Tuesday, March 05, 2013

The [free-range, organic] elephant in the room


Today's my 2nd gluten-free-versary.  The Great Gluten Crash of March 5, 2011 was such a life-changing watershed, I want to review...  and then maybe I can go back to sharing occasional thoughts about plants and places, and knitting and songs and whiskers on kittens.  

After a month-long (vegan!), gluten-free experiment, failure to plan led to ordering takeout, including a flour tortilla.  I woke up on 3/5/11 a little smug that I'd been right - gluten did indeed turn out not to be good for me!  But smugness wore off when I stayed too sick, for too long, losing a pound a day for a week (and probably a dozen pounds in that first month).  I was brain-foggy and weak, and I lost all kinds of muscle mass, and scared the hell out of my good Robert. It was pretty persuasive.

Lab tests verified.  I was surprised that I have an official celiac gene.  Makes me wonder whether any of my parents' late-life health issues might have been avoided... and whether I might avoid them myself.  

Here's the skinny:  Many people (not only those of us with 'celiac genes') develop an immune response to gluten - more specifically to gliadin, the form of gluten found in wheat, rye, barley and grains such as spelt, kamut, and einkorn.  Once the body has developed antibodies to gliadin, ingesting gliadin prompts an immune-system attack, just as it would for a pathogen.  Additional antibodies may develop against tissue transglutaminase, an enzyme found in many parts of the body (yup, I had those, too) - an autoimmune response.  

Microscopic amounts of gluten trigger this immune reaction.  (Isn't that what we pay the immune system to do, after all?)  There is no safe amount of gluten.  Europe's FDA analog permits a product to be labeled 'gluten-free' if it contains less than 20 parts per million, though some people with celiac and non-celiac gluten sensitivity react below that threshold.

I could go on (are you surprised?).  And you need to know more.  But first, let's eat, shall we?

Here's what we won't be consuming:

No gluten grains - that's wheat, rye, barley, plus spelt, kamut, einkorn.

No oats.  I'm not sure whether I have an express problem with them, but aside from the contamination that's hard to avoid in processing and packaging, oats are often contaminated with wheat in the field.  (Whoa.)

No grains at all. About once a month, I have a few corn chips or a bit of rice, especially if someone has gone to trouble to create something I can eat.

No dried beans/legumes. I have chickpeas or lentils maybe 2x/year, if they appear in a dish I'd like to try for other reasons.  I do eat green beans.

No dairy. The dairy protein casein contains peptides very similar to those in gluten.  These peptides interact with opiate receptors in the brain (which may explain the neuro symptoms some gluten-sensitive folks experience).  The molecular mimicry might explain why I tested positive for antibodies to casein, as well as to gluten - but in any case, I never again want to feel the way dairy made me feel.

Almost nothing that comes in a package with a label to read.  I do buy frozen artichoke hearts, and occasionally we use canned tomatoes.

Does that sound like deprivation?  It doesn't feel that way.  Dropping a ton of weight in a hurry, feeling awful, and losing huge amounts of muscle... that was awful. I now seem to eat more variety and more deliciousness than many omnivores.  

What do I eat?  (Really, you don't remember any other food groups?)  

Meat - my vegetarian/near-veg days are over. During the Great Crash, I only recovered my calf muscles when I increased my intake of high-quality protein. So, not without some mixed feelings, I eat mammals, birds, and fishes.

Quite a lot of vegetables, in a huge range of categories and colors. If you've concluded that it's impossible to consume enough leafy greens to provide enough of some nutrient or other, you should come on over to our house for breakfast some day. The mess of greens that starts most days around here would do you good. We certainly eat more vegetables than a couple of vegetarians we know, who subsist primarily on pastry.

Some fruits, nuts, and seeds.

And, of course, dark chocolate.  And wine.  

We use olive oil, coconut oil, and duck fat, which are yummy (and healthful).

How do I eat? Joyfully.

I struggle to convey how wondrously this has simplified my life. I am a middle-aged American woman, and I like what I weigh. My energy is better, my body composition has improved, hayfever season hardly troubles me, and the aches and pains I attributed to middle age are mostly gone. My blood pressure no longer borders on high. I don't get headaches. My hair got darker - though I'm still plenty gray, and it's a superficial benefit. I never diet, count calories, or ponder grams of fat or carbohydrate. I never agonize over whether I should have a cookie (or a second cookie) – or over anything I might eat. At a buffet, I can expect there might be carrot sticks, and perhaps nothing else for me. So I spend my time at social events.... socializing. I don't get that frantic hunger that interferes with my day - probably because of relatively stable blood sugar. I think about food less, and more pleasurably. I can't recommend it highly enough, despite my certainty that you're not going to take me up on it.

I've harvested some excellent ideas from the Paleo-sphere. I particularly appreciate the sensible and broad-ranging approach Mark Sisson brings to marksdailyapple.com. He understands the science, and is curious and articulate about sleep and sociability and playfulness and all kinds of humanness beyond exercise and diet.) Though there's some nonsense in the Paleo arena, I suspect they're onto something – especially when I read the irrationality and silliness in typical attacks against their line of thinking.

If you're wondering what must be missing from my diet, you've perhaps been reading articles by folks from Big Nutrition - and just as we now know that medicine is unduly influenced by what Big Pharma can spend to get their attention, it turns out that Big Food drives a lot of the educational message nutrition pros receive. (Hint: they don't fortify flour because it's a particularly good source of nutrients.)

So what's for dinner? I'm so glad you asked! Halibut, and vegetables to be named shortly, and wine. I'll grind some almonds to coat the fish before cooking, and some lemon will certainly be squeezed.

Bon appetit!  And look forward to the occasional recipe, menu, food photo, or diatribe about deliciousness.  And now back to knitting... I have much to achieve before gardening begins in earnest.