6/26/13

Weighing In on Gluten-Free

My Pumpkin Cranberry Bread is great with gluten-free flour.

It's nearly one year since I made a major change in my diet and became gluten-free. I wasn't suffering from celiac disease or even suspecting that I had a gluten intolerance. My gluten-free friend Kathy was visiting, and showed me the swollen joints on her fingers, resulting after she ate something in her travels which she didn't suspect had gluten - french fries with a breading. I had never seen such a reaction. Soon after that, another friend recommended I read Wheat Belly, a best seller about why modern wheat is causing so many of us to develop gluten sensitivity. By the time I finished the book, I decided that even if only 1/4 of the negatives the author attributed to gluten were accurate, I would be healthier without it in my diet. Now I am ready to report the positive side effects I directly relate to being gluten-free which have motivated me to stay on this regimen forever.

First I should admit that I am blessed with incredible good health. Other than a cataract in one eye at the young age of 43 and in the other at age 58, I have little more than a few occasional aches and pains to complain about. Certainly, factors such as genetics, environment, regular exercise, high activity, low stress, good sleep habits, preventive medicine, active social life, good living environment, normal weight, and medical screenings (mammogram, colonoscopy, dermatology body check) are part of my overall well-being. Undoubtedly, spending 24/7 with my best friend, business partner, and husband of 37 years, Rick, has an enormous positive effect on my life too, as does happiness in general. I count my blessings.

As the "Welcome" section of this blog states, my lifestyle diet for over 20 years has vastly differed from the prevailing American diet. Around the early 90s, my mother was living with Lupus, and Rick had been found to have abundant Epstein-Barr antibodies. So I plunged into learning how to strengthen the immune system with lifestyle choices. I researched healthier ways of eating, and eliminated foods and ingredients with artificial ingredients/colorings/preservatives, and those which are processed, genetically modified, raised in toxic conditions, irradiated, and/or void of nutrients. I was learning to cook all over again, substituting alternatives for refined sugars, trimming the fat from our diets, and experimenting with previously unfamiliar ingredients and recipes. Over two decades, my "eat"  and "don't eat" lists are frequently refined; I avoid foods raised inhumanely and in unhealthy environments. I don't buy imports from certain other countries, such as seafood from China, Thailand, or Vietnam. I favor locally grown, organic, seasonal, and wild harvested foods. I organically grow, preserve, and cook an increasing percentage of my diet every year, and I enjoy the process of "cooking from scratch." I buy beef, eggs, honey, chicken, and goat cheese from local friends and farmers. I buy monthly from an organic food coop, helping stock my pantry with good ingredients. About 18 months ago Rick and I also began drinking a green smoothie in place of one meal 4 or 5 days a week, using fresh greens and flavorful culinary herbs from my own gardens plus a variety of fruits and berries. Last November we started doing a daily glass of organic apple cider vinegar and local honey (served hot or cold) - which I think helps stop painful "charlie horses" in my leg muscles, among other attributed benefits. I drink water, green tea or herbal tea, and not much else except an occasional glass of red wine. So my diet definitely is a major positive factor in my overall health.

So what has the gluten-free diet done for me? Here is a list of my personal health changes I directly attribute to eliminating gluten:

Who's that chunky baby with my Dad - heavens, it's me!
Weight Loss - I don't own scales, but I knew my body was changing within weeks of going gluten-free by the fit of my clothes. For years, my 5'3" carried ±125 lbs., after peaking in the 130s in my late 20s. On two different doctors' office scales (that kind with the weights which don't lie) in the past 3 months - fully clothed, with shoes on, and after eating lunch - my weight holds stable at 115. I was never skinny - my thunder thighs as a baby turned into to "chubby" sizing in pre-adolescence. I'm not trying to brag, but it's nice to be back to my high school graduation weight. I haven't eaten sugary dessert type foods much for many years, but, since so many are made with wheat flour, staying gluten-free also helps me resist temptation. Coffee ice cream and extra-dark chocolate are still on my short list of occasional indulgences!

Weight Shift - For years, I've been unsuccessful reducing my "tummy" with diet or exercise. I never had a pregnancy, so stretched muscles were not my excuse. As the book title "Wheat Belly" suggests, and the content describes, modern wheat causes body fat to be stored in the "belly". After going gluten-free, my belly flattened.

Skin Improvements - I'm fair skinned with skin cancers in both parents, so I try to avoid sun exposure and get full body skin exams. I had had an itchy rash along my neck-hairline for decades which the dermatologist didn't indicate was anything too serious, but it was irritating to me. Dandruff shampoos, cortisone creams, and other treatments failed; going gluten-free nearly miraculously reduced the rash right away. My skin overall has a better feel now too.

Fast Healing - From a deeply sliced finger which happened about 1 week into the gluten-free diet, to any other healing my body required over the past year, all indications are that my immune system is quickly reacting and providing rapid healing. Even cold symptoms rarely last more than 1 day.

Improved Digestion - My stomach no longer "churns" or "gurgles" when I lie in bed at night, and I very seldom have any gas in my digestion any more. My first colonoscopy three months ago revealed just one small polyp.

Check my numbers: early this year I had my annual GYN physical, included a fasting cholesterol and full blood profile. My HDL (good) cholesterol was the best in the 13 years I've been keeping track, at 74, and the ration of cholesterol/HDL, which should be less than 3.5, had dropped from 3.3 in 2004 to 2.59. My glucose was down from 85 a year earlier to 80. Incidentally, I don't take any prescription medications; daily I take a 81 mg aspirin, red yeast rice, fish oil, lutein, and other vitamin/mineral/herb supplements.

I won't lie - being gluten-free is sometimes challenging and has required me to educate myself. Since I don't suffer from the very serious intolerance of celiac disease, I don't have to be "pure" so I can make a few exceptions. I won't turn down an invitation to eat homemade pasta! My friend Ken, who first share Wheat Belly with me, is owner/chef at a lovely New Hampshire bed and breakfast. He was so thrilled with his results of going gluten-free that he decided to make his business gluten-free, giving those with any level of gluten intolerance a great lodging alternative. He has also been successful in making his menu gluten-free offerings so delicious that guests who don't care or might be turned off by "gluten-free" don't even notice. We design and administer his website, and I learned a great deal when I helped write copy for his gluten-free info page about the complex process of eliminating gluten, not only from the menu, but from the entire facility and preparation process. It's amazing what was involved; read about it here.

Quinoa flakes are one of my new grain discoveries.

I'm gluten free at home and I make careful choices when eating out. At lunch, I've discovered that many restaurants will accommodate my requests for their sandwich offerings to be served without the bread. At home, I've eliminated wheat, rye, and barley flours from my kitchen staples, in addition to other ingredients where gluten hides, such as:
  • soy sauce [I buy San-J wheat-free tamari]
  • salad dressings [I make my own]
  • ice cream [beware of flavors with add-ins like cookies]
  • beer [I don't like it anyway]
  • spice blends [I mix my own from individual spices]
Being gluten-free forced me to discover alternate grains, which are delicious additions and substitutions in my recipes and meals - like quinoa, buckwheat, millet, amaranth, and black rice. I truly haven't really missed yeast breads, and I've had fun experimenting with gluten-free flours in my old favorite baking recipes (like biscotti, gingerbread, quick breads). I've ground my own flours from gluten-free grains, beans, seeds, and nuts - even from coconut. I've tried many new recipes for homemade crackers, pizza dough, pie crust, English muffins, and other baked goods which are usually made from gluten ingredients, and I'll continue to share my favorites in this blog. My trials have not all been successful, but I'm gradually creating a big file of delicious gluten-free recipes.

Big food companies are quick to jump on a bandwagon, and "gluten-free" is a new buzz word. Processed food and drinks labelled gluten-free fill the supermarket shelves, but they are not necessarily healthy foods. As with any packaged, prepared foods, you have to watch the ingredients. Many gluten-free baked goods substitute starchy flours or add stuff you don't need to make them taste better. I'm still discovering some gluten-free products which give me the best results in my recipes; Bob's Red Mill is a great brand, and their GF All-Purpose flour is my favorite flour mix (Pamela's GF flour made everything I baked with it too chewy); Thai Kitchen Stir-Fry Rice Noodles work well in stir-fries as well as in my oriental cold salads. Tinkyada is another good gluten-free pasta maker. Of course, the list of foods which are naturally gluten-free is long (fruit, vegetables, dairy, eggs, meat, poultry, beans, etc.), so there's still plenty of great food to savor!

I don't fool myself with thinking that my diet will prevent me from ever getting a serious illness or disease. I've witnessed sickness and aging enough to know that my youthful wish for a long life has to be edited to a wish for a long healthy life. Unfortunately, we live in a very toxic world, where our air, water, soil, livestock, poultry, cleaning products, health & beauty aids, produce, and more are laden with poisons and chemicals. It's impossible to live a normal life and avoid such a list. I figure teh best I can do is to try to reduce my exposure to such things, while sharing my knowledge to help people, like you, become more aware, better educated, and able to make smarter choices to make your life healthier.