A lot folk have been asking me to write this blog, so here we go. I have decided to share my story about how I gave up grains, as so many of us are reflecting on changes we want to make to our diets at the start of the year. It seems part and parcel of new years resolution time.
The beginning of my grain free journey
My journey giving up grain began five years ago. Although I knew that eating it was directly related to me gaining weight, or should I rephrase that by saying not being able to loose weight. I learnt this in my twenties, when I attended various diet clubs, including weight watchers.
But being a vegetarian meant that grains were a big part of my diet. So I just didn’t think that it would be possible to stop eating them. I thought they were an essential element of my diet…
… and they were so convenient. The perfect food for a busy life, as they are easy to grab on the go, take minimal preparation time and give instant gratification.
Finally, and it is a biggie, I am also a bakers daughter. I grew up on bread, literally!
At one stage in my life pasta, pizza, sandwiches, and toast were the cornerstones of my diet. It feels funny reflecting back on this now, and thinking how these foods made up so much of my life. When I decided to first give up grains I remember Jason and I saying to each other, ‘well what do we eat then? What is there left to eat?’
Now when I look back I find myself saying the opposite. How did I manage to eat those foods all of the time? How did I manage to get through the day?
Why did I give grains up?
Well, there are many similarities between my story giving up sugar, and my story giving up grain. Grain came first, and it took much longer to crack. Maybe that is because of where I was in my life back then.
It began back in 2012, and this time it was Jason who had a cancer scare. During the time he was waiting for his appointment to come around when they gave him the all-clear, he began to do research on how cancer can be reversed.
It led him to discovering that cancer feeds on glucose, and so if you eliminate this from your diet, the cancer dies. There is nothing to sustain it.
Glucose in our diet comes from sugary foods, and also foods that are high carb, which converts into glucose. This includes all grains, legumes and pulses. When I say grains, I mean wheat, corn, barely, oats, rice, cous cous – anything which is a grass. Legumes include any bean, including soya, as well as cashew nuts and peanuts – legumes in disguise! Also potatoes, as they are high in carbs too.
At the time we were both on our shamanic training course, and a fellow participant told us about someone called Mark Sissons. Mark is an American, and earlier in his life he was a professional endurance athlete. Now into his sixties he has a business engaging and educating people in what is called the Paleo lifestyle.
Now Jason and I had never heard of the Paleo lifestyle. It is short for Paleolithic, and replicates how we would have eaten back in the time before agriculture, when we were hunters and gatherers.
Always looking for a more natural way of living on Earth, we were really drawn to this theory.
You see, modern agriculture has only been around for less than 10,000 years. The human species has been around for a quarter of a million years, and we evolved from an earlier species of human which was around for much, much longer – millions of years. When we talk in these timescales we are talking about evolution. The Paleolithic diet is the diet that we evolved with. It is the most natural diet for us, and the most successful diet for our bodies. It is the diet which literally made our species.
With the onset of agriculture, new sets of foods were introduced to our diet, and our bodies didn’t have time to evolve and adapt. We simply started to eat grain, and take the hit with our health. For along with settlement and civilization came a whole wealth of ‘modern’ diseases, which aren’t seen in hunter gather societies.
Grain is a grass, and when we look at other animal’s digestive systems which have evolved to eat grass, they have multiple stomachs. Both cows and sheep have four stomachs for example, and they need this many in order to process this food. Human beings just have the one stomach and we evolved without the ability to eat and digest grass. So when we do eat grass, even if it is refined and processed to make more ‘suitable’, it comes with consequences.
When grains, and more specially carbs, are eliminated from the diet, the body turns into a fat burning machine. When we eat carbs, they get converted into glucose by the body and this is used as an easy energy source. When we eliminate them, the body looks for an alternative source of energy which is fat. Fat is harder for it to burn, and so it will always seek out glucose over fat, but in the event that there isn’t any glucose available, it will revert to fat as there is no longer any ‘easy’ fuel to grab hold of.
So with the Paleo lifestyle we are saying goodbye to the ‘diet’ industry with their low fat healthy ‘breakfast’ bars and zero fat yogurts. These fat free foods are loaded with processed sugar and grains. We are also saying cheerio to low fat hydrogenated ‘diet’ spreads, and saying hello to fats which we have been brought up being told are bad for us, such as butter and cream.
On Mark Sissons website there are hundreds of testimonials of people who have achieved direct health benefits from going grain free. Health benefits which are not just in regards to weight loss, but reversing diagnosed medical conditions. Mark has written several books that are really motivating and explain all the science and theory. Along with my account, in this blog I have included two testimonials below from other people in The Way of the Buzzard community too.
Working through my block
Aside from the effort it would take re-organising my diet, there was one really major block in my way from picking it up and running with it. I was a vegetarian.
Going Paleo means that as with the hunter-gatherers, you need to eat meat. It is where your protein comes from, and your energy requirements largely come from animal fats.
I had been a vegetarian for eight years at that point, and I recognized that during those eight years I had never managed to get my weight under control. So I examined my original reasons for giving up meat. It wasn’t because I was against animals being a food source. It was because of the way that animals are farmed, intensive farming to be specific.
So I made a decision, to start eating meat again, but only free range meat. I waited five weeks, to make sure the decision sat well with me. Then I created a little ceremony on Samhain, which for me is all about endings and beginnings. On that evening I set out a mandala on the living room floor, called in the Directions, and stated my intentions. I then ate the first meat that had passed my lips for nearly a decade. It was a steak. It felt strange, but OK. So the ritual was done.
I could now go Paleo.
Organising what to eat
But it wasn’t as straightforward as that, because I didn’t really know what to eat! I looked through my recipe folder and almost all the recipes had some kind of grain in them. So, I moved all of those recipes to the back of the file, and started again.
Mark Sissons had lots in his cookbook I liked the look of, so I copied those and put them in the file. Then with some of our favourites, I looked for alternatives.
Alternatives to potato are celeriac, sweet potato and parsnip.
Shepherds pie can be made with sweet potato mash, which actually turns out to be nicer.
Celeriac chips and celeriac mash were now firmly on the menu. My least favourite vegetable to peel, but that is one burden I have to shoulder (or pass over to Jason)!
Pizza. Now pizza is a tricky one. It was my favourite food. So, we discovered cauliflower pizza. It is a pain to make, but it does the trick when I have a pizza craving!
Rice. I love curries, so that was a tricky one too. We discovered cauliflower rice, which is grated cauliflower lightly fried in butter, with a little leek and some cumin seeds, and it is a fantastic substitute.
With breakfasts we had to say goodbye to porridge, cereal and toast. That was a noodle scratcher for a while until we discovered our top two breakfasts. The top breakfast is banana pancakes, made from almond and coconut flour. We make a batch and it lasts 3-4 days. Breakfast number 2 is berries and cream with nuts, and this is a great quick on-the-go breakfast. Both of these breakfasts see us through until lunchtime.
Now lunch is tricky and it was the hardest to crack. What do you have for lunch if you don’t have sandwiches!? Even now, five years on I am not sure I have fully nailed this one. Jason has, as he just skips lunch! I prefer to have our main meal of the day at lunchtime, and that sees us through for the rest of the day, making it a 2-meal day. However if we don’t get round to cooking in the day time, then it’s a salad, or soup, or a cheese and ham medley, or bacon and egg. All take preparation, which is an issue if we are out for the day.
Finding a bread replacement hasn’t been easy either. I have tried baking various alternatives, but they are all made with almond and coconut flour and so they taste more like cake. However, recently I have discovered one which is made with flax seed, and this seems to be a winner. So we can now have bread with soup, or cheese on toast again, which I have really missed.
What about treats? Well, treats on the Paleo are absolutely fine. The only caveat is that you just have to make them! There are so many cake recipes out there which are grain free, and delicious. Our favourite at the moment are apple cake, scones, banana bread, raw avocado & lime tart, and black bean carob cake. Now the latter is cheating a little, well a lot, as it is made from beans, but a little cheating like this is absolutely fine every now than then, as it isn’t grain.
Finding free range meats has been a real challenge. We buy lamb and beef boxes from our local farmer and fill up our freezer when they are available. Pork is pretty much off the menu except for one variety of ham, one variety of bacon and one variety of sausage we have found, all in Morrison’s. When we eat out we always ask the restaurant if the meat is free range. Our rule is that British lamb and British beef are OK, in particular lamb, as this is reared all year round outdoors in fields.
We are constantly aware of looking into where our animal products are coming from. Buying organic is a challenge, and we were with Riverford Organics for a while. This is an area we are looking very much to improve on, but without a local organic meat source it is difficult. We are not perfect by any means, but by questioning shops and restaurants, and being constantly aware of the choices we make, we are making tracks at least.
We do face the continuing criticism from people who choose not to eat meat or animal products, and take this as a matter of course.
What I have learned during my time working in a career for fifteen years in Environmental Management, is that every choice that we make in our Western World has an impact on the environment, on our Earth and on the local communities where the food is produced. Unless we eat local and organic, there are negative consequences. It is really a choice we have to make as to what impact we are going to contribute too, and it is only ours to make.
Growing monoculture crops such as sugar, palm oil, soya, wheat and cocoa all have devastating effects on ecosystem destruction, and require large volumes of herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers which alter soil structure, pollute water courses and kill off all the biodiversity in one spray. Just as producing meat takes land away from natural growth forests, and fodder crops are required to sustain the animals through the winter months. Wherever we turn, we have an impact.
So sourcing our lamb and beef from the local farmer, who grazes his sheep and cows on low-grade agricultural land on the edge of the moors, sits well with me with this knowledge of full life-cycle impacts.
How has it been?
So what happened over the course of the last five years?
Well, it has been up and down, I have to say. Some months we were really on it, and then we would lapse. Until a year ago it was a constant struggle, because grains are so nice, and so convenient! We noticed a pattern over the years, and it was related to stress. When we were anxious, and short of time, then we would reach for the grains. When we put food as a priority in our lives, and spend more time in the kitchen preparing and cooking food, then we achieved the Paleo no problem.
I am not sure what it was that flipped inside me in December 2016. But I decided enough was enough, and I cut out grains for the final time. Maybe it was because I had had a lot of go’s at trying, and so I had figured out how to do it, and what my patterns were in reverting back to them.
Maybe I had finally released the emotional hook I had with comfort eating.
Maybe I was just tired of the fight, and decided to kick it once and for all!
But kick it I did. Come January 2017, I had been free from grains for a month, which is when I decided to give up sugar too. You can read about that journey in my most recent blog, Beyond Sugar. The benefits I am about to describe can also be attributed to my giving up sugar, which is also a requirement of the Paleo lifestyle. You can read more about this in my blogs Beyond Sugar and Cracking the Cane.
So now, looking back, what are the benefits?
I am no longer tired in the daytime.
I have lost over 2 stone in weight.
I no longer feel bloated.
The first two benefits are related to giving up sugar too – I can’t really separate them out – they go hand in hand. The stopping feeling bloated though is to do with grain.
I have found that I refuse grains now because I know eating them will make me feel poorly. I will get a tummy upset, and be really low on energy within about 30 minutes.
So do I cheat?
Yes! I eat the batter on fish and chips, and that is about it. That doesn’t seem to have an effect on me. But I avoid all grains as I know they are going to make me feel ill. They will give me a tummy ache, and make me feel very sleepy.
I also eat chips occasionally – they are high carb – but as Mark Sissons says, if you are going to get it wrong then get it wrong with potato and legumes. Anything but grain.
What do I miss?
I still miss going out for a pizza.
I do struggle when we are out for the day and we haven’t planned what to do for food. When you are on the go, it is really hard to find things that fill you up. Nothing quite works like a sandwich! We often seek out a carvery if this happens, or a pub lunch with a bun-less burger.
One of the questions we get asked is ‘is it possible to go Paleo and be a vegetarian? To be honest no, I can’t see a way to do this, however it is possible to come close with a low carb diet and we have asked Vicky who is part of our The Way of the Buzzard community to share her story here now.
Vicky is a member of one of our Shamanic Drumming Circle and a Born Free participant too. Here is what she has to share about going Paleo, and the health benefits she has realised as a result.
“I was diagnosed in March 2015 with diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. I was informed in a very matter of fact manner by my GP that I would be on drugs for the rest of my life. When I asked whether these issues could be addressed via lifestyle changes, I was advised that I should do this anyway, but that I would require the drugs in order to prevent my condition from deteriorating.
I arrived home in quite a state of shock and immediately undertook some research online. Almost straight away, I came across a study conducted at Newcastle University in 2011 that demonstrated, contrary to the belief of my GP, that it is absolutely possible to reverse type 2 diabetes. I decided to adopt the study’s protocol, which involved following a very low calorie diet (600-800 calories per day) for 2 months. In a subsequent telephone consultation, my GP was completely unsupportive, and was insistent I would be taking 10 years off my life if I refused the drugs.
The conversation left me feeling highly anxious, but I was determined to try a drug-free approach. I’m not opposed to medication per se; it can have its place, but I knew I would risk side effects with the drugs (my mum experienced dreadful muscle pain after taking statins, for example), and my preference is to find alternative solutions where possible rather than to use drugs as a crutch.
It wasn’t practicable for me to start the low calorie diet immediately, as I had a couple of trips away booked, but my general research suggested that the Paleo diet is a good one to follow as a general lifestyle practice for maintaining stable blood sugar. It’s not possible to follow a Paleo diet if you are vegetarian, as I am, so I decided to follow the closest approximation I could manage, which is effectively a low-carb diet.
I lost about a stone over a few months simply by making this change, and one of the pleasant benefits was a significant increase in energy. I have mild chronic fatigue, but was managing to swim once a week. I found that, within 2 weeks of switching to a low-carb diet, I was able to swim an astonishing 10% faster, purely because I had changed the type of food I was eating.
Over the summer, I stuck to the very low calorie diet for 8 weeks using diet food I bought online, which actually made the process much easier than I had anticipated. By September, I had lost about 4 to 4.5 stones in weight, my blood sugar had returned to normal, my cholesterol was now low, and my blood pressure was ‘text book’. I have maintained a normal blood sugar ever since and, although I have had a couple of periods where I’ve lapsed back to unhealthy eating habits, I have the tools and the determination not to risk those health conditions again.”
Vickys determination is fantastic, and she achieved success and results far quicker than I did, but we both got there. I would like to give space now for Jason to share his ‘going Paleo’ story and the health benefits he has achieved over a similar time period as me.
Several years ago I thought my diet was good. I was doing the usual, eating good food, following the recognised guidelines and taking my tablets like a good nhs patient. My morning stomach tablet kept the acid reflux at bay, blood pressure and cholesterol drugs maintained some semblance of order in that department and the new cocktail of beta-blockers, steroids and similar taken daily helped my heart keep a steady beat.
I was having to visit the chemist regularly to keep an eye on the side effects but other than that I was ‘ok’. As long as I took the tablets my stomach didn’t burn, my heart beat steadily and my blood flowed. To be honest though, the morning ritual of over half a dozen pills didn’t sit well with me and I was always on the look out for an alternative fix.
The doctor did his best for me I’m sure but his advice was ‘don’t miss any of your tablets and don’t be tempted to reduce them without full medical support’. I have a nhs specialist to thank for what happened next. Due to an administrative mistake I received a letter following a scan which led me to understand that there was a high chance of something wrong in my brain, something more than my innate weirdness, and I would find out more during a meeting with a consultant in several weeks time.
Chemotheraphy and radiotherapy were options that could well be placed in front of me and I really didn’t want to go down that route so I hunkered down with google and did some deep, qualified research and after a couple of days had a plan. It appeared that the ketogenic diet, a version of the paleo lifestyle could provide me with a fix so I immediately flipped my eating habits and went full paleo overnight. After all there was a chance that time was of the essence.
The long and the short of it was that there was nothing wrong. The letter should never have been sent to me. However in those few short weeks I sensed a real change in myself as a result of totally moving away from all sugars, grains, potatoes and pulses. I had much more energy, my mind was sharper, I was eating less and losing some of the weight that had been accumulating around my midriff. I noticed that if I was late taking my stomach tablet I didn’t get the usual burning reminder, so I stopped taking them. Just like that.
I did more research and uncovered recent research into cholesterol and it’s effect on the body and was surprised to find that it contradicted everything I had been told previously. So I stopped my statins, and my blood pressure tablets. Home monitoring of my blood pressure told me all was ok here. Reassured by this I made the huge decision to ditch my cocktail of heart tablets too, with immediate effect.
Five years down the line and I’ve never felt fitter. I’ve not taken a tablet since and rely on my food to be my medicine. Grain, whether it’s in the form of flour, rice, cereal, rye, oats, or whatever is a persistent plague on human health and insistently poisons the systems that keep us alive and healthy. Sugars too, refined or natural can have no place in a truly healthy diet. Just my opinion, based on lots of scientifically validated research.
As a conscious meat eater who’s diet is heavily fat based, and saturated fats at that, I’m fitter now than I can ever remember and being off the tablets is such a relief. This is my story, my way of dealing with this and I would suggest that anyone with a desire to become truly fitter and healthier do the research into a meat based, grain and sugar free way of life.
Are you thinking of going Paleo too?
If you are, then here are some resources I can point you to which may help you on your journey.
Mark Sissons: Mark has a free daily email bulletin Mark’s Daily Apple which you can subscribe too. He has several cookbooks, and some really inspirational books to set the scene and get you started. A great starting point is The Primal Blueprint.
Paleo Grubs: This is an online book which you pay to download and print yourself. It is packed full of really good recipes. There is also a free regular newsletter that I really rate. It is where I got my recent bread recipe from.
Against All Grains: This is a book which contains some helpful recipes. It is through this book that we discovered the game changer which is cauliflower rice, and also the banana bread which so many of you have already tried. We bring it to most of the workshops we run and it is always a firm favourite.
So my final comments to any of you who are thinking of giving up grains are as follows.
Do it gradually, so you can phase out and phase in. It’s a real education process. Note that this is counter to Mark Sissons advice that is to clear out your cupboards on day 1. We did this over a 6 week period, and found that much more manageable.
Once you go grain free, if you relapse, look at your patterns as to why.
This is where people go wrong with the Paleo lifestyle. They give it a go, and then relapse and contine to eat a high fat diet along side a grain based diet. Weight gain happens in this situation, and it happens quickly. So if you do switch back to eating grains for a period of time, reduce your fat intake again until you are ready to have another go.
Give it 21 days to reset your body. The first 21 days are always the hardest, and then it will get easier as the cravings will stop.
Give yourself time, as you need to get organised. You are saying goodbye to convenience food and this is a huge lifestyle change, but you are saying hello to better health and happiness. This is a worthwhile trade off in my book.
Here are links some of my recommended recipes which I refer to in this blog post.
Black Bean Carob Cake (I leave out the sugar and dark chocolate)
The Banana Mouse Pancakes, Current Scones and the Banana Bread are all in the Against All Grains book.