Gluten-freedom: don’t be a slave of the food hype

glutenfree

I’ve been on a gluten-dairy-sugar free diet for four weeks. When I signed up to the challenge I told myself if I noticed any positive changes to my health I would permanently remove these ingredients from my shopping list. The verdict: I haven’t seen any improvements whatsoever. None, zero, nill.

This is disappointing. I have several friends that made an oath of allegiance to such diet and swear they got rid of their medical problems. Everywhere I go I hear people talking about paleo and the evil grains and how much better they feel by eliminating these items from their diets. And I did my research, both online and by reading these two books:

Brain Maker by Dr Perlmutter – the author makes a strong case for the connection between brain and gut health and the important of cultivating good intestinal bacterial for your overall health. He proposes a gluten and grain free diet supplemented by lots of fermented food.

A Mind of Your Own by Dr Kelly Brogan – the author advocates a gluten-free paleo diet through which you can cure your depression and anxiety and many other health issues without the need of medication.

I grew confident that diet was the answer to most maladies of our health, even though my new gained knowledge was contrary to my doctors opinions. When I spoken to them about it, doctor #1 a GP, said that unless you are allergic to these ingredients such diets increase the risk of you becoming mineral and vitamin deficient – her recommendation was to stick to a balanced diet. Doctor #2, a psychiatrist, said more or less the same thing but emphasised the importance of eating more nutritional food as opposed to eliminating certain food categories. But then, the resources I consulted warned that mainstream doctors are part of the system to keep us hooked on medication.

The issues that I was trying to address with a better diet were my slow digestive system and a tendency for anxiety and insomnia, but none of these conditions improved by restricting what I ate. I still wake up at 3am once a week and can’t go back to sleep and my gut mobility continues below the speed limit.

Some well meaning friends have argued that I already eat well enough so it would take much longer than four weeks to see a difference. But c’mon, my body and mind have not given me any signs that a month on a high intake of vegetables, fruits, eggs, nuts, pulses and a small amount of organic meat have had any impact on my health.

Another thing I found troubling with this diet, specially the gluten-free part is that many people encourage replacing gluten with other refined grains. But if you do this you end-up worse off in terms of nutrition. See for yourself in this comparison of a gluten-free and a wheat bread loaf:

Baker’s Delight wholemeal loaf, ingredient list: Whole Grain Wholemeal Wheat Flour (65%), Water, Yeast, Iodised Salt, Vegetable Oil (Canola), Wheat Flour, Soy Flour, Vitamins (Thiamin, Folic Acid). Nutrition (per 100g): protein 10.9g,  sugar 1.4g, fibre 6.4g, carbs 37.9g

Helga’s sunflower and quinoa gluten-free loaf, ingredient list: I couldn’t find the ingredient list on their website so here is an image from the package. Nutrition (per 100g): 6.3g protein,  sugar 3.8g, fibre 4.2g, carbs 40.1g

bread-loaf

Wholemeal wheat flour provides more protein, fibre, vitamins and minerals than the gluten-free alternatives like rice flour, tapioca and maize starch. I’d rather eat the wheat loaf, it’s much more nutritional. Unless you are intolerant or allergic I see no point in settling for a poorer alternative.

So what’s my conclusion from all this? Well, although food doesn’t seem to be the villain in my health, I feel that this is a better way of eating overall. Once you eliminate gluten, sugar and dairy you inevitably reduce the purchasing of processed and take-away food. You buy more raw and natural ingredients and cook more at home. And this is a better alternative for the environment as there is less packaging and chemicals involved. I didn’t start this journey with the planet in mind but for me this is now the one of the main benefits of changing my diet. The other take-away from this experience is that I became more aware of what I eat and the nutritional value of food.

I’m not going to ordinarily put sugar, gluten or diary back in my shopping trolley but I’ll put a few grains of salt on this food hype.

How much awareness is too much?

I’ve been practicing mindfulness for almost three years. Well, truth be told I have lapsed here and there, but for the last few months, I have managed to maintain some form of meditation everyday. Mindfulness meditation has helped me in many areas, but most notably it has changed my relationship with my anxiety. No, meditation hasn’t provided a miracle cure – I’ve read of people who swear they have overcome clinical depression and anxiety with meditation but I’m yet to experience that myself. But meditation has helped me manage the anxious thoughts better and gave me some control over how to respond.

A byproduct of the practice of mindfulness is that I became more aware and compassionate with the suffering that goes on in the world. The flip side to that is that sometimes I can feel overwhelmed – there is too much suffering and my resources to help are limited. So one area that I thought I could help was by becoming a vegetarian – at least I would not be contributing to the suffering of animals. I always found it hard to justify our meat eating habits and eventually I made a decision to no longer eat meat.

I’ve been abstaining from meat for over seven months* and although it requires more planning and I end up having to cook meat for the rest of the family more often than not, I’m happy with my decision.  During this process I also learnt that meat consumption contributes heavily to our carbon footprint – so an added bonus to the vegetarian diet.

The problem was that changing my diet made me more aware of the link between what we eat and our health. I did some research and I read a lot about the benefits of a gluten-free, sugar-free, low carb diet, rich in pro and prebiotics and how this diet contributes to a healthier gut. I’ve found the research around the topic quite compelling, specially around the correlation between the health of your gut and your mental health. So I decided to give it a try, removing gluten and sugar from my diet. I was hoping go on this diet for two weeks but only lasted 10 days.

Unfortunately, in 10 days I did not see any benefits – I was feeling weak and tired, sometimes grumpy and more constipated than I normally get. I understand 10 days is not enough to consider this diet a fail but I got really discouraged. I thought I would see or feel something positive after 10 days to keep me going. Maybe I should have planned more (gluten and sugar at the same time, what was I thinking?) or spoke with a doctor before even considering it.

But I guess the bottom line for me is that it got me thinking if I am becoming too mindful of too many things. There is a limit to how many causes one can embrace, how many fights one can fight and how many problems one can solve. It does not matter how much mindfulness I practice, I cannot add one extra minute to my day – 1440 minutes is all I have and I already have a lot in my plate.

I can’t help being aware of what’s happening around me. I still want to be compassionate. I still want to be there for my friends and help those I can. But this experience was just another reminder that I need to be careful and not bite more that I can chew. And maybe a bit of gluten or sugar is something I can swallow after all.

 

* Confession: I’ve had a bit of fish – as I’m lactose intolerant, sometimes I end up left with very little options, specially when eating out.