I have never had a problem with gluten. I have happily eaten all kinds of gluten-rich foods guilt- and discomfort-free for my whole life. I always thought that some people with gluten sensitivities were kind of full of shit, blaming the discomfort from general bad eating patterns on the hot food sensitivity du jour. Either that, or they were blaming the symptoms of eating too much crap on just one element of that crap.
But then again, I also think that MSG sensitivity is kind of bullshit. Except when I eat too much Chinese food and my muscles feel weak, my joints feel like they’ve turned to water, and I must take a nap right away or else I will smash my fortune cookie with my forehead when I faceplant onto the table. But I never get that feeling with other MSG-rich foods like soups and frozen meals, and only sometimes at the same Chinese food restaurant, after eating the same order. In other words, MSG sensitivity is a crock of shit… except when it applies to me… but only sometimes, and the rest of the time it’s still a crock of shit.
Whether or not the gluten thing is as bad as the gluten-free cabal would have you believe, food sensitivities are definitely on the rise. Food allergies in children went up by 50% in the 14 years between 1997 and 2011, according to the CDC. Adults are also developing autoimmune reactions to wheat (there has been a fivefold increase in celiac disease since 1950) and sugar (diabetes rates have doubled in the past 20 years). And many more people have “sensitivities” to common foods like corn, soy, dairy, certain fruits, MSG… and of course gluten.
You’ve got to wonder, are we doing it to ourselves? Are we getting sensitive to these foods because they make up too much of our diet and our bodies are shutting down from the overload? Is there something about our environments that is causing our bodies to give up and say, “That’s it! I’ve had it! A plague of poxes upon you! You will develop a rash every time you eat a peach, shit your brains out whenever you have cheese, become miserably congested every time you eat corn, and go into anaphylaxis if you have a peanut for the rest of your life!” Or is it something about our diets that’s depleting our ability to digest these things, and if we just ate how we were meant to for awhile, could we start to tolerate these irritants again? Or is this just a mass hysteria like the fatal dancing sickness in 1518?
Science is stumped on these questions, so far be it for me to propose any theories or point any fingers. But that gluten sensitivity thing… mass hysteria or real epidemic, the “gluten as boogeyman” theory has really gotten traction in pop culture in the past decade or so. The anti-gluten and low-carb faction would have you believe that we’re all suffering from gluten sensitivity in some form or another. They accuse gluten of causing inflammation, leaky gut, irritable bowel, brain fog, impaired nutrient absorption, tick disorders, alzheimer’s and dementia, and resentful feelings when people bring delicious gluteny things to pot lucks. I have no doubt that the suffering and lost friendships are real, but is it true that gluten is really bad for us? Would everyone (even those of us that don’t feel bothered by gluten) benefit from removing gluten from their diet?
As I get older my body doesn’t let me get away with as much as it used to. I have really noticed how inflammation has affected how I move and feel. I don’t feel as mentally sharp as I should, like my brain is “slippery” and won’t stick to a thought. Could that be aggravated, or even caused by the gluten in my diet? Does gluten have any effect at all?
I decided to test it.
When my diet is on point I don’t actually eat that much gluten, so the first step of the experiment was to spend a week adding a whole bunch of wheat to my diet. I wanted to give myself a chance to notice changes that came with its absence, as well as anything that changed once I reintroduced it into my diet. I went down to the Farmer’s Market where they sell my favorite ooey-gooey gluteny whole wheat bread. This bread is so high in gluten that it actually leaves a sticky residue on the knife when you cut it.
On the way home from the farmer’s market I ate about 2 slices’ worth of the bread as I drove. Then, when I got home I had another couple of slices with lunch. This bread is so delicious… and this gluten thing is such bullshit!, I decided. Ninety minutes later my blood glucose hit its peak of only 114. See? This gluten thing is definitely a total crock of shit. Look! All those carbs didn’t even cause a huge blood glucose spike like they say it does. Total bunk!
Except that even though my blood sugar didn’t go so high, I felt like I had been beaten with the tired stick. I could barely keep my eyes open. It felt like the Chinese food… only worse. Even though I had a ton of things to do and was anxious about getting them all done, I lay down for an hour on top of the covers because I was too tired to climb underneath. I took an only somewhat successful nap and dozed fitfully. Was this from the gluten, or from an overactive insulin spike in response to the giant carb bomb I’d thrown at myself?
The extreme fatigue was gone when I got up, but I still felt like my muscles were only operating at 90% and my motivation to do anything was low. I also had a tingly sort of effervescent feeling in my stomach like I’d swallowed a loaf of Alka Seltzer rather than bread. I felt like I would never be hungry again.
For the remainder of my high-gluten week I never had a similar reaction again, although I continued to eat several slices of my delicious Farmer’s Market bread every day, and other delightful gluteny foods like pizza and pasta whenever I got the chance. I did feel more tired after my meals, like there was a string attached to my stomach that would pull my eyelids shut when my tummy pooched out. But could that also have been because I was eating more processed carbs (or carbs in general) at the cost of fresh produce and protein in order to get in as much gluten as possible.
I gained a couple of pounds during the week, probably from my roving searches for gluten-rich foods. I treated my bread portions as I would usually treat a portion of broccoli; as an add-on to the good stuff. Which is fine for a 40-calorie serving of broccoli, but not so much a 300-calorie slice of pizza. After my meals I always wanted to eat more, and had trouble cutting myself off even thought I was already full.
But what about GI symptoms? Did gluten irritate my bowels? While I have continued my habit of not eating dinner after my January experiment, there was one night that because of special circumstances I did eat a large dinner with tons of delicious pizza. Usually I am not someone who suffers from inconvenient “urgency” (if anything, I tend toward the other direction), but on a routine run the next morning I found myself in desperate and need for a bathroom that would not be denied. As I have only had to do in a handful of times in my 20-year running life, I had to duck into a bush to relieve myself. Aside from this incident I had no other GI discomfort or “surprises.” Was my rustic bathroom break because of the gluten, or just because I had had a gigantic meal 12 hours before, where my body was used to running empty? Who knows…
In the end — despite a couple of dramatic incidents that could have been explained by the gluten… but could just have easily have been explained by changes to my routine, or my body’s reaction to the high carbohydrate content of gluten-rich foods — there wasn’t enough evidence to say definitively whether gluten had any effect on my body.
Originally I had planned for this experiment to last only four weeks, with a three-week gluten elimination period followed by a one-week reintroduction. But then I got inspired to try a much more extreme elimination diet, and so we’ll have to wait until April for the jury to come in on gluten. Stay tuned, because for the next 6 weeks I will be playing around with spiritual fasting.