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