My Twisted Relationship With Gluten

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bread-pasta-glutenLet’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?”

homemade-pizza

One of my best homemade pies :)

Why am I so concerned? For one, I absolutely love the taste of foods containing gluten:

  • breads, cookies, cake, pies, donuts
  • pizza
  • beer
bread-machine

My never used bread machine

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.

Not one, but two beer taps...

Not one, but two beer taps…

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!

 

Food: October 20, 2014

This post contains affiliate links to products I personally enjoy and use--should you purchase using these links (products cost the same) I will receive a small commission. Please, help keep the lights on! Full disclosure policy.

10-20-2014-over-under10-20-2014-weight 10-20-2014-water 10-20-2014-sleep

The start of a new work week is here and as usual I am excited for my early morning workout! I followed my morning ritual by taking my daily 5g dose of creatine and then drinking my caffeine and BCAAs on the way to the gym. My mood started out great because I love getting into the gym first thing, but this would change…

I returned to my ketogenic state after yesterday’s departure, so I clearly made better choices on Sunday. Today I continued to follow my Primal/Paleo eating pattern and did my eating within my intermittent fasting window. I used my Vitamix to blend up a red smoothy (this is my green smoothy with a beet added) and had the last of the leftover Paleo Meat Sauce over spaghetti squash for my first meal at about 1pm. I ended the day with leftover grilled steak and asparagus.

So about that mood change…I had a mid-morning appointment at Moffitt Cancer Center to have a biopsy (fine needle aspiration) done on my thyroid. A couple of years ago I had a CT scan (for a rib injury) and the radiologist found a small nodule on left side of my thyroid. After consulting my regular doctor, an ENT, and then an endocrinologist, I decided to have the biopsy to see if the nodule is cancerous. I wasn’t really nervous until my drive to the appointment–then it hit me, “I could have thyroid cancer!”

neckMy procedure, scheduled for 10am, didn’t start until noon. They numbed my neck and then, using an ultrasound machine, stuck a needle into the thyroid nodule on the left side. They did this five times and the whole thing turned out to be relatively painless.

What is really cool about Moffitt is they ship my samples across town to their pathologist and I was able to return later the same day to get the results. The doctor told me there are three potential outcomes, the nodule could be: benign, cancerous, or indeterminate.

I returned to the doctor and the results were indeterminate. We decided to send the sample off to another lab where they do a molecular comparison looking for specific gene mutations that will further determine odds the nodule could be cancerous. I will have the results from this test in early November.

So, yeah, slightly stressful day :) but I am hopeful the tests will come back positive! As always…

Be smart in the kitchen and a beast in the gym!

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10-20-2014-weekly

What I Eat and Why

This post contains affiliate links to products I personally enjoy and use--should you purchase using these links (products cost the same) I will receive a small commission. Please, help keep the lights on! Full disclosure policy.

What do I eat? Well, I eat just about everything, including all kinds of things I shouldn’t eat. Look, I’m human and occasionally I consume things I know aren’t good for me. I believe you only go around once in this life, so enjoy (within limits). So did I eat the giant cupcake my family got me for my birthday dinner the other night? You bet I did! Did I stress about it? Nope.

I think a better question is, “What do I try not to eat?” This is a more relevant question–the key word being “try,” because I readily admit that sometimes I lack control when it comes to food. The simple answer is I try to avoid:

  • refined sugar
  • grains (breads, pasta, cereals, and yes, oatmeal)
  • processed food
  • seed oils (vegetable, canola, corn, sunflower, soybean, etc.)

pasta-in-breadSimple, right? Not for me :) ! Sugar and grains are highly addictive to me. For example, if I happen to “fall off the wagon” so to speak and find a package of Oreo cookies in the pantry, I can’t just eat one or two cookies–I’ll eat the entire sleeve. Ditto for ice cream, pizza, pretzels, M&Ms and on and on! Oh, and I am an expert in rationalizing, while I’m eating this stuff–it is okay for me to be pigging out because I had a bad day, or I killed it in the gym earlier and deserve it…whatever the lame reason!

The truth is, if the junk is not in the house I am not going to eat it–I am very good about not buying this stuff at the store.

steak-bacon-saladNow that we know what I try and stay away from, let’s go back to address the question of what I do try and eat. The answer is both simple yet complex! (I know, that sounded like a politician at a debate :) ) To answer the question in the simplest terms, I try to eat natural, whole foods, or as the great Sean Croxton calls it: JERF, Just Eat Real Food. Essentially I try to eat foods that make me feel good and that I think support my efforts to thrive physically, mentally, and emotional–I have determined my current eating habits from tons of self-experimentation.

Most of my adult life, partly for health reasons but mostly due to vanity, I have fiddled with my diet, looking for the best way to eat. I was very active in my 20s and 30s playing basketball, tennis and golf. I also worked out in the weight room consistently (although now I feel like I could have been much more efficient when it comes to weights, but that is a topic for an upcoming post). From the mid-90s and into the 2000s I played full court basketball three times a week before work plus leagues at night and I was in great shape. I do remember asking one of the trainers in the gym how I could get rid of those last few belly pounds so I could see those abs I knew were hiding under the surface–I wish I knew then what I know now because losing body fat for me is easy. See, I told you I’m vane! I continued this active lifestyle after we had kids. In fact, I remember the morning my daughter was born I left the hospital to play in the regular 6am basketball game while Mom and Madison slept.

Throughout this whole time I would tinker with different diets, usually making changes based on the latest book I had read or a television/radio show I had heard. For example, in an attempt to maximize my athletic performance, I got the book and I tried “The Zone Diet” by Dr. Barry Sears (which is somewhat close to my eating habits today). On the other extreme I went vegetarian for about 72 hours based on Dr. John McDougall (with various “diets”  in between). Keep in mind my weight was never really an issue, this was more about keeping slim and being healthy.

Then, in July of 2004 I made the decision to write a novel (shameless plug: The WILCO Project, published in 2010) and stopped doing any type of exercise while eating poorly. I got up every morning (six days a week) at 4:30am and wrote which is the time when I had been playing hoops and working out. I did this from August of until December and consequently gained 15 pounds of fat! No big deal, I thought (foreshadowing for you literary types)…

It was, however, a big deal. I found myself stuck with 40 year-old body and had a heck of a time trying to shed those pounds. For a variety of reasons, I never got back into the same great shape I had been in prior to taking those four months off to write my novel. Fast forward a few years to 2010 and suddenly I needed to inhale and suck in my stomach to button my pants–my weight had climbed to about 185 lbs. Working constantly, not eating right, lack of sleep and stress made me pudgy and miserable–I knew I had to change. Sound familiar?

I began searching for answers. I watched the “Forks Over Knives” documentary on Netflix and decided meat would surely kill me. Then I watched “Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead” and bought a very expensive juicer and commenced a juice-based diet. The juicing seemed to make me feel better for a short time–might have been a placebo effect–but soon I was constantly dizzy, tired, and miserable. My strength in the gym, heck, even my motivation to go the gym waned.

I can’t remember how I stumbled across it (I think a friend of mine on Facebook mentioned it), but I found the paleo diet and then the Mark’s Daily Apple website. I devoured everything on the site–reading, not eating–it made sense to me! I purchased and read The Primal Blueprint, by Mark Sisson and embarked on a “Primal” way of life. I read many related books (I’m sure I’ll forget some of them), including:

Going Primal/Paleo was not easy. I remember feeling weak and sick for about five days as my body adjusted–I was feeling what is known as the “carb flu.” I soon felt better and I had the confidence I could eat this way permanently. In the beginning I took an 80-20 approach. There would be occasional stretches where I would go completely back to a standard diet for a week or two. But it wouldn’t take long for me to tire of feeling bad and notice my pants tightening and I would return to the Primal eating pattern.

In 2013 I injured my ribs requiring a chest x-ray. The radiologist noticed a small nodule on my thyroid and I began paying attention to the thyroid hormone levels. Having a family history of thyroid problems, I do not want to go on thyroid medication, so this summer I started eliminating gluten from my diet. I read a theory that gluten and the thyroid tissue are somewhat similar in structure and in some cases, if a person is sensitive to gluten, the body’s own immune system can attack and damage the thyroid. I have not been completely successful, but I would estimate I am about 98% gluten-free. Many of the things I try to avoid (listed above) contain gluten, so this step has been extremely helpful in maintaining the primal way of eating. Hint: what do beer and grain-alcohol contain? Gluten!

After reading Keto Clarity this summer, I have begun experimenting with a ketogenic diet in an effort to keep my blood sugar low and limit my insulin production. I am finding that limiting my carbohydrate intake coupled with trying to keep the source of the carbs from mostly vegetables has also kept my eating clean. This whole self-experimentation thing has been quite helpful for sure!

Specifically, I try to eat tons of multicolored vegetables with lots of leafy greens as I feel they provide an abundance of micro-nutrients and minerals needed to fight disease and aging. I find eating a large amount of vegetables difficult, so I have ditched the juicer in favor of my favorite tool in the kitchen, my Vitamix. Now I drink more vegetables in a day (without wasting any of the skin and fiber) than many eat in a week!

Vitamix-green-smoothy

I add enough protein (not too much as this could throw me out of ketosis due to a process known as gluconeogenesis) and saturated and monounsaturated fats (think grass-fed butter, coconut oil, beef tallow, bacon grease, olive oil, avocados) for long lasting energy and satiety. For protein I choose fish, red meat, chicken, lamb, pork (lots of bacon), and eggs.

When I eat this way, I find I am able to go long periods of time without hunger and ultimately I end up eating less calories (keeping lean and mean)! I am also a big believer in supplements and prefer the Primal Blueprint product Damage Control Master Formula.

You can get an idea of this eating pattern by browsing my food diary, but be warned, you will see the occasional sleeve of Oreo cookies because, I am human after all :) !

Well there you have it–all the above is subject to change as I continue to try things out and read/listen/watch more information on food!

I would love to hear your thoughts on this post and what you eat and why! As always…

Be smart in the kitchen and a beast in the gym!