So you finally did it? You have been on the fence about giving up gluten for a few months — but today is the day that you have marked on your calendar as Day #1 to go gluten-free. Maybe you decided to give it up for medical reasons and you think this will improve your overall health. If that is the case, I wish you the best of luck.
Maybe you just wanted a change and your coach/trainer or coworkers are all talking about the benefits they have seen from giving up gluten. Either way you have decided to throw out all of your bread and pasta and embark on a new lifestyle.
Before I share some tips with you, the reason I am writing this is because I decided to give this a shot. I read the book “Wheat Belly” by Dr. William Davis and I understand the potential risks to gluten. I have also read books by Robb Wolff “Paleo Solution” as well as Dr. Loren Cordain “Paleo Answer” on the potential dangerous of gluten for some people. I wanted to try this nutritional change because I wanted to see for myself how I felt after eliminating gluten for a period of time.
I would like to make it very clear that I am NOT a nutritionist. Everyone responds differently from nutrition so what may bother one person may not affect someone else. The tips and suggestions listed below are nothing more than observations that I made while trying this new routine.
Remember, if you have a specific medical condition you need to speak to an expert and decide if a change like this is good for you.
So what exactly is gluten anyway? It is the naturally occurring proteins in wheat, barley and rye. It helps the elasticity of the dough in breads, baked goods and several processed foods. When you walk down the aisles of most food stores you can bet that the majority of products contain gluten. It is even in products like soy sauce as well as salad dressing. If you are planning to make this change your normal food shopping routine is about to change as well.
Being from Philadelphia, I love bread. Everyone knows that the roll makes the sandwich. So going gluten free for me is tough. I love to eat sandwiches as well as several other products that contain wheat (i.e. cereals, pizza, pasta). I understand that there are gluten-free breads and pizza but let’s not kid ourselves, I have yet to find a really good gluten free roll or pizza. I decided to do this more as an elimination diet to see if I have any food sensitivities. My plan was to eliminate gluten for a period of time (15-30 days) and then reintroduce it back into my daily routine and see if I have any effects like the following:
- Digestion discomfort
- Brain fog
- Increase joint pain
- Slower recovery from training
To gauge my recovery, I used Heart Rate Variability each morning to see how my body responded to the change. This is a simple test that tracks my “readiness” to train and gives a quick snapshot of my central nervous system. Each morning I would track my heart rate to see how it would fluctuate over this trial period. The product that I used was from Bioforce HRV.
Here are five (5) tips that I believe you need to know if you decide to give this a shot.
1. You have to like to cook
If you are someone who likes to go out to eat 2-4 times per week I don’t think this diet is for you. Gluten is found in so many foods and sauces that going out is going to be both challenging and expensive. Sure, you can eat gluten-free products but in my opinion it’s very hard to eat out a few days a week and improve your health. You have to learn to cook basic meals if you plan to make this switch. Keep things simple. Learn to make 8-10 basic meals ranging from eggs in the morning to simple dinners with a lot of vegetables, proteins and quality carbohydrates.
2. You have to plan ahead
If you work in an office you will have to wake up early and make your lunch for the day. You will also need to make breakfast and have some healthy snacks during the day. You can kiss your bagel with fat-free cream cheese goodbye. Planning is critical if you expect to follow this lifestyle change. I would make sure that you always have some snack options with you when your foods cravings hit because trust me, those cravings will hit you hard around days 1-3. Examples may include homemade trail mix (raw nuts/seeds/dried fruit) or energy bars that you either made or purchased.
3. I hope you like salads
At least 4-5 times per week you will most likely be eating a salad with a lot of vegetables and protein (chicken, fish, steak, nuts, etc.). Bread contains gluten so unless it is gluten-free bread you will be giving up the delicious rolls that Philadelphia has to offer. This will be one of the hardest changes for you. Salads are great so make sure that you load them up with several kinds of vegetables and mixed greens as well as quality sources of protein and fat to get the nutritional benefits of eating salad.
4. You will be eating more fat
When you give up grains you need to make up the calories somewhere. You can only eat so much protein and fiber. What worked well for me is an increase in fat. The proper fats when eaten at the right time can really improve your health and make you feel comfortably full. Examples include the following:
- Coconut milk
- Olive oil
- Coconut oil
- Raw nuts (macadamia, pumpkin seeds, walnuts)
- Lean high quality meats.
5. Your energy will probably drop the first few days.
Most of us eat far too many processed carbohydrates. Our blood sugar is always up and down. We feel good after a bagel and coffee and then 1-2 hours later we crash and reach for a bag of Cheetos. When you give up grains you will most likely feel sluggish days 1-3. By day four I felt really good. I believe my body started to work more efficiently (I still ate carbohydrates) and began to utilize fat as an energy source along with quality carbohydrates (sweet potatoes, plantains, berries).
The reason I wrote this post is because I think some people just jump right into a total overhaul of their nutrition without understanding some very important details. Some people eat a bagel two days into going gluten-free and then get frustrated and then give up and go back to their old routines. You need to understand that going gluten-free takes some work in the beginning and changing old habits can be very hard. Give yourself a break and don’t be so hard on yourself. Tell a friend you are doing this because you will need the support when those cravings hit.
Sure, you can just buy all gluten-free products but honestly, I don’t think that is the way to go. The reason being most of those products are very expensive and I think some of them offer little nutritional value over products that contain wheat. I personally like to cook so for me this was an easier switch but I will tell you that it can be difficult.
I only tried this for 15 days. So by no means was this a long experiment. Over the course of this short period I felt really good and did see an improvement in my digestion, energy, as well as my heart rate variability scores. I also felt that my sleep improved due to these changes. I decided to reintroduce gluten in the form of pizza and I did not have any effects in how I felt. So the good news is that I do not think I have sensitivity to gluten.
In the future I am not going to give up gluten forever. If I want a sandwich I will eat bread. If I want a slice of pizza I will eat one. I will limit my exposure because I honestly did feel better without gluten over this short period of time. Was it the gluten? I can’t say I am 100 percent sure but I really did not change anything else in my routine. I still did the same exercises and kept the rest of my day the same for the most part.
If you decide to give this a shot I would recommend reading any book from Sarah Fragoso. She is an expert in the area and has several cookbooks that can help guide you along the way. Right now when you go food shopping most foods stores have one aisle dedicated to gluten free products. I believe in the near future you will see more and more products becoming gluten free. Is this a fad or is it real? Honestly, I am not sure. I do believe after reading a few books on the topic that medically there can be benefits from eliminating it from your diet.
What I tell the athletes and other clients that I work with is to give it a shot and decide how you feel. Nobody knows your body like you do.
As I stated before, as long as you do not have any medical issues what’s the harm in giving this a shot? You may surprise yourself and your performance on the field or in the weight room may just improve.
Good luck with whatever nutrition plan you follow in 2014.
Kevin Miller is the Strength and Conditioning Coach for the Philadelphia Union. He is certified by the National Strength and Conditioning Association and has been working with the Union since their inaugural 2010 season. Check out Kevin's Instagram: @KevinMillerTraining
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