The Great Grain Refrain

Ed note: I wrote this weeks ago, but delayed posting it because I was getting some weird splashback from my experiment — people get offended, for whatever reason, when you change your diet and share the experience. But today, I decided to hit “publish” — because a significant number of friends are supportive and curious, and asked me for the full story. I think it’s important to share our experiences if there’s a chance we can help each other become more vibrant, happy, healthy people. If my avoiding bread and crackers upsets you or fills you with anxiety, that’s OK. I was there, once. I’m not going to start posting paranoid fringe articles about our poisoned food supply. I believe in research and I believe each body is different. I also believe mightily in the importance of food and pleasure. I’d never ask you to give up pretzels or cheesecake or a wicked good meatball sub. In fact, this isn’t me giving advice. It’s just my tale. Feel free to share your thoughts in comments — just be nice.

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Baguettes. Croissants. Grilled toast dipped into warm, golden yolks. Quesadillas. Triscuits, in handfuls, straight from the box. Chocolate cake. Cinnamon cookies. Bagels (oh, man –toasted, charred bits of garlic and sesame seeds, slathered with melty cream cheese, whoa). Pretzels dunked in hummus. Rice crackers. Bowls of oatmeal, thick with cream, swirled with brown sugar and cardamom. Pasta. More pasta. Donuts. Corn chips …

Thirty days later, it was more like this: Bratwurst with sauerkraut, caramelized onions, and stoneground mustard. Flank steak with chimichurri sauce. Sesame-crusted chicken thighs. Over-easy eggs, fried in butter (from grass-fed cows, natch) and dropped over a pile of arugula and bacon. Avocado-cucumber salad. Baby chard tossed in olive oil and sea salt. Roasted broccoli with crispy shallots. Grilled, cumin-spiked cauliflower. Pink lady apples for days. Dark chocolate. Red wine. Almonds. Mango pureed with coconut milk, vanilla, and chia seeds. Tangy yogurt with toasted pistachios. Kimchee. Kombucha. Spaghetti squash carbonara. Eggs poached in spicy tomato sauce. Sweet potatoes mashed with ghee and sea salt. Strawberry-spinach salad …

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I’d watched my best friend transform her health on the so-called “paleo” diet last year and kept saying I’d try it. Then I’d say, no effing way am I giving up English muffins or Cheez-its. I read about it and came away confused and paranoid.There were forums where people exchanged hate mail over whether or not you’re allowed to drink kefir.

I absolutely do not think all wheat is inherently bad or gluten is poison — not for everyone. OK, maybe I’m a tiny bit obsessed with how GMOs have totally mucked up our American grain supplies and NO WONDER so many people can’t digest anything anymore, but … that wasn’t why I did this. Be clear on that. I think way too many people are jumping on the GF bandwagon because they once had a stomachache or they want a miracle cure for life or because they are living in fear, in general, of the world being poisonous. That’s not me.

But I wanted to feel better. I didn’t want to (and still don’t want to) label my approach to food. And I didn’t want to feel pinned in by rules or trends. I know from experience that if I’m denied something, I’ll think of nothing else but that. I wanted to enjoy salad again. Beat the cracker habit. Reset my palate for fresh, colorful meals. Find some richly nutritious, super delicious dinner recipes. Stop buying produce only to toss it in the trash, slimy and wilted, a week later. Start cooking again, with a cutting board and knife, instead of ripping open a box.

And I wondered … could I stop waking up with stomachaches every single day? Would the scale numbers stop creeping upward? Could I feel less foggy, crabby, and lethargic? Just by making vegetables and good proteins the stars of the show? Maybe.

On January 22, reading a Facebook post about so-and-so’s weight loss on the “paleo” program, I thought, OK fine. One week. What the heck. Only, it’s not paleo. I’m not giving up full-fat dairy — there will be cream in my coffee, the occasional slice of cheese. And I won’t beat myself up for eating a piece of chocolate. Honey is still in. Wine, for sure.

I didn’t prepare, or go shopping in advance, or purge my pantry. I just … stopped eating grains. All grains. Including legumes. That day. Because the truth was, the vast majority of what I was shoving into my face was bread, crackers, cereal, and beans. If I was going to reset my palate for fresh vegetables and healthy protein, I had to go 100%. I was eating grain-based foods when I was emotional, bored, stressed, or trying to relax. And this meant, I was eating grains all of the time. Or sweets. Or grain-based sweets.

I posted about this on Facebook, and qualified it with statements like, “I’m now one of those jerks who’s not eating bread and is walking around with glowing skin. You can slap me.” Because I knew what was going to happen — people were going to be offended, freaked out, annoyed. Eyes would roll. And honestly, I was finding it pretty funny and obnoxious too. But then, my best friend called me out, with something like, “You’re taking care of yourself and feeling great. You can share that and be happy about it.” She was right.

Yes, I did get concerned notes and texts telling me that the whole thing was bogus, non-scientific. My extended family seemed nervous about inviting me over to dinner. Some friends who normally interact with me regularly via social media went tellingly quiet. Yeah. It had ripple effects. But mostly, people were supportive, excited, curious. (Interestingly, several friends quietly joined me — only most of them made a point of telling me they didn’t want to “go public,” which … well. That’s kind of awful, right? That there’s such a stigma to trying something new for your health that you need to hide it?)

I got a lot of questions. I’ll answer some of them here.

How did you start? Was it awful? And … you mean all grains?
Yep. All grains. I ate no grains or legumes at all, for what turned into 42 days (more on that later). I ate very high-quality meats, local eggs, vegetables, a little fruit, full-fat organic dairy (though less milk and cheese — mainly cultured yogurt, cream, and butter). Here’s what the first week was like: I was starving for the first two days, petulant. “But what am I going to eaaaaat?!” I went to bed angry, having not satiated the late-night Snack Beast. It quickly became apparent that I’d need to load up on produce. I’d need twice our usual number of local eggs. And since I’m very, very squeamish about meat production, I’d need to pay more regular visits to our fantastic, local butcher.

So, that’s what I did. I replaced the pile of pasta or rice with an even bigger pile of salad or roasted vegetables. I swapped the daily toast under my fried egg for greens. I upped my egg count to two, added bacon. I filled avocado halves with tuna salad. Bought toasted coconut chips to satisfy the need for sweets. Stocked up on seeds and nuts. Experimented with (holy expensive but delicious) almond flour, which, it turns out, makes fantastic pancakes. I made at least two vegetables for every dinner: a fresh salad and a cooked root vegetable or roasted cruciferous, usually. Small portions of meat replaced grain-based sides.

How long did it take to feel the effects?
Five days in, I realized I hadn’t even thought about my nightly cocktail or glass of wine. I had no cravings for bread. Sweets sounded good as an idea, but I didn’t really want a cupcake. There was a near miss over fresh, hot popcorn. But my energy was up. And I’d lost four pounds. That, in and of itself, was enough motivation keep going.

What did your spouse and kid eat? Did you make them do it, too?
My spouse wanted to try it, but caved quickly to the dietary complexities of traveling. My kid already loves to eat fresh vegetables over most other options (I know. Luck of the draw.) and has always been underweight, so I wasn’t about to overhaul her eating with restrictiveness. I made her breakfasts and packed her lunches as usual. But mostly, the reason I didn’t bring them on board was this: I knew I couldn’t succeed if I was simultaneously trying to convert a child and a partner to new eating. For this, I focused on me. And they reaped the benefits, especially at dinner time.

So what were the final results? Would you do it again?
Thirty days later, I had eaten drawers full of produce, could fit into my favorite jeans comfortably for the first time in two years, had a clear complexion, no stomachaches, and had lost eleven pounds. Probably the biggest and most fascinating surprise was this: one night, while getting up from the couch, I was stunned to realize that the mystery pain in my shoulders, hips, and knees–which had crept up on me in the last year and felt like a tender bruise inside each of my major joints–had entirely disappeared. (Some very amateur googling suggests maybe it had been bursitis? Who knows. But with a family history of rheumatoid arthritis and auto-immune diseases, I’d been worried and in more than a little denial.) Clearly, some kind of inflammation was alleviated by this dietary change — though I managed to add a small amount of yoga to my routine, my (lack of ) exercise didn’t really change. And the pain still hasn’t returned.

My meal repertoire had expanded in fantastic ways — which it tends to do when you remove boxed and bagged carbs from your options. And I didn’t miss bread. At all. Which floored me. In fact, it became such an easy way to eat, I went 45 days without grains. The streak was broken during a trip out of town, visits with friends, restaurants, and less easy access to freshly prepared meals. Even so, I found myself always looking for the healthiest options instead of devouring a massive breakfast bagel as default.

What was your typical daily menu?
See all the lists above. My standbys were:
Breakfast: over-medium eggs on a pile of arugula with bacon or chicken sausage, olive oil, sea salt, black pepper, and sometimes a splash of balsamic. Huge glass of water. French press with cream. (Sometimes coconut milk, but it never had the right mouth-feel.) If you want to get really snobby, you could insist on fair-trade Ethiopian Yirgacheffe beans, like I do.

Lunch: Huge salad with as many colors as possible, maybe some pumpkin or sunflower seeds, balsamic and olive oil — or, gomashio (my mom mixes it for me) and sesame oil. A protein, often from the night before — grilled chicken, ham, leftover carnitas, couple wedges of cheese on occasion.

Dinner: Grilled or braised meat, raw salad, and some kind of cooked veg. Or another egg dish — crustless frittata, shakshuka, a few experiments with zucchini carbonara. Occasional glass of wine. Occasional piece of dark chocolate.

Snacks: Fruit, cultured yogurt, nuts. Full-fat coconut milk/chia seed/fruit “pudding” (just toss it all in the blender with a teaspoon of vanilla and it comes out like tapioca. Pretty awesome.) Water, water, water.

So now what?
In recent weeks, I’ve had a couple of pasta dinners and felt horrible the next day. (Specifically, stomachaches.) This could be the wheat content, or it could be because I binge eat when there’s a bowl of rigatoni and a slab of garlic bread in front of my face. It’s just way too much intake, of way too many refined carbs. This week, I was sick and wanted nothing but Triscuits and cheese, with no ill-effects. So I’m not sure what the culprits are — but I’m not obsessing over it. I’m aiming for a basic rule of thumb — choose fresh foods first. Get full at each meal, but not too full. That’s it, really.

The most important thing is that I relearned some much healthier habits and reprogrammed better mental behaviors. For me, the game of choice, played while standing at the pantry door, has always been a little self-destructive and indulgent. This helped me quiet those voices (you know the ones, “Oh, just one handful of chips. OK, two. Three is fine, you can always stop.” or, “You’re too tired to chop or peel anything, just treat yourself, you deserve it!”). I also proved to myself that even with an incredibly busy life, I can eat well.

So if it’s not paleo, what is it?
As I’ve mentioned, I’m not fond of labeling an effort to eat healthfully. I don’t want it to be a thing. But, if I had to point to a basic reference or source of philosophical inspiration, it would be Nina Planck, farmers market entrepreneur and food activist.

Planck’s words on what defines “real” food:

“It’s old and it’s traditional. How old? Grass-fed beef and wild salmon are two to three million years old – in the human and prehuman diet, that is. Milk is about 30,000 years old – 10,000 at the very least. We’ve been making cheese and yogurt the same way for several thousand years.

“By traditional, I mean it’s been farmed or raised and processed pretty much the way it used to be. Grass-fed beef, not soy-stuffed, hormone-laden beef. A whole egg, not a pasteurized egg-white only liquid. And real food, of course, is real. I’m for butter, not corn oil pretending to be butter. Real food is never an imitation of something else.”

So that’s it, guys. Here’s to keeping it real.

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Above: That, my friends, is The Rebel Within — a savory muffin from Craftsman & Wolves, in San Francisco. Yes, that’s a soft-boiled egg baked inside a muffin. And yes, it was made with wheat flour. And yes, I devoured and enjoyed every single bite.

One thought on “The Great Grain Refrain

  1. It makes no sense to me why people would be offended by the HEALTHY choices you make, to improve your overall well-being! Whether it be mental or physical!! Good for you!

    Date: Fri, 11 Apr 2014 18:42:44 +0000 To: veronicapowers@hotmail.com

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