It’s what all the cool kids are talking about. The evil plague wreaking havoc throughout the civilized world, condemned by hippies and yuppies alike. Yes, I’m talking about GLUTEN. At this point, it is pretty cliché to talk about it, so I will try to focus more on myself. I will try to give you enough info to keep you from looking dumb in front of your hippie friends, while still keeping you awake. Sound like a plan?
What is gluten?
Let’s pinpoint this little pain in my side. Gluten is a protein found in wheat and a few other grains. I guess I shouldn’t really say “found in.” It really is more “formed from.” The gluteny grains contain two types of proteins (GLIADINS and GLUTENINS) that stick together when they get wet and squished. It’s a bit of a Gremlins scenario, but with more kneading. When these proteins stick together, they form long chains referred to as gluten. This is what makes dough so stretchy and stringy and what allows bread and cake to hold in air bubbles to keep them light and moist. If you’ve ever had gluten-free bread or cake, you know how dense they get without gluten. There. Now you won’t sound like total doofus if you’re asked what gluten is.
What did gluten ever do to me?
Ruined my life! That’s what! Alright, that might be a bit dramatic, but it is definitely a serious inconvenience. I used to be normal. I loved cookies, cake, and beer. When my wife and I first moved out to Colorado, I gladly sampled the rich array of microbrews. I knew grains could make you fat and whatnot, so we never bought bread or anything like that. I was also aware that bread and such made me a bit congested and sneezy. In my mind, I told myself, “I’m doing pretty well. I avoid grains . . . mostly.” In reality, I was probably having a beer or a burger or some cookies a few times a month, I would guess. Then I did one of those stupid, stupid things. I should’ve known better, but I did it anyway. I read a book! Ugh, idiot. And it wasn’t just any book. It was an educational one. The book was The Paleo Solution by Rob Wolf. In it, he talks about all the terrible things grains can do to your body, particularly the inflammation gluten can cause in your intestines. The nugget that really stood out to me was that it takes about a month for the body to recover from the damage caused by gluten. This means that if you have just a little bit, just a tiny cheat, within that month, you won’t see any improvement. Shocking! Suddenly those beers here or there or a burger once in a while could be keeping my body from healing and keeping me from seeing improvement. There was only one thing to do: test it. I decided to go a full month without any gluten, reading labels and all.
We already didn’t buy things with gluten, but now I had to pay attention in social situations. The easiest way was to just avoid parties and friends. Sometimes there was no way around it, but I survived. The darkest moment was when I stumbled across a package of Famous Amos cookies. I already had two in my mouth when it occurred to me that I had already gone two weeks, and by eating these, I would have to start completely over. It was frustrating. I hate when I’m right. I savored the flavor for a few moments more before reluctantly spitting the contents of my mouth into the garbage and rinsing my mouth. Stupid Amos. Why must cookies be so good?! And so, I narrowly survived the month.
By the end of the month, though, it was clear that I needed to stay away from gluten. I will try to explain without too much detail. Healthy intestines can absorb up to 97% of what you eat. When I think back, I must have been absorbing maybe 60%. And if the food doesn’t go into you, it goes out of you, if you know what I mean. Of course, I had to test adding gluten in again. I allowed myself a couple beers at the end of my month. Big mistake. Within a few minutes my stomach felt like someone was pumping air into it. I just wanted to pop a hole to release the pressure. The next day I had that “brick in the gut” feeling. The second day after is when the malabsorption reared its ugly head (reared, get it?). All of this is extremely consistent, like clockwork. And then, of course, it takes another month to undo the stupidity!
It has been almost a year since my experiment. I am now that guy. In college, when I first encountered people with celiac disease, they were referred to as “glutards.” Sadly, I now identify with that distinction. I try to avoid annoying people at parties, so I just don’t eat things I’m not sure about instead of asking about every single dish. Old people at church give me confused looks when I don’t take the doughnuts and cake they try to force on me Sunday mornings. I have to turn down beer CONSTANTLY. It isn’t easy, but I must. People think I don’t drink, but really I just don’t drink things that tear apart my insides. I’ve learned that, not only is gluten EVERYWHERE, but there is gluten in more than you might think. Every once in a while, something sneaks by. That sucks. Like I said, I will know that I ate something I shouldn’t have within a few minutes of eating it. Then I know I am in for a few unpleasant days and a few weeks of recovering.
The most amazing thing is that I had no idea how sick I was. All of the discomfort had become totally normal for me. I didn’t even notice. It is kind of scary how good the brain is at adapting. That is why I encourage everyone to take the challenge. Go a full month. Your symptoms might not be the same as mine. The list of possible symptoms is extensive, and you probably won’t realize how sick you are until you aren’t. Studies estimate that AT LEAST 15% of the population can’t handle gluten. If you try it and don’t see any difference, great. You skipped beer and cookies for a month. However, the potential benefits of finding out that you can’t eat gluten are HUGE! Believe me. But remember, NO CHEATS!
The whole gluten-free movement is obnoxious if you don’t have any problems with gluten. I get it. But I promise you, it is WAY more obnoxious for someone who can’t eat gluten to deal with the daily onslaught of gluten-pushing peer pressure. If you take the month challenge, you will see how hard it is to stay gluten-free. Who knows? You might end up being one of those obnoxious glutards too.