In the first two parts of this series, we spoke about whether going gluten-free is worth all the hype it is getting and if you will benefit by purely going gluten-free. In this 3rd part, I’ll answer the most important questions of today’s affluent society…
Are breads and rotis and parathas and pastas out of my list of ‘foods I can eat and not feel like I’ve sinned’? Should I always eat that burger without the bun? Should I eat my pizza crust-free, base-free and taste-free? Should I forever call food induced happiness a “cheat”?
Should I live gluten-free?
The short answer is… NO. A big freakin NO. Paleo/primal/real food/gluten-free advocates, read before you let steam out of your ears. Food lovers who want to have their cake and eat it too, continue to sport that wide grin, but do listen to the why.
Let’s talk anti-nutrients
Before we talk about gluten, let me clarify the concept of anti-nutrient. The truth is that all foods contain anti-nutrients. From wheat to spinach to fruits to eggs to seafood to meat. But before we get into any of that nonsense… what is an anti-nutrient?
Antinutrients are natural or synthetic compounds that interfere with the absorption of nutrients.
So basically anything (and everything) that interferes with the absorption of nutrients is an anti-nutrient. So then, as far as real food goes, are anti-nutrients a list of foods everyone should avoid? Or is it a list of food YOU should avoid based on what effects these foods have on YOUR body? Say for example you’re allergic to shellfish.
All food allergies are caused by an immune system problem. Your immune system identifies certain shellfish proteins as harmful, triggering the production of antibodies to the shellfish protein (allergen). The next time you come in contact with proteins in shellfish, these antibodies recognize them and signal your immune system to release histamine and other chemicals that cause allergy symptoms.
Histamine and other body chemicals cause a range of allergic signs and symptoms. Histamine is partly responsible for most allergic responses, including runny nose, itchy eyes, dry throat, rashes and hives, nausea, diarrhea, difficulty breathing, and in some cases, anaphylactic shock.
So in this case, shellfish contains an anti-nutrient that harms your body. Sure it is real food and sure it is loaded with nutrients and sure it is superfood and sure the paleo/primal/real food folks love it, but if you are allergic to it, it is poison to you.
Now on to gluten madness
That said, gluten and especially the gluten from wheat that is cultivated today, is an anti-nutrient to “most” folks. I believe that everyone is allergic to gluten at some level. But this belief is similar to my believing that alcohol and sugar affect everyone at some level. This could be so minute that the person may not be able to ever identify it or so large that the person might actually die from an exposure or anywhere in between. You know, kind of like what alcohol does to a person – maybe just a buzz or maybe complete liver failure. Or like what sugar does to a person – maybe just empty calories or maybe fatal due to uncontrolled diabetes.
So then, this bring us to three questions…
- Does gluten actually affect you?
- How badly does gluten affect you?
- How does this severity influence how much or how frequently you can consume gluten?
Without answers to these questions, any, and I repeat, ANY recommendation means nothing to you and is in all probability not optimal for you. So how do you get answers to these questions?
Method to the madness
Step 1: The Elimination Protocol
If it isn’t clear from the term “Step 1”, this is the first thing you need to do and this step cannot be skipped. Without this step, everything else is null. Let me repeat, if you don’t do this initial first step, anything and everything you say about whether or not you are allergic to gluten (or any food for that matter) is nothing more than bullshit you tell yourself. So suck it up and do the following.
- For a period of 6 (ideally 12) weeks, remove any and all potential allergens from your diet.
- Remove all grains except cooked white rice.
- Replace all industrial seed and vegetable oils with coconut oil, ghee and butter.
- Pre-soak all your lentils/beans/legumes before cooking.
- Remove all boxed and junk foods.
- Stay away from sugars and sweeteners.
- Eat only whole foods – whole eggs, farm fresh whole milk and other dairy, raw nuts, organic vegetables and fruits, high quality meat
- In other words, eat RealFood and be very true to yourself. Don’t cut any corners. Don’t cheat. Don’t obsess. Just do it right.
Step 2: The Monitoring
Though this is step 2, it happens simultaneously with step 1. During your 6 (or 12) week phase monitor how you look, feel and function.
- Weigh yourself every week (first thing in the morning, before eating/drinking anything but after clearing your bowels and with little to no clothes on or wear the exact same clothes each time) and record it.
- Measure yourself every week and records the results. I recommend measuring neck, chest, bicep, waist, belly button, hip/butt, thigh and calf circumferences.
- If you are diabetic, test your fasting blood sugar, post pranadial (15 min and 120 min) blood sugar and random blood sugar once a week using any home test apparatus.
- If possible, do a complete blood count (CBC) test on day 1 and on day 42 (or 84).
- Listen to your body and make notes of how you feel.
- How good/bad are your energy levels?
- How good/bad is your appetite?
- How regular are your bowel movements?
- How good/bad is your sleep quality?
- Do you have any mood swings? If you had them earlier, are they better or worse?
- Has your skin cleared up?
- Do you see any improvements wrt digestion? If you had acid reflux, is it getting any better? If bloating was a frequent occurrence earlier, is that getting any better? What about gas?
- Track your performance in life and on the field.
- How good/bad is your libido and/or menstrual cycles? If you suffer from menstrual cramps, is there an improvement in either severity or frequency?
- If you workout or play a sport, is your performance improving?
- Are you more/less productive at work? Do you tend to handle stress better/worse?
I understand this is a huge list of stuff to keep track off, but the better you monitor yourself, the more solid your experiment and the better the learning. So, even if you can’t do all these things, make a sincere effort to monitor as many aspects of your life as possible.
Step 3: The Re-introduction
This step happens at the end of the 6 (or 12) week phase and, is a very interesting phase because most people are looking forward to this day like none other. Here is what you do.
- At the completion of your 6 (or 12) week experiment…
- Gradually, start including grains (wheat included) into your diet. Now, don’t go crazy but slowly add in foods that you have stayed away from.
- Hold on to the grain included diet for 2-3 weeks. This is very critical. I’ve had enough of folks going gluten-free and then after a significant period of time of not exposing their gut to gluten, they eat a whole damn pizza, feel like a drum of crap and blame it all on the pizza. Sudden (re)introduction of any grain (especially in large quantities) will definitely result in some form of reaction and this is falsely assumed as the true effect of that grain. Effects of reintroduction of any food needs to be assessed gradually over a period of a few weeks.
- Monitor how you look, feel and function i.e. as laid out in step 2.
Step 4: The Learning
So, what did you learn?
- Are you allergic to wheat (or any of the foods you briefly eliminated) at some level?
- What benefits did you see when you stopped eating certain foods?
- And did those benefits disappear once you reintroduced those foods?
This is of course, the most important step but the effectiveness of this step is dictated by how well you did the first 3 steps. If you did this brief experiment sincerely, you’d have the answer to the question…
Am I intolerant to gluten?
And more importantly, you’ll have answers to the question…
What foods are good for ME?
And the results are out!
So let’s see how you did.
- Firstly, if you are celiac or have a condition wherein even a whiff of gluten could potentially kill you, then you shouldn’t be here doing funky experiments. You need medical assistance. This article (and this entire series) is more suitable for people who are either controllably allergic to gluten or are unsure if they are truly allergic to gluten.
- If your health and life changed drastically (complete reversal of an autoimmune condition, disappearance of chronic fatigue, relief from frequent chronic migraines etc.) once you eliminated gluten (or any other food), clearly you are pretty darn allergic to that food and, obviously, you need to stay away from it like the devil.
- If benefits included better skin, controlled mood swings, increased fat loss and other not-so-scary results, then while you are allergic to gluten (or whatever anti-nutrient you avoided), consuming it infrequently can be tolerated.
- If you noticed no improvements then you probably aren’t allergic to that anti-nutrient or you’re intolerant at a small level that it doesn’t really affect you visibly. But honestly, chances are you didn’t do the experiment properly!
Now depending on how much or how little an effect gluten (or any other anti-nutrient) has on you, you can decide to include it that (in)frequently. But do remember, anti-nutrients are not the only reason to stay away from wheat (and other grains). Grains, when compared to real foods, are empty calories and building your diet with them as the foundation will almost surely result in undernourishment.
But… there’s always a but!
If you are intolerant/sensitive to gluten at some level, small or big, does that mean you need to stay away from gluten forever? Is it acceptable that you feel like someone dropped a cannon ball in tummy after you eat a meal that contains gluten? Is it OK to experience fatigue crashes after eating gluten? In short, is it OK to suffer after eating gluten? Is staying away from gluten the only solution to that?
Drawing parallels, if you are unable to run/trek/workout due to respiratory issues, do you live your entire life without any running/trekking/training? Or do you find a way to fix it and start living life? If you are unable to squat/climb stairs/dance because you have knee problems, do you modify your life such that you never squat/never climb stairs/never dance? Or do you work on the knee problem, fix it and get back to living a normal life?
So, if you are indeed gluten intolerant, would you obsessively avoid and uncontrollably crave foods you love? Wouldn’t you rather find a way to (at least partially) fix the intolerance and enjoy what the 21st century has to offer while still staying healthy?
How? We’ll find out in part 4.