Grains and Calories - Two Wars You Don't Need to Fight

Do you remember the Y2K scare?  I'll be honest, I don't really.  Of course, that's probably because I was in the 8th grade and wayyyy to into professional wrestling to give a hoot about anything else.  And, I was also fresh off my role as "Elvis," the emcee in my 8th grade Cabaret.

I can no longer run from my past..

I can no longer run from my past..

Before we go any further, let me answer your questions: 1) No, I no longer follow professional wresting (thank GOD it was a phase).  2) Yes, there is video evidence of me as Elvis somewhere in my parents' house.  It was actually the same show where I lip synced to "I Want It That Way" by the Backstreet Boys. And, I....I think I've said too much.

Back to the topic at hand, the Y2K scare made the entire world think doomsday was right around the corner.  And, had it not been for some foresight and work by people like my Dad - who was actually working in the World Trade Center on the night of December 31, 1999 - Y2K could have been a big deal.  (And yes, he stopped working there a few months before IT happened)

Fast forward to today and the whole Y2K scare has manifested itself in the realm of nutrition - in the form of grains (gluten) and calories.

Let's start with grains, and with what many people are afraid of, gluten.  If you're part of the estimated 1-3% of the population that's allergic to gluten, avoiding it is a solid move.  But, for the majority of us, the whole anti-gluten movement has unnecessarily thrown grains under the bus.  And, it doesn't help that books like "Grain Brain" and "Wheat Belly" have continually reinforced these fears with selective research and spotty science.  Here's one of my favorite clips from Jimmy Kimmel, which shows just how far this anti-gluten movement has gone: 

So, if you do have a medical reason to stop eating gluten, then the coming rant is not meant for you.  But for the rest of us, let's stop pretending that gluten - and therefore grains - is just as bad as ISIS.  Capiche?

There's an enormous body of evidence illustrating that including whole grains (gluten and all) in your diet is going to lead to better health.  Better yet?  Not one controlled trial has shown that grains increase inflammation in your body - the cornerstone of the anti-grain argument.  

Yup, you read that correctly.  Eating more whole grains tends to mean that you're going to be healthier overall. Next thing you know, it's like I'm going to tell you that eating more whole grains is going to make you less fat. And yes, that's exactly what I'm saying.

Cynicism aside, when people switch to a gluten free diet - even if they're not allergic to gluten -  they will often lose weight.  But in reality, it probably has nothing to do with gluten itself.  Instead, it's because you're regulating the amount of low-quality, nutritionally poor foods that you include in your diet.

Apparently if you're Paleo, you can have your cake and eat it too.  OK, that was a bad joke.

Apparently if you're Paleo, you can have your cake and eat it too.  OK, that was a bad joke.

Just something to think about before you make any Paleo cupcakes.. ;) 

They key, though, is sticking to "whole grains," and avoiding the refined grains and sugars put in many processed goods.  We're not getting fat by eating too much oats, amaranth, and quinoa.  Instead, it's the Wheat Thins, Baked Lays, breakfast cereals, bagels, and muffins.

In much the same way, calories have been seen as THE metric for proper nutrition.  After all, we need to burn more than we take in, right?  Well, not quite.

The premise of the calories in/calories out argument is rooted in the idea that all calories are created equal, which they are not.  Now, I could give a few examples of how different foods are processed by our bodies, but I think the following evidence is much more compelling: obesity tends to be highly correlated with socioeconomic status (also, see here).   In other words, the poorest and hungriest Americans are usually the ones most likely to be obese.

What can we take from that?  Food quality is MUCH more important than quantity.  If you're eating 800 calories of a salad, it's going to be better for your pants size than 400 calories coming from a Mountain Dew.  Or nachos.  Or Baked Lays.

Now, just like going on a gluten-free kick, counting calories CAN work for weight loss.  After all, I seen't it!

But, it only tends to work if A) you consistently track all of your calories, which is probably not sustainable for the rest of your life, and B) you consistently overestimate how many calories you take in and underestimate how many you need.  

Plus, it's important to point out why counting calories works in the first place: because you're regulating the amount of low-quality, nutritionally poor foods that you include in your diet. 

Sound familiar?

Now, this isn't to say that going gluten-free or counting calories is a bad strategy.  After all, I've said repeatedly that everything can and does work.  But, just realize why it's working - it's not our total calories, nor the inclusion of grains that will lead to destruction of our waistlines.  Instead, it's our overall food choices.

Don't eat less.  Just eat better.