Lessons from the Whole30 Challenge (Or, the importance of mindfulness)

Somehow, it’s already August. I always think summer will mean extra time, but with freelancing, summer classes, and adventures with my two-year-old, the weeks have flown by, and the hours are full.

If you read my interview with Dr. T. Colin Campbell, author of Whole, over at WBUR’s Commonhealth, you know nutrition has been on my mind lately. For the past few months, I’ve incorporated a lot more vegetarian meals, eliminated dairy, and really examined what we buy and what our habits are.

And then my husband started doing the Whole30 Challenge—you know, the one that’s all over the Internet these days and often invites comparison to the Paleo diet. In case you’re not familiar, here’s a quick summary: for thirty days, eliminate dairy, gluten, all grains, legumes, sugar (including honey, agave, and alcohol), seed oils, etc. to calm down the inflammation in your body. Basically, you should eat plenty of clean, whole foods–plenty of vegetables, along with protein, fruit, and healthy fats like olive oil, coconut oil, avocado, etc. After the thirty days, can you assess what you’d like to try and introduce back into your diet, and what you’re better off avoiding.

The changes in him were immediate, and not just in terms of weight loss. His congestion and joint pain decreased, and his energy levels increased. We’ve never been huge consumers of processed food (being gluten-free and then also dairy-free makes that hard, anyway) but watching him, I began to see how our choices could be even cleaner and healthier.

With celiac disease and other autoimmune conditions, I am all too familiar with how inflammation can wreak havoc in your life so I jumped on board and did my own Whole30 Challenge, and it’s been a great experience. I’ve lost weight, yes, but more than that, I’ve gained so much energy (I used to drink 6-7 cups of coffee daily, and now, even with the same lack of sleep, I drink one) and I am much more conscious of what foods make me feel good, and which ones simply aren’t worth it.

For example, I know I won’t be re-introducing dairy since I don’t miss it and am less congested without it. I don’t plan on re-introducing rice or corn, but I do think quinoa has an occasional place in the rotation. I’ve discovered nightshade vegetables like tomatoes and eggplant really bother me and aren’t worth it, and gluten makes my husband feel truly horrible.

Kale is our favorite new food, and we some days we have it with all three meals. Since we never bought sweets or desserts I thought I was doing pretty well avoiding sugar, but I now see the many small ways it crept into my diet, like the cane sugar in in my almond milk and in vegetarian soups I often had for lunch. We are both amazed at how much more we enjoy fresh fruit, and crave it in a way we never did. (Interestingly, I just came across this NYT article that makes the case for eating fruit.) Olive oil and a squeeze of fresh lemon taste better than any salad dressing, which usually have some sort of sweetener.

Honestly, the hardest part for me was getting used to drinking black coffee, and while I will try it out with completely unsweetened almond milk, I now know I can drink black coffee and be okay—it took me a long time to acquire that particular taste, admittedly, but I did it, and I feel so much better without adding chemicals or sugar to it. I am not a huge red meat eater (remember, I’ve been vegan for breakfast and lunch and eating mainly vegetarian for dinner), but I’ve been getting a lot of my protein from eggs and fish, and since it’s summer, we’re throwing so much on the grill.

It’s been a great exercise in thinking thoughtfully about choices and paying close attention to what makes our individual bodies run best, and we plan to keep with it.

Have you tried the Whole30 Challenge? What benefits did you notice? Are you doing some sort of modified Paleo diet? What recipes or resources are most helpful?

The Flexitarian (or, Nutrition and Chronic Illness, Part 1)

In the wake of the book’s release, I’ve talked a lot about gender and pain. In a social history of chronic illness, gender and pain is indeed important to the storyline, but it is just one of many themes.

One question I’ve gotten is, what about the role of nutrition and lifestyle?

The short answer is that you simply can’t talk about how changes in the way we work, live, and spend our time—a recurring theme of industrialization and innovation—without looking at the influence of nutrition and diet. Some of the most common and costly chronic diseases, like cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, are so closely linked to lifestyle. In many ways, this can be empowering, because it means there are concrete things we can do to prevent or mitigate conditions that don’t involve medication and intervention.

The longer, more complex answer is that of course, it isn’t always as simple and easy as that. Health literacy, socioeconomics, and many other factors go into it. (There is a much more eloquent discussion of all of this in the book, thanks to some insightful interviewees.)

People are incredibly passionate about nutrition and diet, whether it’s Atkins or Paleo or WFPB (whole foods, plant-based). I have celiac disease, so I know firsthand the power what we eat has in terms of improving our health. I’ve also routinely gone dairy-free; I am not lactose intolerant but cutting out dairy helps reduce mucus production. I know that eliminating certain foods can be incredibly liberating, and that even if you don’t have an allergy or food intolerance, choosing to eat a particular way can absolutely make you feel better.

To that end, I’ve been loosely following Mark Bittman’s “vegan until 6pm” mantra for a few years now, and over the past several months, I’ve slowly been adding in more vegetarian family dinners: butternut squash chili, peppers stuffed with quinoa and vegetables, garlic, cumin, and chili pepper roasted chickpeas (a toddler favorite—she has an eclectic palate), etc.

I don’t envision a point where all my protein sources will be plant-based, for pragmatic reasons. For example, my daughter loves salmon and we usually share a serving, so I wouldn’t want to cut that out, and I don’t always have the time to make separate meals. Sometimes, after a day of working, running around with a toddler, chest PT, then working all night again, it’s just easier to eat some (healthfully prepared) chicken, you know?

But still, I am definitely increasing my plant-based proteins and while I don’t eat a lot of processed foods (remember, I have celiac, and I don’t buy into packaged foods that are originally made with gluten and then are reformulated with GF ingredients), I am more conscious of selecting whole foods.

You can imagine my pleasure this week, when I stumbled upon Mark Bittman’s new column, The Flexitarian, and his measured approach towards a diet high in plant-based protein. While I am sure there are critics of the name itself, the philosophy here resonates since it’s what I’ve been gradually working towards on my own.

Interestingly enough, I read the column the same week I had the chance to interview Dr. T. Colin Campbell, author of The China Study and the forthcoming Whole. If you’ve heard of his work, then you know Dr. Campbell’s research suggests many chronic diseases can be either prevented or reversed through eating a whole food, plant-based diet. Keep an eye out for interview material and my thoughts on Whole–so far, it is engrossing.

I recently read an extreme comment on an article that said something to the effect of, nutrition is at the heart of everything and there is simply no reason for anyone to live with chronic illness. My gut response to that was, well, what about people with genetic or autoimmune disease? Would a change in nutrition suddenly grow working cilia for me? Or, isn’t it problematic to place the “blame” for lupus or multiple sclerosis solely on nutrition?

So as a preview of this discussion, I think you can acknowledge the enormous impact of diet on costly and preventable chronic disease without putting unattainable expectations on whole populations of patients. I also think that no matter what conditions you have or what causes them, the better you eat, the better you will feel, and I also think that conscious nutrition choices can do a lot to improve symptoms of existing disease.

What’s your gut reaction? More soon!

Five Things on a Friday

So, I blinked and weeks have passed since my last post. The usual spin cycle—mothering, writing, being sick, tending to a sick baby—is the culprit but we’re all on the mend and enjoying summer. (The parks! The playgrounds! The beach! So many new things for little eyes and hands to explore…)

(And, somehow, the chapters are slowly coming together. Time is not my friend these days, but such is life, right? There is nothing as clarifying as a deadline, there is nothing as clarifying as a deadline…)

With lots to write but scattered focus, here we go—five things I’m grateful for this Friday.

1.Friends. I know that might sound trite, because really I’m always grateful for my friends, but more specifically, I am grateful for the chance to see my friends. Between a hectic schedule, illness, and in a lot of cases, geography, I don’t get to see a lot of my long-time good friends as often as I’d like. Recently we all coordinated schedules and met up for a quick weekend in Washington, DC, home to our alma mater, Georgetown. Husbands came to help with babies, babies met friends from afar, and it was great. I’ve had to miss the majority of weddings, reunions, trips, and other events over the years because of being sick, and it was so nice to have everything work out this time. (Special thanks to T for being an amazing hostess!)

2.Flying. Again, let me be more specific—I am grateful I was able to fly. It has been years since I’ve been on a plane, between the usual illnesses, plus the high-risk pregnancy and germ lockdown, bed rest and then having a newborn and young infant with some health problems. And while I always come home from a plane trip sick, it was so worth it to get a brief change of pace. (Plus, Baby Girl’s first flight went so well—she smiled away and then slept the entire flight, both ways.)

3. Food. Specifically, feeding Baby Girl food. When she turned six months old, we started solid foods and a sippy cup, expecting both to take awhile to catch on. However, within a couple weeks, she was on to three solid meals a day and using the sippy cup exclusively, save for one bottle at bedtime. She had feeding problems as a newborn, has reflux, and has multiple food allergies and intolerances at this point (hoping she outgrows them all!) so it is amazing to see her enjoy eating so much and thriving. She is small for her age but one look at her chubby cheeks and thighs and it’s clear she is doing great. Everything we’ve tried with her she loves, from chickpeas, spinach, and broccoli pieces to steak, sweet potatoes, and rotisserie chicken (her favorite!) (Next up? Quinoa!) We’ve made all of her food from the start, which is super easy and a lot of fun, and since she’s been feeding herself with her pincer grasp for so long, she can pretty much try anything at this point. If she ends up with long-term food allergies or is celiac, I want her to know so many good foods exist and I don’t ever want her to feel hemmed in by dietary restrictions. While so much can change, for now she is an adventurous and happy eater, and I hope it lasts.

4. Flexibility. I admit, the spring semester kind of chewed me up and spit me out. There were too many major things to juggle, and my body paid the price. I love what I do and really enjoy my students, but I have never been more grateful for the summer break than I am this year. Working on my book full-time and having the flexibility with my daytime hours to do a lot more with my daughter is wonderful. It’s an iteration of the semester: if I am willing to do a lot of work late at night, early in the day, and any spare time, I get to do so much more with my girl—and while the book situation is pretty intense right now, we are having so much fun, and I am really looking forward to the rest of summer and watching her grow and discover new things.

5.Facebook. There are a lot of things I don’t like about FB and I have my personal page fairly limited in terms of access, but there is a lot I find valuable, too. My book page is a good way to connect with readers and have an ongoing conversation, which keeps things dynamic and relevant. I like the power of FB to harness people together for a cause, which is what has it on my bullet list today. My husband’s company, The Well Fed Dog, is supporting dogs/animals displaced by the recent tornadoes in our home state of Massachusetts. For every new FB member who joins/likes the Well Fed Dog Facebook page, we’re donating to the Dakin Valley Humane Society, which suffered significant damage in the storms. So if you’re on FB, click on the page and help the WFD assist these animals in need!

And, because it makes me smile and it’s Friday so why not smile, a recent pic of Baby Girl:

Seeking Simplicity

I’ve been quiet lately, but I want to thank everyone who has continued to check in on me, leave comments, and send e-mails. Your ongoing support and encouragement means a lot!

So, I’ve been working on this post on dealing with the medical establishment and being an active participant for a couple of weeks now. It has languished three-quarters of the way complete for several days, yet I just can’t pull it together.

For one, I’ve never found it useful or interesting to write about not feeling well or detail a list of what’s wrong. If I can take those illness experiences and draw something larger from them, great, but short of that, those kinds of posts don’t do much.

But there’s something else going on. I’m at the hospital several times a week for tests and appointments. I’ve spent too much time on the inpatient labor and delivery floor for someone who has not yet delivered.

I have participant fatigue, people.

And if I’m this sick of the medical establishment, that definitely won’t make for worthwhile reading.

So, I’m writing about blueberries.

Yes, blueberries. Aside from a brief flirtation with clementines in the first trimester, blueberries are my biggest (and really one of my only) cravings this entire pregnancy. It’s like Christmas morning to me when my husband comes home from the grocery store and tells me it was “buy 2, get 1 free” day for blueberries. I eat them by the handful when I need a snack. I eat them on cottage cheese for breakfast or lunch. I never tire of their crisp, sweet, yet pleasantly tart taste.

They are so simple and refreshing, a one-ingredient snack I just need to rinse and eat.

And simplicity is more important than ever when you’re gluten-free and pregnant. After all, being celiac has a lot rules and restrictions, and the dietary guidelines for pregnant woman are not insignificant.

The way I look at food has changed over the past 33 weeks. There is a lot more compromise and negotiation. I started eating (some) dairy again, trading off the phlegm-producing effects for the calcium-rich benefits for the baby. I never drank juice because I don’t like consuming a lot of sugar, but now I mix cranberry or orange juice with sparkling water and know that the baby loves it because she kicks vigorously.

There is also a much bigger desire to follow the “less is more” mindset when it comes to ingredients, and the negotiations continue. For example, I was thrilled to find a popular brand of yogurt that labeled several flavors “gluten-free.” I didn’t have to scour over ingredients, check corporate statements, etc to get some calcium (and coat my stomach for the many pills). Yet these flavors also included a lot of additives and two types of artificial sweeteners, which while cleared by the American Pregnancy Association, are still things to watch.

So what’s the lesser evil?

Spend some time clicking through the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s guide to food additives, and you’ll start reading those labels more carefully.

It’s a tough balance, because I am loath to obsess over every single recommendation and guideline, and I want to enjoy healthy food, not be scared or overly limited by it.

And that’s how we get back to the blueberries. We’ve always had a household low in processed foods but that’s more important to me now than ever. It is easier to eat fresh fruits and vegetables, all-natural peanut butter (nothing but peanuts on the ingredient list), freshly popped corn on the stovetop, and lean meats, chickpeas, and other legumes than it is to navigate multi-syllabic preservatives.

Plus, if you’re watching sodium intake like I am, the sky-high sodium levels in processed foods are another turn-off.

My life is completely overrun with complications and competing health priorities right now. I don’t need to deal with them when it’s time to eat a meal.

Simplicity wherever and however I can find it is so important right now. Luckily for me, my cravings seem to get me just what I need.

Are We Being Too Tolerant of Gluten-Intolerance?

“Are we being too tolerant of gluten-tolerance?” is the question Slate’s Daniel Engbert explored earlier this week.

Now, I have a lot of thoughts about the points raised. However, I also have a lot of thoughts about another post I’m writing on disability vs illness, the interviews I’m doing today, and all the stuff I’m supposed to pack for a “working vacation” that starts tomorrow, so I’m going to tackle some of the major ideas briefly.

Honestly, based solely on the headline I thought the piece was going to antagonize me (proof it’s a smart headline, no?) but I found myself agreeing with some of it. Of course, where I found myself nodding in agreement were the most obvious distinctions, but they’re important ones nonetheless. Using Elisabeth Hasselbeck’s best-selling book The G-Free Diet and the booming gluten-free food industry as context, Engbert establishes that:

“The lavishing of attention on wheat alternatives is wonderful news to the sufferers of celiac disease, for whom any amount of dietary gluten can inflame and destroy the lining of the small intestine.” Naturally I agree with this; in the five years since I was diagnosed, both awareness and availability of GF products has really increased. More restaurants have GF options, labels are more clear, and more GF alternatives line the grocery store shelves.

(As an aside, does anyone with celiac disease actually use the term “G-free” in public? No seriously, I’m asking.)

Yet I don’t think I’m the only one out there who has witnessed the downside of the popularity of eating GF. For example, because it is known that people without celiac are opting for the GF lifestyle anyway, there can be less urgency about making sure meals in restaurants are actually GF—the occasional eye roll or dismissive glance that means the person I’m talking to half-wonders if I’m avoiding gluten simply to lose weight or something.

I should add here that Engbert makes the distinction between celiac disease and gluten-intolerance pretty explicit; it’s the people who reside on the spectrum of intolerance who don’t have the full-blown autoimmune response to gluten but feel better when they remove it he’s worried about:

“I’m all for people eating what they want, but lately I’ve started to wonder how gluten intolerance might relate to a more general anxiety about food… Any kind of restrictive diet can help alleviate gastrointestinal distress. If you’re paying more attention to what you eat, there’s a good chance your symptoms will lessen.”

He goes on to say, “It’s well-known that our digestive system adapts its secretions (rather quickly) to whatever we’re eating.” By extension, then, removing all products with gluten and then consuming some after a prolonged period could make you feel sick, thus enforcing the idea that you are gluten-intolerant.

(I can vouch for the fact that my husband went GF for a month to see what it was like and when he gorged on starches his first meal “back” he felt awful. Was gluten a shock to his system, or just a sign he overate in a way he didn’t when he was eating GF foods? I’m not convinced either way, but I know he felt pretty miserable.)

I know a type 2 diabetic without celiac who removed gluten from his diet and experienced dramatic reductions in his insulin needs—was it because he was somewhere on the sensitivity spectrum and removing gluten improved his digestion and absorption of foods and that somehow influenced his metabolism of insulin? I’m not an endocrinologist, so I can’t say. But could it be something as simple as removing gluten meant removing the more processed white starches and carbohydrates that spiked his sugar?

I don’t have the luxury to “slip up,” nor am I qualified to dissect those who are gluten-intolerant—we face many of the same challenges and gains in eating GF.

I guess my point is, to me, it doesn’t matter—in my example of the diabetic, the end result was that he felt better and needed less insulin. That’s the important part. If the gluten-intolerant have their own health improvements, that’s a good thing.

I live GF and have no regrets—I eat whole, fresh vegetables, complex grains with plenty of fiber like quinoa, and consume no processed foods. It is not without sacrifice or expense, but in many ways, I see it as a much healthier way to prepare and consume food. If others choose to do the same and experience the same benefits, that’s great.

And here’s where Engbert’s argument gets a bit more interesting. He parallels the rise of eating GF with other diet trends, like Atkins, at the same time admitting he doesn’t think people who choose to go GF are simply secretly trying to lose weight:

“When a restrictive diet becomes an end in itself, we call it an eating disorder; when it’s motivated by health concerns, we call it a lifestyle. It might also explain the relationship between food sensitivities and fad diets: People who are intolerant of gluten or lactose get a free pass for self-denial.”

Not to use the word “sensitive” too much, but I am particularly sensitive to this association between elimination and health. After all, I chose to go dairy-free even though I’m not lactose-intolerant because it helped decrease mucus production. That got a few eyebrows. And when I eliminated sugar and yeast for nine weeks due to my intense antibiotic regimen that wreaked havoc in my GI system, I got more eyebrows.

I consider these moves wholly health-motivated, so my choices would be classified as “lifestyle” ones by Engbert’s definition. But from the outside, perhaps they appeared otherwise to other people?

At the end of the day, I can’t worry about or judge the dietary choices others make or what they think of mine, so I’ll leave this where Engbert does—all this awareness is truly a good thing for celiacs, as well as the people who have celiac but have not been diagnosed yet but have a better chance of it now.

Do I think we’re “too tolerant?” No. Do I think extremes exist in every situation? Sure. Is that a reason to decry real progress for so many people? No.

Making Gluten-Free Eating Easier

My recent foray into eliminating sugar and yeast from my diet have me thinking a lot about what I choose to put into my mouth. As an almost six-year veteran of living gluten-free, I’m used to doing that, of course, and I’ve written before about how I view my celiac diagnosis as full of opportunities, not restrictions.

While there are always occasional missteps or awkward experiences, after all this time I don’t stress too much about what is safe and what isn’t. I have my regular favorites recipes and my grocery store routine down pat. I’m comfortable asking questions in restaurants, and know to look for the “secret” sources of gluten that can make me sick. At this point, I think one of the more challenging parts of celiac disease is making other people comfortable and familiar with what I can and can’t eat. I don’t want relatives needlessly worried about giving me roast potatoes or rice (for some reason, the fact that they are starches used to make them think they weren’t safe), and I don’t want to cause extra work or concern for them.

I’m fortunate to be able to say that my friends and family are wonderful—they want to include me, and often branch out into things they might not have cooked before because I’m around, like risotto or polenta. They do their best with what I know is a steep learning curve.

That learning curve—the same one newly diagnosed celiacs also face—just got a little easier. I recently had the change to speak with the lovely people at Zeer, which is a “food information resource that makes it easy to find safe food. It helps people save time, stay safe, learn particular diets and live better lives.”

In response to the active, passionate gluten-free community on their review site, Zeer created Zeer Select, a subscription services for gluten-free shoppers that launched just a few weeks ago. The services includes a database of 30,000 food grocery products (a number that will keep growing), each labeled with a gluten-free safety status. (Not to worry—each product is evaluated by a team of physician and dietician experts to verify the safety and accuracy of the labels.)

Products are coded as either being gluten-free (safe), appearing to be gluten-free, or containing gluten. The ingredients for each product are included, so if a product is not specifically labeled gluten-free by the manufacturer but none of the ingredients are known to have gluten, the consumer can read them and make the decision to purchase it or not. Of course, for products that are not safe, the actual source of the gluten is noted. Users can search by food type, brand, or UPC code, and features like a list of suggested alternatives for “unsafe” foods are really helpful.

First of all, I always like to hear when a company pays attention to its customers and responds to their needs. Zeer did not start out customizing in gluten-free services but saw how engaged its gluten-free members were and things emerged organically from there. Secondly, Zeer Select fills a void in the online gluten-free world. Often, when you Google gluten-free foods, lots of recipes, blogs, and commentary pops up—which is great, but if you’re looking for grocery items, it is much more difficult to isolate the answers to your questions.

I spent some time on Zeer Select, searching for specific brands and specific items, like salad dressings, and found it really easy to navigate. If you’re interested, click on over and you can take a tour, too. The service is $14.95 a month, and they plan to build out the intelligence to include other specialized plans, like dairy-free, casein-free, and vegan diets.

If you’re newly diagnosed and not sure what you can and can’t put into your grocery cart, you will learn a lot from this service. But as I think about the ups and downs of the past six years, I realize it’s not just the newbies who benefit—the people around us who want to learn and cook for us and with us do, too.

(Food Allergy Buzz wrote about the launch, too—check it out to hear what others are saying.)

While we’re talking about celiac disease, Scientific American just published an in-depth article about celiac disease and autoimmunity—definitely worth the read!