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Why Gluten Free is Not A Fad Diet

Body Wisdom, Gluten Free Eating, and Health

photo placeholder. Original ink drawing by Imei Hsu.
photo placeholder. Original ink drawing by Imei Hsu.

It’s Friday night, and your main squeeze would like to go out to dinner with you. How you choose the restaurant, what kinds of questions you ask to determine what will be served on your plate, and the amounts of food you ingest in a meal say a lot about what is going on for you today, yesterday, and tomorrow.

We’re also influenced by the culture of eating around us. Ever notice how certain foods come into vogue and then seemingly end up everywhere? An example of this today would be quinoa. This protein superfood has become so popular, it has been included in many reiterations of animal-protein foods in order to provide a vegan option and cut down on the ingestion of animal proteins.

The trend these days is to find guidelines provided by food science people; that is, registered dietitians, nutritionists, and other specialists in the food science industry who tell us what foods are good for us to eat, what foods to avoid or apply in moderation, and how to creatively and regularly rotate foods into our lives in ways that work with our lifestyles.

Today more than ever, people are making the connection between what they eat and how they feel, physically and mentally. Eating well can make the difference between feeling energetic and upbeat or feeling droopy, experiencing mood swings, or falling asleep during an important meeting. Foods can contribute to the experience of anxiety, such as caffeine or sugary foods,  or rob a person of important nutrients to the point of experiencing fainting spells, slurred speech, and frequent and persistent headaches. It’s clear that food is an important part of our lives.

The problem is, not everybody’s needs are the same. Some people cannot tolerate certain foods, no matter how “good for you” these foods  are. Others need more fat in their diet to feel comfortable; some need a very low fat diet to prevent heart disease. When a “one size fits all” mentality doesn’t work, what do you do?

I encountered this question in April 2013, when I recognized that I was having more problems associated with food than ever before. Tired, sick, and hungry, I decided to try an experiment: remove all traces of gluten from my diet for three days as well as all foods that I have had bad experiences with, and observe my body’s response. At the end of three days, nearly all my symptoms disappeared.

Editor’s note: I highly recommend that if you have been experiencing gluten sensitivity, you not only do an elimination test, but you also order a DNA test through an independent lab. I have done this myself.  [Edited Jan. 15, 2014]

Despite popular belief that gluten-free eating is a fad diet that is here today, gone tomorrow, is not realistic for the majority of Americans, I’m here to share with you how gluten-free eating has made a dramatic difference in my personal life and professional life.

Come to the Table

You won’t know what you need to eat, besides knowing what you want to eat, if you don’t come clean with what IS. The easiest way to do that is to non-judgementally and rather casually find out what you are coming to the table with — that is, name what you are eating, and describe how you feel after you eat. A food and emotion diary of 3-5 days is usually good enough, and you’ll probably be too fed up to keep a diary of this kind up for longer than five days.

You’ll also want to count how many bowel movements you have, whether your tummy is comfy and happy or angry and reactive (or somewhere in between). Emoticons can be helpful in keeping track of your emotions throughout the day, and noting how you feel after each meal and snack can give you rich data about the food and mood connection.

To be honest, I find that this is often the hardest step for my clients, even with those who make it absolutely clear to me that they are ready for a change. They tell me they would rather go run around a lake than sit down and keep a diary of everything that goes in (and in some cases, out) their mouths! It’s too hard! It’s too embarrassing! I don’t really eat that way. I’ll just lie to you and it won’t be accurate. 

Blah blah blah <– yep, I hear you, and you know if you’re making excuses.

With this kind of data, at least you know what you are doing right now. It’s measurable and trackable. If you under eat what you need, we’ll deal with that. If you over eat what you need, we’ll deal with it. If you are missing certain essential vitamins and minerals in your daily intake, we’ll address it. If you’re having tummy issues with certain foods, you’ll know. Oh, you will so-o-o-o-o-0 know!

Just come to the table with it all. No judgment.

 

You Are Your Own Smarty Pants 

Aside from the effects of a serious eating disorder, which temporarily affects one’s logical ability to make healthy choices regarding food, most people have the ability to intuit a large amount of wisdom about eating just by observing their own body responses to eating, including mood and physical reactions.

It’s not uncommon to hear people talking about trying a mostly Paleo diet and discovering more days of energy, or a vegan person learning to enhance their eating program with added iron folate and pea proteins after they experienced the fatigue of a low-iron, low protein diet. I have encountered people who have sworn off coffee and felt the better for it, despite being surrounded by a coffee-guzzling culture. You may have met people who eat butter and animal fat like there’s no tomorrow, and yet their lab results come back clean time and time again. I’m not here to tout some kind of magic juju, but I do believe the body has a type of wisdom of its own.

I continue to hold strongly to the belief that by observing your body’s responses to a clean eating program, you won’t need a scientist to tell you that it’s healthy for you. Your body will tell you. It will tell you by reflecting back more energy, less tummy problems, easier or deeper sleep, and likely less moodiness. In some cases, a clean eating program adapted to your individual needs* could help reverse or lessen some disease symptoms.

The main symptoms of gluten intolerance are as follows:

  • Weight loss or weight gain
  • Nutritional deficiencies due to malabsorption e.g. low iron levels
  • Gastro-intestinal problems (bloating, pain, gas, constipation, diarrhea)
  • Fat in the stools (due to poor digestion)
  • Aching joints
  • Depression
  • Eczema
  • Head aches
  • Exhaustion
  • Irritability and behavioral changes
  • Infertility, irregular menstrual cycle and miscarriage
  • Cramps, tingling and numbness
  • Slow infant and child growth
  • Decline in dental health

[As taken from http://glutenfreenetwork.com/symptoms-treatments/gluten-intolerance-symptoms-how-do-you-know-if-gluten-is-making-you-sick/

If that list sounds rather diverse and impressive, I should let you know that I’ve discovered Dr. Osbourne’s website on gluten free living, and his list is even longer! The list of symptoms related to Celiac’s Disease includes some 300 symptoms. Five to 10% of America’s population is gluten intolerant, and that number is rising. I suspect that what has happened to our diet and our food supply over the last twenty years has a lot to do with it, including the switch from animal and vegetable diets to a grain-based diet. This is not a fad, and it is not going away.

Again, unless you are being treated for or suspect you have a serious eating disorder, or are taking medications that dramatically alter your body’s ability to absorb nutrients (such as chemotherapy, antibiotics, etc), you are your own smarty pants when it comes to observing and understanding what foods make you feel great and what foods are nutritionally useless “garbage” calories. When you’ve learned what you can about the symptoms and treatments, you might also want to consider genetic testing for gluten intolerance and Celiac’s disease indicators , and not just a blood test that confirms Celiac’s disease.

 

Listen To Your Body

After discovering that I have become gluten intolerant and highly sensitive to a variety of foods this year, many health professionals I’ve encountered have shared the same message with me: we can’t really help you as much as you can help you. Try something, listen to your body, and if you get a bad reaction, don’t repeat it.

This isn’t exactly the science I was hoping for! The last of that kind of hard science will be when I submit myself for genetic testing for Celiac’s Disease [Editor’s Note: I got my gene testing completed]. The rest of the journey involves investigating, asking questions, and eliminating anything that doesn’t meet the higher standards of gluten-free foods.

I’m not saying to avoid getting any help from those who have studied the science of food and eating. I am saying that the best help you can receive comes when you collect and understand as much of the data about yourself, the foods you typically eat, and your lifestyle. If you’ve never listened to your body, how can you expect someone else to help you who doesn’t know your body?

Working with a nutritionist who understands your individual needs makes sense when you come to that part of your journey where you get stuck. If you’ve been in need of losing weight due to poor health associated with obesity, and you’ve tried a sensible diet without good results, seeking professional help is a great option for you. If you’re a new parent and responsible for making the meals in your household and feeding your infant, a postpartum check up on your nutrition is an excellent idea and highly recommended.

My Journey: Gluten Intolerance

New packaging and processing has been required by the FDA for late 2014 in order to carry the label of gluten free, guaranteeing no more than 20 parts per million.
New packaging and processing has been required by the FDA for late 2014 in order to carry the label of gluten free, guaranteeing no more than 20 parts per million.

Every journey begins with a step. I tried a gluten-free diet for a few days in April 2013, and I watched the worst of my tummy symptoms immediately disappear. The follow up has included doing a few things to heal the damage to my gut that I have likely caused it over time. I’m happy to report that I’m doing much better!

The really weird thing about gluten intolerance is how little is known about it by the public. For one thing, gluten-free eating has become a fad among those who are not intolerant, mainly because going GF has been associated with weight loss. Eliminating white breads, pasta, and low-nutrient cereals is almost always associated with weight loss, regardless of the level of movement in a person’s life.

Going Gluten Free does not mean you need to lose weight; in fact, you might be serious nutritional deficit with this diagnosis.
Going Gluten Free does not mean you need to lose weight; in fact, you might be serious nutritional deficit with this diagnosis.

I cannot tell you how many times I have had to repeat my story and confirm that I am not interested in weight loss, and in fact, I have struggled to maintain a healthy weight because of my recent diagnosis. In a culture obsessed with weight loss and shortcuts, many assumptions are wrongly aimed at me, and I often get a strange look from the staff in a restaurant when I insist on knowing how my GF food is being prepared, even though I haven’t been confirmed for Celiac Disease. A wait staff chided me, “Oh come on! You can have a little bread, can’t you? You aren’t fat at all!” Let’s just say a little education followed that moment so she didn’t end up poisoning someone.

Yet, if I had done this type of self-diagnosis for gluten intolerance even ten years ago, I would have been met with far fewer choices than I have today. There are many new restaurants who are catering to dedicated areas of cooking gluten-free foods to prevent cross contamination. Menus may include some new options, and people who are very savvy have posted reviews about the best restaurants to try and the ones to avoid.

Ever since I was able to self-diagnose gluten intolerance [confirmed in gene testing], I’ve become more knowledgeable about Celiac’s Disease as well as the effects of foods that while not exactly gluten, they still cause problems for Celiac’s and gluten intolerant people, such as corn, oats, quinoa, and certain kinds of seeds.

Your Turn

Now, it’s your turn. What are your goals regarding food and living healthier and happier? What can you do to help you understand what you come to the table with today, without judgment? What do you need to understand what it might mean for you to change your thinking, your eating, or lifestyle to make food “work for you”? Are there any professionals you may need to contact to help you put a plan into place? Have you suspected gluten sensitivity or intolerance as possible problem when trying to understand symptoms of irritability, “brain fog”, fatigue, bloating, chronic GI distress, and headaches?

Happy exploring, happy understanding, and happy eating!

 

*While I’m not making any specific medical claims, nutrition has always been connected to recovery from disease, and has been an important part of recovery for those with cancers, terminal illnesses, chronic inflammatory diseases, and mental wellness issues.

 

 

By Imei Hsu

Imei Hsu is a mental health counselor, active retired RN, writer, triathlete and arts promoter in the Seattle area and through online services. With 29+ years in healthcare (20+ years in mental health), Imei has a commitment to helping people discover insight into their health, relationships, and connecting. She is the owner of Seattle Direct Counseling and the blog, a presenter and speaker on a variety of psychological topics, and a positive force on the Internet. She is launched her personal project, My Allergy Advocate, in 2018. Imei is two-time Ironman Finisher (Mont-Tremblant 2016, Ironman Canada 2018), and is currently training for her third Ironman in August 2020; she also finished her first ultramarathon in 2017 and has gone on to race the 100K distance while preparing for two separate 100 Mile trail races in 2020. You can find her running everywhere and eating all the thingz, watching movies, and cooking real food.

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