If you’ve been in a grocery store lately, you’ve probably seen an expansion not only of organic sections but also of gluten-free selections. This is because more and more people are switching to a gluten-free diet–and let’s take a moment here to remember that “diet” actually refers to the food an animal habitually consumes, not just that thing you do where you don’t eat.
I partake of a gluten-free diet. I do not have celiac disease or a reaction strong enough to be called an allergy to gluten, which is why most people switch to gluten-freedom. I chose to change my diet after hearing about it from a good friend and her mother.
I’ve decided to write this post so that I can have something coherent to refer people to when they ask me what gluten is, what gluten-free diets entail, and why I’ve chosen it for myself. I’m far from an expert on the subject myself and I’m still learning about aspects of gluten-freedom, so this is just kind of a launching point.
What is Gluten?
Gluten is a wheat protein. What it means to you is that it’s the thing that makes your wheat-based bread nice and soft and chewy.
So That’s Bad For You?
Well, yes. There are plenty of places on the web that list the negative effects of gluten. Gluten is inflammatory, and it’s this that leads to a lot of the other problems associated with it. Inflammation can cause bloating, joint pain, fatigue, migraines, etc. Eating gluten can lead to a leaky gut, obesity and diabetes. Some parts of the gluten protein also can break down into opioids (hint: it sounds like opiates) which cause the body to actually become addicted to wheat. That’s why many people get cravings for things like pasta or cookies or bread. Check out those links (especially the last one).
Why Go Gluten-Free?
You’re probably skeptical, which is totally understandable. After all, we’re raised to believe that wheat is a necessary part of our diet and that it is, in fact nutritious. All I can do is tell you what I did. Like I said earlier, I’ve never had any serious allergic reaction to gluten, at least none that I attributed to gluten. In fact, I’ve had a relatively healthy life so far without trying much at all. I don’t gain weight, I don’t get sick often, I’m fairly active. But I’ve always known that it wouldn’t last, and that eventually I’d have to put effort into maintaining my health.
About a year ago, after I graduated from college, I decided that I would finally start that journey. I joined a gym and started trying to eat healthier. The problem was that I didn’t really know how to do that. My dear darling mother, who is so good with matters of the heart, was effectively always a single working mother and didn’t really have time to focus on nutrition. Her main concern was keeping us fed in general. So I’d grown up on spaghetti, grilled cheese, fish sticks, mac-and-cheese, ham steaks, canned vegetables, that kind of thing.
Luckily, my roommate Chelsea is a much healthier eater than me, so I was able to follow her example. I also became friends with my friend Caroline’s mom, Laurie, on Facebook. Laurie writes a blog (one of the links up there, in fact) about her gluten-free/paleo journey, and when I read her post about how going gluten-free gave her more energy, stopped her migraines, and helped her lose weight, I was intrigued. You see, I said I was relatively healthy, and that was true. But that was because I considered my frequent headaches and occasional migraines, as well as my general feeling of exhaustion, to be normal.
Here’s the thing: that’s not normal.
My first attempt at going gluten-free was a year ago, and I tried to go cold-turkey. I didn’t do substitutes or anything like that. I just stopped buying bread and pasta, which made up the bulk of my diet. I was probably eating a lot less than I should have been, but the good thing about dropping wheat completely was that it forced me to find other things to eat. I used to be a pretty picky person, but when I had no choice I found that I actually liked virtually all of the things I’d avoided trying before. And what was even better was that my chronic headaches went away, and I had more energy.
But unfortunately, I fell off the wagon after a month or two. I simply didn’t know enough about food or cooking to make such a drastic change within a schedule that didn’t have a lot of free time for research. The headaches came back, and I spent the winter lazing around doing practically nothing.
Last month I began again. I have a new job, which has more regular hours and pays better (eating healthy is expensive these days!), and this time I’m making use of the substitutes to start out with. I use gluten-free bread (though I’m still trying to find my preferred brand), gluten-free pasta (the only downside is that it takes longer to cook), and I’m breaking into gluten-free flours. I’m also doing more cooking, actually planning meals out so that I know I have all the ingredients on hand and that I will have time to make them.
And I seem to have crossed some bridge with my former picky habits. I feel like I could eat anything. Why, Sunday night I made gluten-free chicken and dumplings (using rice flour, though you could hardly tell) and there were carrots and peas and celery and even ONIONS in it and I ate all of them. (This will be funny if you know that there was a period of about three years where I ate only spaghetti and grilled cheese–literally.)
So What Does That Mean For Me?
Now, the whole “wheat is good for you” thing is not a complete lie. There are nutrients, like fiber and minerals, in wheat that you do need. The great thing is that ALL those necessary nutrients are found in greater quantities in vegetables and other non-grain foods.
There are definitely people out there that call the gluten-free diet a scam or a fad, and frankly you’ll hear lots of conspiracy theories about it from both sides. I generally don’t worry about that kind of thing. My decision to go gluten-free was based on this process:
- I read about the symptoms of gluten-sensitivity and saw some that pertained to me. I read about the benefits of a gluten-free diet and liked what I read.
- I tried it.
- When I did, I found that those symptoms (for me, headaches and fatigue primarily) went away! Whether it was a placebo effect or not, I couldn’t care less. They went away, and that was the important part.
So really, it’s a nothing-ventured, nothing-gained situation. Odds are if you’re someone who wants to lose weight or eat healthier, you’ve already tried a bunch of diets. What’s different about going gluten-free?
I mean, other than the fact that it actually works.