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Gluten, Sugar, Love: Tales From the Path to Joy - The Compassion Diet

It is Thursday and I haven’t seen or heard from J since he walked out the door on Monday night.  It was the end of a confusing burst of anger for suggesting he have the homemade cookie he wanted.  “It has gluten”, he stated, his chin set firm and resolute. I rolled my eyes. “But it’s very little gluten”, I reminded him, “you don’t have Celiac disease, it won’t hurt you”.  I can’t remember exactly what he said after that, something about not being supportive, something about he doesn’t want to have any gluten to which I shrugged and said, “then don’t have a cookie, what’s the big deal?” But it clearly was a big deal because he walked out of the room after accusing me of being weak and hypocritical for asking why he was going gluten-free in the first place.

J. can’t tell me why giving up gluten is such a big deal.  He cites good enough reasons for giving it up, like inflammation, but he hints at something much more insidious, like his resolve.  He claims it has to be “all or nothing” and this is a problem.  Not because he’s refused to talk to me since my unsupportive suggestion that he have a cookie, rather because the “why” of making resolutions is so important to their success.  Even if he never eats gluten again, if he succeeds at his resolution, he has done so at the very high price of his esteem if his identity is so strongly attached to whether he is “strong” enough to avoid temptation.

There are, of course, many good reasons to give up gluten.  J is clear on those.  Gluten contains toxic proteins that damage the intestines and contribute to health problems like Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Psoriasis, Migraines, and the more esoteric, but nonetheless real, “brain fog”.  Serious conditions like depression, Multiple Sclerosis, Fatigue, Schizophrenia, Autism, and dementia shown favorable responses to the elimination of gluten in the diet.  These are serious conditions with dramatic results, so the effect of gluten on the body is not something to be taken lightly.  And if you suspect, as J. does, that the reason you lack the energy to get through the day may lie in the gluten you eat, you eliminate gluten to see what happens.  If, after a reasonable period of avoiding gluten, your symptoms disappear only to reappear after the reintroduction of gluten, you know what the culprit for your malaise is and know to regain your health. 

My own reasons for giving up gluten were clear as well.  I am preparing for competition in the Spring and I want to lose that extra belly fat that has plagued me since J. and I started dating.  If there is a single strategy that has helped me lose weight quickly it has been the reduction of starch in my diet—bread, pasta, potatoes, etc.  Though I had very positive response to the fiber in sprouted grains, I knew that removing bread from the diet, going “gluten-free” was only going to make room for the addition of the nutrient-rich, low-calorie rainbow foods.  When J. began his gluten-free experiment, I decided I would kill two birds with one stone, rid myself of the low-nutrient calorie-rich staple while I supported him in his endeavor.  It should be perfect—it should be, but it is not, because J. refused to talk to me since I ate a cookie with gluten in it and encouraged him to do the same (or as he would have me tell you, because I did not support him the way he would have wanted).

The problem lies in the many shades of grey.  Not everyone who eats gluten will develop chronic inflammation, not every gluten out there is the same, and, besides the spectrum of gluten sensitivity response, there is a spectrum of gluten-free—do you avoid anything that has ever had contact with gluten like you would if you had Celiac disease, or do you simply choose rice instead of wheat flour?  My approach is to get the diversity in my diet that choosing gluten-free allows, J.’s approach is to see gluten as poison and avoid it altogether. Where my approach is based on abundance, freedom, and choice, J’s approach is based on scarcity, denial, and limits.  It’s no wonder he gets cranky when I eat something that cannot be labeled “gluten-free”.

The main reason to go “gluten-free” is that the wheat of today is not what nature intended for us.  Decades of genetic modification created a grain that is much altered from the wheat of our ancestors.  Wheat has been hybridized (cross-bred) and transformed by manipulating several amino acids (proteins).  As a result, gluten is now capable of feeding many more people than it ever could before—and making sick those who eat it.  In fact, the wheat of today can be compared to heroine. 

The most abundant protein in gluten is Gliadin.  Gliadin is a protean protein, meaning it has an inherent ability to change frequently or easily.  Because of this, it was altered in the years since 1960 when scientists began manipulating the proteins to produce a higher yield of wheat.  The Gliadin of today has several more amino acids than the Gliadin of yesteryear.  And while, the wheat protein has changed dramatically, our bodies are still designed to manage the wheat of our grandparents.  Gliadin, when it is digested in our guts, is degraded into a collection of polypeptides (a chain of amino acids) called exorphins (opposite of endorphins).  Exorphins are capable of crossing the blood/brain barrier (a very thin filter that keeps certain molecules from entering the brain) where they bind to opiate receptors (the same receptors for heroine) to induce appetite (yes, that’s right, to make us more hungry even though we’ve already eaten) and behavioral changes (moody, angry, withdrawn).  And, while all gluten contains some Gliadin, it is the altered Gliadin in modern wheat that seems to be responsible for health problems like Autism, ADHD, bipolar detachment, bipolar mania, and depression.  Gliadin has been linked to problems with ataxia (loss of control of bodily movements) and encephalopathy (brain damage).  At the very least, when Gliadin is well-tolerated it induces drowsiness and “brain-fog”, at worst….well, you decide which one of the problems I’ve listed above is worst.  And, as J. very well intuits, constant exposure to Gliadin in the diet may have long-term effects in the brain that we may not regret until it is too late and we can’t hold a spoon or remember our children.  So, if I know all this about gluten, why would I even eat the cookie that has gluten in it?  Isn’t J. right to be mad at me if I was encouraging him to have something that can be compared to heroine?

Well, if all gluten were the same, he would be, but the cookie in question was one from a batch we made together using mostly good, organic ingredients--healthful fats, proteins, and minerals from oats, pecans, and coconut combined with perhaps a ½ cup of Spelt flour. While I didn’t know just how Spelt differed from modern wheat, I did know that it was a better baking alternative for people wishing to detox. It seemed to me, given the benefits of the other ingredients in the cookie, and the fact that neither of us had Celiac disease, that throwing out the cookie for the small amount of gluten it contained was like throwing the baby out with the bath water.  As I learned from the research I did after J. walked out the door, Spelt is a far different grain than wheat, its gluten contains far less insidious proteins than the problematic modern grain.  If you don’t have Celiac Disease, and you don’t have a wheat allergy, using Spelt flour in your food along with a variety of healthy grains in a balanced diet is not going to cause chronic inflammation. 

And, so, how then does one justify foregoing the chicken soup that your friend made with chicken stock that is not gluten-free?  I mean, if you allow some gluten, shouldn’t you then allow any gluten in small amounts?  Well, no.  As we’ve established all gluten is not created equal.  But, if you are not allergic or have Celiac disease can it hurt you?  If gluten were in the food, and you don’t want to offend your friends, is it worth having? 

Let’s consider it.  As in the Boar’s Head example from a previous blog, the real question is not whether to have a little gluten, but why is gluten in the food in the first place?  I mean, why would Boar’s Head Deli meat have gluten?  Why would chicken stock have gluten?  Why would soy sauce have gluten?  It’s not hard to figure out once you think about it.  Aside from the fact that gluten thickens food, remember that Gliadin, the primary protein in gluten, induces hunger—it makes people feel hungry even when they are not--making them want more of the processed food they buy.  If you were a food manufacturer and had shareholders demanding 5 times more profit than a natural crop can make, what do you do?  You add a cheap ingredient that will thicken the food to a pleasurable consistency and make the consumer want more.  You make people overeat.  And, so, rejecting the food at least allows you to maintain a normal appetite and raises awareness of the problem of gluten sensitivity and industry manipulation.

I have noticed that as J. has become more aware of the effect industrialization has had on our food and health, he seems to be taking on a stronger stance, making conscious choices to support organic farming and rail against industrialization and a government that has failed us.  He has urged others to follow his example.  This is a common position of the newly converted.  I know I harbored it when I first detoxed and have seen others become almost militant in their disdain for the unenlightened.  As a matter of principle, if J says “I am ‘gluten-free’”, then has a cookie with gluten in it when it serves him, he feels like a hypocrite.  In J’s book being a hypocrite is “bad”, and giving in to temptation is “weak”.  And since we judge others the way we judge ourselves, when he saw me eat a cookie, he thought I did so in a moment of weakness, that I did not have the strength to resist eating a cookie that he thought I agreed was bad.  And herein lies the biggest problem of all, because when we start to think of things as “good” or “bad”, to go “all or nothing”, to consider ourselves “strong” or “weak”, and see things only in black or white, we miss the opportunities to understand of the inherent nature of all things and people.  We can’t see the vitamins, minerals, and helpful proteins and fats in the oats, pecans, and coconut in the cookie if we consider ourselves “weak” for having something we think is “bad”.  Thinking in these terms leaves no room for compassion, for self or others.  In reality, Gluten is neither “good” nor “bad”, or, rather, it is both.  It was manipulated as it was in order to feed the hungry, and, this is an honorable cause, but it had harmful effects, so, we are encouraged to avoid it.  When you see it along these lines, you cannot harbor disdain for the person who eats gluten, only compassion.  And when you act compassionately, you learn to give yourself a break, to love rather than berate yourself.  If your heart is filled with love, you become attracted only to those things that love you back and avoiding things that are harmful require no strength at all.  Being healthy begins first and foremost with love.  Love yourself and the only food you will crave is the one that nourishes you.  And, however mad J. was at me, there was at his core and mine, a need for this kind of nourishment.

By Friday afternoon J and I are standing in the parking lot outside of Big Fresh.  Over lunch, far away from our clashing egos, we cleared up our misunderstandings.  J learned that there is more than one kind of gluten, and I learn that he has a clear strategy.  J no longer sees me as weak and I no longer see him as unreasonable.  J has listened and I have promised to practice patience (because, as the reader should know, it takes two to tango).  J walks me to my car and I tell him, “it breaks my heart to think you felt ridiculed for your choice” and J hugs me, “we just need to learn to communicate”.  “Yes”, I think, “and make another batch of cookies”.