Not Just a Fad
Coming from someone who used to eat a giant bagel smothered in cream cheese for breakfast, Jimmy John's sandwich for lunch and a huge bowl of pasta for dinner, I never thought I'd be gluten free. It started out as curiosity. A friend recommended the book, Wheat Belly by Dr. William Davis, a cardiologist and health advocate. To be honest, I didn’t think a book would make much of a difference in my daily habits. Boy, was I mistaken.
Everything I thought I knew about wheat and gluten was wrong. Today, wheat is not the same stuff our grandparents used to eat. It’s been genetically modified so much that it negatively effects the body in many ways, some of which are unknown, and it's packed into almost all processed foods. Just the idea of not eating gluten is overwhelming for most people.
Believe it or not, whole wheat is the same or worse for your body than white bread (seriously). And whole grains are worse for you than eating a spoon full of table sugar. You’d be better off inhaling a Snickers bar than eating a sandwich. This is all based on blood glucose level; the idea that not all complex carbohydrates are the same and the way your body processes them isn't either.
But in the end, wheat is wheat so whether you're eating white or whole grains it affects the body negatively. Wheat elevates your body's blood sugar more than any other food, even sugar and other grains. Wheat also triggers annoying belly fat that's impossible to lose AND causes so many other health issues.
Wheat has been known to cause arthritis, fatigue, obesity and gastrointestinal issues. It can also elicit concentration issues, headaches, allergies, rashes, loss of energy, acid reflux, restless sleep and asthmatic symptoms. For me, the mention of joint pain and arthritis hit home pretty strong. These past few years I've been dealing with a number of back issues - pinched nerves, bulging discs, degenerative disc disease and arthritis (see Keep it Right, Keep it Tight). The choice was simple.
Taking the Plunge
Making the switch was rough, I'll be honest. It was a struggle to figure out what a gluten-free lifestyle looked like. My first step was to familiarize myself with gluten. I needed to know which foods contain gluten in order to avoid them. I began to read every label. Obvious things like baked goods, breads, cereal and crackers are out the window but gluten can be found in spices, sauces, frozen foods and many other items. Anything that has been processed is at risk.
Once you learn what to avoid, set aside time to cook. YES, you have to cook. And I think it's the toughest part of being gluten-free. You can no longer eat those quick grab-and-go items you’re used to (for the most part). You have to plan ahead and prep in advance. Breakfasts can be particularly tricky. Americans aren't used to eating anything other than wheat for their first meal of the day.
Hold on for the Ride
Stopping gluten abruptly may affect your body in strange ways. During the first few weeks, every time I ate out the following day would be filled with intense stomach cramps and major bathroom issues. My thoughts were, somehow I had been slipped gluten and my body wasn’t happy (a detox of sorts). There were even times I could feel my back pain flair up in reaction to gluten. It was nuts. I made the decision to stop eating out as much as possible. That way I could control everything put into my body.
On the other hand, I felt lighter and full of energy almost immediately. I didn’t have those painful afternoon lulls and NEVER felt bloated. My stomach was no longer irritable after every meal. Food cravings disappeared. Headaches disappeared. Back pain was manageable. I started sleeping more restfully. Need I say more?
What Can I Eat?
If you take the time to read Wheat Belly you’ll get a very good idea of what to eat and what not to eat. One of the first recommendations is NOT to run directly to the gluten-free isle at the grocery store. So many of those items are filled with other starches that will do the same exact thing to your tummy. Avoid corn starch, potato starch, tapioca starch and any others at all costs. The point isn't to replace something awful with something else that's shitty.
When you’re unsure, vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, meat, cheese and dairy are all fine to eat. Personally, I stick with non-GMO products and rarely buy anything that’s processed. If you must eat out, Mexican (corn-based items) and Asian (rice-based items) are always good options. Just be careful to avoid anything fried as it’s usually covered in flour. And many places offer gluten-free menus so be sure to ask. (I'm not getting into Celiac disease here because it's another beast.)
The more creative you get, the better. Think outside the box but keep it simple. My breakfasts are rarely more than a cup of gluten-free rolled oats covered in fruit or a corn tortilla filled with scrambled eggs and guacamole. Lunches can be salads or protein bowls with rice or quinoa as a base. Dinners are open for meats and veggies.
Originally, I was super worried about drinking alcohol (everyone needs a drink once in a while). Beer is not an option (although there are some gluten-free beers out there). Ciders are a great choice. Wine is totally open and even though many liquors are made from wheat, I've never had any issues. I've read that the way liquor is processed changes how "gluten" affects your body. So drink up!
It's a Lifestyle, Not a Diet
Becoming gluten-free isn't easy but it's totally worth it. Go into it with an open mind and be easy on yourself. The time will come when choosing gluten-free foods is so easy that you won't think twice. The main idea is to really stop eating those foods without finding replacements. If you spend all your time hunting down gluten-free breads not much will change. Use this opportunity as a learning experience to step up your lifestyle game.
And then get out there and enjoy life!
Best gluten-free pizza in Chicago: Forno Rosso
Best gluten-free bread (try ciabatta toasted): Schar