If you haven’t already tried a gluten-free item or two, you might be living under a rock. Gluten-free is a buzzword that has been thrown around for the past few years and one that has even made its way into the political sphere. The truth is, for most of us, that’s all it is - a buzzword. What does the term gluten-free actually mean? What exactly is gluten? Do you need to be free of it?
By way of introduction, gluten is a mixture of two proteins and is a substance which is present in cereal grains, especially wheat, that is responsible for the elastic texture of dough. If you have an autoimmune disease, celiac disease, or have a gluten sensitivity, then you’ve probably already done your share of self-study and research on the topic and you know you wouldn't touch it with a ten-foot pole. But what if you’re like me? You don’t suffer from celiac disease, you don’t have autoimmune issues, you have no known gluten sensitivities, and you freaking love bread, tortillas and pasta. Then what? Should you worry about gluten in your diet?
Well, I did start worrying about gluten in my diet about six years ago and I embarked on an eye-opening experiment. I kept hearing the term gluten-free everywhere so I wanted to learn what that meant for me and my body. Seven years ago, I started experimenting with a healthier way of living. The truth is that I was sick and tired in general, and specifically, I was sick and tired of being overweight. I started by incorporating more whole foods into my diet and by the next year, I was trying out all kinds of elimination diets to clean up my lifestyle even more. That’s when I decided to go gluten free. Now, because I didn’t have any serious gluten issues, I knew that going gluten free would just be a temporary thing for me. But, after going through this experiment, I realized that I wanted to live gluten-free most of the time! Here are the top 3 reasons I was convinced to go (mostly) gluten-free for good.
Even though I didn’t technically have an issue with gluten, I did notice that when I removed all gluten from my diet for two weeks straight, that virtually all my digestive issues disappeared! My belly would typically be so bloated after a meal that I looked pregnant and couldn’t see my feet. But now, I could look down and see my feet again! In addition to that, my *ahem* bathroom habits became more regular and productive. I think the best part was that I just didn’t feel so overly full all the time. I was still satisfied from a hunger perspective, but I didn’t feel that too full “food coma” feeling. Another best part - flatter belly at the end of the experiment. My jeans were no longer producing a “muffin-top” when I wore them. Wait, there’s one more best part - I experienced less laziness and lethargy. I think this can be attributed to the fact that a healthy gut plays a big role in how mentally and physically active we are (and vice versa).
Here’s how I know that eliminating the gluten produced all those benefits. The day after my little experiment was over, I was craving bread like crazy. So, I went out and got myself some good quality bread, baked fresh at Whole Foods. I ate a few bites and then felt like my craving was satisfied and I put it in a container thinking I would snack on it later. In less than an hour, I felt so bloated. I couldn’t see my feet again. I had gas and my stomach hurt. I threw the rest of the bread away. Now, I do still eat products that contain gluten about once a week or less on average when I go out to eat, but I don’t crave it the same way I used to. I know what to expect when I eat it and it’s much easier to get back on track when I do.
One of the most surprising benefits of going gluten-free was that I seemed to be experiencing a lot more clarity of thought. My brain didn’t seem tired and foggy all the time and was operating on (almost) all cylinders! I could make connections that previously didn’t make sense to me. I was able to complete tasks faster than before and my ability to focus drastically improved (I have ADHD, so that was a big deal for me). Again, I thought that this must be attributed to the fact that a healthy gut results in a healthy mind. Later, in reading through various articles and research, I came to find out that several disorders of the brain respond well to a gluten-free diet, including (but not limited to) autism, schizophrenia, and a rare form of epilepsy.
Figuring out that my newfound clarity was related to gluten was a little more difficult. When I added bread back into my diet after the elimination period, I still seemed to have the clarity that I had during the elimination phase. Then after a couple of weeks of regularly eating bread, pasta, and pizza (even though they were homemade and decently healthy), I realized that the cumulative effects were once again catching up with me. I wasn’t able to work as fast or with as much attention as I was during the elimination phase. Plus, I felt so lethargic physically - lethargy in one area of your life often spreads to others, so I didn’t doubt that this would affect my mental acuity as well. This is when I decided that I was still going to include bread in my diet (because I like it and life should be about things you like, too), but I was only going to include it sparingly. Now, I am gluten free at least 6 days a week. I feel better, but I also get to have the occasional “cheat” without suffering too much.
More Room for Veggies
With the elimination of all gluten in my diet, I had to get creative about keeping my hunger at bay. Rice and bread were always a big part of my meals, and even though rice is gluten-free, I had already eliminated that earlier in my wellness journey so I could drop some weight. So, now after eliminating bread, rice and eating less meat, what was I going to eat? The answer became clear pretty quickly because I was starving. I found some creative ways to add more veggies to my life! Bed of sautéed leafy greens, cauliflower rice, cauliflower pizza crust, spiralized veggie noodles, suddenly there were so many options! Of course, most of the time I just doubled the amount of veggies in any dish I was making to make up for the lack of refined carbohydrates. I also started eating more fruits and nuts. My body started craving different things - not just breads and sugars.
The results were incredible! I felt satisfied of course, but I also started noticing that my eyes and skin were brighter and clearer. And my skin was also more supple! Fountain of youth, anyone?! Because of all the added nutrients, fiber and water from the veggies, my hair, skin, nails, eyes, and brain were all thanking me profusely! It was truly eye-opening to see how much I was missing out on from a vitamin perspective by filling my body with processed grains over nutrient-dense fruits and veggies.
Those 3 benefits and more convinced me to eat gluten-free at least 6 days a week (to learn more about how I eat gluten-free and still enjoy my favorite treats, click here). It is important to remember that each person is different though and not everyone needs to eliminate gluten. Try it out and see how it works for you. It’s also important to remember that just because something says “gluten-free” on the package, it doesn’t automatically mean it’s healthy. Lots of gluten-free items that you find on the shelves these days are laden with sugar, potato starch, corn products, artificial flavors, and GMOs. Take care to fill your diet with fresh organic fruits, veggies, plenty of water, lots of healthy fats, healthy starches (like sweet potatoes and carrots), leafy greens, and organic, pasture-raised meats. Trust me, your brain, your body, and your waistline will thank you!