I Gave Up All Grains (Even Quinoa!) For 3 Months Straight. Here's What Happened
As someone who's immersed herself in the wellness world with training in nutrition, fitness, and meditation, as well as battling my own health demons, I’m pretty dialed in to food and how it affects my body. But despite my current love for all things green and fresh, I wasn’t always that way. After a decade of having a "finicky" stomach, I was diagnosed with celiac disease, leaky gut syndrome, and a few other food allergies. In order to heal, I had to radically reform my diet, which previously was filled with coffee, packaged foods, and other triggers. On this new plan, I was consuming tons of colorful veggies, whole grains, and ethically sourced animal proteins. I felt great—like a new woman. Well, for a time anyway.
While my allergy tests were suggesting that grains like quinoa, buckwheat, and brown rice were OK for me to consume, my body was telling me something entirely different.
Then about three years ago, the same old symptoms started to return: I suffered from cramping, bloating, and overall gut dysfunction. Despite being a reformed woman, armed with the best functional GI doctor and a fresh batch of intel on my microbiome and food allergies, I couldn’t seem to get it "right." I was constantly struggling with bacterial overgrowth, rotating food allergies, and generally poor immunity. Plus, I couldn’t seem to shake my fatigue.
Desperate for relief, I decided to block everything else out and just listen to my body. That’s to say, while my allergy tests were suggesting that grains like quinoa, buckwheat, and brown rice were OK for me to consume, my body was telling me something entirely different. So, I decided to try life without grains. It’s been an adventure, to say the least. So, how is it going?
Here are the pros of going grain-free:
Pro: I was eating more veggies.
While I had always approached my plate in a balanced way, quinoa stir-fries, grain-rich Buddha bowls, and the occasional overnight oats bowl had worked their way into my meal plans. While those are absolutely healthy options, removing grains forced me to fill that void on my plate with more nutrient-dense veggies. As a result, I got more creative with the varieties of vegetables I was using; my go-to cruciferous vegetables were suddenly accompanied by foods like rutabaga, parsnips, bok choy, and radicchio.
Pro: I felt less bloated.
Though weight loss wasn’t the goal, I did lose a few pounds and overall felt lighter and less bloated—which was such a relief, as my usually flat tummy had become distended and almost unrecognizable over the last few years. With removing grains, I began to see glimmers of my old abs again.
Pro: My cravings subsided.
Real talk: Even a nutrition consultant gets the 4 p.m. munchies; for me, they manifest as cravings for things like dark chocolate or nut butter. When I was eating grains, I had higher carbohydrate intake, which can cause your blood sugar to fluctuate, increasing your propensity for cravings. I found that with a lower-carbohydrate, higher-protein diet, my blood sugar was far more stabilized and, as a result, the 4 p.m. cravings subsided. Bye, nut-butter cups.
Pro: My leaky gut was improved.
Grains contain phytic acid. What’s phytic acid, you ask? In short, it’s considered an antinutrient and studies suggest1 that improperly prepared grains (grains that haven’t been soaked or fermented to ease digestion) can cause nutritional deficiencies, especially in the case of iron and zinc. Considering my celiac disease had also resulted in chronic iron deficiency and B12 deficiency, this seemed like as good a reason as any to make the change.
Of course, my improved quality of life was a great proof point, but I was unsure whether the reduction in my symptoms was psychosomatic. So, I asked my doctor to repeat my test of intestinal permeability—lo and behold, it was markedly better!
But it wasn’t all sunshine and grain-free sushi. There were a few hiccups along the way as well.
Con: My low-carbohydrate diet caused water loss and dehydration.
While there is nothing wrong with a low-carbohydrate diet (if followed correctly), there are a few things that can happen to your body. Reducing carbohydrates diminishes your glycogen stores, which then allows your kidneys to excrete more water. This consequently leads to water weight loss. (Still with me?) Additionally, when you’re eating fewer grains and carbohydrates, your protein and fat intake automatically increase, which can also encourage water loss. If you’re unaware of changes like these in your macronutrients, this can all be quite dangerous. The first few days, I was so focused on avoiding grains and was less mindful of my carbohydrate and water intake and felt extremely dehydrated to the point of fatigue and pulsating headaches. It took a few days of increased water and electrolytes to feel balanced again.
Con: I felt low energy.
Before I went grain-free, carbs had been an important energy source for me. On my new grain-free diet, I drastically reduced them. Furthermore, I generally eat a low-glycemic diet, so I was consuming few fruits or sugars, which would have helped keep me balanced. As a result, I felt very lethargic and foggy-brained, as I was essentially eating a ketogenic diet without completely realizing it. Since it takes time for your body to shift from being a carbohydrate burner to a fat burner, my body was adapting and I felt it in the form of energy depletion: My workouts became more challenging, as did my morning commute. Frustrated with my lack of energy, I started a food diary to see where I was going wrong. I immediately noticed the imbalance and I started adding in more fruits and carbohydrate-rich vegetables for a much-needed energy boost.
Will I stay grain-free?
So, judgment time: Will I stay grain-free forever? I know that whole grains can be a very healthy part of a balanced, nutritious diet. With that said, it has drastically improved my GI symptoms and virtually made my post-meal bloat vanish into thin air—which is enough to keep me on the straight and narrow. But, will I "cheat" with the occasional quinoa bowl or buckwheat pancakes? The answer is a resounding yes. I know that life without grains feels better for me, but the key to a healthy lifestyle is balance.
Amina AlTai is a healthy business advisor & nourishment expert from Brooklyn, New York. With a B.S. in Marketing and Advertising from NYU, AlTai started her career in marketing atCartier, and then went on to co-found a marketing agency. After more than seven years working on start-ups and Fortune 500 companies, she then led marketing efforts for Spafinder Wellness and Bliss. Grappling with a fast-paced career and two autoimmune diseases eventually led her to seek out training in nutrition, fitness, and mindfulness through some of the greatest wellness teachers and schools of our time.
AlTai has partnered with companies such as Deloitte, Outdoor Voices, NYU, and HUGE for training that breaks the mold and makes a difference. In addition to penning pieces for digital destinations like Thrive Global, mindbodygreen, The Observer, Spafinder, adn Barry's Bootcamp, she is polishing off a book project. Learn more about her at aminaaltai.com.