Fyi….NOT a diet), mixed with some ketogenic recipes has honestly saved my life.

    Try something before you railroad it.

    Merry Christmas 😊

    1. Hello Kristan,

      Grain sensitivities and allergies are indeed real (I have food allergies). I understand completely and I think the # of people who have allergies is much higher than estimated. So glad you are feeling better. Grain brain has a good amount of inaccurate information as does wheat belly. Paleo is far from historically accurate and there may be nutrient shortfalls on this diet. With that said, I believe in using multiple approaches based on the person.

      Thanks for your comment.


  2. A few things you neglected to mention where the facts that you can easily overcome any deficiency of fiber in your diet with said “Plenty of fruits and vegetables”. this is especially true due to the fact that most any vegetable you can think of has more fiber than wheat and other grains anyways. Check out some food nutrient calculators for yourself. Also dairy doesn’t have squat in terms of usable calcium compared to dark leafy greens. Added vitamin D to milk is a joke compared to the natural source of sunlight on the skin. Legumes dont have any vital macro or macro nutrients of consequence that you cannot find in fruits and vegetables. You also mention anti-oxidants multiple times. Berries and nuts destroy grains all day when compared in any fashion. Also dairy in a paleo diet norm is only limited by an individuals lactose tolerance.

  3. Pingback: Best Gluten Free Foods from Expo East 2014 | Performance Nutrition

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