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01.28.09

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Phaedra

Photograph by Jenn Ireland
The 'Food' Groups: Glutards shall not live by rice almond bread alone; they shall also have wheat-free chicken nuggets and sorghum beer.

Amber Waves of Pain

A pasta-loving, beer-swilling city girl's gluten-free experiment

By Jessica Lussenhop


I don't diet. I moved recently from New York, a place that glorifies haute couture cupcakes and alcoholism, so in the food pyramid of my life, pizza and beer each enjoys its own trapezoid. Suffice to say, the move to health-conscious Santa Cruz has been a bit of a shock.

Then, three weeks ago, it got a whole lot worse. My editor enlisted the office's self-titled "glutards," Molly and Maree, to talk me into giving up gluten, a supposedly evil protein found in wheat, rye and barley, and abundant in foods like bread, pasta, most desserts and--whimper--beer.

Before I met these two, I'd imagined people who couldn't eat gluten as frail albinos who ate intravenously. But not only are Molly and Maree healthy and beautiful, they are eager to extol the virtues of leaving gluten behind. "It completely changed my life," Maree told me. Molly agreed. "You can go through life not realizing you're sensitive to it," she said. "I didn't know until I was 24 years old."

The anti-gluten buzz has given the diet a violent shove into "trend" status. The gluten-free food industry has bloated into a $2 billion market, far surpassing the possible consumption of the 1 percent of the population who have the autoimmune intolerance of gluten, called celiac disease. And, as I was informed more than once in the course of my experiment, "Oprah did it!"

Though Oprah was trying to lose weight (again), going off gluten can supposedly fix problems ranging from gas to bloating, fluid retention, headaches and skin conditions--problems so general that you might not suspect it's all because of a single polypeptide. But then Molly and Maree told me it can go further than that. While enumerating my vague health problems--lethargy, mild depression, cloudy thinking--Molly actually gasped. "You might totally have a food allergy," she said.

What the Glutards described was not just a weight-loss program. It offered the possibility that things I had figured were personality traits--gloomy mood swings and general laziness--were actually treatable with a simple diet change. Like the addict I am, I went home for a ravioli and Belgian beer binge, before I would agree to send my stomach to rehab.

No Taste for Paste
Molly gave up gluten under the guidance of naturopath Dr. Audra Foster, who I visited on my first day. "I started eliminating it for weight and then I started realizing how good it made me feel," she said. "But everyone is a little different in terms of their tolerance."

To find out just how intolerant her patients are, Dr. Foster recommends they try a two-week long wheat elimination test and advised I do the same.

There's an important difference between gluten sensitivity and a serious condition called celiac disease. Gluten is actually toxic to celiac sufferers, and wipes out the small intestine's ability to absorb nutrients. For them, going gluten-free is a necessity, not a diet fad. People who are sensitive to gluten don't have the same type of autoimmune difficulty, but do have trouble processing the protein, which is overly abundant in our modern super-crops.

Breeding wheat for high gluten content equates to softer, stretchier, more pliable baked goods, but also means we're eating more of it than we were ever meant to. Although no one can completely digest gluten--it passes through us--depending on one's tolerance, it can cause lots of embarrassing problems.

Dr. Foster recommended I try giving up gluten for two weeks, then "challenging" it, by returning to my old habits to see how I feel. "You'll start to develop a taste and liking for these substitute products," she assured me. "If you're sensitive to it, once you challenge the wheat, you'll realize how crummy you feel."

She armed me with a couple of handouts, and I proceeded into full-blown panic. Not only was I going to have to give up things I crave most, but wheat and gluten are apparently hidden in everything. I couldn't have soy sauce, soup, ketchup, sandwich meat, cereal, processed cheese. I'd have to become a Label Reader.

In an attempt to circumvent that fate, I called upon Nancy Weimer, food service director at New Leaf Community Markets, to walk me through the downtown location and help me identify the gluten-free products she's personally tested. "In the last couple of years, more and more people are coming in looking for gluten-free," she told me. "Avoiding gluten is tough. And I'm really fussy."

She cracked open a package of totally decent gluten-free brownies that we chewed on as we walked up and down the crowded aisles. The store is packed with the products that make up the ranks of that $2 billion industry--pastas, breads, dough mixes, pizzas, crackers, cookies, and cakes made out a bevy of unconventional flours, including tapioca, rice, quinoa, spelt and soy. There's even an Anheuser-Busch beer called Redbridge made out of sorghum. At the end of the tour, I'd seen at least 50 replacement products meant to curb cravings. "When we first started talking you said this would be hard," she said to me at the end of the tour. "Do you still feel that way?"

With a basket full of rice-almond bread, a rice crust pizza, gluten-free pasta and a six-pack--which came to the not-so-slender total of about $28--I said, "No." This was going to be easy, right?

That was before I tried any of it. My pizza was a mushy mess beneath the cheese. The beer had a disconcerting aftertaste and the gluten-free pasta, though the package promised it was "not mushy," turned into a gluey mess at the bottom of the pot.

The night after I tried to make a meal out of the pasta, I was about a week in and decided to weigh myself. Though I'd gone into the experiment thinking this was not about weight-loss, I found I'd shrunk to my high school weight, and not in a good way. After a week of pushing my food around the plate, I was just starving myself.

I realized that even more clearly after I talked to Dr. Susan Algert, a nutritionist at the Wm. K. Warren Medical Research Center for Celiac Disease in San Diego. "It's being recommended for weight loss, and there's absolutely no reason for that," she said. "It's not really a good idea to leave a whole group of foods out of your diet." She warned me that my basket full of wheat-replacement products are made mostly of rice and corn. "Many of the gluten-free products are not enriched with B vitamins," she said. "That's needed for energy. A person's not going to feel well without them." She recommended I make sure I get whole grains from things like brown rice, quinoa, couscous, bulghur, and teff. And, she added, only about 7 or 8 percent of the population is sensitive to gluten.

The Great Wheat Challenge
After attempting to eat the steaming pile of glue, I came to a highly original conclusion--dieting is hard. And what, I wondered, would I do if it actually started working? "It's weird because it's, like, the rest of your life," Maree said, consoling me as I sat trying to decide what have for lunch on day seven. "When I first started, I made a list of things I could eat and it was just depressing." Maree added that the other problem with replacement foods is that they can get awfully pricey. "I cry when my sister eats my food," she said.

Feeling a powerful urge to cry myself, I decided for the rest of the two weeks to switch up my strategy. Instead of pretending I can still enjoy tasty pastas and beer, I would eat normal foods that do not contain gluten. I took up tamales and tacos, brown rice and beans, lots of green vegetables and my mom's Chinese recipes with tamari instead of soy sauce. I easily gained the weight right back, and then, one evening after a chicken and spinach salad, something sort of cool happened: I didn't slink off to my room to lie in bed. I did a little work, I stayed up late chatting with my roommate. Another night, I went for a bike ride.

After the two weeks, per Dr. Foster's recommendation, I challenged myself with a big ol' box of macaroni and cheese. Like a bird flying into a turbofan engine, the three-cheese-enveloped gluten hit my system and I crashed hard at about 8:30pm. I woke dazed two hours later feeling like a complete slob.

But the next morning I got up easily and had much the same type of day that I had when I was off gluten. And in the course of the two weeks, besides the incremental evening energy boost, nothing happened that convinced me to wed myself to this lifestyle. I did not become any less moody, as my long-distance boyfriend can attest. My mild depression continued its regularly scheduled programming. The little pouch around my belly button did not shrink, meaning it isn't "inflammation" or "water retention," but just fat, which is awesome news.

"There are lots of reasons for depression and fatigue, especially in someone who is pursuing her career and on the go a lot," Dr. Foster wrote me in an email. "We should look into other reasons."

When Molly and Maree saw me eating a thick piece of toast on my second day back on gluten, they were disappointed. Though I'd enjoyed the glutard solidarity, I just wasn't one of them. "Well, I guess you just don't have a wheat allergy," said Molly with a shrug.

The difference is that for all the extra effort and money, the payoff of a wheat-free life just isn't enough for me. But for Molly and Maree, the diet was life altering, and while they miss pizza just as much as I did, they feel so much better that it's worth the sacrifice. "This is the first time in my life that I feel good," Maree said. "You can't miss something that's going to make you feel sick, even if it tastes good."

I guess the truth is this: glutardation is worth a try with a healthy dose of skepticism and plenty of real food. The wildly varying promises in magazines sometimes fail to mention that the majority of the population can digest gluten just fine, but it does happen to occur in some of our most unhealthy foods. In a way, a gluten-free diet is just like any recommended health regimen--whole grains, fruits, vegetables and protein, lay off the pizza and beer. For me, that's just a deal breaker.

Devil Gluten

Is the grain that built civilization unfit for human consumption?

By Jessica Lussenhop


Gluten is a protein found in the endosperm of grains like wheat, rye and barley. Built from the amino acid building blocks glutamine and proline, it is the linkage of gluten molecules to one another that produces the texture we are accustomed to in our breads, dough and baked goods. Flour with a high-gluten content will make soft, spongy bread or that stretchy, pliable consistency in pizza dough.

The human digestive tract has a difficult time breaking down gluten, in particular the proline amino acid, and large fragments of gluten go undigested, passing through the system. For those with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, that journey can stimulate antibodies to overreact, attacking the gluten instead of allowing it to pass. The result: the mucosa of the small intestine can become damaged and inflamed.

The extent of the damage varies. Celiac disease sufferers are unable to absorb nutrients at all and become anemic and undernourished. Those who are merely sensitive to it may suffer gas, bloating, diarrhea--all the fun stuff.

Scientists are currently working on possible solutions to the problem, including a wheat plant that does not produce gluten at all, yet achieves a similar texture in food. An enzyme-containing prescription medication is also in development, which would enable the body to break gluten down into less contentious components. If successful, the popularity of the gluten-free diet could go the way of South Beach and Sugar Busters.


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