( *Or “30 Days With & Without Gluten” or “My Roller Coaster Ride On The Gluten Express)
I’ve had digestion issues for my entire adult life, possibly longer. For as long as I can remember, I’ve woken up every morning with some kind of variation of a stomach ache that’s usually improved with a going to the bathroom, but not always. This is a condition I’ve grown to accept as a part of my daily life. From the age of 14 to my mid-twenties, I was a full-time tobacco smoker and coffee drinker and assumed that my stomach churning feelings were the cause of cigarette and caffeine intake. Let’s face it, cigarette smoking causes the really bad stuff like cancer and heart disease, but it also causes a ton of smaller things that they don’t warn you about on the package or in teenage health classes. Smoking, directly or not, can cause stomach pain, constipation, loose stool, hemorrhoids, acid reflux, heart burn, increased phlegm and mucus, increased gas, frequent colds and even anxiety, chest pain, dizziness and numbness. So of course I assumed my stomach was getting grief from my smoking, and one day I quit cold turkey. I didn’t touch a single cigarette for over ten years. But throughout those tobacco-free years, I still had a higher than average case of bellyaches and had no idea what to do about it. I went to a gastrointestinal doctor when I was about 24 because I was having severe reflux in addition to my morning aches. I fasted for two days and then took a series of exams where I either had to drink a half gallon of a chalky smoothie or had it literally pumped into my rear end; sorry for the lack of scientific terminology, but it was basically so my insides could be visually illuminated to see if there was something wrong in my intestinal tract. Nothing was found, so of course, my doctor said it was caused by stress, which I believe is the easy way out for a medical professional to do: “We can’t find anything obvious so we’re going to say it’s caused by an abstract, forensically impossible problem that cannot be distinguished or measured by any certain tool.” Eventually, my reflux stopped but the almost daily stomach aches remained.
You might as well know right now that this will be a long article, where I will be talking about poop and me pooping; consider yourself warned.
My daily stomach aches are not hugely painful. They’re not the kind you have with a flu or bug going around—there’s no hunched-over-yourself type of pain, and it’s actually kind of subtle. But just so you know, gluten intolerance is felt very differently by each person, because my friend with Celiac disease does have massive stomach pain from eating wheat. But for me, to make it most easily understandable, it’s the feeling that you need to poop, right after you’ve just had a nice, healthy poop. And it kind of stays with you all day, kind of in the background. And because it occurs so often, eventually it becomes a normal part of your existence. Fast forward to my thirties. I definitely went back to tobacco a few times here and there and so I had the usual gastrointestinal inconveniences that happen to smokers (even though no one admits to it). I still have the occasional cigarette but not enough consumption to relate this lifelong bellyache issue with it and so I finally begin to try and see what else may be causing the discomfort.
For those who do not know, gluten (from Latin meaning “glue”) is a protein composite found in foods processed from wheat and related species, including barley, rye, spelt and some oats. It gives elasticity to dough, helping it to rise and to keep its shape, and often gives the final product a chewy texture. For an overwhelming amount of more information, go beyond the first sentence of this Wikipedia entry: Here.
So, I’ve decided to not eat gluten for 30 days and hope that it is somehow easier than the time I tried to not eat any sugar for 30 days. And when those 30 days end, I plan on going to Vinnie’s, my favorite local pizza joint, and eating a couple of gluten-filled slices, also to see how it affects me. The truth is that I’m not sure what to expect of this experiment and in a way, even though it’s been a life-long issue, I’m not totally sure I want to find out that I’m gluten intolerant. I’m not sure I want to know that I can’t enjoy another food product with gluten without risking discomfort, for the rest of my life. I would love to stop these aches, but, man, it’s kind of depressing thinking about life without Vinnie’s pizza, Honey Nut Cheerios, Nate’s cookies and the local French cafe by my workplace with the crackalicious chocolate croissants. And after this is all said and done, I do also plan to get a doctor’s opinion about this issue, but I just wanted to do this little experiment, because I’ve learned more about my body by experimenting on my own than I ever have by researching information online or with a health professional. Also, as you will read, this experiment is about my own personal health as it relates to one recurring symptom that I have. This is different than my 30 days without sugar, because at that time, my concern was with all “bad things” not going into my body. Clearly, gluten-free chocolate chip cookies, which I’m eating as I type this, is not necessarily healthy living, but fits with the current temporary regimen that I am using this month.
My first day of going gluten-free involved going to the giant grocery store that we get all of our food (except meat) once a week. This place has all kinds of spots where you can taste olive oils and toppings with a basket of bread next to each condiment. It wasn’t until I dipped the baguette slice into the oil and began chewing that I remembered that I couldn’t eat it and spit it into a napkin and threw it away. Less than five minutes later, I was throwing a box of my favorite chocolate covered pretzels into my cart and then a second later putting it back and thinking to myself that this is going to take not only will power, but education. Fortunately, our regular grocery store has a whole shelf of gluten-free products. I purchased a loaf of “bread” and hamburger buns both made out of tapioca starch, which I can tell you now, is not any kind of bread product you have eaten before. Gluten is what makes dough soft, bouncy and chewy; without it, your freshest gluten-free bread still feels like two-day old bread that has lost all moisture.
I grabbed a box of gluten-free frosted flakes that ended up being unsweet and reminiscent of thin pieces of cardboard that probably could have sat in my milk for an hour without breaking down. I also bought some gluten-free chocolate chip cookies that, when handled without care, break apart into dust before your very eyes. These weren’t going to be adequate substitutes and I began to realize that I would probably just stop eating bread substitutes rather than eat the tapioca starch version of them. I wasn’t giving up completely on gluten-free substitutes though.
We had friends over for dinner and I was in my usual role as head chef of the household and I made cheeseburgers on the grill with a side of grilled potato slices. I used the tapioca starch-based buns and still enjoyed the juicy burger, just not as much. And slightly reminiscent of the time that I ate a whoopee pie out of my own trash container in a sugar withdrawal fit, I did find myself sniffing and even licking one of the regular sesame-seeded hamburger buns that I couldn’t eat. Yes, I looked like a fool, but whatever. Later into the evening, our guests suggested they go to the deli and buy some sweet treats. They returned with ice cream and chocolate wafer cookies, which definitely have gluten. And I ate four of them, so yes, not a perfect start, but I also have no plans of giving this experiment up, even if I screw up a little.
Eggs for breakfast and salad for lunch, which is my usual on weekdays. For dinner, I don’t feel like cooking, so we go to a local sandwich shop and order a Cuban sandwich.
Mmmm.. tasty looking, eh? And then I replace the bread with my gluten-free bread.
Hmmmm.. less tasty. Basically, you need to use more condiments than usual to keep the moisture factor up. It’ll do.
I haven’t had any kind of morning stomach issues so far. I’m taking this all very cautiously and because it’s only been a few days without gluten, I will chalk it up as coincidence for now. I’m also learning that there are a lot of other things that have gluten in them but are less easy to understand on food packaging. A week ago, I thought ice cream couldn’t possibly have gluten, but some contains mono and diglycerides and is not guaranteed to be gluten-free. Huh. So, I definitely have a lot to learn still about this stuff. I’m 99% certain that I haven’t eaten any gluten, but it’s clearly not a simple thing to avoid.
I definitely got tested today. Last week, I talked my boss into getting a very generous gift card for a coworker’s birthday, who has reached retirement age, but in no way has the financial means to retire. Today she came to my desk with a giant box of (gluten-filled) cookies from a local bakery as a thank you to our office (me!) for the gift card. It smelled delicious and I smiled, thanked her and got kind of depressed momentarily thinking about how tasty those things could be. I resisted. Later on that day, I was offered the opportunity to partake in a free lunch that was also gluten-laced and so I headed down to the cafeteria at work and decided to get a chicken salad wrap sandwich.
Of course, it didn’t pop into my head until I got in line that the wrap is made of flour, so I had the sandwich contents put into a container.
One of the local bakeries sells gluten-free chocolate chip cookies and they are delicious, although a week ago, I wouldn’t call it delicious. Ahh how standards lower in the face of desperation! So far, so good.
Still no stomach aches. I found a gluten-free cookie that is soft and yummy.
It’s the super chalky after taste and texture that seems to be unavoidable, which is why you need to arm yourself with a nice big glass of milk whenever you eat any of this stuff. This weekend, I plan on exploring other types of gluten-free bread. I was told by a friend that I should look into “spelt” bread, but newsflash, people, spelt is not gluten-free and is made from a variety of wheat. Now, some people who are gluten intolerant or have Celiac disease say that they don’t suffer the same symptoms with spelt than they do with regular breads, but for the sake of this self experiment, spelt is out. Happy Friday.
Most Friday and Saturday nights, honestly, after a hard workweek, I do like to alter my reality a bit and I may have a tendency to eat unhealthy foods late at night. Last night was no different, except that I didn’t gorge on anything with gluten in it. Saturday mornings usually involve a stomach ache, but not today. Today, I woke up totally fine. Also, I have discovered gluten-free beer, which is surprisingly tasty. There’s a fancy beer store on Greenpoint Avenue called Brouwerij Lane that sells two types of gluten free-beer, which is made from 100% malted sorghum, a wheat or barley alternative. I bought both beers: Bard’s and Redbridge, which is actually made by Anheuser-Busch .
I’m a bigger fan of Latin beers, but I will take what I can get. It really just tastes like typical microbrew American beer and I was just happy to find it locally. Later, I found that the same beer is sold at Fairway Supermarkets at a reasonably cheaper cost than the local beer salon. Go beer!
In addition to having stomach aches or pain on the weekends, I can also get them on weekdays for different reasons. My partner and I work out together in our condo on some early mornings. I usually have a whole thirty-minute process of preparation before I actually begin my workout, i.e. coffee, Internet, bathroom and then if I’m not too queasy, then I can work out. But often times, halfway through the work out, I’m having stomach issues, which makes me have to stop and hit the showers, frustrated and confused. This morning, I had my coffee, drank some water, worked out for 30 minutes, drank a big glass of thick protein shake a did not have a lick of a stomach ache. Again, very happy to not be suffering, yet kind of bewildered that it may be all because of wheat. I’m going to remain in denial still that I have any allergy to wheat, continue on with my gluten-free diet and see how things go.
(ALMOST) 2 WEEKS
After nearly two weeks of being gluten free, it does feel like there has been a change in my body. I do feel healthier without wheat. And I plan to keep this experiment going for the long haul of 30 days like I intended. And it’s definitely not as difficult to give up gluten like it was to give up sugar, which brings me to one issue that my partner helped me realize about this experiment, which is that I’ve been overdoing it on the gluten-free carbs. Two weeks ago and last weekend, when going to the gluten-free section of our grocery store, I went overboard on all the products out there, without taking into consideration all the sugary carbohydrates I was ingesting to compensate for my lack of bready goodness. The breakfast bars, the cereals, the cookies, the pretzels and snack which were all gluten free were also completely unhealthy for non-gluten reasons and so for the second half of this experiment, I need to take it easy. All these carbs have made me gassy and although my stomach does not ache, I don’t think me or my partner appreciates it.
I had the day off work and I bought one of the best sandwiches you can get in Brooklyn, called The Classic (from Brooklyn Standard) made with bacon, cheddar, half an avocado, tomato, caramelized onions, smoked red pepper remoulade, and house coleslaw on soft white hero. I brought it home and did the gluten-free bread switcharoo for half the sandwich. The alternate bread crumbled in my hands and my plate had chunks of onion and avocado and non-soft bread strewn about. Frustrated, I plowed it all in my mouth and ate it. For the second half of The Classic, I said to myself, “F@$& it” and ate the gluten-filled soft white hero. That’s right, I cheated and it was amazing. It really was. It wasn’t like eating a sugar treat after giving up the sweets for a while, which isn’t actually an enjoyable experience, this was a lovely sandwich.
I’m not sure if that half sandwich with gluten caused me any discomfort, but that’s only because I completely abandoned my gluten restrictions by Friday night. We went up to the Hudson Highlands to spend the weekend at a nice cottage with friends. I did bring gluten-free bread, buns, cookies and breakfast bars, but once I got out of the city, I just didn’t care. I didn’t get any immediate pains from the half sandwich and by the end of Saturday night, I had eaten a double chocolate donut, two hot dogs with regular buns and probably a few other gluten-filled goodies. And to nobody’s surprise. I had that same stomach pain Sunday morning. Like I’ve said before, it’s not an unbearable pain, but it’s definitely annoying. I ate more things with gluten on Sunday until I arrived back at my home in Brooklyn. I knew at that point that I would have to go off the gluten again. These instances of going several days without gluten and then going back to eating wheat is not a pattern of weaknesses, it’s really part of the experiment that I’m doing on myself to really get to the bottom of this. On Monday, I resumed my gluten-free diet and stuck with it all workweek long. On Tuesday, it was my birthday and my amazing partner bought me a six pack of gluten-free birthday cupcakes. Let me just say right now that these cupcakes were delicious. They came from an entirely gluten-free bakery in the East Village (of Manhattan) called “Tu Lu’s.” This place is proof that there is hope for us gluten sensitive New Yorkers.
I was able to go gluten-free for the whole week and low and behold, my stomach aches were gone. I think that I’ve gone off and on gluten enough times now to realize that it’s not just in my head and that it definitely affects me. But I wanted to be sure. And that’s why I did this study on myself. But the study isn’t over yet.
On Saturday, my partner was hungry and we were close to Verb Cafe in Williamsburg, which has the best toasted Everything bagel with cream cheese and a slice of tomato anywhere! We both had one. We didn’t split one, and we each consumed our own tasty bagel sandwich. Delicious! And I knew that I was playing with fire, but was conscious not to eat any other gluten for the day. I woke Sunday morning to a very slight discomfort but nothing serious. But still enough to know what is obvious now: I have a wheat intolerance.
I went another week with no wheat, no gluten and unsurprisingly, no pain, no gas and no unnecessary focus on my midsection.
The last day of this self-study on my body’s reactions to gluten came to a dramatic close. It actually didn’t dawn on me that it was exactly the 30th day until I started to write about it the next day, but I was sitting at my desk at work first thing in the morning and my supervisor plopped down on my desk a large, bat-shaped piece of chocolate cake. He had bought us all a Halloween-themed piece of cake which was very nice, although he must have forgot that I was not eating gluten. I love moist chocolate cake more than almost anything and even though I resisted for several hours, I eventually broke down and took a big bite. It was delicious and in a minute, it was gone. And this is where I learned that some things have a lot more gluten than others. Without any kind of scientific measuring device, my body taught me that this treat was chock full of gluten. I felt the effects of the gluten-laced cake in less than an hour. I’ll just lay it out: I was burping, farting and aching in no time. And I was having heartburn, too, which I’ve suffered from on and off most of my adult life. Wow, it was a good cake, but just not worth what it did to me.
I have spent my whole life with gastrointestinal issues and I have finally figured out that I have allergy to wheat / gluten. As much as I didn’t want to find out this about myself, I am relieved to have made this discovery. This will change the way I eat forever. I’m still disappointed that I’m finding this out about myself, but at least I know now. Wikipedia says that .5 – 1% of all persons suffer from gluten sensitivity; I’m willing to wager that this number is much bigger. People just don’t know that something as simple as a slice of bread can cause such distress on the body and what’s worse, people assume there’s nothing that they can do about it. Going to the doctor with a stomach ache can be diagnosed a hundred different ways and I’m not suggesting that you don’t go to the doctor, but you can probably learn the most just by paying more attention to what you put in your body. Start a food journal, see what triggers these reactions. I also would like to thank my close friend with the wheat allergy that has helped me throughout the process of this thirty-day study.
On a related note, check out another life-altering experiment I did on myself here: 30 Days Without Sugar