You Should Listen When Your Gut Rumbles
Back in 2017, my doctor sat me down and we had a little talk. My list of afflictions wasn’t the worst in the world — mild IBS, asthma, migraines, arthritis, and wild seasonal allergies were the most vexing. Each was annoying in its own way, but none were bad enough that I couldn’t function. Most days.
What they all had in common is an underlying tendency of some body part or other to succumb to inflammation. In migraines, the blood vessels in the brain get agitated. IBS? the lining of the bowel isn’t too happy. Asthma — it’s the lungs that complain.
“Why don’t we try you on a gluten-free diet?”
My response to this suggestion was a not-very-respectful guffaw. My physician clearly didn’t realize she was talking to a bread aficionado, someone who relished her daily bread-baking ritual the same way some people live for the zen state of a good meditation session.
This daily date with dough wasn’t just so I could make any old bread from a pre-fab mix or tumbled together in a bread machine. I’m talking about my own special blend of three types of flour, just the right amount of caraway seed, a splash of lemon juice. Sometimes, other herbs. Occasionally cheese. Perhaps sun-dried tomatoes.
Every morning I began my day by measuring and mixing, then covering the big bowl and waiting for the first rise. After that, my favorite part — turning the mound of sticky dough onto my floured countertop, dividing it, shaping it into loaves (or buns), sometimes getting extra fancy and braiding… the feel of the elastic, gluten-richness of the magical formula as I fondled and shaped the day’s delights.
Another rise. The scent of yeast working in the kitchen. The sticky swipe of my serrated knife across the tops of the loaves. The deft maneuver as I transferred those loaves into the preheated oven, letting the cornmeal between the formed loaves and the cutting board act as tiny ball-bearings so when I was done, all that scrumptious dough wound up in the oven and not on the counter or the wooden cutting board.
“Gluten-free?” My eyes bugged out.
“You like bread, then?”
You could say…
Nevertheless, I thought I’d try the insanity for a week, mostly to prove to my doctor that we needed to pursue some other, less ridiculous solution.
That’s when I realized that gluten-free meant I was going to have to give up a whole lot more than just my precious bread. I’d have to reconsider habits and taste preferences formed after a lifetime of scarfing back bread, bagels, cookies, pancakes, muffins and more. My go-to treat foods were all some blend of flour, sugar, fat, and chocolate.
“Read this,” my doctor suggested and showed me her copy of Dr. Perlmutter’s book, Grain Brain. “Let me know what you think,” she said.
There’s nothing like a doctor who makes you look hard at your habits, do a bit of reading, and come to your own conclusions.
Reluctantly, I decided to see if I could find some good baking recipes that eliminate not only wheat but also replacement carbs like rice and potato flour (as per Dr. Perlmutter’s — and my doctor’s — recommendations).
To say I was skeptical would be an understatement. But I was motivated — not only by my grumbling tummy, wheezy pipes, and throbbing headaches but also by the thought that I am willing to do pretty much anything to help prevent brain deterioration later in life.
I watched my mother succumb to Pick’s Disease (a frontotemporal lobe dementia) at an early age and if there’s any way I can spare my nearest and dearest the misery of watching me head off down that same path… Getting rid of bread products suddenly seemed like not so bad a way to take one for the team.
On the negative side, replacement bread recipes like the ones I found in the Wheat Belly Cookbook really can’t be considered true bread. They are some other kind of food, much denser and totally lacking in that light, airy, elastic texture I was so in love with in my home-baked breads of yesteryear. To his credit, Dr. Perlmutter doesn’t get your hopes up with claims of bread replacement recipes and, as a result, I found his suggestions less disappointing.
That was nearly two years ago.
The first week was the wildest. First, my symptoms pretty much disappeared within a week. I was in shock, though, astonished that I had managed to stay alive without consuming a crumb of bread (or other wheat-containing product).
The baking experiments I’ve done since have been legendary. Scones that resemble hockey pucks, ‘bread’ that’s more like a dense I’m-not-sure-what, and pizza crusts that were more like… I have no idea. Which makes sense. I am baking with ground up nuts and not flour, so it’s more like I have moved to a different country with totally different staple foods.
Also on the plus side, I haven’t experienced the plunging blood-sugars I used to experience after a big hit of carbs. All the protein and veggies leave me satisfied and most of my cravings have disappeared. Chocolate is the exception — though, I did switch to darker than dark when I ditched most of the refined sugar in my diet about a month after setting off on the gf journey.
There’s plenty of protein in my current diet (eggs, cheese, meat, and more nuts and seeds than I can count) as well as unlimited amounts of veggies and salads. The smoothies are delish and I’ve been lucky enough not to suffer any carb withdrawal or any real cravings (which is nothing short of miraculous, given my high carb intake before this experiment began). If only it had been so easy to give up caffeine (which I did last summer and which, really, deserves a blog post all its own because that was a truly miserable experience).
I’m two years into this eating revolution and I am somewhat shocked to say that I have no desire to go back. I’m enjoying being able to get through a long day without having a nap in the afternoon. My energy is good. I’ve neither gained nor lost weight (which was good — I was about right when I began and am still pretty much where I need to be).
In a subsequent visit to my doctor, she said she recommends patients try the gluten-free thing for 30 days, then let loose and have a carb-crazy weekend — pizza, beer, waffles with loads of syrup. Then, she says, they should take note of how they feel on Monday morning. I was never brave enough to try that, but if you are considering trying to change the way you eat and aren’t sure what kind of impact gluten has on your system, you could give that a go.
As a footnote to all the above, I am really, really sorry for all the snotty things I thought and said about people who have tried some version of the gluten-free, paleo diet, reduced carb way of life back when I was a devoted bread-baker. Apparently, there could be something to all this after all…