What should a person eat? In recent years, the most sensible answer to that question has been journalist Michael Pollan’s oft-quoted, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Then last fall, David Perlmutter, M.D., a neurologist, published Grain Brain: The Surprising Truth About Wheat, Carbs, and Sugar – Your Brain’s Silent Killers (Little, Brown), a manifesto against carbohydrates that soon topped the New York Times bestseller list.

Annoyingly, the title is a misnomer. If you wish to observe the Perlmutter protocol, you must banish from your diet not just grains but sugar (with the exception of small amounts of dark chocolate), root vegetables, all legumes except lentils, and starchy fruits like bananas, which rate high on the glycemic index. Carb intake is limited to 50 to 80 grams a day—a mere 5% of total daily calories, the equivalent of a serving of fruit. Allowed are grass-fed meats, free-range poultry, fish, leafy greens, nuts, and healthy fats. While few would dispute that eating masses of carbs isn’t good for anyone, there’s no unequivocal proof that eating small or moderate amounts of grains is harmful.

bread wheatJust reading the catalogue of maladies that Dr. Perlmutter claims carbs can trigger is sobering enough to put a glutton like me off her feed. Insomnia, anxiety, chronic headaches. Depression, epilepsy, Alzheimer’s disease. “Modern grains,” he writes, “are silently destroying your brain.” Remember that 1980s public ad campaign with the fried egg and the tagline, “This is your brain on drugs?” Dr. Perlmutter says that grains have a similar effect on the brain, a claim he substantiates with references to peer-reviewed studies that link elevated blood sugar (insulin resistance) to Alzheimer’s and also with observations from his own medical practice.

My memory is excellent, knock wood, and I’d like to keep it that way. The prospect of Alzheimer’s disease is particularly scary to me. For this reason, when Grain Brain was released, I picked up a copy and read it in a single evening. But the diet Dr. Perlmutter proposed seemed extreme—no fun at all! And while few would dispute that eating masses of carbs isn’t good for anyone, there’s no unequivocal proof that eating small or moderate amounts of grains is harmful. In fact, a senior editor at The Atlantic, James Hamblin, M.D., recently published a long, lucid post on that magazine’s website in which he argues that Dr. Perlmutter’s theory is a bit too neat.

david-perlmutter-grain-brainAnd yet, there’s no denying that for some of us, grains and high-carbohydrate foods at the very least lead to overeating. What if Dr. Perlmutter is on to something? What if he’s right to unmask grains and carbs as “a terrorist group that bullies our most precious organ?” With the encouragement of a Rewire Me editor, I decided to try the Grain Brain diet and see for myself. To show I meant business, I vowed to temporarily divest my kitchen of every last grain of rice, every sack of flour, and all my pizza-making paraphernalia. But then the snow came and the ice, and it was no longer possible to haul 50 pounds of high-carbohydrate foods to their designated safe house unless I rented a sled. The Grain Brain is intended to be a permanent lifestyle change, but my ambitions ran to trying it out for 10 days.

On the first day of the diet, I felt like crap. I mourned all the nice members of the terrorist cell with whom I had been keeping company as I took my leave of each one. Goodbye avocado on whole grain toast with chili flakes and olive oil; goodbye oven-baked sweet potato fries; goodbye carrot soup; goodbye cornmeal-crusted flounder; goodbye chickpea curry; goodbye dearly beloved sticky dates. Goodbye, goodbye!

Then I stayed up until midnight watching Lidia Bastianich, the Italian chef, instruct her television audience on the proper way to grill bread (always drizzle on the olive oil after grilling, never before). In spite of massive grain consumption, Lidia is sharp as a tack. Could Americans be more prone to grain brain than Italians? I fell asleep but woke up at four in the morning and watched a documentary about rice production in Senegal. A man said, “We Senegalese love rice, but few of the people in my village can afford it.” He spoke beautifully and was very bright. Obviously: He had no access to rice.

vegetablesThe next day, I felt extremely odd. Not bad, just different. It took a while before it dawned on me that for the first time in ages, I wasn’t ravenous. My meager vegetarian lunch (I couldn’t stomach the animal protein he agitates for) exploded with flavor! And those colors! They were so intense that I put down my newspaper to take a closer look. On subsequent days, the miracle repeated itself with plain old steamed vegetables. Over the weekend, pressed for time, I deviated from the regimen and scarfed a lentil and rice crepe, and the scale registered a small weight gain (apparently, weight loss is a fringe benefit of the diet). One thing led to another, and soon the forbidden sweets in my cupboard beckoned. On my way to the kitchen, I stopped to check email and found a note from my editor: How is the Grain Brain thing going? Shame-faced, I put on my running shoes and went to the gym. I haven’t been tempted by cookies, cakes, or any other sweet things since that moment.

As I approached the tenth day of the experiment, I came across a fascinating article in the Guardian about the difference between liking food and wanting food. It seems that neuroscientists have determined that sugar sensitizes the brain’s reward system so that long after you’ve kicked the habit, the mere sight of something sweet can trigger what’s called a “hyperactive dopamine response.” You might not even derive pleasure from eating a food you crave but feel compelled to bolt it down anyway.

While I wouldn’t put my faith in a low-carb diet in the hope of dodging the Alzheimer’s bullet, I feel so much more clear-headed than I did when I started this regimen that I intend to stick with it a little longer. And now I really should do something about those sticky toffee puddings lurking in my fridge.

Click here to find out about Rose’s thoughts on wellbeing and health


  • Tanis
    Posted August 20, 2014 9:04 pm 1Likes

    Are you still following the diet?

  • Susan
    Posted August 27, 2014 11:14 pm 0Likes

    Hi…I have read the book and it makes sense. I am also wondering if you are still following the diet and if so, what other changes have you noticed……thanks!

  • cindy herring
    Posted October 4, 2014 3:56 pm 0Likes

    are you allowed coconut milk on the brain grain diet

  • Andrea
    Posted February 24, 2015 2:15 pm 1Likes

    Yes, you can consume coconut milk.
    I have been following this way of eating for a few months, and I am absolutely thrilled. I have no cravings, I have more energy than ever, and I also experienced what is described above…I become more aware of the flavors and the beautiful colors of food.
    And I am able to detect artifical things more easily. The other day I was going thru my bathroom cabinet, and I threw out everything that has chemicals that I no longer want to expose my body to (like aluminum, parabens, etc.), and regarding my perfumes it was like that (…fyi..I am using a site to screen my things and that site explains what the harmful things are doing),: those perfums that smelled good and natural had no harmfull ingredients and those perfumes that made me think “what a chemistry lab”, had harmful ingredients.

    Grain-free is the way to go, and it is not like grain-free means no fun. There are excellent recipe books by several authors (including Dr. Perlmutter)), and you can learn to make delicious gluten-free cakes from nut flour.

  • Tehminakhan
    Posted April 19, 2015 6:30 pm 0Likes

    Very interesting topic’interested to know more about it.

    • Tehminakhan
      Posted April 19, 2015 10:42 pm 0Likes

      It is a very interesting topic. I would love to have a list of low carb food and recipes.

  • Rose Caiola
    Posted September 14, 2015 10:56 am 2Likes

    Breaking habits can be a challenge, especially when it comes to our diet. Everyone’s body is different, so a diet that works for one person may not necessarily work for another. I recommend doing a lot of research before committing to a specific diet plan.

  • Rachel
    Posted December 1, 2015 4:40 pm 3Likes

    I’ve heard so much about this book and have been meaning to look into it, but this article was very informative and has convinced me to finally go out and get it!

    • Shawn
      Posted May 4, 2018 1:58 am 1Likes

      Hi Rachel, how did you like the book?

  • Sofia Reggins
    Posted December 2, 2015 11:29 am 0Likes

    I witnessed Alzheimer’s firsthand and it scares me too. I’ll be doing some more research about the Brain Grain diet, thank you for this article, Rewire Me

  • Helena
    Posted December 8, 2015 1:09 pm 0Likes

    Wow, this is incredible. I have seen both my parents struggle with alzheimer’s and I wish that it was 30 years ago so I could give them this diet and see if things would’ve gone differently. This is definitely my New Year’s Resolution to get started on the Grain Brain Diet.

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  • Kacey
    Posted February 2, 2017 6:42 pm 1Likes

    I think that grains do have an effect on how the brain functions and I agree with most of what Dr. Perlmutter discusses in his book. But I think the key part to take into account is leaky gut. Theres no arguing that sugar effects the brain… but if you have a healthy gut microbiome, many of these foods (such as sweet potatoes, etc.) are easily digested and absorbed and don’t go into the bloodstream as toxins and cause mood/neurological issues. Just a thought! However I haven’t read all of this book, maybe he goes into that aspect.

  • Lindsey
    Posted May 21, 2017 3:58 pm 0Likes

    I really enjoyed reading this! 🙂 Thank you!

  • Jenny Clarke
    Posted July 5, 2017 5:13 pm 0Likes

    I have just been diagnosed with U Colitis and would like to know what kind of diet you would suggest. It is mild to moderate, but I would like to avoid any further episodes. I would appreciate any advice on diet.

  • jack carpenter
    Posted January 17, 2018 1:42 pm 0Likes

    great ideas how about more detail

  • Diddier
    Posted July 9, 2018 5:59 pm 0Likes

    I am halfway through Grain Brain. My diet includes big quantities of (what I thought to be good…) carbs. What can I say, I love my fruits and cereals. I’m halfway through the book, so the author has (repeatedly) explained what I should not eat (which is basically my breakfast and snacks), but has not yet said what I should eat, so I have been in food purgatory for a couple of weeks 🙁
    Just to be sure, I quit my cereals, fruits, honey, bread, and everything sugary. Either I take a fast reading course, or I will get a fat food congestion from all the bacon, avocado, olive oil, olives, nuts and eggs I’ve been eating (don’t judge me, he said colesterol was good)
    Great article, thanks for sharing.

    • Victoria Rotante
      Posted July 11, 2018 8:59 am 1Likes

      We are so glad you enjoyed the article!

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