Gluten free

Gluten, a protein found in barley, oats, wheat and rye, is in a bad place right now. Gluten-free seems to have somehow become aligned with healthy diets. You stumble upon cafes lined with bamboo, smelling of grass, with a sign in the window that avows no trans fats, no artificial ingredients, no GMOs, no MSG… and now no gluten. Regardless of any argument about the others, gluten stands out.

The argument seems to be that we’re not designed to eat it, and it messes us up. Here’s a fairly representative quote from a website I suppose I should reluctantly link to that came up when I searched for “the problem with gluten” that takes that route.

Our distant ancestors ate almost no gluten grains.  Grains started to be cultivated only ten thousand years ago, and even then, only in some parts of the world. The American continent, for example, had no gluten grains until they were introduced a few hundred years ago.

OK, lady who is wearing a doctorly lab-coat but isn’t a qualified doctor.  Sure, maybe, but that’s also true of most of the food lining the shelves of the average grocery store.

Modern wheat is also very different from the wheat that grew in the Bronze Age and before because the United States genetically modified the grain to contain a higher percent of the wheat protein under the misguided premise that it would “feed the masses better” and be more nutritional. What they did not realize was the digestion of this protein was too broad a step for our genetics to go from hunter-gatherer and expect the body to genetically adapt to a higher concentration of this protein in the grain.

The recurring notion that our diet was somehow “right” when we were hunter-gatherers, and that since then we’ve been struggling to “genetically adapt” is clearly nonsense. Hunter-gathers didn’t have that diet because it was their favorite dish on the menu at a fancy health food restaurant.  They just ate what they could find, and that varied dramatically according to the local flora and fauna. Bob and his family over on that side of the hill lived mostly on berries, while Jill and her family dined on fish caught from the local stream, and Patel and his family munched on crispy bits of BBQ dinosaur[1] from the hunt. Since then our diets have improved immeasurably. Well, improved overall; we’ve also invented many more ways to make food unhealthy. But we now live considerably longer lives than Bob, Jill and Patel, who were all dead by the age of 7, after living what was, by the standards of the time a long life, and meeting their grandchildren.

Many of us have simply not yet adapted to tolerate grain, unlike ruminant animals that live off grasses and grains.

That’s obviously not true. I mean possibly you might say that relatively few people are genetically predisposed to have a reaction to gluten proteins. That’s not the same thing.  In fact, if you want to be accurate, you might say “the vast majority of us have adapted to tolerate grain”. And throwing in the comparison to ruminant animals is disingenuous, implying that we lack the required digestive apparatus to eat gluten. We don’t merrily munch the kernels off stalks of wheat in the fields, and cows don’t go in for a grilled panini.  It’s a false equivalence. It would be like saying “we’re simply not yet adapted to swimming, unlike fish”. Sure, we don’t have gills and scaly fins, but most of us seem to manage to make it work. Ultimately where I’m going with this is: we’re a really adaptable species.

But hey, a lot of people are turning to gluten free diets these days.  It’s become something of a health fad.  This week, then, I adopted a gluten free diet and spent some time researching what it’s all about.

The villainization of gluten is a weird one. There seem to be a growing number of people who believe gluten-free is somehow a better diet. It really doesn’t take more than a few minutes of googling for authoritative sources to learn that it’s not going to help you lose weight, and it’s not generally healthier. The ingredients used to replace gluten tend to be higher in bad stuff like high-glycemic carbohydrates, and lower in good stuff like protein and fiber. Without gluten around to help the ingredients bond together, more other ingredients are added, like fats and xanthan gum (which by the way is a highly efficient laxative, prank fans, and itself a trigger for allergies). Food otherwise lacking in flavor is pumped up with sugars and flavorings. The resulting gluten-free alternatives tend to be higher in calories than the original recipes. Sometimes a lot more.

You’re considerably better off just eating a balanced diet. If you’re trying to lose weight, try eating a bit less, cutting back on high-glycemic carbohydrates, and exercising more. If you’re trying to improve your digestive system, just eat less processed crap. There’s an obvious exception to all this of course: those who for medical reasons actually can’t tolerate gluten. Those people should definitely cut gluten out of their diets. In fact, more broadly, if something makes you sick, you should stop eating it.

My Dad is a coeliac (celiac while he’s in the US), which sounds like a vegetable that would be wonderful when sprinkled with nutmeg and roasted, but actually means he can’t process gluten. There is no cure, and the only effective treatment is to cut out gluten. That is annoying. Happily, there are plenty of recipe books and alternatives, and life goes on. The average grocery store seems to have figured out that it’s helpful to label what products are gluten free, which is great. There are also an increasing number of gluten free products now on the shelves, which is fantastic for celiacs but probably a bad sign for the general population, reflecting general ignorance about what gluten actually is and the health benefits or otherwise of cutting it out.

Still, it makes my life easier as I try a gluten free diet. I ate gluten free Kind granola, which was delicious but calorific, and gluten-free burritos which were OK. Bread was dense yet crumbly.  I tried a gluten-free pasta from a local farmer’s market which was pretty tasty, but not as good as the regular stuff. That’s basically what you get with gluten-free foods that are positioned as alternatives to regular glutenfull products: they’re just not as good. They lack texture, and tend to taste a bit chalky, I assume from the rice flour. Eating only those gluten-free alternatives would be a bit like being a vegetarian and only eating veggie imitations of sausages and burgers.  Better to go for recipes that never had gluten in to begin with.  My wife does most of the cooking in our house (by preference and superior aptitude, not subjugation and gender stereotyping) and kindly picked out some suitable recipes, which were great.

I’m happy to get gluten back – I particularly missed good bread – but I had an interesting week trying it out, and if i were a celiac, I know I could eat well. Reading the nutritional information of food packages is annoying, and it’s amazing where gluten crops up. Would I recommend it by choice? Nah.

  • Difficulty: Moderate. Lots of good labeling and choices in the supermarket now, though it’s not exactly fun.
  • Worthwhiliness: Low. Unless you’re actually intolerant, in which case it’s essential, this is not a great idea on a long-term basis.

Header image by Lauren Tucker

[1] I was obviously joking about Patel and the crispy dinosaur meat, by the way. He ate it medium rare. Patel is a classy guy.


Drink 8 glasses of water a day

I’m not sure where I heard this first, but I’ve heard it a lot: you should drink 8 glasses of water a day to avoid dehydration. And it sounds very believable. We all know that we need water to live, and that the human body is mostly water (95% by weight, in fact; it’s a wonder we’re not tidal). I think we all suspect that water would be better than soda or coffee or whatever else we’re drinking. And 8 sounds so tangible.  I’ve known a number of colleagues and friends who have carried around measured bottles or tumblers to get their recommended dosage of the clear stuff.  They’re smart people.

I bet I’m not alone in having vague beliefs about water, without quite being able to place the source, such as that drinking more water will make your skin clearer, or reduce insomnia, or help you lose weight, or make us think more clearly, or reduce the likelihood of some illness or other… though I can’t actually remember what illness.

And I’m sure there’s truth in there. I think we could all stand to drink more water and less of everything else, especially all the sugars in soda and juice – pointless calories that are processed by the body into pure diabetes (there may be some in-between steps, I’m not a doctor).

But over the years I have learned to be suspicious of things people commonly think to be true. “Wisdom of the crowd”? More like the “dumbsdom of the crowd”, laugh out loud. OK that doesn’t work, but the point stands. People have an awkward habit of believing things because enough other people believe it such that that it reaches critical en masse. Because it feels truthy, and because it’s memorable.

I’m also suspicious of this particular claim because it reminds me of the tragic story of Leah Betts, who was all over the news when I was 16, and highly formatively influentiable. She took an ecstasy tablet and died, and Britain’s newspapers just jumped on it as an example of the dangers of drug taking and the decline of moral standards and that evil drug dealers are coming for our middle class children, or whatever other moral panic would sell papers at the time. I was pretty innocent back then (and I suppose still am, having not taken any illegal drugs except perhaps drinking when I was 17) but even my computer-club friends and I were savvy enough to see that this was palpable bullshit. The fact that this one case made the front pages of all the newspapers only highlighted how obviously rare it was. Also the fact that eventually surfaced that the MDMA hadn’t actually killed her, water had. That’s the bit of information that sticks with me, and that’s why it springs to mind when I hear this “8 glasses” thing.

Leah had taken a pill then presumably panicked a bit and heeded the advice of well-meaning anti-drug advisories that “ravers” (sigh) should drink water to avoid becoming dehydrated. Unfortunately she’d drunk 12 pints (7 litres) of water, which resulted in something called water intoxication, ultimately killing her. I’m guessing water killed way more people than ecstasy that year. Just lacks a certain newspaper-selling quality, and isn’t quite so dramatic on billboards.

I’m not saying that we should all immediately replace all water in our diet with illegal drugs. I mean you can if you want to, I’m not the boss of you; but I would caution against it (and if you decide to, let us know how you get on in the comments section). Still, it’s one of the reasons I’m slightly cynical about commonly held medical beliefs without apparent evidence (I’m looking at you, homeopathy and the anti-vaccine movement). In this case I blame the Evian lobby. Big Water, getting all up in our plumbing.

So I spent a week drinking 8 glasses of water a day, and did some digging around the health benefits.

First thing’s first: 8 glasses is a lot.  Sometimes it’s written as 8 cups.  Turns out that means pretty much the same thing – a cup is a little over 2/3rds of a tall glass so if you’re not filling to the top, there’s not much in it. Either way, it’s a lot of water. I found myself a larger glass that held about 2 cups, and fell into a routine of drinking one with breakfast, one with lunch, one with dinner and one last thing at night because I’d consistently forgotten about it until I went to bed. On the Thursday I forgot a glass and had to drink 5 the next day, all the while wondering when water intoxication kicks in.

Lessons learned? You’re going to be getting up a lot in the night. That’s it. No health benefits, no shiny clear skin, no better sleep… I couldn’t really find any benefit. I am not saying it is without benefits, and I am almost certain that I drank fewer unhealthy drinks that week, which probably lowered my calorie intake and gave me another day into old age with my real teeth. But nothing was apparent.

Meanwhile, it turns out it’s really easy to debunk this whole “8 glasses” thing. In fact the first two results from a Google search for “8 glasses of water” are two of my go-to sites for urban myths and statistics, respectively: Snopes and FiveThirtyEight.

FiveThirtyEight points to a National Food and Nutrition Board statement:

A suitable allowance of water for adults is 2.5 liters daily in most instances. … Most of this quantity is contained in prepared foods.

So turns out the whole thing is a myth after all. 8 glasses is an arbitrary and likely inflated number, and you should just drink when you’re thirsty. One other major lesson, courtesy of Snopes: all drinks count towards your intake of fluids, including caffeinated ones.

the idea that one must specifically drink water because the diuretic effects of caffeinated drinks such as coffee, tea, and soda actually produce a net loss of fluid is erroneous

They go on to explain why, with sources, so head over there if you care to read the details.

As for me, while this wasn’t particularly worthwhile, I’m not completely done with this water thing. Another week, I’ll try drinking only water, and I may also give the idea of drinking a glass of water before meals a go, as a way to reduce appetite and therefore eat less. I think both could be quite healthy things to do. But I’m happy to drop the arbitrary and unnecessary 8 glasses thing.

  • Difficulty: Mild
  • Worthwhiliness: Low, except as a way to reduce your consumption of other, less healthy drinks.

Header image by Derek Gavey

No caffeine

I’m not sure that caffeine actually affects me all that much. I never really notice the difference, anyway. I don’t get any particular buzz, or sense of energy, or lose sleep, even after drinking quite strong coffee or a tank of Coke.

Is how I was going to start this entry. I usually decide on a resolution for the week, and scribble some initial notes, then write it up properly once I’ve finished. This time around I wrote that opening sentence. But the other night I went for dinner at the house of some friends, and had two teeny tiny espressos (Nespressos, if we’re being brand specific) before leaving at around 7:30pm. I didn’t fall asleep as quickly as I usually do, I woke up several times in the night, and I dozed the rest of the time with dreams I still remember (a sign of shallow sleep, I think). So I guess I was wrong about that.

I’m not actually a big coffee drinker. A while back I discovered that coffee was doing things to my insides that I don’t want to talk about. I’ve experimented on myself over the years and discovered that while a few brands are OK – specifically a Starbucks latte is totally fine – everything else, including very similar lattes from other chains, quality coffees from independent coffee houses, and all vending machine coffee, basically makes me seriously I don’t want to talk about it. All over the place. I’ve developed quite a Starbucks habit these days, partly due to the I’m not messing around would you leave it alone, but also because I work from home, and I find sitting in Starbucks in the afternoon ploughing through emails remarkably productive and a nice opportunity to spend time amongst other human people.

I’m a big tea drinker too. My wife and I start every weekend morning with a cup of tea, in bed, with our toddler watching trash truck videos on a tablet between us. It’s a little moment of Britishness we cling to now we live in the USA. Generally it’s extremely difficult to get good tea here, which probably explains why Americans don’t particularly want it. The main brand is Lipton, which is to tea what Bud Light is to beer, and would put anyone off. When you order “hot tea” (because iced tea is the default, in Califiornia at least) in a nice place, you tend to get organic tea in artisanal tea-bags served with a little pot of honey and a slice of fresh lemon, and no milk, and – this is the kicker – luke-warm water. Even when the tea is good, the water is rarely hot enough for it to brew properly, and grey disappointment prevails.

So, I drink British tea imported via friends once or twice a day, and hit up Starbucks maybe three times a week, and that’s my caffeine intake. Oh, and the Diet Coke. Lots of Diet Coke. Thinking about it, I do drink quite a lot of caffeine. So let’s quit it for a week and see what happens.

Not much happened. I kept all my habits intact, just swapping in decaffeinated tea and coffee as required. Dropped Coke because the caffeine free variety is fairly hard to come by. But I don’t think I noticed any difference. This either means that my original supposition, that caffeine doesn’t really affect me, was correct, or that, as I’m getting increasing suspicious, there’s a placebo effect from drinking the decaf version.

I’m going to speculate here and say that many people probably drink more caffeine than me, and that this is still a worthwhile thing to do, particularly for those many people. If you’re one of the people I’ve seen drinking energy drinks on the way to work in the morning, maybe you could stand to give it a little break. As for me, well, no great benefits to report, and only mild inconvenience to suffer through.

Hey ho, on to the next thing.

  • Difficulty: Easy, unless you’re a heavy caffeine drinker
  • Worthwhiliness: Low, unless you’re a heavy caffeine drinker

Header image, which makes me immediately crave coffee, is by jlhopgood

Eat vegetarian

I’m not opposed to eating meat. That seems to be a natural part of life, whether you subscribe to evolution, creationism, scientology or anything that falls between those three equally valid and rational positions. Food chains, and all that kind of thing. I am concerned about the industrialized nature of modern animal farming though. In fact “nature” is clearly out-of-place in that sentence. Keeping farm animals in tiny cages, in-breeding, pumping them full of hormones and antibiotics, then squeezing eggs and/or sausages out of them until they’re turned back into feed for the rest of their relatives. It is clearly wrong, and it’s also commonplace. Most of our meat and dairy production in the UK and particularly the US is literally dependent on animal suffering to keep the price down.

That’s how capitalism works. I’m not saying that as a conspiracy wielding anti-capitalist Marxist utopian idealist, I mean it is actually how capitalism is supposed to work. The market adjusts until the price is right, taking into account other factors (such as the public’s preference for animal welfare). There’s a balance, and there should be a tolerance for some animal… let’s say “discomfort”. The majority of us tolerate the domestication of farm animals, keeping them and feeding them and so on, all things that wouldn’t happen in the natural world, but we would prefer that they be allowed to live healthy lives, and are given some degree of freedom to roam rather than being cooped up in battery farms.  I’m convinced that’s the balance most of us would actually prefer, if pressed.

But there’s a problem with the modern farming marketplace. Capitalism depends on efficient markets, and efficient markets depend on a degree of transparency. And modern industrialized farming engineers, and depends on, a lack of transparency. I’m not opposed to eating dead animals, but I think it’s important to remember that’s what we are doing. Modern farming allows us to keep a very safe distance from the reality of raising, killing and preparing animals destined for the plate. As an extension of the same thought process, I like the idea of eating every part of the animal, and using other bits and pieces as best we can. Killing a shark just for the fin, or an elephant for the tusks, just seems particularly wasteful and disrespectful of the life lost. It requires you to dismiss animals as thought they were potatoes or paperweights, there only for mashing or shaking to make it look like snow is falling on a famous landmark from your trip to a place. I digress, and tusks have nothing to do with meat anyway; the point is I think most of us meat-eaters would find that if we were truly exposed to the realities of modern industrial animal farming it would really cramp our munching pleasure.

And yet, this is where it falls apart. Most of us know what really goes on. We understand that chickens are crammed into small, dark places and huge spinning sharp things slice through literally millions of throats each year. We choose to ignore that information. We buy meat packaged in containers with pictures of cute little cockerel-on-barn-at-sunrise farmyard scenes, and names to match. Aside: the only place you’ll find Archer Farms is in the trademark office.

I’m the worst offender. Despite all that respect for using every part of the animal I mentioned earlier, I’m also a tremendous wuss. I don’t like stringy bits or blood veins. For quite a while I didn’t like eating chicken wings because they were so clearly chicken wings; bones and skin, and bits of tendon being pretty strong reminders. I like white chicken that bears minimal resemblance to what it used to be. I think that’s why the only shellfish I generally like are scallops. Octopuses and crabs creep me out. It’s a conflict; I don’t practice what I like to hear other people preach, and I feel a bit guilty about it.

So, it’s in the industry’s interest to keep the realities of modern farming under its hat, and we’re complicit through a kind of semiconscious denial. That’s why lots of animal welfare charities throw ugly videos of animal abuse up on social media, to try to shine a spotlight on the worst excesses and thereby introduce some transparency. If we were truly honest with ourselves and faced up to the realities we would almost certainly make different choices at the check-out, picking welfare brands, free range chicken and so on, and the market would correct, with meat processing facilities changing practices to accommodate the public’s new awareness and preferences. Some would eat less meat, or even no meat at all. Such a drift seems to me to be a very positive thing, so more power to those trying to raise awareness.

OK, so a lot more talk of economics and animal welfare in this one than I expected, thanks for staying with me, but the point is there are plenty of good reasons to question my consumption of meat, and there are regular reports of health benefits from cutting back, especially from red meat. Spending a week without meat seems like a good thing to do.

Stir-frying vegetables for a Thaish curry
Stir-frying vegetables for a Thaish curry

It was a good thing to do. I think meat can be an excuse for unimaginative cooking. A big chunk of heated meat is sometimes the center-piece of a dish, with some limp microwaved vegetables to one side as a token gesture to be ignored. It’s a disservice to vegetables that can be so much more varied and delicious, and deserve to be given the spotlight from time to time. Well, most vegetables can be varied and delicious. I’m not a particular fan of aubergine/eggplant, or mushrooms, ironically because I find them a bit meaty. But I respect them, and I know the failure is of my own palate and its poor appreciate for their many obvious qualities.

Brussels sprouts epitomise what I’m talking about here. In Britain at least they are almost uniformly accepted as a Christmas side that kids hate and adults tolerate for tradition or possibly health. But the reason brussels sprouts are miserable is that we do some a pathetic job of cooking them. Take that pan of water off the boil, and instead sprinkle those sprouts with olive oil, some grated parmigiano, perhaps some garlic or lemon juice, toss with pancetta or dip them in duck fat, and roast them for 25mins … and hold the phone it turns out they’re a much tastier addition to the Christmas table than the turkey.

This is a veggie burger. Veggie burgers are good.
Veggie burgers are actually pretty good.

OK, pancetta and duck fat sort of undermine my vegetarian leanings here, but perhaps that’s my point. Meat can maketh the veg, as well as the other way around. And there’s plenty of great food to choose from without eating meat at all.

So obviously I found spending a week without meat pretty easy (you would hope so, as millions of people manage it for a lifetime), and I tried a few new things in the process. I experimented with snow peas and bok choy in a not-very-authentic Thai veggie curry (using a bought lemongrass sauce), which was yum. Even cooked veggie burgers for the family one night because I’ve always been curious how those compared. Turns out, pretty well. Tastier than a cheap hamburger, in fact. All in all, it was easy, cheap and fun to go without meat for a week. Recommended.

Oh, I almost forgot to mention, I accidentally ate cheese made with rennet. Did you know that a lot of cheese is made using an enzyme scooped from the stomachs of newborn calves? I did, but I sort of assumed that it would be listed on the ingredients of the cheese. It is not, in the US, at least (it’s just down as “cheese enzyme” which surely implies it’s a product of cheese not cute baby animals). Transparency, people.

  • Difficulty: Easy (now you know about the cheese thing)
  • Worthwhiliness: High

Quit drinking

First up in this ill-thought out series of 52 weekly mini-resolutions, I’m going to join with tradition and do what millions have done before me by quitting drinking. I’m sure I’m joined by many with ears still ringing from the fireworks, and nursing hangovers from ringing in the New Year with a few too many shots.  The phrase “never drinking again” is generally adapted to “one won’t hurt” after a few days, but I’ll stick it out for a week at least.

These days I have a toddler and a second baby on the way, so it’s hard to party like it’s 1999. One of the advantages of living in California though is that you have the pick of timezones to celebrate with.  London is 4pm, so I can watch the fireworks in the late-afternoon sun. New York City is 9pm. Many a New Year’s Eve is ruined, based on the experience of my admittedly unsexy youth, by being an hour or two too long. Everyone’s a bit drunk and knackered by the time the bass drops. Or big, sparkly ball thing drops, if you’re in NYC.

This year we went to a party with friends and totally nailed New Year’s Eve by not really paying much attention to the timing. I highly recommend it. Eat, drink, hang out with interesting people, rescue your toddler from poking toys into an open fireplace, then celebrate the New Year along with, presumably, some seals on an obscure Atlantic island, before going home to sleep. This is my life now, and I’m quite happy with it.

Still, I did manage to sink a decent amount of premium dark rum (a phrase I’m using to make Bacardi sound cool). And prevented by a restless toddler from getting the necessary sleep to flush the alcohol and dead braincells, I was feeling it in the morning.

The morning, by the way, is unacceptably early when you have a small child. Ours tends to wake around 6am, and though he can usually be persuaded to lie down again for a bit, that persuasion must be done in person and therefore requires daddy to climb out of bed, pull on some of yesterday’s clothes, and employ quite sophisticated negotiation techniques. With the end result that when daddy talks him off the ledge, removes yesterday’s clothes and slides back under the duvet, he then gets to spend the next precious and hard-earned minutes lying reluctantly awake, pondering his life choices.

To the point. I quit drinking for a week. It was pretty easy, because I’m not a raging alcoholic, though I was quite excited when I realized it was day 8 and I could finally try the Winter Ale that had been staring at me from the fridge. Everyone should go without alcohol ever so often. It’s a nice way to clear your head, sleep better, and give yourself a little breather. Though you do need to be cautious. If like me you habitually head to the fridge (or liquor cabinet) in the evening, you need to be careful that you don’t simply replace the booze with another habit. My new vice is herbal tea. My weed of choice is chamomile. Adulthood not working out to be any sexier than youth, then.

Difficulty: easy
Rating: recommended