Why is grain free better than gluten-free?

As more and more people adopt specialty diets like gluten-free and grain-free, it’s important to understand the differences between these two popular ways of eating. Both gluten-free and grain-free diets eliminate certain foods, but they have different rationales behind their restrictions.

Gluten-free diets avoid gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. This diet is a medical necessity for those with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity. However, some people follow it because they believe it is generally healthier.

Grain-free diets, on the other hand, eliminate all grains, even whole grains. This includes gluten-containing grains as well as gluten-free grains like rice, corn, quinoa, etc. People choose grain-free diets to lose weight, alleviate digestive issues, reduce inflammation or simply because they believe grains are harmful.

So what exactly makes grain-free diets nutritionally superior to gluten-free diets for most people? Here are some of the top reasons grain-free is better:

1. Grain-free diets are lower in carbs and may aid weight loss

One big appeal of going grain-free is that it automatically reduces your carb intake quite significantly. All grains are high in carbs, so eliminating them cuts out a large source of carbohydrates.

In comparison, gluten-free diets only remove wheat, barley and rye, but allow other high-carb gluten-free grains. For example, a cup of white rice has 45 grams of carbs while a cup of quinoa has 39 grams of carbs.

Lower carb intake promotes fat burning

Consuming fewer carbs while increasing healthy fats is a proven way to get your body into fat burning mode. This metabolic state, called ketosis, is when your liver converts fat into ketones for fuel instead of running on carbs and glucose.

Many people find grain-free, lower carb diets very effective for losing excess body fat. Gluten-free diets are unlikely to have this effect unless carbs are also restricted.

Insulin and blood sugar control

All grains raise blood sugar, which causes a release of insulin. Spikes in blood sugar and insulin are tied to hunger, overeating, increased belly fat storage, type 2 diabetes and metabolic disease.

Since grain-free diets remove all sources of grains and fiber is intact in produce, they help maintain steady, low blood sugar levels and require less insulin release compared to gluten-free diets.

2. Eliminating grains may ease digestive issues

Many people report better digestive health when removing all grains from their diet. Because grains contain anti-nutrients like phytates and lectins, they are more difficult to break down and digest than other real, whole foods.

Gluten-containing grains are certainly the worst offenders, but even whole grains can irritate the gut lining and trigger issues like bloating, gas, constipation, reflux and abdominal pain in sensitive individuals.

Grain-free diets remove this common gut irritant altogether, allowing the digestive system to heal and function better. Gluten-free diets still contain troublesome grains so are less ideal for healing leaky gut and improving digestion.


In addition to anti-nutrients, grains are high in types of carbohydrates called FODMAPs. FODMAPs such as fructans and galactans feed the bad bacteria in the gut, leading to gas and other digestive discomforts.

Many ancient grains and gluten-free options are high in FODMAPs. Going grain-free is an effective way to lower dietary FODMAPs and alleviate gastrointestinal issues.

No grains = better gut microbiome

With grains eliminated, a grain-free diet shapes the gut microbiome in a more beneficial direction. Pathogenic bacteria that thrive on phytates and FODMAPs in grains decline, allowing the growth of good commensal strains.

A 2014 study comparing the gut microbiota of rural Africans who eat no grains to urban Italians found the Italians had less microbial diversity. The researchers attributed this difference to the lack of grains in the African diet.

3. Grain-free diets reduce inflammation

Chronic, low-grade inflammation is at the root of nearly all chronic illness, including autoimmune disease, heart disease, diabetes, cancer and neurodegenerative conditions. Diet plays a major role in either reducing or promoting widespread inflammation.

As highly glycemic foods, grains contribute to inflammation in a number of ways:

Blood sugar surges = inflammatory cascade

Rapidly spiking blood sugar from grain carbohydrates triggers the release of inflammatory messenger proteins including interleukin-6 (IL-6), tumor necrosis factor (TNF) and C-reactive protein (CRP).

Grains harbor pathogens

Grains often become contaminated with mycotoxins, endotoxins and other bacterial toxins during harvesting, processing and storage. These compounds directly provoke inflammatory pathways.

Leaky gut = inflammation

The proteins in grains can damage the intestinal barrier, allowing undigested food particles, toxins and bacteria into the bloodstream. This triggers widespread inflammation and autoimmunity.

Omega-6 overload

Most grains have a high ratio of inflammatory omega-6 fats compared to anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats. This imbalance promotes inflammation, especially when grain oils are consumed.

A grain-free diet avoids all these inflammatory factors and relies on clean proteins, fruits, vegetables and healthy fats – an anti-inflammatory combination.

4. Nutrient deficiencies are less likely

Since whole grains contain important vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, some people worry that avoiding grains leads to deficiencies.

However, research shows grain-free and gluten-free diets have a superior micronutrient profile compared to diets containing grains. Why is this?

Grains contain antinutrients

Phytates, lectins, enzyme inhibitors and indigestible fibers in grains all impair nutrient absorption. Calcium, zinc, iron and folate absorption are especially hindered.

Going grain-free eliminates these antinutrients, increasing bioavailability of many vitamins and minerals. It also reduces inflammation in the gut, further improving absorption.

More nutrient-dense foods

On a grain-free diet, grains are replaced with vegetables, fruits, protein, healthy fats and starchy alternatives like sweet potatoes that have higher nutrient levels overall.

Nut butter, seeds, quality oils and egg yolks provide ample vitamin E, selenium, magnesium and healthy fats compared to grains. Organ meats are also incredibly micronutrient-rich.

5. Going grain-free eliminates common allergens

Food sensitivities and allergies to grain proteins are extremely prevalent, even though many people don’t realize they have an intolerance. Gluten and proteins in corn, rice, sorghum, oats, rye and barley are common triggers.

This causes a wide range of vague symptoms like fatigue, headaches, skin issues, mood problems, sleep disturbances, joint pain, nausea etc. These symptoms often vanish completely when all grains are removed from the diet.

Gluten-free diets still include corn, rice, oats and other grains that often cause issues in sensitive individuals. Only a 100% grain-free diet effectively eliminates all of these allergens.

6. A grain-free diet has cancer-fighting benefits

Emerging research indicates a grain-free, ketogenic diet has powerful anti-cancer effects. While most grains have a high glycemic load that may increase cancer risk, grain-free diets contain compounds that combat cancer growth.

Ketones inhibit cancer cell metabolism

When carb intake is very low, the liver produces fat-burning ketones. Several studies show these ketones help prevent cancer initiation and halt growth and spread of existing cancer cells.

Low IGF-1 levels

Grain-free diets lower circulation of insulin and IGF-1, an anabolic hormone that accelerates growth of cancer cells. High protein, low carb diets also increase levels of IGF-1 binding proteins that block IGF-1’s effects.

Gut microbiota changes

The gut microbiome plays an important role in cancer. A grain-free diet fosters growth of beneficial strains like Akkermansia muciniphila that are associated with reduced tumor growth and better responses to chemotherapy.

7. A grain-free diet supports brain health

Emerging research indicates grain consumption may negatively impact the brain in various ways. The brain is extremely sensitive to inflammation and insulin resistance – both of which grains promote.

Reduces Alzheimer’s risk

Observational studies link high grain consumption, and wheat in particular, to increased risk for Alzheimer’s disease. This may be related to inflammation and insulin resistance which are key features of Alzheimer’s.

Protects blood-brain barrier

The lectins in wheat cross the blood-brain barrier and bind to receptors in the brain. This leads to inflammation and leaky brain which is linked to neurodegenerative disorders like dementia.

Improves cognition

A grain-free ketogenic diet provides the brain with an alternative fuel called ketones. The brain preferentially burns ketones instead of glucose, which improves cognition – especially in people with certain disorders like epilepsy or Alzheimer’s.

8. Eliminating grains promotes longevity

Grains contain unique proteins like gliadin that may accelerate aging and decrease lifespan according to research in simple organisms like yeast and mice:

– A 2012 study showed that mice fed a high-carb, grain-based diet had a shorter lifespan compared to mice on a low-carb diet. The low-carb mice had lower levels of inflammatory cytokines.

– Gliadin restriction has been shown to increase longevity and improve biomarkers of aging in yeast models. This indicates the proteins in wheat may negatively impact lifespan.

– Okinawans, one of the longest-living people on earth, obtain over 85% of their calories from sweet potatoes rather than wheat and rice. This correlates with a grain-free diet and extreme longevity.

9. Grain-free diets heal the skin

There are several reasons why eliminating all grains often leads to improved skin health:

Reduce inflammation

Since inflammation is the root cause of most skin conditions like acne, eczema, rosacea and psoriasis, a grain-free diet’s anti-inflammatory effects help normalize these conditions.

No allergens

Food sensitivities to grain proteins cause various rashes, hives and skin reactions. Removing grains takes away these allergens.

Higher antioxidant intake

Grain-free diets include more antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables, providing protective phytonutrients that prevent free radical damage to skin cells.

Optimal gut health

Improving gut health helps nurture healthy skin from within. A leaky gut from grain proteins allows toxins into the bloodstream that damage skin.

10. Grain-free diets reduce autoimmunity

Autoimmune conditions, where the body attacks its own tissue, are highly inflammatory disorders. The autoimmune response is linked to leaky gut, food sensitivities and high blood sugar – all issues aggravated by grain consumption.

Multiple studies show that both gluten and gluten-free grains trigger increased intestinal permeability and raise zonulin levels. Zonulin regulates gut barrier function, and elevated levels indicate a leaky gut.

This strongly suggests that any autoimmune disease would benefit from a 100% grain-free diet to help reverse leaky gut. Eliminating grains has been shown to put certain autoimmune diseases like Hashimoto’s and rheumatoid arthritis into remission.


The evidence clearly shows that grain-free diets reduce inflammation, improve gut health, enhance fat burning and provide antioxidants more effectively than gluten-free diets.

Unless you have celiac disease or proven non-celiac gluten sensitivity, a grain-free diet is superior for improving energy, skin, immunity, brain function, metabolism, digestion and longevity.

The overall diet quality will likely be higher without any grains, even gluten-free whole grains. This leads to better micronutrient status and an environment in the body that is less prone to chronic disease.

Of course, there is room for some healthy grains like brown rice or gluten-free oats in moderation in the context of an anti-inflammatory diet. However, going completely grain-free offers the most benefits for healing from chronic inflammatory illnesses.

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