Gluten, one of the most widely consumed proteins in the world, has become a culinary villain. It’s the Wicked Grain of the West that 20 million Americans claim is the source of their stomach and digestion problems, and a staggering third of us report that we are currently trying to reduce or cut out gluten our diets. Found in everything from bread and pizza to cookies and cake, you'd think it would be a hard ingredient to avoid, but there are more gluten-free options out there than ever before. I mean, there are Gluten-Free Expos happening all over the country, for heaven's sake.
While there are a lot of Americans who suffer from chronic illnesses such as celiac disease who must kick gluten to the curb to keep these disorders at bay, there's a new group of non-allergic, gluten-free devotees who have given it up simply because they feel better without it. Even though they haven't been diagnosed with a medical condition, they nix gluten in order to combat side effects such as bloating and fatigue.
Recent scientific research definitely adds to the hype. Apparently, the gluten our parents ate 50 years ago isn't at all like the stuff we consume today; much of it has been severely modified and our bodies haven't evolved in time to properly process it. Some experts even claim that today's gluten is responsible for a range of disorders, from mental illnesses to dementia, causing inflammation in the brain and even cancer. Some experts outright call it a "silent killer." Jeez, no wonder nearly all of us are frightened to touch it.
The first time gluten anxiety plagued me was near the end of 2013. I had just started dating a vegan yogi who inexplicably emailed me article after article about the evils of wheat. Also, my father had recently been diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, which meant gluten was the first thing he had to kiss goodbye, and out of solidarity, my mom did the same (other than the stash of waffles she cleverly hid in the freezer). They too preached at me about how their lives had been transformed for the better.
I knew I wasn’t allergic to gluten, but there were plenty of times I remember experiencing general discomfort after a massive plate of wheat-packed carbs. Was this slight indigestion from overeating or the gluten itself? I wasn't sure, but all the scientific research out there that was starting to convince me that maybe I’d be better off without it. I figured now was a good time as any to give it a shot.
I would exercise self-control in all arenas and refuse anything that contained gluten for one month. Even at restaurants and cafes, I would inquire about the gluten-free options, no matter how much of a nuisance I thought I was being. Reading the labels at grocery stores would become a new habit as well.
In the meantime, I would keep a food diary, noting any and all bodily changes that took place. Knowing that gluten-free doesn’t necessarily equate healthy, I also planned to stay away from as many packaged foods as possible and keep up my good habit of cooking at home from scratch.
The last thing on my mind was how to do this experiment while being sensitive to my struggle with binge-eating disorder (BED). I didn't want to fall into a harmful pattern of bingeing just because I was trying something new; so I promised to do my best at eating solid meals throughout the day and keeping piles of snacks out of the bedroom. I figured that would help keep the eating sprees at bay.
Due to the sheer excitement of my new endeavor, I stocked up my kitchen to the brim with things like gluten-free pumpkin bread, fair-trade quinoa, and various fruit-and-nut bars. I packed a lunch every day, along with appropriate afternoon snacks, and when people inquired about this sudden change in my eating habits, I tried to convince them to join me, because didn’t they know? Gluten is sinister and we shouldn’t touch it! I may have peeved off a couple co-workers.
The first few days were generally so effortless that I wondered why anybody would ever complain about such a minor adjustment to their diet. It all seemed so easy. In those few moments my mind landed on a sandwich, I reached into my bag and nibbled carrot sticks and hummus, which seemed to do the trick.
As for my physical health, there was nothing important to report. My energy levels were the same, as were my trips to the bathroom. Maybe it was the placebo effect, but I could have sworn my jeans were a tad looser by the end of the week.
All I could think during Sunday dinner with a group of friends was: I miss bread. I had literally dreamt about fresh sourdough the night before, how warm and crunchy it is straight from the bakery, how butter melts perfectly on top of it. It was pure torture watching everyone dip their chunks of baguette into a dish of olive oil in the middle of the table.
The next morning, I woke up cranky. As I stood in line for my coffee, all I could smell were the freshly baked croissants, which had been cruelly lined up right in front of my face. I suddenly had the urge to abandon caffeine and instead buy a dozen of donuts. I think it’s safe to say the withdrawal phase had officially kicked in.
To make things even worse, my boyfriend came home the following day clutching a spontaneous gift from one of our yoga students — peanut butter chocolate chip cookies. Not the gluten-free kind. Homemade goodies used to always put me in a fantastic mood, but this time, just looking at them made me want to cry.
I grabbed a box of gluten-free crackers, a jar of maple nut butter, and the remaining Larabars from the cupboard. I locked myself in my bedroom, where I finished the whole spread in 10 minutes flat. I fell asleep with a tummy ache. So much for avoiding digestive issues.
I woke up the next morning feeling pretty low about my binge sesh. It didn't take long, though, to recognize that depriving myself of the things I love most was a trigger to go nuts on whatever was within arms reach. I was nervous about continuing forward, but decided not to give up.
Acknowledging the fact that the previous week didn’t go so well, I recommitted myself to the cause. I downloaded interesting recipes and made a list of restaurants whose menus I knew wouldn’t give me anxiety. I was determined to bust through the detox phase and see what magic awaited me on the other side, (though many experts would say I'd need longer than a month to totally get the gluten out of my system).
I got my mojo back — I started creating magical things in the kitchen, and I even found a few beers brewed without wheat I actually liked. I wasn’t so faithful at packing appropriate lunches, but that gave me the opportunity to practice my gluten-free etiquette at restaurants. I managed to only upset one server with my detailed inquiries about the breaded chicken.
Despite the new pep in my step, however, I was still surprised at the end of the week to notice zero differences in my digestion or BMs. That late afternoon slump I usually experience hadn't gone away either. It seemed that my skin was the only thing that was benefitting from the experiment. There was less redness and acne, which made me miss bread a little less.
Those same jeans that felt slightly big during Week One now pinched uncomfortably around my waist, and I’m pretty sure it had something to do with my realization that Nutella contains no gluten (how did it take me this long to figure that out?!).
I was actually craving a piping hot plate of spaghetti, but knowing that wasn't an option, I spent all day Saturday baking one Nutella work of art after another. I made decadent cookies, gooey brownies, and raw cheesecake. Sure, all these desserts were gluten-free, but that didn't mean they were consequence-free. The sugar comedown was far from pleasant.
Again, I found myself in the same guilt-ridden, post-binge position. Eating that many sweets in one sitting isn't healthy for anyone, but it's especially painful for someone with BED because it makes us feel like we could easily go off the deep end and fall into a pit of depression. I knew for sure now that denying myself the dishes I was truly yearning for was the culprit of this mini-bender. All the mixed emotions made me look forward to the end of the month.
I was pleased to see that my skin was positively glowing these days, though. The dry spots had cleared up, as did some small bumps along my hairline. I briefly considered rewarding myself with something gluten-y; but the finale was just around the corner, so why give up now? Instead, I ran to the kitchen to make a gourmet last supper: roasted chicken and sweet potatoes, and a chickpea-quinoa pilaf.
As you can see, I celebrated the termination of my gluten fast by donning red lipstick — and picking up my favorite multi-grain loaf at the local bakery. Other than a small fear that my skin would never be this radiant again, I felt pretty fantastic knowing that I was on my way to eating bread again. It was kind of like that feeling of coming home after a long, tiring trip.
One thing I learned for sure is that completely depriving myself of all gluten landed me in a very dangerous place — curled up in my pajamas, binge eating on food that is actually unhealthy, despite its stamp of approval from the Gluten-Free Certification Organization. I would much rather enjoy a plate of pasta every now and again than find myself in this position, especially because of my life-long struggles with BED. That overwhelming guilt that comes after finishing a hunk of gluten-free cookie dough is not something I want to experience ever again.
Still, I’m glad I did it. It allowed me to come to terms with the fact that, no matter how much research has been done on the corruption of gluten, I’m not one of those people who needs to give it up. Perhaps I needed a few more months to entirely clear my system, but for me, living strictly without gluten for a month changed nothing about my overall physical health.
Whether I will build up a gluten intolerance by the time I hit 60, like my dad did, is another story entirely. But for now, a little ciabatta here and there won’t kill me. In fact, I’m pretty sure it would keep me happy and steer me away from packaged foods. So, when I got home, I whipped out that glorious loaf of bread and made the best roasted-veggie, grilled-cheese sandwich known to womankind. Happy doesn't even begin to describe it.
Images: Giphy (3), Gina Florio (4)