Home Q&A Wednesday Q&A Wednesday: Are Grains Really the Devil?

Q&A Wednesday: Are Grains Really the Devil?

by Erika Nicole Kendall

This week, on the return of Q&A Wednesday, K asks:

Hi there! I’ve been a lurker on your blog for two-ish years now though I tapered off several months ago when I entered my last year of college (and a big internship, two jobs, etc – so no free time you know) but recently I’ve found myself gravitating back because, well, your blogs keep me inspired and motivated and interested/invested in my own health. I didn’t realize how vital reading your stuff was until I stopped. So on that note can I thank you for everything you’ve done? You’re absolutely amazing.

Also I do have a little bit of a question/potential discussion point – For weeks I’ve been trying to stop eating so much pasta (because part of the last semester and a half of slacking on personal love and care has been in the form of eating lots of pasta) but the cravings are absolutely rediculous. I’ve never felt so much mental anguish about food as I do when it comes to craving but not wanting to eat pasta. I’ve tried having a cup of rice which…helped a little but I always wanted to make another three cups and eat those. So I started googling ways to curb these cravings to see what was working for other people and…I came across a vast underbelly of the internet where apparently flour = glue […] plus a very deep battle that is apparently going on over whether grains are the death of us and should be eaten at all or not. So since I have 8 million questions about this I’ll keep it short by saying: What’s your take on it all.

Like I said before, I’m not sure if it’s the pregnancy hormones or if I’m just becoming a softie in my old age, but I teared up reading that first paragraph. Thank you!
Secondly, let’s talk grains, shall we?

I’m not of the belief that grains and gluten are inherently bad for you, but many people eat far too much of it – usually because they don’t like or don’t know how to cook vegetables – which is what usually results in the negative effects that people want to avoid.Once upon a time, we needed lots of grains because we were much more active people. It was an always ready, easily accessible energy source, and because of that, it became ingrained in our foodways. Except nowadays, in a modern society, we don’t have much use for it with our sedentary lives and desk jobs.

Our diets have to adjust to our lifestyles, and our wallets, for that matter. Adding lots of grains to a meal – rice, couscous, barley, and so on – can make dinner more affordable for the newbie clean eater. You’re not buying tons of veggies to fill yourself up, you’re making a side dish of brown rice. Or, you’re making a dish with couscous or pasta as the base. It makes financial sense for many of us, sometimes more so around those first few days before pay day. It happens.

The reality is, unless you’re hardcore into your endurance training – it’s not even called “cardio” at that point anymore – then chances are high you don’t need as many grains as you’re likely getting. And, if that matters to you, then consider making a shift or two.

I’ve read many of the popular books about grains and so on and so forth, and the reality is that grains are implicit in bingeing and weight gain because they’re incredibly easy to overload on, easy to overeat, and we usually greatly underestimate the amount of calories we’re consuming (and, by extension, grossly miscalculate the amount of protein or fat we’re getting when we consume them.)

If the pasta you’re consuming is white pasta as opposed to whole wheat or mung bean or something that’s higher in protein than carb, it’s easy for me to see why you might be feeling like you’re experiencing intense withdrawal urges – aside from the fact that it’s clear that you have an emotional attachment to this food you hold so near and dear, white pastas (usually very low in both protein and fiber) are notorious for spiking your blood sugar in ways similar to pure white sugar, and hence the cycle of instant gratification in the midst of stressful times.

I value your honesty when it comes to admitting you’re slippin’ on your self-care. That’s a hard step to take. It’s even more difficult to acknowledge that you’re making up for that by making yourself feel better with pastas, and I commend you for that. But, if I may, I’d like to delve deeper into what you’re saying – your form of self-care is to make yourself feel better with a food that you know spikes your blood sugar and gives you instant, albeit temporary, gratification. You’re experiencing a rough time in your life. We all can relate. But you’re making yourself feel better through comfort food – again, we all can relate – and we all know this isn’t the right move for you.

Why does it happen? All it takes is the right set of circumstances, and a set of bad habits can be cemented in our brains. From the Harvard School of Public Health:

When people eat a food containing carbohydrates, the digestive system breaks down the digestible ones into sugar, which enters the blood.

  • As blood sugar levels rise, the pancreas produces insulin, a hormone that prompts cells to absorb blood sugar for energy or storage.
  • As cells absorb blood sugar, levels in the bloodstream begin to fall.
  • When this happens, the pancreas start making glucagon, a hormone that signals the liver to start releasing stored sugar.
  • This interplay of insulin and glucagon ensure that cells throughout the body, and especially in the brain, have a steady supply of blood sugar. [source]

But what does all that sugar in your blood stream mean for the brain?

As the video shows, the key player in the reward system of our brain — where we get that feeling of pleasure — is dopamine. Dopamine receptors are all over our brain. And doing a drug like heroin brings on a deluge of dopamine.

Guess what happens when we eat sugar? Yes, those dopamine levels also surge — though not nearly as much as they do with heroin.

Still, too much sugar too often can steer the brain into overdrive, the video says. And that kickstarts a series of “unfortunate events” — loss of control, cravings and increased tolerance to sugar. All of those effects can be physically and psychologically taxing over time, leading to weight gain and dependence. [source]

When we talk about carbohydrates, we often separate simple ones from complex ones because of qualities like fiber content and – generally – the amount of processing necessary to get the final product. It might help to think of the difference between brown rice, high in fiber and protein, and white rice, which is transformed into a simple carbohydrate thanks to the removal of the fiber and protein in each individual grain. The fiber and protein found in whole grains are important – aside from their individual nutritive qualities, their presence in your food can help curb overeating and stave off the blow to your blood stream that inevitably comes with the carbohydrates.

And that’s why it’s so easy to overeat the pasta, and why your body has an incentive to crave it. But how do you stop it?

I’m of the belief that you have to start somewhere…and, when it comes to weaning people off of things, I like the Quarter rule. If cold turkey is too difficult for you – no harm in admitting that – or if your lifestyle doesn’t afford you the energy to fight with your cravings constantly – no harm in admitting that, either – then consider this:

Create a meal plan for yourself, where you consume the offending meal – in this case, pasta – in regular intervals as you usually do, but every couple of weeks (or more), reduce the amount of pasta on the plate by 25% and replace it with sauteed vegetables with a few herbs and a little spice. (One of my favorite meals is whole wheat pasta with sauteed kale and onions with a pinch of cayenne pepper, lemon juice, and olive oil.)

Consider swapping out some of the pasta on your plate with whole wheat in its place, but slowly reduce the amount of white pasta on your plate by adding veggies and including whole grains in its place. In the meantime, find some form of self-care that fits into your life. Be it a regular exercise practice, some quiet time reading a book for leisure, a regular hot bath and a dirty erotica novel (or, perhaps, 50 Shades of Chicken? Nothing gets me going like a good trussed chicken…er…never mind), do some journaling of your internship experiences, or a walk in the fresh air (yes, snow included.) Take some time to decompress a little each day, be it something simple or something complex (preferably not carbs), and slowly wean yourself off of your current fixation. As I always say, your body will thank you for it!

Have you been here before? What did you do? Are you there now? What are you doing to fight the urge when it hits? Ask questions and share your thoughts in the comments below!

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Natalee March 5, 2015 - 6:33 AM

I agree with what she posted and have found that I had a similar reaction to grains as well. I also agree with what you said and I have found that a ketogenic diet enables me to eat more vegetables, better fats and meat as well. I know that the ketogenic is extreme to some, but I prefer the all or nothing approach. My intention is to incorporate more fruits and vegetables and a ketogenic diet has provided me with the platform to do this and not miss grains. Instead of rice I use cauliflower rice and I am cooking vegetables using new methods- pan fried buttered radishes are delicious. I also think that when you try to give up something that you like or addicted to such as grains that you are in the right frame of mind. I have done many diets but I was not emotionally or mentally ready to stop or reduce my eating of certain types of foods.

K March 5, 2015 - 11:54 AM

Hey Erika,
I know I asked you a very similar question. Everyone I know is doing the Paleo diet or saying it’s the right way . I’m lactose intolerant even yogurt makes me sick . This cultish diets cuts out most complex carbohydrates. I need my legumes and oatmeal. I admit I use to overeat on grains especially rice or pasta. Instead I make zucchini pasta, cauliflower, parsnip, avocado , use nuts or sautee apples etc. I also use my legumes a lot. I found a lot of recipes for parsnips and cauliflower. I still use my cassava, and plantain sometimes . I use to eat quinoa but it’s not affordable.

Ariel March 6, 2015 - 5:15 PM

Your timing on this article is just spot on. I’ve been thinking for quite some time now that I want to cut down on the carbohydrates that I eat (for different reasons, including: they make up a lot of my daily diet, almost 70% by my Fitbit’s accounting, & my gluten-free friends raving about how their new diet helps with their daily aches & pains). This article, however, is the FIRST I’ve seen that gives a real, concrete plan on how to decrease my carbs by tackling one of my biggest weaknesses – pasta.

I’ll have to try to implement this plan for my pasta cravings. Thank you!!

Felicia March 8, 2015 - 8:04 PM

I overeat when i consume pasta. When i went to weight watchers and they said a serving was 4 ounces i was in shock.Since i could do the small serving, i put it out of the often served list. The cupboard is bare and i made some today. I won’t be eating much of it. My oatmeal for the week is prepared,eggs, yogurt,and grapefruit.

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