Friday, May 11, 2007

The Gluten Wars—To Ingest or Ignore?

A good friend of mine sent me this NYT article entitled “Jury Is Still Out on Gluten, the Latest Dietary Villain” early this week, and ever since then, I’ve read or listened to similar threads on this debate.

(Can I just take one second to acknowledge the overall awesomeness of my friends, who always have rice crackers on hand for me, consider my dietary restrictions when thinking about restaurants, and have been known to show up with GF desserts? You’re celiac experts now, and I really appreciate it!!)

Obviously, there is little debate here for people who have confirmed celiac disease—if we want to reduce symptoms and stop damaging our bodies, we can’t eat any foods that contain gluten. It’s pretty much a non-negotiable.

Luckily, as I’ve mentioned before on this site, finding gluten-free foods and businesses and restaurants that understand celiac disease, is easier than ever before. When I go to PF Chang’s, it’s specifically because there is an entire menu for me to choose from and I don’t need to worry about cross-contamination. When I do my weekly shop at Whole Foods, it’s because I know that whatever my mood or craving, I can find something that is both gluten-free and healthy.

Of course, this increased awareness of celiac disease is also tied to the fact that mainstream society has latched onto the idea that gluten-free living is the way to go. It’s the latest trend, with people ditching office pizza and processed food for GF fare. People with symptoms that resemble those reported by celiac patients who test negative for the disease—they consider themselves as having a “subclinical gluten sensitivity,” according to the NYT article—say they feel better when they go GF anyway. Others report that symptoms of other autoimmune diseases like arthritis decrease once they go gluten-free.

The experts are still teasing out the connection between gluten and the types of success stories non-celiacs trumpet. I’m happy to leave that quagmire to them, but I do think it’s important to consider a very basic fact alluded to in this most recent article, one I’ve been championing for a couple of years now. What if part of the reason people who do not have celiac disease but feel better when they go GF has less to do with their physiological sensitivity to gluten and more to do with the fact that the GF diet is, on the whole, a lot healthier?

Think about all the “staple” foods that contain gluten—breads, pizza, pasta, etc. A huge amount of junk food, from fast food hamburgers or “chicken” nuggets to cookies and doughnuts and fried food, contain wheat or other grains with gluten. Is it all that surprising that if you swap out breads and fast food for salads, vegetables, and un-friend, un-sauced, unadulterated proteins you just might feel better?

Here’s the anecdotal evidence I can offer: two years ago, I convinced my diabetic and otherwise medically-challenged father to go GF for six weeks. I went over the list of “safe” foods, I taught him what to look for when reading labels, and I went grocery shopping with him to help him begin his new lifestyle. I should add here that his diet was fairly healthy to begin with since he’s a diabetic heart patient---lots of fish, veggies, etc, and when he ate starch like wheat bread, pita bread, or pasta, it was usually in moderation.

Within two days of going gluten-free, his body’s demand for daytime insulin dropped by 50 percent. Yes, you read that right, 50 percent. And what’s more, he sustained that decrease over the six weeks. It was a struggle to adjust and he did need a few days to get a handle on middle of the night blood sugar drops, but he lost some extra pounds, had more energy, and needed less insulin.

Does he have celiac disease? No. But did eliminating excess starch and processed food impact his health in a positive way? Absolutely.

Getting diagnosed with celiac disease has totally changed my approach towards selecting, preparing, and consuming food. Everything is fresh and, well, whole now. I make my own chicken stock, eschewing the salty, processed kinds. I make my soups and chilis from scratch, avoiding the gluten-y store-bought kinds that I can’t imagine eating ever again. I have fresh vegetables with every lunch and dinner, and I take it as a matter of pride that nothing in my kitchen has an ingredient list of more than, say, four or five items.

The jury may still be out on gluten and the masses, and maintaining a GF diet can certainly be challenging and frustrating, but when I wouldn’t trade my GF attitude towards healthy eating for anything.


MappyB said...

I agree with your comments on the Times piece - I'm Brandi, the girl talked about in the opening sentence. There were many more things said in the phone conversation I had with the author that were not quoted.

I love that your friends have gf crackers for you! That's so great. My boyfriend's mom is like that, I don't know how she finds half the things she does, but the last time we ate with them, she pulled out a bag of gf cheese puffs!!! I'm glad I haven't found those yet, that could be trouble! :)

I hope you don't mind if I link your site today. Thanks!

Brandi (MappyB)

Laurie said...

Hey Brandi,

Thanks for checking me out! How'd you get connected to the NYT for the article? That's great!

Yeah, the rice crackers are great, I pretty much live on them--have them with hummus, crumble them onto my salads, etc.

I'd love it if you linked to my site! (I will respond in kind this weekend as well)...

Anyway, thanks for reading and commenting. Havea great weekend!

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