The don’t eat grains mantra: why it makes sense

I listed my top ten tips for getting in fighting fit shape in this blog post. Tip #1 (“Don’t eat grains”) seems to be controversial with some, so I thought I’d explain a little more of why it works for me and makes staying at a healthy body weight easy.

Plan A: Measure and Track your Caloric Intake

Here’s the traditional thing that most folks do: they work out how many calories they should be consuming, with a focus on making sure they consume slightly less than they burn. If you eat much less than you burn, your body panics, starts breaking down muscle instead of fat, and counter-productive things happen. The trick is consuming a little less than you burn, and your body dips into its fat reserves, and healthy weight loss happens. Again, take all this with a grain of salt: I’m a computer scientist, not a nutritionist, and you should do your own research and get your own plan from a professional.

So, let’s try that. There’s a variety of sites that let you figure out how many calories you’re probably burning, enter how much you weigh, add a bunch of other data, and then suggest what your caloric intake should be given your body weight goal and a healthy weight loss rate. Here’s a tool from dietitian.com that’s linked to by the US Food and Nutrition Center at the USDA. When I enter my data, and say that I want to drop my body fat by 1%, and lose 1 pound per week to do it, it tells me to eat about 1700 calories per day; that is outrageously low and wrong. Ok, so now I’ll try another US government tool, the “SuperTracker” at ChooseMyPlate.gov. It tells me I should eat 2800 calories per day; that seems a little high, but in the ball park. The guys at Fitness Wave do hydrostatic body testing, where they put you in a tank and figure out your body fat percentage fairly accurately, and they tell me I should eat 2800 calories per day to maintain weight. Another tool I’ve played with is MyNetDiary, and it says I should eat about 2400 calories.

So, I’m confused. And if you get this wrong, you’re either going to starve and bad things will happen, or put on weight. Most of us should find a nutritionist, otherwise it really is a guessing game until you figure it out through experimentation. Of course, you can try eating roughly to an approximate sensible target, and measure what happens over a few weeks. But, anyway, since we’re trying to put together “Plan A” in this blog post, let’s go with 2600 calories per day as a guesstimate for maintaining my current weight.

Ok, so let’s pretend I’ve fallen out of bed, headed downstairs, and I’m grabbing breakfast. Let’s say I eat steel-cut oats with fruit and nuts and 1% milk, and have a Starbucks tall latte on the way to work. Total price tag from MyNetDiary is 753 calories. I hit the gym, and grab a Starbucks apple bran muffin and another coffee at 10am: 510 calories. At 12, I grab a sandwich at work with two pieces of wholegrain bread, some chicken breast, two slices of cheese, tomato, and lettuce: 454 calories. By 3pm, I’m dragging, and grab another coffee and a Clif bar from the food machine: 430 calories. Now it’s dinner time: I decide to have a stir fry, with rice, chicken, and some vegetables: 510 calories. No after dinner snack for me today. Total: 2657 calories.

So, I’m pretty close to the 2600 calories, remembering the target isn’t science. I’m probably not gaining or losing weight, and I ate reasonably well — do you eat better or worse? If I was eating slices of pizza for lunch, waffles for breakfast, eating candy, drinking soda, or hitting take out for dinner, we’d be blasting into the 3000+ territory easily, and then we’re packing on the weight.

In practice, what makes or breaks this kind of plan is meticulous tracking, and having an accurate target that accounts for your goal, your output (exercise), and your inputs. It can work if you work hard.

What makes it hard is the high-carb foods. If I threw in a couple of slices of toast with honey for breakfast, you can add 170 calories to the total (and I could easily do that on the weekend, or even eat four slices for lunch). A cup of rice is 220 calories — if I eat 1.5 or 2 cups with my stirfry instead of 1, it’s goodbye to the plan for the day. A bowl of pasta (say 1.5 cups of plain old spaghetti with sauce) is 330 calories.

Of course, sometimes you need a blast of energy, and this high carb loading is a good thing. If I was hitting the hills on the mountain bike for three hours, it’s probably a good idea. If I was a marathon runner who’s training hard, I’d need this kind of intake. But most of the time, I’m a sedentary office worker (even though I probably do a good 60 to 90 minutes of exercise each day of some material form). So I don’t need the energy, and I don’t want my insulin spiking, and my body storing it as fat for the apocalypse…

Anyway, I’ve given this a good college try, and it doesn’t work for me. Too much measuring, recording, counting. Too much going over the goal by lunch, and winding up hungry later on to hit the goal. Too complicated.

Plan B: Skip the grains

Here’s the non-traditional thing to do: skip the grains, and go easy on the high-sugar foods (don’t eat anything with more than 10g of sugar per 100g of product).

I’ve got an awesome breakfast that I cook every morning. It’s a kind of souffle pancake filled with fruit and nuts. The ingredients are eggs, fruit, nuts, vanilla, and cinnamon — I’ll make a video of how I make it sometime, and take this blog into youtube cooking land. But, bottom line, when I eat it, it’s mighty big and I’m full, full of energy, and happy. It’s about 400 calories in total.

After the gym, I have a small handful of nuts, some carrots or snap peas or celery, and some turkey jerky. Again, gets me back to feeling full, and restores my energy.

At lunch, it’s salad with lean meat. I’ll have a massive portion of chicken and spinach, and sometimes throw in plenty of colorful greens. For a mid-afternoon snack, I have another massive portion of chicken and salad. Effectively, I’m eating two lunches per day.

For dinner, I stick with meats, vegetables, and salads, and that means lots of BBQs / cookouts, and plenty of spice in the food we cook. Last night, I had roasted tri-tip, a spinach and sweet potato salad with a lemon dressing, and a delicious shredded lettuce, almond, and carrot salad with a yummy dressing.

All up, I love breakfast, and I love dinner. The rest can be a bit of a chore, but I am certainly always eating and feeling full. And who said that food has to be a hedonistic experience at every meal anyway?

When I put this into a tool, even with plenty of different variations, it’s always either on my target, or slightly under. And even when I throw in a glass of wine, or a sweet treat at the end of the day, I’m never over by more than a couple of hundred calories. It’s pretty hard to miss when you don’t eat grains, and you steer clear of the high sugar stuff.

I also feel great on Plan B — I just plain feel better from having given up grains, and steering clear of high sugar foods. My digestion is better, and when I mess up and eat wheat, I feel sick. That’s converted me — if I feel great without grains, and terrible when I eat them, then I don’t need them in my life.

Am I short on any nutrient and do I get enough fiber? No and yes. I eat an amazing variety of vegetables and fruits, nuts and meats, and spices and condiments. From my tracking, it looks like I’m spot on where I need to be. I don’t need “whole wheat” (lots of carbs with some indigestible fiber stuff attached) to somehow be magically healthier — there’s no problem that needs solving.

The Bottom Line

I’ve tried two basic ways to get to a healthy weight and maintain it: calorie counting and planning, or just avoiding grains and high sugar foods.

Calorie counting is too complicated for me, and prone to big, bad misses that are fueled by messing up when I eat high carb foods. I’ve never been successful following Plan A. How about you?

Avoiding grains is a basic rule, and it doesn’t require meticulous recording and counting to be roughly right, day after day. The bonus of avoiding grains for me is that I also feel better, perhaps I’m slightly gluten intolerant and blissfully lived most of my life not knowing (and now I feel better!). I’ve been successful on Plan B.

If you’re interested in Plan B, perhaps you should have a chat to a nutritionist, and see if giving a grain-free eating plan is right for you. Ask them if you should try it for 30 days, and then share your data with my readers, and let’s see where the thinking goes.

3 thoughts on “The don’t eat grains mantra: why it makes sense

  1. jacben

    I have to agree. I still eat carbs – I love really good bread, and there are some pasta dishes like garlic prawns and proper carbonara (no cream) that aren’t worth giving up altogether – but I’ve cut way down on them. And as a result, I haven’t had to think about my weight at all, which is a novelty to me. Eggs with either short cut, free-range bacon (the equivalent of what is in America called Canadian bacon) or smoked salmon has become my default breakfast, and the only time I eat a grain breakfast, it’s a barley porridge the CSIRO have developed that’s high in protein, very low GI and keeps you full for ages – even then I add nuts or coconut to it, and cook it with milk instead of water to up the protein.

    P.S. souffle recipe request seconded…

  2. Dennis

    Can you get our cafeteria to serve your souffle recipe? :) (And, all your other recipes?)

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