Beyond Gluten - Grains & Your Paleo Diet

On January 13, we observe National Gluten-Free Day alongside our gluten-free friends! Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley that many people spend their lives avoiding due to celiac disease, an intolerance or a dietary choice.

The effects of gluten are unique to each individual but research has concluded that approximately 1.8 million Americans have celiac disease with another 1.4 million likely going undiagnosed.  In addition, it's estimated that about 18 million Americans have non-celiac gluten sensitivity which results digestive and inflammatory issues. Currently about 1.6 million Americans have adopted a gluten-free diet despite having no diagnosis.

A Paleo diet is based on foods that have undergone very little processing, like those available to our hunter-gatherer ancestors many years ago. Most foods that came after the introduction of agriculture, such as grains, legumes, vegetable oils and sugar, are therefore off the menu for Paleo eaters. The foods you enjoy on a Paleo diet are close to their original form and include well-soured and raised meats and eggs, wild-caught fish, vegetables, fruits, tubers and naturally occurring fats from these animals and avocado, nuts, olive oil and coconut oil.

Amongst other processed foods, the Paleo diet eliminates cereal grains such as wheat, rice and corn, and the pseudo-grains such as quinoa, millet and buckwheat, making the Paleo way of eating, naturally gluten free.

Science is increasingly revealing how wheat consumption is potentially linked to a surprising number of health problems including obesity, heart conditions, a host of digestive concerns and a dramatic rise is celiac-like disorders. It appears this principle of the Paleo diet was spot on!

Wheat raises blood sugar levels, causes immunoreactivity, inhibits the absorption of important minerals, and aggravates your intestines. There is no doubt that gluten has become a concern, but the issues with grains and wheat specifically are way more complex.

What Is Gluten

Gluten is a difficult-to-digest protein found in many of the most commonly consumed grains, especially wheat, but also rye, barley, kamut and triticale. Wheat flour is used to make breads, cakes, cookies, granola bars, breakfast cereals and pasta, and even to thicken sauces and soups.  Gluten intolerance is becoming a widespread problem that contributes to joint pain, headaches and digestive problems as well as various autoimmune conditions, such as Hashimoto's thyroiditis and multiple sclerosis. Because gluten intolerance is hard to test for, removing gluten by adopting the Paleo diet can help you see more clearly if it contributes to your health problems.

Further Concerns With Grains


All grains, whether they contain gluten or not, are removed from the Paleo diet because of their high anti-nutrient content, especially lectins and phytic acid. Unlike animals that can defend themselves by running away from their predators, plants have learned over the years to develop compounds that can produce negative health consequences when consumed. Among these compounds are anti-nutrients. These are literally, compounds that prevent you from properly absorbing the nutrients you eat. Some of these anti-nutrients can bind with the calcium, zinc, iron and magnesium you eat and prevent these important nutrients from being absorbed. Removing grains from your diet can help you better absorb nutrients to prevent anemia, osteoporosis and other nutrient deficiencies.

Low Nutrient Density

Most grain products consumed today are over-processed, stripped of their already low nutrient content. Compared with animal protein and vegetables, two of the food groups that Are most nutrient dense, grains provide significantly fewer nutrients per calorie.

Another common argument in favor of grain consumption is that they provide necessary fiber. This is actually a bit of a myth. As a wellness and nutrition expert noted, there is a case for the detrimental effects of too much insoluble fiber in the diet.  Eating plenty of vegetables and some fruit can provide a larger quantity of insoluble fiber vitamins and minerals than any grains could supply.

Other Carbohydrate Sources

The Paleo diet is lower in carbohydrates compared to the standard American diet because it excludes grains, but it is not necessarily a low-carb diet. People trying to lose weight or having metabolic derangement, such as insulin resistance, are encouraged to keep their carbohydrate intake lower. However, if you are at a healthy weight and physically active, you can replace eating tubers and fruits can provide you with all your nutrient dense energy requirement. Paleo alternatives for the starches found in grains include sweet potatoes, yucca, squashes and other roots, as well as local and seasonal apples, pears, berries, melons and stone fruits.

Grains As Part Of A Healthy Diet

A well formulated Paleo diet that is free of grains can certainly meet all the nutritional needs to live a long and healthy life.

While some may need to avoid all grains to maximize their health and manage their illness or conditions, most people can incorporate some amount of gluten-free grains into a diverse whole food, Paleo-based diet. For most people there is an area of consumption that will fall between complete avoidance and multiple servings of whole grains at each meal.

Finding the grains that work best for your body can require some experimentation. Certain grains seem to be better tolerated than others. A few ancient grains, organically grown and properly prepared can offer an occasional indulgence and add a little extra diversity and creativity to your Paleo plan.

Cereal Grains vs. Pseudo-Grains

Cereal grains are the seeds of cultivated grasses and include wheat, rye, oats, rice, corn and barley. Over the past decades they have been hybridized from their original wild state as short, unimportant grasses with tiny seed heads. These grains now produce huge, heavy seed heads.

“Pseudo-grains” are seeds from shrubs or bushy plants, not grasses. These include amaranth, buckwheat, quinoa and millet. 

Wild rice is not a true rice or cereal grass but rather a reed-like aquatic grass. It grows in shallow water with the seed heads visible above the water. It is related to “rice” but has not undergone extensive hybridization. The seeds are large and dark brown, native to North America and China.

Including Ancient Grains

In more recent years, many Paleo experts have included white rice as an acceptable grain to consume on a Paleo diet if one is looking for more calories or carbohydrates than their current plan is able to provide. White rice is fairly low in phytic acid and lectins but it is highly hybridized and almost pure starch with very little nutrients. The ancient grains quinoa, black rice, wild rice, buckwheat and amaranth are alternate options.


Properly preparing grains eliminates most of the problematic phytates and lectins and makes them much easier to digest. 

Sprouting, soaking and fermenting grains before consumption can drastically reduce toxins in grains increasing their digestibility and nutrient availability. The Weston A. Price Foundation provides numerous resources on how to properly prepare grains.

To summarize:

  • Buy organic and non-hybridized
  • Soak overnight to remove phytic acid
  • Sprout if possible
  • Cook longer than directions state to break down complex plant fibers and help digestion
  • Only eat small amounts to avoid excessive carbohydrate intake

With many of the anti-nutrient compounds reduced through the soaking and sprouting process, you might choose to add these foods to your Paleo diet on occasion as long as you can tolerate them without issue.  

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However, there are certain people that may need to avoid grains entirely.

Those struggling with autoimmunity or severe digestive system imbalances may need to remain grain-free and gluten-free permanently to feel their best, while others can thrive on a more diverse, grain inclusive diet.

The Choice Is Yours

If choosing to experiment with adding some ancient grains to your diet, it is probably best to begin with rice or buckwheat as they have the lowest toxicity and the greatest tolerance. If these are tolerated, you may want to try a few additional gluten-free grains or pseudo-grains. Gluten is a very challenging anti-nutrient to break down and resists the soaking, sprouting and cooking methods explained above. Wheat and gluten grains are best avoided.

When prepared properly and eaten in moderation, including small amounts ancient grains can be included in a Paleo diet as long as you tolerate them without difficulty and they are not replacing more nutrient-dense foods.

It is crucial to try each grain one at a time, so you can detect how your body is tolerating each one. You may discover that you tolerate some grains better than others.

If you are able to eat small amounts of properly prepared grains without any difficulty or worsening of your symptoms, and you are still eating a very nutrient-dense diet that contains meat, fish, shellfish, organ meats, herbs and spices, nuts and seeds, fresh fruits and vegetables, that is great. You now have the option of broader and more diverse diet and fewer limitations.

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