Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Gluten-free Experiment: Reflections

I've come to the end of my month-long experiment of eliminating wheat and gluten from my diet. I want to tell you all about it! But first, a quick recap on the rules I made for myself, and how I followed them:
  1. I ate no wheat/gluten, and I was pretty strict about it. I didn't eat any of the alternative grains that have gluten (barley, rye, etc.) and I stayed away from sauces and seasonings that have wheat in them.
  2. I was not on "a diet," meaning, I did not restrict anything in my diet that someone normally would when they're trying to eat healthier or lose weight, including fat, salt, sugar, dairy, and processed foods. For example: I ate bacon, ice cream, and chips, and I ate as much of them as I wanted.
  3. I kept a rough food diary and wrote a little bit each day about any physical symptoms I was experiencing, and how I was feeling mentally about the whole thing, too.
  4. At the end of the experiment, I stopped restricting wheat to see what would happen and be able to notice any changes in how I feel.
So, how did it go?

For the first six days, I was just plain pissed off that I had decided to finally heed many medical professionals' advice and go off of gluten. I craved breads, pasta, cookies—everything I couldn't have. I was constantly ravenously hungry. I began to think I was going to spend a heck of a lot of money on food this month and also gain a lot of weight because I'd just be eating continuously for 31 days.

Blessedly, the insatiable hunger passed after the first week, and after about eight days, I wasn't that upset about doing the experiment at all. Before I started, it seemed like it was going to be a huge hassle, but once I got going, it turned out to not really be a big deal at all. I found new foods I like, I enjoyed modifying my favorite recipes to be gluten-free, and I even whipped out some traditional (but still gluten-free) Thanksgiving food at the last minute when illness forced us to cancel our out-of-town plans.

Did anything change for me physically? Well, I hear lots of people say that they felt less bloated, had less gas and heartburn, and noticed various changes in their bowel habits. I have to admit that I noticed no change in my GI system. In fact, even with the detailed records I kept during the month, I saw very few physical changes at all. There was really only one physical change that I noticed at the end of the experiment: I lost four pounds. In four weeks. Without even trying. While eating bacon. And ice cream. And chips. Craziness.

My physician's theory about why people lose weight when they eliminate gluten is that they're eliminating a lot of unnecessary calories from their daily intake. However, after this month of eating whatever I wanted and still losing weight, I think there's more to it than that. I think there must be something inherently inflammatory about wheat that makes some peoples' bodies hold on to extra fat as a defense mechanism.

I really struggled at the beginning of this experiment mentally and emotionally, and it surprised me that I was so attached to having certain foods for each of my meals. I think for me it was more about having to change my routine and the things that make me feel comfortable, rather than being emotionally attached to the foods themselves. I was pleasantly surprised that many of the alternative foods I bought to replace the ones I was eating before were not only palatable, but actually very good. I found several items that I decided I would continue to eat regardless of whether I went back to eating gluten at the end of the month.

I had one accidental wheat exposure during the month, which was quite the pivotal moment for me. I had decided to have an adult beverage after dinner, not realizing that it was, in fact, a malt beverage. I drank several sips of it before I realized that I was consuming wheat and I gave it to Jaymz to finish while I got myself something else. I had noticed I was feeling a little funny physically, and after I realized I was drinking wheat, I connected the dots. A few minutes later, I began to feel very itchy all over, and rather agitated mentally. I drank some whole-fat milk, in accordance with one theory that fats have anti-inflammatory properties, and it seemed to help a bit. I was feeling really bad. A big part of that feeling was realizing that this had officially crossed over from being just an experiment to being something I might have to be conscious of for the rest of my life.

I was scared. I had been willing to change my habits for one month, but thinking about a long future of inquiring at restaurants about the contents of soups, dressings, and seasonings was overwhelming. I thought about all the delicious cookies and cakes I would miss out on at future holiday parties. I thought about having to diligently read labels on everything in the grocery store, every time.

But then, I thought about how bad I was feeling. I was itching all over, and I was very anxious. It was reminiscent of the time I ended up in the emergency department after I took a large dose of Vitamin B3 (Niacin). If I had eaten something that was making me feel so bad, it must not be good for me. I realized it was going to be OK. I would feel better the next day, and I could think about the future later.

Well, I made it to the end of my month the other day. I'm feeling pretty darn proud of myself for having completed something I had initially thought would be so difficult. I also realize that this is going to be something I have to figure out more and more over the next few years: what foods bother me and what foods don't.

Keeping with the last rule of the experiment, I felt I had to "break my wheat fast" officially by intentionally consuming something wheat-heavy. Since my first exposure was unintentional, the scientist in me felt it wasn't an accurately controlled variable. So, I reluctantly ordered a large cheesesteak at the mall and ate it quickly, trying to enjoy the taste while anticipating the adverse-effects. And, oh, they came! Within a few minutes of finishing the sandwich, I began to itch. I quickly became very uncomfortable, although I noticed that the quality of the itching was different after eating bread than it was after drinking malt. I enjoyed my sandwich, and I'm glad I finished the experiment right. I won't be tempted to eat another one any time soon, though!

What does all this mean for me now?

Yep, I just ate that huge sandwich,
and I'm feeling itchy.
Since the experiment has been over, I've not really strayed from it much at all. I've continued to eat gluten-free, and I've not had any itching episodes. I know I'll have to test out different foods to figure out which ones I'm sensitive to, but I'm not ready to go through that right now. I have had one more accidental exposure, due to a wheat-based soy sauce. I called ahead to a sushi restaurant to ask if their soy sauce was wheat-free, and they said it was. I assumed that since the soy sauce they serve in the restaurant is wheat-free, that what they would put in the take-out box would be, too. I was wrong about that. I only realized it later when I was having trouble sleeping because of terrible heartburn.

There was one thing about the experience that I both loved and hated: having limitations. I don't enjoy having to look through a menu of foods that sound delicious but I'm unable to order. I miss being able to run into the store and grab a loaf of bread, or a frozen dinner, or a can of soup without thinking about it or having to scrutinize the labels.I don't like that I have to make sure to bring a gluten-free snack with me when I go out, just in case I get hungry and don't want to buy a piece of fruit or an egg.

On the other hand, there was an instance when I enjoyed having the limitations: social eating situations. When I grab a coffee with a girlfriend and she gets a pastry to satisfy her hunger, I don't have to get one. If I'm not hungry, I don't have to buy something to go along with the other person. It's kind of refreshing, actually!

Overall, I think the experiment was a success. I realized that a lot of the things that we eat on a regular basis are gluten-free or incredibly easy to adapt. I discovered that a breakfast scramble is just as good as a breakfast burrito. I learned a lot, and I tried a lot of new foods (more on that next week).

Most importantly, I did something healthy for me!

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