Some doctors and healthcare practitioners are recommending grain-free diets for their patients. What does it mean to be on a grain-free diet and what are the potential benefits? Learn more about the basics and potential health benefits of a grain-free diet for humans and when it may be appropriate for certain medical conditions.

individual bags of different types of grains.

What are grains?

Grains are a staple food in most countries across the world, providing a cheap and abundant source of protein and carbohydrates. These small, edible seeds grow on cereal plants and belong to the Poaceaeor “grasses” family. Grains include wheat, oats, barley, rye, millet, sorghum, corn, and rice.

Grains are made up of three parts.

The bran is the outermost layer. It is a source of fiber and is rich in B vitamins.

The next layer is the endosperm – the main source of protein and carbohydrates.

At the center of a grain is the germ, or embryo. Rich in vitamins and minerals, it also contains fats,  protein, and phytonutrients (healthy compounds found in plant foods).

You will often hear grains described as being “whole” or “refined”. 

Whole grains will have undergone very little processing, so their bran, germ, and endosperm are intact.

Refined grains, on the other hand, have been processed to the extent that they contain no bran or germ at all – just the endosperm. This means they are significantly less nutritious.

While grains like oats and brown rice are generally consumed whole, many others are refined. Refined grains are often milled into flour and used to make foods like bread, pasta, and cookies.

Some refined grains are “enriched”, which means the nutrients lost during processing are added back in. But this doesn’t usually include the fiber, meaning that whole grains are almost always the healthier choice.

a wooden box containing six types of grains.

Are grains unhealthy?

There is something of a misconception these days that grains are always unhealthy.

But, this isn’t necessarily true. Whole grains are an excellent source of nutrients, particularly B vitamins and the fiber that your body needs to support your digestive system and prevent constipation

Refined grains tend to be more problematic, and it is these that get grains a bad rap in general.

See my related article answer the question, “is basmati rice good for you?”

Consuming refined grains can cause a spike in blood sugar levels

This is especially true of carb-rich refined grains that have been stripped of their fiber and are thus digested very quickly. Fluctuating blood sugar levels are a problem for people with conditions like diabetes and metabolic syndrome.

Consuming whole grains, however, does not have this effect.

Refined grains are associated with weight gain

Refined grains are often used to produce high-calorie foods and snacks, including white bread, white pasta, cakes, cookies, pizza, and many more. Cutting out these refined foods may help you lose excess weight.

But, healthy whole grains are not associated with weight gain and there is scientific evidence that consuming them can actually have a positive effect on your resting metabolic rate (RMR).

refined-grain bread and bagels on a table.

Refined grains may cause inflammation

Inflammation is part of your body’s defense system and has an important role in healing and repair. But chronic inflammation – when your body sends inflammatory cells even when there is no danger – has been linked to serious diseases like cancer, arthritis, and diabetes.

While there is some evidence to suggest that grains can trigger inflammation, research has shown that it is usually refined grains that are the culprits. Indeed, whole grains may actually reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Grains and gluten

Some grains – including wheat, barley, and rye – contain gluten. This is true whether they are refined or whole.

Gluten isn’t necessarily “unhealthy”, but it can be a problem for certain people. These include people with celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity. For these people, gluten-containing foods may be inflammatory and can cause other health issues or side effects.

See my related article on the reasons to go gluten-free.

What is a grain-free diet?

A totally grain-free diet is very restrictive and should only be undertaken on the advice of a medical professional. A grain-free diet includes cutting out all grains, along with foods and ingredients containing them. 

It is often recommended that dried corn and corn products (like corn flour) are avoided, too. Fresh corn isn’t included as it is considered a starchy vegetable rather than a grain. 

A grain-free diet is essentially gluten-free because gluten is only found in grains. But a gluten-free diet is much less restrictive because there are some grains that are gluten-free and can still be enjoyed.

a woman saying no to a plate of white bread and hamburger buns.

Foods to avoid on a grain-free diet

If you have been advised to follow a grain-free diet, you will need to avoid all grains, whether whole or refined. These grain-free and gluten-free foods include:

  • Barley
  • Bulgur
  • Corn (dried)
  • Farro
  • Millet
  • Oats
  • Rice
  • Rye
  • Sorghum
  • Spelt
  • Triticale
  • Wheat

You will also need to avoid grain-derived foods, including:

  • Bagels
  • Bread
  • Cakes
  • Cereals
  • Cookies
  • Crackers
  • Oatmeal
  • Pasta/noodles
  • Pizza
  • Popcorn
  • Rice cakes
  • Some plant milks (including oat and rice milks)
a person holding a handful of wheat.

Check the labels on processed foods for grain-based flours or other gluten-containing grains. These include all-purpose flour, corn flour, graham flour, and rice flour.

There are also grain-based ingredients in some foods, drinks, and ingredients you may not have considered. These include:

  • Alcoholic beverages like beer, gin, sake, whiskey, and Scotch
  • Rice syrup
  • High fructose corn syrup

Foods to include on a grain-free diet

Grains are a significant source of carbohydrates.

To replace carbs on a grain-free diet, be sure to consume plenty of complex carbohydrates like potatoes, sweet potatoes, starchy vegetables, squash, legumes, and fruit.

You may also like my article on the best gluten-free carbohydrate foods.

Cutting out whole grains will also drastically reduce your fiber intake, potentially increasing your risk of constipation and other digestive issues. To ensure you get enough fiber, include grain-free foods like fresh or dried fruits, vegetables, nuts (including nut butters), and seeds.

Other foods to include on a grain-free diet include:

  • Meat
  • Eggs
  • Fish
  • Healthy fats
  • Dairy

These whole foods will help compensate for any nutrients missing from your diet once grains have been eliminated, including protein and B vitamins.

You can also include plant foods rich in protein, such as edamame, soy yogurt, tofu, tempeh, and natto.

To replace grain-based flour in your diet, try using flour made from:

  • Almonds
  • Chickpeas
  • Coconut
  • Chickpeas
  • Flaxseeds (linseeds)
  • Lentils
  • Soy

You can also eat baked goods made with these types of flours. Look for these flours at most grocery stores.

Finally, consider including pseudocereals in your diet. With similar nutritional profiles to whole grains, pseudocereals are a group of gluten-free plants that form starchy seeds but have different physical properties to cereals.

The most common – and easiest to find at your grocery store – include quinoa, amaranth, and buckwheat.

a scoop in a large bowl of quinoa.


Are grain-free diets natural for humans?

Some popular diets in the United States such as the paleo diet and Whole30 argue that humans are not naturally disposed toward eating grains. 

But, there is evidence to suggest that grains have been an integral part of the human diet for many years. This article, for example, describes how evidence in Europe proved that starch grains were mixed with water 30,000 years ago. Meanwhile, wheat was one of the first crops to be domesticated around 10,000 years ago.

It continues to be a matter of debate as to whether or not grains are considered a “natural” part of the human diet.

Can I eat quinoa on a grain-free diet?

Quinoa – along with buckwheat and amaranth – are generally permitted on a grain-free diet. This is because they are pseudocereals, with different physical properties to grains. This means they have a different effect on the body.

Talk to your doctor or a registered dietitian to determine whether or not psuedograins like quinoa are appropriate for you.

Will going grain-free help me heal my autoimmune disease?

In some cases, going grain-free can control or even eliminate the symptoms of certain autoimmune conditions including Hashimoto’s thyroiditis and rheumatoid arthritis. Indeed, this is the reason that medical professionals most commonly advise a grain-free approach.

For example, the gluten in many grains affects people with celiac disease, leading to severe nutritional deficiencies and other digestive issues. Similarly, going grain-free has been shown to help control the symptoms of IBS and maybe even ulcerative colitis.

Learn more about the autoimmune protocol in my article on the AIP Diet for Beginners.

Will a grain-free diet help with weight loss?

Maybe. If your body is inflamed from eating grains, then going grain-free may help reduce that inflammation and help with healthy weight loss (assuming you have weight to lose). This may also be the case if you have food allergies, irritable bowel syndrome, gluten intolerance, an autoimmune disorder, or a wheat allergy.

Grain-free recipes to try


Eliminating all grains from your diet can be very beneficial if you suffer from certain health conditions.  In some cases, however, it may be refined grains that are causing your symptoms, and switching to a diet containing only whole grains could actually have a positive effect.

For this reason, it’s a good idea to discuss the potential benefits of going grain-free with your doctor before making any changes to your diet. 

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About the Author: Carrie Forrest has a master’s degree in public health with a specialty in nutrition. She is a top wellness and food blogger with nearly 10 million annual visitors to her site. Carrie has an incredible story of recovery from chronic illness and is passionate about helping other women transform their health. Send Carrie a message through her contact form.

Note: this post is for informational purposes only and is not intended as medical advice. Please consult your healthcare provider for recommendations related to your individual situation.