Is the gluten-free thing a real thing?

A review of “Grain Brain” and my personal experience of going gluten-free.

“Well that’s too bad that you can’t eat bread. I could never give up those things”. This is a typical response I get when I’m explaining to a friend that I am gluten-free. But my choice to be gluten-free doesn’t occur to me as “too bad” or a huge sacrifice. Inherently I know I am doing myself a huge service. It wasn’t until reading Grain Brain that I realized the severe implications of eating gluten and it’s relationship to so many of the mysterious brain diseases like Alzheimer’s, depression, ADHD, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, epilepsy and autism to name a few.

There is clear research now that shows the connection of gluten to these and other simpler issues such as headaches and inflammation. Did you know that gluten lights up the same parts of the brain when consumed as opiate drugs? As the author David Perlmutter says, “If you’ve ever felt a rush of euphoric pleasure following the consumption of a bagel, scone, doughnut, or croissant, you’re not imagining it and you’re not alone.”

It wasn’t until I removed gluten from my diet and reintroduced it (after 6 months of being completely gluten-free) that I experienced so vividly that same euphoria. It was a surge, physically. If I remember correctly, it was a croissant (I love croissants)! Because I was so much more in-tune with what I felt like without gluten, it became obvious to me the effect gluten had on my body when I ate that croissant. I felt addicted. I had to exercise some true will-power that day to prevent myself from slipping in a piece of wheat bread later that day.

But let me speak to the gluten skeptic.

Firstly, it’s okay to be skeptical. There is so much information floating around out there and so much of it is confusing and scary. I get it. I am the co-owner of a weight loss company after all and there is nothing more gimmicky than the weight loss industry. The only real way to figure this thing out, is to try it for yourself.

I suggest a 3-6 month period. Write down any health problems you have before you start. For example, I had cramping related to my menstrual cycle, headaches about twice per month, afternoon tiredness and sometimes unstable moods. Lucky for me, I wasn’t debilitated by these and I considered them just a normal part of being human. Even if you don’t have any health issues, it’s not to say that you will not benefit from being gluten-free. You will benefit. Your body will most likely feel different in ways that you can’t know right now because you are ‘a fish swimming in water’.

The long-term effects of consuming gluten, as described in Grain Brain, should really be up for consideration. There is a shocking rise in number of diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s in the elderly today. Science has proof that gluten is a major contributor to these brain diseases along with over consumption of sugars and low consumption of essential healthy fats.

Speaking very simply, gluten binds to certain receptors in the brain and this can cause inflammation to the cells and in the body. This is how I remember that croissant now. Immediately after consuming it, I felt high and happy. Within 2 hours, I felt lethargic, swollen and blurry. A clearer mind is one of my top reported benefits from being gluten-free.

I believe that the skepticism about gluten is because, as written in the book Grain Brain, “The term “gluten-free” is becoming just as vague and diluted as “organic” and “all natural” have become”. This certainly doesn’t mean however, that the problem is not to be considered and a solution ignored. Manufacturers have a vested interest in adding gluten to foods where possible because of it’s addictive quality and it’s low cost.

It wasn’t until I saw the extensive list of where gluten can be found, that I realized the scope of the problem. In the same way we educate people on our weight loss program about the secret names of sugar, here too are a few of the places that gluten can be found in our daily foods.

Gluten in unlikely places.

  1. canned baked beans
  2. bouillon/ broth
  3. cold cuts
  4. egg substitute
  5. flavored coffees and teas
  6. ice cream
  7. malt vinegar
  8. mayonnaise
  9. oats (unless certified gluten-free)
  10. trail mix
  11. gravy
  12. imitation crab meat
  13. root beer
  14. vodka

When I read the full list, I have to say I was amazed. It was in more things than I realized, not just in bread, pasta and pastries. Gluten is also found in many cosmetics, supplements and even non-self-adhesive stamps and envelopes can contain this memory-erasing ingredient. If I was going to do this, I was not only going to have to make changes to my diet, but to my lifestyle also.

Lucky for me, I already had access to amazing protein foods, which we offer on our weight loss program here in Vancouver. Our products have an abundance of gluten-free options. I had a product I could trust to help me sort out good, healthy snacks without the brain disease! I also had some great eating habits and the base of my diet was mostly greens, vegetables and protein varied by the seasons.

I have many friends who are unwilling to cut out the “croissants” of the world from their diets. I get it. They are delicious and pleasurable and many of us have childhood memories tied to certain foods. We all celebrated birthdays with cakes right? I’m finding that becoming gluten-free has been a tremendously powerful exercise for me. It’s made me acutely aware of the food around me and given me a better parameter to work within for making choices out in the world.

It’s also easier to be gluten-free today than it was even 5 years ago because of the wide ranges of gluten-free products now on the shelves. For me, being gluten-free doesn’t mean replacing the wheat cookie with the gluten-free rice flour cookie. Yes, I too have a favorite gluten-free bakery! (East Village Bakery in Vancouver to be precise). The decision to be gluten-free is a decision to be more conscious of my food and of what I am buying and supporting as a consumer. Most importantly, it’s to ensure a high quality of life now and when I’m older.

Grain Brain, in my view, does a fabulous job of evaluating all aspects of the issues around gluten. It presents the information objectively and makes it easy to understand the scientific aspects related to the research done on the topic. I would recommend this book as a wonderful place to start exploring. You won’t miss croissants as much as you think you will, I promise. As Permutller notes, “You will see change in every area of your life.”

Amrita Ahuja
Clinic Director
Vital Body Weight Loss Centre
Vancouver, BC