My Great Gluten-Free Experiment

(I had originally planned to title this post “The Great Gluten-Free Experiment”, but that seemed a little narcissistic.)

I have long thought food allergies were stupid. Even if “stupid” isn’t the word I would use for them anymore, I am still hugely confused by them.  Let’s look at it two ways.

Consider that you believe in a more evolutionary view — survival of the fittest and all that.  If there were two early humans, one who could live off of wheat and rice and other domesticated crops and one who had an allergy to those things and was therefore obligated to hunt, why would the one with the allergies thrive?  More to the point, how could the allergic one thrive? The availability of food and calories should have made the non-allergic person healthier, stronger and a more desirable mate.  Therefore, the genes of the non-allergic person would propagate.  If that didn’t happen, as our diet became more dependent on those types of crops, why didn’t our bodies evolve to handle that food better?

Or consider a more Creationist view. I think that forces us to believe two things: First, that God created us and our world with a perfect diet.  It would have necessarily been a vegetarian and perhaps even vegan diet.  Consider this passage from Genesis 1:

“Look, I have given you every seed-bearing plant on the surface of the entire earth, and every tree whose fruit contains seed. This food will be for you, for all the wildlife of the earth, for every bird of the sky, and for every creature that crawls on the earth—everything having the breath of life in it. I have given every green plant for food.”

That’s every  seed-bearing plant.  Every single one.  The other thing we have to believe is that God knew that we would eat things that weren’t in the Garden, like Twinkies.  Even if something like corn wasn’t in the Garden, He was not caught off-guard that we would be eating it someday.  So He would have made sure we could handle it.  If we can’t, I think it’s a side-effect of the Fall.  Isn’t it an irony that the ground cursed because of Adam’s disobedience, that he worked by the sweat of his brow, would yield food he couldn’t eat?

Regardless of where allergies come from, perhaps one of the newest allergies is to gluten.  I’m pretty sure that prior to 2008, I had never heard the word “gluten” before.  Then, rather suddenly, hordes of people were allergic or sensitive to this innocuous little thing and refusing to eat healthy, nutritious foods like bread.  Really?  Bread and butter used to be called “dinner” for huge numbers of people and suddenly we can’t eat it?  It’s hard to argue with the medical science of the day though.  People are honestly experiencing declining health because of gluten.

Then last year, I heard that the Garmin-Cervèlo team was going mostly (or completely) gluten-free.  Why? Not because of specific food allergies, but because of what gluten has been shown to do: cause inflammation of tissue.  Exercise is always about breaking down your body (which usually includes inflammation) and then recovery.  God has created us so that when we recover, we always come back stronger.  We have adapted.  But when the inflammation doesn’t go away, we can’t get stronger.  We don’t fully recover.

I have struggled with acne since I was a teenager.  Somehow, 20 years later, I am still waking up to zits. They remain almost exclusively the domain of my forehead, but they are there.  What is acne?  The Mayo Clinic gives this definition: “small raised bumps that signal inflammation”.  Ooh.  A key word in that sentence.

I have also been off-and-on diagnosed with asthma, most recently exercise-induced asthma.  And what is asthma?  Again, the Mayo Clinic helpfully remarks, “When you have asthma, your airways narrow and swell.” They don’t use the word “inflammation”, but the word “swell” is in there.

What ties those three paragraphs together? Inflammation.  What is a food product shown to cause inflammation?  Gluten.  What is a possible solution?  Going gluten-free.  And so for the last few weeks, I have been mostly (but not entirely) gluten-free.  I’d like to see better recovery from hard bike rides.  I’d like to stop taking daily antibiotics to combat acne.  I’d like to rely less on albuterol for breathing during exercise.  Going gluten-free has been a bit of a challenge though.  Why?

  • I love bread.  There might be nothing that I enjoy eating more than a piece of bread, hot out of the oven and dripping with butter.
  • Wheat flour and wheat products are in nearly everything.
  • Nobody else in my family has any need or desire to try this.
  • Substitute flours are immensely expensive.
  • It’s still very easy to eat too much, all the while thinking, “I’m not eating gluten, therefore I’m eating healthy!”
Has it been worth it?  My initial reaction has been mixed.  The good:
  • Recovery from intense physical efforts has been good.  For example, I spent 3 hours on Wednesday using a hydraulic log splitter and did a 40-minute practice cyclocross race.  On Thursday, I spent 4 hours with the splitter.  I woke up this morning feeling fine.
  • I ran for 20 minutes on Tuesday without using my inhaler and generally felt pretty good.
  • I haven’t had any major breakouts in a while.
The “not good”:
  • Recovery has always been quick for me. If you look back at my cyclocross race performance, I always do better on the second day of back-to-back racing.  Is the gluten affecting that at all?  I don’t know.
  • I still have (and have been using) my normal acne medication.  I don’t know what will happen when it runs out.
  • My performance at cyclocross practices has been getting better, but that has happened every year.  I come in at the beginning of the season tired from mountain biking or out of shape from not racing at all.  As the season progresses, I race myself into shape.
I’ll give it a few more weeks and see what happens.  With lots of upcoming ‘cross races and medicine running out, I’ll have a better idea of how all of this has affected me soon.
For now, I’ll keep plugging away with a much greater empathy for folks out there who do this out of necessity instead of choice.

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