Grain Brain

November 12th, 2013 | Posted by Alison Spath in Good Reads

I just finished the book Grain Brain by Dr. David Perlmutter, a neurologist and Fellow of the American College of Nutrition.

Grain Brain by Dr. David PerlmutterAn alternate title for this book could have been “How to Lose Your Taste For Sugar and Bread”.  When you understand what goes on in your body when these foods are a regular part of your diet, suddenly that muffin or bagel for breakfast doesn’t look so tasty anymore.  It’s sort of like going to a dinner party and drooling over the cheesecake they’ve got on display that will be served for dessert, but then someone whispers in your ear that the chef mixed a laxative into the batter because she’s ticked off at the host.  Amazingly, you now have no urge to eat any cheesecake, no willpower needed.

I put this book on my reading list after listening to Dr. Perlmutter’s interview on Episode 57 of the Everyday Paleo Podcast .  At that time I had just finished reading Cholesterol Clarity and with many of the same health concepts still fresh in my mind, I was very eager to read Grain Brain after hearing what Dr. Perlmutter had to say.  The overall message in Grain Brain is similar to that in Cholesterol Clarity (not to mention all of my more recent favorite ancestral health books): Gluten, sugar and a diet high in carbohydrates are bad news, especially when it comes to our long term health.  These foods negatively effect the brain much in the same way they effect our cardiovascular system.  Grain Brain does an excellent job of explaining why.

Grain Brain is divided into three parts:

The Whole Grain Truth

This may or may not be news to you, but Grain Brain begins by explaining why grains, sugar and carbs (even “healthy whole grains” and fruit) in excess are not at all healthy for us.  He explains the physiology behind what our bodies do when we eat a lot of carbs and sugar and how it can set us up for insulin resistance, diabetes and inflammation.  He also explains how unbelievably important saturated fat is in our diets and why saturated fat is NOT dangerous for us, but is in fact a necessary nutrient for brain health.  He cites the same Ancel Keys, Seven Countries Study (that ALL of these books reference and consider flawed) and why this myth that saturated fat is bad for us persists in conventional medicine today.

Gluten, found in breads and grain products is a part of the problem, but it’s really just another piece of the puzzle.  Gluten is not just something that people with Celiac’s disease or digestive issues need to worry about, there are varying degrees of gluten sensitivity, and I found it very intriguing to learn that many of us don’t show the obvious signs of gluten intolerance (like digestive distress) but do have many other, lesser known signs of gluten sensitivity, from ADHD (in both children and adults) to anxiety, depression, migraines, sugar cravings and more.  (That’s only a few, list is long!)

Dr. Perlmutter explains that the root cause of the big brain diseases and disorders like Alzheimer’s, dementia, Multiple Sclerosis and Parkinson’s is believed to be inflammation.  He makes a lot of comparisons between the diet we eat today and that of our Paleolithic ancestors and gives a history lesson and explanation as to why the rates of so many these brain disorders among humans have skyrocketed since the agricultural revolution.

He also discusses epigenetics, the theory that our lifestyle choices and habits effect the way our genes express themselves.  (Dr. Shanahan explains epigenetics in great detail in Deep Nutrition, understanding what epigenetics is and how it works can be highly motivating when it comes to eating a diet full of healthy foods!)  The point here is that if you have a genetic predisposition to one of these disorders or if brain disease runs in your family, it does not necessarily mean that the fate of your brain has been sealed.

Once you’ve been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, there is no going back.  There is no cure and there is no fixing the damage that been done to your noggin.  Grain Brain is all about the dietary and lifestyle choices you can make to protect potentially ourselves, reduce inflammation and in theory, reduce inflammation to help avoid these debilitating brain diseases.  This section is full of explanations as to why it’s important to be be proactive about your long term brain health, as opposed to making reactive changes later, when it could already be too late.

Grain Brain Rehab

Part II covers in more detail dietary and lifestyle habits Dr. Perlmutter recommends for optimal brain health.  He discusses Intermittent Fasting, following a ketogenic diet, the importance of eating healthy fats and getting a good night’s sleep, how exercise makes a difference, keeping carbohydrate intake low, avoiding sugar, as well as some supplements to consider.

The best part about this section is that you get to breathe a big sigh of relief when you are reminded of how forgiving and resilient our bodies can be.  With the right foods and habits, it is possible turn your health around, or at the very least, make improvements to your quality of life.

Say Good-Bye to Grain Brain (and My One Criticism)

In Part III, Dr. Perlmutter outlines a four week program to “A New Way of Life”.  One week for dietary change, one week to get into an exercise routine, one week fix your sleep habits and a fourth week to tie it all together.  My criticism is that four weeks is an awfully short period of time to ask of someone to make (potentially) huge lifestyle changes!  Speaking from my own experience, I first began to understand that grains and sugar are no good for us nearly three years ago.  It’s taken a lot of time, effort, understanding, trial and error, some rebelling and thinking  “I just don’t care!” before coming around again (and again) after more time, reading and personal work.  These changes do not happen over night and in my case, it took a while before I got really good and consistent about keeping my grain and sugar intake very low.

I think Dr. Perlmutter is an excellent, trustworthy source when it comes to understanding “why” we should eliminate grains, sugar and too many carbs from our diets – but for some, there’s going to be a lot more that has to go into the “how” than what can be accomplished in a simple four week program.  Lasting change takes time.  For some people it will mean sorting through all sorts of emotional baggage and all the reasons we eat and turn to high sugar/high carb foods comfort.  Forming new habits, dealing with other people in your household or life who have no interest in changing the way that they eat, learning to navigate parties and pot lucks and restaurant menus, planning ahead – for some people the learning curve will be really steep and trying to overhaul your lifestyle in four weeks is only likely to lead to discouragement and back to old, comfortable and familiar habits.

On the flip side, there will of course be some people who don’t have luxury of time or those who will have no problem jumping head first into the lifestyle changes outlined in Grain Brain for longevity and optimal health.  But if this is the book that makes you realize “I need to make some changes!”, please don’t give up out of discouragement if you don’t get the hang of it in a month’s time.  Allow me to give you a big cheesy hug and say “Hang in there!”, I’m still finding my way too, but I can also tell you that it does get easier and begins to feel normal with time.  I will also say that Cholesterol Clarity and Grain Brain have been instrumental in me taking some huge mental leaps in recent months here.  The more you know can make a substantial difference in your commitment levels.  (My next post is going to be about how much I am loving the low carb/high fat way of living, with more detail and thoughts on this topic as well.)

Final Notes

I don’t mean for this post to be a bummer, and I realize that this might make you might want to stick your fingers in your ears and sing “La La La!” if you’re a self-proclaimed carb addict or if you’re reading this while eating a huge bowl of Mac and Cheese.  Dr. Perlmutter calls gluten the “tobacco of our generation.”  That’s a strong statement, but after reading his book, I’m inclined to agree.  I understand that not everyone is going to agree with or want to hear this message, and I’m more than sure I’ll still eat a piece of cheesecake (hopefully not laced with laxative) or handful of cookies now and then (and I eat my share of dark chocolate to be sure!) but sugar definitely tastes different to me now.  The contents of this book have only furthered my resolve to keep my carb, grain and sugar intake low.  I find his research very compelling and convincing, and I will admit it:  I am convinced.

I very much enjoyed reading Grain Brain, it’s currently #1 in among the nutrition books on Amazon and is a New York Times bestseller.  You can also get a good feel for what Dr. Perlmutter has to say from a few of the podcasts he’s been on lately.  I mentioned the Everyday Paleo podcast at the beginning of this article, and I just listened to his interview on the La Vida Low Carb Podcast 725 where he talks about his book, his research and the role that carbs play in the decline of brain health.  You can also hear him on episode 200 of Rob Wolf’s Paleo Solution podcast.

Thoughts, questions, words of wisdom?  Have at it in the comments, I always enjoy hearing from you.

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7 Responses

  • Katheryn says:

    Thanks for the info! Very interesting.

  • Lisa says:

    I’ve been wanting to read this book for while, so this review is especially interesting to me! I was one of the lucky people who found it “easy” (or maybe just obvious) to go grain free once I tried it—because my symptoms went away immediately. I know you and I have read a lot of the same books (go Dr. Shanahan!), and the grain brain concepts really do make sense.
    Of course, you know I’m preg, and I’ve been eating a lot of grains/carbs… I’ve justified it by eating primarily sprouted grains, but still. Dave just mentioned it to me last night—that maybe some of the reason I feel crappy is because i’m eating things I don’t normally eat (and I’m sure that’s true). I guess I’ll have to navigate through it all a bit to figure out how to cut down on the grains/fruit/sugar right now and meet all the preg nutrition needs (seriously, I’ve lived for a couple days straight on sprouted grain bread and butter from grassfed cows—I guess that’s half good).
    What I do know for sure is that when I eat lower carb and higher fat, I feel and look the healthiest… throw in coconut oil and gelatin and I almost instantly have a six-pack (well, pre-preg). The grain thing can be confusing–I’ve seen a lot of holistic mommy type bloggers lately cheer for carbs, saying all the things about being low carb that are bad health-wise. They also promote high fat (butter! bacon!). And they’re thin…. I don’t get that part—if I ate the carb-y diet they do full of fruit and sprouted grains plus the fat, I’d just be chubby. Actually, that’s what I’m doing now. And yes, I’m gaining weight steadily aside from the kumquat sized baby.
    Ok, I’ve contemplated enough on your post for now :-)
    Thanks for bringing this up—I have a lot to think about!

    • I’ve read my share of conflicting info as well on grains, especially when it comes to sprouted grains, it can be so frustrating!

      I’m definitely finding that I too feel best with low carb/high fat and I’ll be expanding on this here soon. We’re all so different though, I fully believe that there is not one perfect diet for every body.

      And all bets are off when you’re pregnant, especially in the first trimester! Whole foods yes, but grains and carbs, who cares! My motto was definitely “If it tastes good, eat it!” :)

  • Grain Brain is on my list of books to read. Thanks for the review.

    I have reduced the amount of grains I eat a lot, but I know I probably still eat more than I should.

    It sounds like 4 weeks is too short to make huge lifestyle changes. I’ve decreased carbs for a couple of years now and got serious about cutting out gluten completely in January. It was easy since I feel so much better without it. But I still eat some rice, quinoa and oats. Not every day, but still a few times a week. I think I’ll work on reducing it more and more, but I’ll give myself some time. I also have to work on the rest of the family. They eat fewer carbs than before but still way too many…

    • I feel like I could have written this exact comment. I’ve gone through many phases of reducing and eliminating grains and carbs, doing well for a while and then backsliding when enough time has passed from whatever book I’ve most recently read or if I’m feeling frustrated/deprived/discouraged/jaded. It definitely takes time, but as the evidence continues to mount against grains, carbs and sugar, the easier it seems to get.

      I’ve read many times about kids being able to eat more fruit than adults, they burn right through it so quickly! In Grain Brain he talks about these diseases being the result of decades of inflammation, and I want to believe that most people who strive to eat well the majority of the time are probably doing better than they would be on a diet of fast food and soda… I’m just grateful the human body is very often resilient and forgiving.

      My big kids don’t eat as well as I would happily feed them either, they are not very open to trying new things and the variety of fruits and vegetables they eat is pretty minimal. I just try to keep talking with them about it, sharing what I learn, letting them help make their own choices and pick out their own healthy food items while trying not making meals and food a battle. It’s definitely tough to impose new “food rules” on kids.

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