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Let’s face it, being gluten free is in! You and I probably can most likely name several people we know who are avoiding or giving up gluten and the internet and supermarket tabloid headlines are full of gluten free celebrities. Everyone seems to be talking about gluten–some calling it evil, others defending it and their choice to enjoy it. I heard a news story on the radio stating something along the lines that most of people, including those who are going gluten free, can’t articulate what gluten is. Sound like a fad?
What is gluten? According to the Celiac Disease Foundation:
Gluten is a general name for the proteins found in wheat (durum, emmer, spelt, farina, farro, KAMUT® khorasan wheat and einkorn), rye, barley and triticale. Gluten helps foods maintain their shape, acting as a glue that holds food together.
Make no mistake, gluten is extremely harmful for those with celiac disease, which is a genetic, autoimmune disease affecting about 1% of the United States population. From celiac.org, the following describes how gluten affects those with celiac disease:
When people with celiac disease eat gluten (a protein found in wheat, rye and barley), their body mounts an immune response that attacks the small intestine. These attacks lead to damage on the villi, small fingerlike projections that line the small intestine, that promote nutrient absorption. When the villi get damaged, nutrients cannot be absorbed properly into the body.
So, my question, “Is gluten bad for those of us not diagnosed with celiac disease?”
Why am I so concerned? For one, I absolutely love the taste of foods containing gluten:
- breads, cookies, cake, pies, donuts
I own a bread machine and at one time played around with growing my own yeast dough. I have many pizza cookbooks, baking pans and stones. My house has not one, but two beer keg/taps! It’s safe to say I’m a major lover of gluten and gluten-containing foods.
But, does gluten love me? Looking back at my childhood, I don’t remember chronic digestive issues but I definitely experienced occasional GI discomfort which I though was just normal. As an adult I never felt like I had any symptoms pointing to a chronic digestive problem as I consumed massive amounts of gluten routinely. I’m talking about eating an entire pizza at one sitting or killing a box of donuts myself. Let’s not even talk about beer!
The point is, there were no obvious signs at the time that gluten affected me in any way. In May of 2014 I decided to conduct an experiment and try my hardest to go gluten free (there was a specific reason for this n=1 experiment which we shall get to shortly) for at least 90 days. I know I wasn’t completely gluten free because it turns out gluten is in just about everything! For example, I had no idea soy sauce had gluten in it, but many brands do, so I ate sushi for lunch and inadvertently consumed gluten. During those 90 days I would estimate I was 99% gluten free and I have to say I seemed to feel noticeably better both physically and mentally. This is clearly an observation based on correlation and I have no way to prove causation (meaning I can’t scientifically prove that removing gluten from my diet actually caused me to feel better). The mind is a powerful thing and who knows if I just felt better because my brain thought I should feel better, the classic “placebo effect.”
Regardless, if I felt better physically and mentally because of actual physiological reasons or merely because my mind “believed” it, the result is the same and I achieved a favorable outcome. The experiment, however, surfaced a much bigger benefit for me–something that is key to my larger nutritional goal, let me explain…
Why Gluten Free Works For Me
I strive to achieve my version of a Primal/Paleo eating pattern which I have been attempting and refining over the past few years. In a nutshell, I try to avoid:
- refined sugar
- grains–especially wheat
- processed food
When I first started I tried very hard to adhere to the the 80-20 rule, stick to the plan 80% of the time, which I feel is a good way to ease into any kind of restrictive behavior change. I would estimate nearly 100% of the 20% of the time my eating fell eating outside the pattern probably included some food or drink with gluten. As I have repeated many, many times on this blog, sugar and grains are highly addictive substances for me and a tiny bit has the potential to turn into a binge which can lead to complete failure. So the 80-20 rule and the concept of “cheat” meals can be problematic for me. What I found when attempting to go gluten free–I mean really applying myself–is I began sticking to the plan much greater than 80% of the time!
Let’s go back to why I decided to conduct the gluten free experiment back in May of 2014. About a 15 months prior I had injured my ribs and, as a result of a CT scan, the radiologist found a nodule on my thyroid gland. There is a family history of thyroid issues including three immediate family members who currently take a thyroid medication. One of my top health goals is to never have to take a prescription medication long term, and it seems, for the most part, once on thyroid medication, always on thyroid medication. I began going back into my blood work history, looking at my TSH and I noticed a concerning trend–my TSH levels had begun to creep up, which can indicate the thyroid gland isn’t working properly.
Keep in mind I have no symptoms linked with a malfunctioning thyroid and my TSH and other thyroid blood levels were still in the acceptable range, but I saw them trending in the wrong direction. I began looking for possible explanations, one of which is Hashimoto’s disease, which is condition where the immune system attacks the thyroid gland and destroys its ability to function. Can you guess what the treatment for this is? That’s right, take a thyroid hormone replacement drug–exactly the outcome I want to avoid!
What causes Hashimoto’s disease? According to the Mayo clinic:
Doctors don’t know what causes your immune system to attack your thyroid gland. Some scientists think a virus or bacterium might trigger the response, while others believe a genetic flaw may be involved.
Further research beyond the established medical community and “conventional wisdom” revealed a strong connection between celiac disease and Hashimoto’s disease and:
Gluten can also trigger the very autoimmune reactions that cause you to have Hashi’s, since supposedly, the cells of your thyroid are similar to the cells of gluten, i.e. an attack on one is going to make your ripe for the attack on the other.
This was the basis for my 90 day gluten free experiment–I wanted to see if eliminating gluten helped with my thyroid hormone numbers. I have subsequently been tested and, thank goodness, do not have Hashimoto’s disease (I am in the midst of figuring out the whole thyroid issue, more on this in an upcoming post). What I did notice while trying in earnest to go gluten free is, when I permitted myself no wiggle room and treated the situation as if I had celiac disease and a single molecule of gluten might be harmful, I found myself eating clean with much less effort and struggle. I no longer had to contend and struggle with the “what’s one bottle of beer going hurt” scenario! Outside of sugar, the most tempting foods that cause me to stray from my preferred dietary pattern seem to include gluten. So, when I treat gluten almost as if it were a life-threatening poison (as it can be for severe celiac sufferers), I seem to not only eat more cleanly, but I do it with much less stress!
For me, aggressively attempting to avoid gluten has become a key tool in maintaining my preferred eating pattern and, more importantly, helped me reduce the stress associated with keeping the pattern and therefore increasing the consistency and sustainability of the diet. Is that to say I will never eat pizza, have a piece of birthday cake, or drink a beer? Hell no! I am still going to enjoy my life!
Do I care about the eye rolls that occasionally happen when I pass on bread at the restaurant? Nope. My goal is to try my hardest to use avoiding gluten as a tool to pass on foods containing grains and sugar as well as processed foods. It scares me when I encounter folks who tell me they are gluten free and then say, “It’s not so bad, I really like XXXXX brand of gluten free brownies, they taste great!” Replacing gluten containing products with other forms of processed garbage and full of sugar doesn’t fit my strategy at all–eating real, whole unprocessed food is my goal.
Please comment on your relationship with gluten. Does gluten overtly affect you physically? Do you think the gluten trend is hogwash? I want to know and, as always…
Be smart in the kitchen and beast in the gym!