Thursday, December 30, 2010

How to Eat Gluten-Free

Most food is just trash. -My mother

Go to a nice restaurant and first thing, they bring out a basket of bread.

Go to the grocery store and you'll find aisles and aisles of wheat products: cereal, cake mix, cookies, crackers, batter coated meat, noodles, baked goods, bread, and so on.

My mother, who loves pre-packaged food, tells me most of the rest of the packaged stuff has wheat, too.

And is there an office left that doesn't serve birthday cake at least once a month?

How do you avoid wheat or gluten for a month? (Why should you try? Read this--the benefits I've seen from a wheat-free diet.) A suggestion: if you find it hard to stop eating it once you start, then don't start. Let me tell you about my results with moderation and total elimination.

Moderation. In the late 90s, I saw a nutritionist for my acne and she said I should avoid eating wheat. I cut down on the wheat, but didn't quit it entirely. My skin saw some improvement, but that was about all as far as I can remember. Over the next several years, I see-sawed between avoiding and indulging.

In January this year, I again cut down on eating wheat to one day a week--usually, I had a few chocolate chip cookies. Doing so brought a lot of improvement. (I was eating "real food"--more about that later.) However, in the past, cheat day food had ended up creeping into other days. (Cheat creep?)

Total elimination. In February this year, I cut out wheat entirely. I've fallen off the wagon a few times since then, but it made me so miserable--think sinus congestion, reflux, stomach ache, water weight gain--that cheating carried its own punishment. The punishment was so effective that I still have frozen chocolate chip cookie dough from a year ago. I won't touch it.

Total elimination worked better for me than cutting down, or "moderation." Moderation works for some things and some people, but how often do people cut down on something and then indulge as much as before? It's like a dreadful on-again, off-again relationship. Like someone you shouldn't be with but keep going back to, wheat acts as an opiate. Some people even go through withdrawal when they quit. I also find wheat to be an appetite stimulant: I can't stop at one cookie, even though I'm disciplined in other respects. These things make it hard to eat wheat in moderation.

What to Eat Instead of Wheat
There are two general routes you can go: gluten-free junk food or "real food." When I cut back on gluten in the 90s, I went for the gluten-free junk like bread, pasta and frozen dinners and saw a little benefit, but not enough to make me sit up, take notice, and throw out the wheat forever. Gluten-free junk food will give you some benefits if your problem is strictly wheat or gluten intolerance. But if you're gluten intolerant (and maybe even if you're not(1)) and you've been eating the stuff, you have intestinal damage that prevents you from absorbing nutrients. You have deficiencies to make up for as your gut heals. Gluten-free versions of cookies, crackers, noodles and so on may not be any more nutritious than what you just quit. Look at the nutritional information for rice noodles. "The good," says nutritiondata.com: "This food is very low in saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium." I'll add the bad: This food is low in everything but starch. And without preparation like soaking and sprouting, other grains that the junk food is made of have anti-nutrients, just like wheat. They may not provoke a reaction or damage your gut, for instance, but they'll bind to iron, magnesium, calcium and zinc, preventing you from absorbing them.

Gluten-free junk food might also spike your blood sugar. If you're often tired, especially an hour or two after a meal, if you get sugar cravings, if you're gaining weight, your blood sugar may be wonky. You can check with a blood glucose meter, available for $10 at Walgreens, or you can borrow one if you know a diabetic. Click here to see how to test your blood sugar. Note--even if a fasting blood sugar test at the doctor's office showed normal blood sugar, keep in mind that it's post-meal spikes that cause the problems.

Then there's the real food route: nutritious food like meat (the original superfood), eggs, fish, veg, cheese, nuts, and, I'll concede, some good carbs like certain fruits and starchy vegetables for people who can tolerate them. Boring? Yes, in the way that my die-hard Toyota always starts right up and gets me where I want to go in comfort and without incident. I admit a skateboard might be more exciting. Unlike the gluten-free junk food, the diet of real food and no wheat did make me sit up, take notice, and throw out the wheat forever because, at age 41, I had more energy than I did in my 20s. On this diet, I'm consistently energetic, in good shape and well cared for--like the Toyota. I don't want to be a skateboard. They take too much abuse.

I use 500 Low-Carb Recipes by Dana Carpender and The Primal Blueprint Cookbook by Mark Sisson to keep my diet from getting monotonous. If you're a die-hard grain and bean lover and you can tolerate carbs, try Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon; it has instructions for processing grains and beans to neutralize anti-nutrients.

I don't feel like I'm missing anything without wheat. My tastes changed and I literally don't recognize a lot of grainy junk food anymore. I tried some peanut and M&M mix the other day, and it didn't taste like food. I looked at another jar of junk for a minute and still couldn't tell what was in it. I can't identify what some of my coworkers eat for lunch. That's not to say I eat perfectly, just that I don't miss wheat products.

Is a diet of "real food" expensive? I can tell you that switching to a low-carb diet raised my grocery spending only $13 per month and saved me $958.36 per year when I accounted for health care and skin care spending. If you're living on cereal, pasta and sandwiches, your grocery bill will go up a lot more--but your spending on doctor visits, skin creams, pain relievers and stomach medicines and even lost wages from sick days may drop like a rock.

Does it take a lot of time to prepare real food? I don't think so. Grocery shopping is quick and easy when you shop the meat counter, produce section and dairy section instead of trolling the aisles of pre-packaged food. Reading labels doesn't take long when there are only four or five ingredients. And I can pack a lunch faster than I can go out and buy one (it takes practice).

Want to take the plunge? You'll have a lot of company. Matt Lentzner has challenged people to try a gluten-free January and as of December 22, 120 people had signed up. Good luck!

(1) "Gluten can cause intestinal damage in celiacs AND non-celiacs," Scandinavian Journal of Gastroenterology, Volume 41, Number 4, March 2006 , pp. 408-419(12)

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