Gluten-free is everywhere these days, and has been credited with curing almost any ailment you can find – ranging from controversial claims to downright crazy things. Wheat is our primary source of gluten, as many people do not really consume extensive amounts of other gluten-containing grains like barley or rye. A gluten-free diet is essential for anyone with coeliac disease or a true allergy to gluten and wheat, and it really is wonderful how awareness has grown over the last 10 years, improving the quality of life for many people. However, it has also become fashionable to denounce this naturally occurring protein, and many of those jumping on the bandwagon don’t actually even know gluten is a protein (gluten is the storage protein of the wheat plant and is what makes bread rise, dough stretchable and rollable, and gives the final product a chewy texture).
So while the the concurrent increased availability of gluten- and wheat-free products has been fantastic for those that require them, this causes two issues in my opinion – firstly, you have a number of people jumping on said bandwagon, mindlessly condemning gluten-containing-anything because Khloe Kardashian apparently lost stones of weight doing the same, and secondly, people with a serious intolerance, are in danger of being brushed off by blasé wait staff, sick to death of gluten-free requests from every Tom, Dick and Harry. Accidental consumption of gluten by those that are genuinely allergic or sensitive to it is very serious and can result in hospitalisation, even if it is a tiny amount – and making these events more widespread is not exactly what the gluten-free community is aiming for I’m sure.
I am not a dietician, but due to numerous skin and medical problems over the years I take a keen interest in what I put into my body. I was previously vegetarian for 16 years, and have cut out sugar, caffeine and dairy at different stages to observe the results (full disclosure: these were experiments, I am not consistently sugar and dairy free, and I am not trying to be – although I have greatly reduced my consumption of both, and I have a vaguely obsessive relationship with coffee) so I have learned a lot about what works for me, and what most certainly does not.
A few months ago I was quite run down, and my G.P. suggested, among other things, cutting out wheat. I already had what I would have thought was a “low-wheat” diet – I tend to only buy pitta bread, not regular bread (simply because I prefer it!) and wouldn’t have thought I ate an excessive amount of pasta, bread, pastries etc. However, I find it hard to resist an experiment – particularly if clearer skin, a healthier body and more focused mind were potentially up for grabs – so I checked Wheat Belly out of the library (which I would seriously recommend for anyone interested in finding out more about gluten, wheat and the effects it can have on you body – it’s written by an American cardiologist, and therefore more reliable than say, The Daily Mail) and set about clearing out my kitchen cupboards.
The results? Mixed. It was difficult to stick to a strict wheat-free diet while on holidays (my dad’s baking is hard to beat) and eschewing my daily pitta bread was tough at the start. I did learn how to make the currently popular “porridge bread”, and really only fell off the bandwagon a few weeks ago. I’ll eat bread, etc when I’m out for dinner sometimes, and the very occasional pizza but in general my gluten/wheat intake has hugely reduced – so you can clearly disregard all my talk about already being on a low-wheat diet, I was not at all! The considerable amount of gluten/wheat in the typical western diet was something that really surprised me – particularly as I’d always thought I didn’t eat that much. I noticed 3 big changes (and quite clearly the reverse of these changes in the last few weeks since slacking off), which I’ve outlined below.
Less sugar cravings or blood sugar crashes
Low glycemic index, or low GI, foods do not spike your blood sugar. Maintaining a steady blood sugar level is important for controlling food cravings, mood swings and mental focus – diabetics have trouble with this, and experience numerous health complications due to wildly uncontrolled blood sugar that can affect their heart, kidneys and sight.
The higher the GI rating of a specific food, that the greater it tends to spike your blood sugar, which is then followed some time later by a crash – leaving you feeling tired, hungry and/or unable to focus. That mid-afternoon chocolate or coffee craving is not just habit, but usually a dip in your blood sugar that sends your body looking for something to bring it back up again. Much has been publicised about the benefits of low-GI diet (where a steady blood sugar is maintained, with foods that release sugar/glucose over a longer time and therefore avoid extreme highs or lows), especially for overweight and diabetic people. Carbohydrates, and starchy carbohydrates in particular, tend to have a higher GI rating. Dr Lancer (dermatologist to the stars, including Queen Bey and Kim K)even promotes a lower-carb diet to improve skin quality, something that can apparently be negatively impacted by the blood sugar and related insulin spikes.
What is not so well-known is the capacity of wheat, even the organic “healthy whole grain” variety to seriously cause a serious spike in blood sugar. The GI of glucose is 100, and this is what everything else is measured against. Fats and protein have a negligible effect on blood sugar, and effectively have a GI of 0. By comparison, the GI of a Mars bar is 68. White bread has a GI of 69 – very marginally worse than a Mars bar, but whole-wheat bread shockingly has a GI of 72 – a worse effect than a bar of chocolate…and I know which one I’d enjoy more with my mid afternoon cup of Barry’s!
Not surprisingly, after the first few days, I found myself more able to concentrate at work and experienced less sugar cravings. I stuck to protein and fat based snacks like nuts and seeds and my 6 hour work shifts were much more manageable – previously I had been ready to eat my own arm or fit for nothing but bed by the end of them.
This may be in part due to a reduction in processed carbs, although I have increased my intake of oats, rice and others grains so I doubt it is the complete explanation. My stomach became flatter than it had been in months – and I had not changed my gym/exercise routine at all. What I have reduced by cutting out wheat is the above mentioned daily blood sugar repeating rollercoaster – and as a result the insulin surge that follows blood sugar wherever it goes. Insulin is a hormone made by the pancreas that allows your cells to take in glucose (sugar) and use it for energy or convert it to fat – thereby reducing blood sugar levels. If high blood sugar is triggered repeatedly, fat accumulation can increase, and it seems to affect abdominal fat in particular.
I ate more vegetables
This was an indirect effect of course, but, I suspect, one of the major reasons people feel so much better when they give gluten, wheat etc – and a nutritionist friend of mine agrees. You cut out pasta, bread, sandwiches etc, what do you replace it with? Salads, stir-frys, soup, lean protein, while likely also reducing your sugar intake – of course you’re going to feel better. I think for me this was quite an eye-opener – the extent to which we rely on bread and wheat based foods is alarming when you consider the above effects it can have. I think the enforced creativity in cooking when you cut out such a central ingredient is no bad thing either – and the more varied diet that results is more likely to include nutrients, vitamins etc that you might be currently missing out on.
Last week was noticeably tougher, and I don’t think that was purely due to the previous long weekend – I definitely struggled through the afternoons more than usual, and fell asleep before 8pm on Friday (yes, I am that cool). After experiencing the clear-headedness and lack of cravings for so long, I am eager for them to return – and for now I think restricting wheat to nights/dinners out is the way forward for me. The realisation of exactly how much of my diet was composed of starchy carbohydrates really amazed me, and I’d say most of us could benefit cutting back in this regard. Have you ever given up wheat, or considered it?