Anyone who has paid attention to nutrition at all over the past decade has heard a lot about gluten. You probably have also heard of the grain-free diet, and may have heard of the terms celiac disease and gluten-sensitivity. What is the truth behind these topics? Why can they be harmful for your health? How do you decide if avoiding grains and gluten are good for you? And how do you avoid eating them? We will briefly cover these questions. Let’s start with the basics.
What are grains?
A grain is classified as a small, hard, dry seed harvested for human consumption. This wide classification includes cereal grains (ex: corn, oats, rice, rye, millet, wheat, rice) that are members of the grass (poaceae) family,
pseudo cereal grains (chia, quinoa, buckwheat, amaranth) which come from broad leaf plants, pulses/legumes (chickpeas, peas, beans, lentils, peanuts, soybeans) which are members of the pea family, flax seed, hemp seed, and poppy seed. When people commonly refer to grains in regard to avoiding gluten, they are speaking about cereal grains of the grass family.
Which grains should I be wary of, and why?
\When people commonly refer to grains in regard to avoiding gluten, they are speaking about cereal grains of the grass family. Cereal grains are the foods you should avoid for optimum health. This is because of their high concentration of prolamins. Prolamins are a group of seed storage proteins, and the main storage proteins in cereal grains of the grass family.
What is a prolamin protein, and how is it related to gluten?
A prolamin protein is one of two types of plant proteins needed to make the multi-protein substance, glu
ten. The other type of plant protein needed to create gluten are glutelins. Think of the prolamin as the glue protein that binds the more fibrous building block proteins of glutelin together. Gliadin, a prolamin, combined with a glutelin makes gluten. However, there are other types of prolamins found in cereal grains that do not contain gluten. It is the prolamin proteins from gluten that cause issues in the intestines, which then leads to a cascade of health issues.
Which can lead to inflammation that can manifest into a myriad of symptoms. Like it was stated before, these prolamins are found in their highest concentrations in cereal grains, even the ones that don’t have gluten.
How to Prolamins Harm Our Health?
Prolamins become only partially digested in our small intestine. This partial digestion means that the prolamin proteins are not broken down enough to be a sufficiently useful nutrient in our bloodstream. Yet, t
hey react with zonulin in the walls of our small intestine, and convince the zonulin ‘gatekeeper’ to allow the prolamin protein into the bloodstream. Our immune system recognizes the presence of this difficult to use protein in our blood, and reacts with an inflammatory response. The inflammatory response, even if it is too small to be casually noticed, is felt by every cell in your body. Symptoms that you may feel from this inflammation are numerous. Including bloating, migraines, joint pain, and IBS. One of the most dangerous effects can include blood clotting, as the prolamins act on your blood cells the same way they do on glutelin proteins. They bind them together like glue.
So do I just need to avoid gluten?
No, it is all cereal grains that should be avoided. As we covered earlier, the prolamins which are a component of gluten is the triggering factor causing inflammation. Not the gluten. Prolamins are found in high concentrations among all cereal grains. Even those that don’t have gluten in significant amounts. This is why individuals who have been diagnosed with gluten sensitivity or ciliacs disease can still experience reactions to low or no gluten grains, such as oats or corn. And also as was covered earlier, these harmful effects are likely happening in your body, even if you don’t currently recognize any symptoms.
I’ve decided to remove cereal grains from my diet. Are there any nutrient deficiencies I should be worried about?
Deficiencies in iron, calcium, zinc, magnesium, vitamin B12, vitamin D, and folate consumption are the most common for those following a cereal grain free diet. Nutritional supplements can be purchased to address all of these deficiencies. However, the nutrients in dietary supplements are not as bio available for the body as natural sources from food.
So how do we plan our diet to get the more easily absorb able nutrients we could be missing out on by avoid cereal grains? The following are a number of whole and natural foods you can implement into your diet to avoid any deficiencies in a grain-free diet.
Recommended daily allowance of iron ranges from 8 mg per day for men, to 18 mg per day for premenpausal women (if you are still having your period). One cup of morel mushrooms has 8 mg. One cup of cooked lentils has 6.6 mg. One cup of cooked spinach has 6.4 mg. One cup of red kidney beans has 5.3 mg. One cup of canned tomato puree has 4.5 mg or iron to name a few options.
Recommended daily allowance of iron ranges from 1000 mg to 1300 mg per day. Firm tofu, depending on the way it was prepared, can have upwards of 1700 mg in one cup. Several types of milk (including vegan mylks) are fortified with ample calcium. Sesame seeds contain 280 mg per ounce of calcium. Tahini, made from sesame seeds and often an ingredient in hummus, contains 120 mg per ounce. Kale contains 250 mg per 100 grams. Collards have 230 mg per 100 g. Mustard spinach and turnip greens each have around 200 mg per 100 grams. Flax seeds and almonds contain about 75 mg per ounce. Poppy seeds, celery seeds, and dill seed all have between 30 and 40 mg per teaspoon.
Recommended daily allowance for zinc is between 8 and 11 mg per day. Hemp seeds contain 10 mg per 100 g. Pumpkin seeds contain 8 mg per 100 g. Chia seeds and pecans contain 5 mg per 100 g. Flax seeds contain 4 mg per 100 g. Lentils contain 3 mg per cup. Quinoa, shiitake mushrooms, black beans & green peas all contain 2 mg per cup. Spinach and asparagus have 1 mg per cup. A whole avocado has 1 mg.
Recommended daily allowance for magnesium is 300 to 400 mg per day. Hemp seeds contain 190 mg per ounce. Cooked spinach contains 157 mg per cup. Pumpkin seeds contain 150 mg per oz. Legumes contain 120 mg per cup. Cashews contain 82 mg per oz. Dark chocolate contains 64 mg per oz. A whole avocado contains 58 mg. Tofu contains 53 mg per 100 g. Kale contains 33 mg per 100 g. A whole banana contains 37 mg.
Recommended daily allowance for B12 is 2.4 to 2.8 micrograms (mcg). Animal products have ample amounts of B12 to cover any deficiency from a grain-free diet. However, this become more difficult if you are also following a vegan diet. Fortified food and drink options are also available. The only natural food source I would recommend is the algae, chlorella, which has 100 mcg per teaspoon. Other food sources from our oceans, including spirulina, have been suggested in the past as options. However, newer research show serious issues with these options.
Recommended daily allowance for folate (folic acid) is 400 mcg to 800 mcg per day, with 800 mcg very highly advised for pregnant women. Lentils contain 360 mcg per cup. A whole avocado contains 160 mcg. Asparagus contains 140 mcg per 100 g. Kidney beans contain 130 mcg per cup. Beets contain 140 mcg per 100 g. Kale contains 60 mcg per 100 g. Spinach contains 60 mcg per cup. A whole orange contains 55 mcg. Brussels sprouts and broccoli both contain 55 mcg per 100 g. Papaya contains 55 mcg per cup. Walnuts contain 38 mcg per oz. A banana contains 24 mcg. An egg contains 22 mcg.
Recommended daily allowance for Vitamin D is 1000 to 4000 IU, or 25 to 100 mcg. There are many animal products and fortified foods and drinks that can supply ample dietary vitamin D to cover any deficiency caused by a grain-free diet. If you are also following a vegan diet, getting natural sunshine will be key to filling this nutritional gap. Depending on where you live, there are only certain times of the day where your body will be able to convert sunshine into usable vitamin D. Mushrooms will also be key here. Most mushrooms have small amounts of vitamin D. However, if you lets mushrooms sit under natural sunshine, or a UV lamp, this will massively increase their vitamin D levels. To learn more about this, read my post on it HERE.
Some people claim that gluten-free and grain-free is just another one of the fad diets getting its time in the spotlight. Or that it is another marketing ploy to get your attention and claim a greater share of your wallet. In some ways, they aren’t wrong. The increase in gluten-sensitivity among the general population has increased in recent years, making it a current trend. But this isn’t simply due to increased awareness or marketing budgets. There is a growing consensus that this is in fact a reflection of how humans’ biology is responding to our mean change in diet. On average, people ingest much more gluten than we used to at any other point in our history.
Gluten’s binding properties make it a favorite ingredient for food manufacturers. Due to gluten’s ubiquitous use in processed foods of all sorts, we are simply over-exposed to the dangerous prolamins contained in it. As we all know, too much of anything is not a good thing. Sunshine, for example, can both provide us with our essential nutrient vitamin D (and a great looking skin bronzing), and skin cancer. It all depends on how much our bodies are exposed to it. If gluten were sunshine, our modern diet has given the general human population a deep red sunburn. And we could use some shelter.
I hope this has helped inform you on an important and prominent nutrition topic. Let me know if you liked it, have any questions, or would like to hear more about this topic.