Freedom From Gluten-Free, Part 3

As discussed in previous newsletters, gluten-containing foods such as wheat or rye bread can be safely consumed by gluten-sensitive people if made with whole grain flour and leavened with sourdough starter instead of with baker’s yeast.  However, ff you have any type of sensitivity to gluten, it’s best to first avoid it entirely for two weeks to a month or more, depending on how severe your reaction normally is and how long you have had a noticeable reaction. Avoiding gluten gives your body time to completely detoxify from it. It also helps reduce your body’s sensitivity, some of which may purely be due to overexposure to gluten. While you are avoiding gluten-containing grains, get your complex, starchy carbohydrates from gluten-free grains such as brown rice, millet, buckwheat, quinoa, corn and amaranth, and from potatoes. All of the grains can typically be found in bulk at your local health food store.

After abstaining from gluten for a few weeks, try reintroducing it in the form of a small amount of 100% sourdough whole wheat bread. Some large supermarkets, such as Whole Foods or Wegman’s, carry whole wheat sourdough, as do most health food stores, but you may need or desire to make it yourself, which takes a little time to learn, but is a very rewarding and enjoyable skill to have mastered. After eating a small amount of sourdough bread, wait a day or two to see if you have any reaction. If you do, you may need to give yourself a few more days or weeks to let your body finish detoxifying. In the meantime, continue with the gluten-free whole grains, but try to limit processed, prepackaged gluten-free foods, as they may delay detoxification due to their own gluten-imitating ingredients.

Once you can eat a small amount of whole wheat sourdough without difficulty, gradually increase your intake. Your body, having had a sufficient “break” from conventional bread, pasta, baked goods, and processed foods containing dextrin (aka gluten), will be able to tolerate daily sourdough bread just as the bodies of your ancestors did. In fact, you should even be able (eventually) to also tolerate non-sourdough whole grain breads and pastas, in moderate amounts, but too much too soon may inflame your immune system again. Therefore, it is important to continue to make whole grain sourdough bread, and sourdough baked goods in general, the majority of your gluten intake. The right balance depends on the individual, and the only way to find out exactly is to test yourself by adjusting your diet accordingly.

Making your own sourdough may sound complicated, but once you have mastered the technique, it does not require a lot of effort, and your home-baked sourdough bread will be the most satisfying, best-tasting bread you’ve ever had. Instructions for making sourdough starter and sourdough bread can be found on many websites. If you’d like our recipe, just send me an email, and I will forward you our instructions while answering any questions you may have. For anyone with gluten sensitivity, I hope this series of articles opens up a new world of possibilities for you. Having grown up with a wheat allergy myself, I find that sourdough gives me the opportunity to enjoy gluten-containing bread just as much as everyone else (if not more), which is the way it’s meant to be.

Freedom From Gluten-Free, Part 2

As discussed in last week’s article, a growing number of people are being diagnosed with celiac disease, a chronic condition in which the immune system reacts negatively to the presence of gluten in the small intestine. There appears to be a genetic predisposition to celiac, but unexpectedly, those most susceptible are descended from European and Caucasian ancestors – the very same people who made gluten-containing grains a staple of their diet, usually in the form of bread. Why would people whose ancestors could tolerate gluten just fine be unable to tolerate it today? This phenomenon has much in common with the history of corn, which traditionally provided sufficient sustenance to Mesoamericans but resulted in nutrient deficiencies among Western Europeans when it was brought over by Columbus. In the case of corn, it was the natural processing method used by the Mesoamericans, but forsaken by the Westerners, that made corn digestible. In the case of gluten-containing grains, the problem again comes down to a change in the processing method.

Ever since the beginning of civilization in the ancient Near East, bread has always been the centerpiece of the diet. Traditionally, to make bread, whole grains were ground into whole grain flour, which was then mixed with water to form dough, and leavened, or allowed to rise. The leavening agent was a portion of a “starter,” a small amount of wet dough that had been colonized by microorganisms already naturally present in the air and on the individual grains: a symbiotic blend of Lactobacillus bacteria and wild yeast (the bacteria far outnumbering the yeast).  The yeast would turn the starches in bread into ethanol and carbon dioxide (which enabled the dough to rise) and the bacteria would feed on the yeast’s byproducts, thereby forming sour-tasting lactic acid, which in turn helped protect both the yeast and bacteria from unwelcome organisms such as other forms of bacteria or mold. After sufficient leavening, this “sourdough” bread would be baked. The result was a moderately risen loaf that kept well and was packed full of nutrition. This was the bread that become known as the “staff of life,” and which served as a metaphor for food in general.

Up until the mid-19th century, bread throughout the world was prepared according to this traditional method. However, the new technology that came with the industrial revolution enabled factories to mass-produce bread made with white flour instead of whole wheat, which reduced the nutrient value of the bread. While white flour had previously been a delicacy of the upper class, it now became the standard for all classes, which had a devastating effect on impoverished people who relied on bread as their main source of nutrition.

Meanwhile, advances in science made it possible for bakers to isolate and grow their own strains of yeast, instead of having to rely on wild yeast. With these abundant quantities of yeast, bread products could be made that didn’t rely on bacteria at all for leavening. The result was bread with a sweeter flavor, which, like white bread, appealed to the upper classes, who were already indulging in large quantities of meats that left them craving excessive sweet flavors. When, in the 1850’s, the technology was available to mass-produce this new form of industrial “baker’s yeast,” bread leavened solely with yeast became the new standard, given that baking with it was easier and quicker, it rose more, and didn’t require sourdough starter. Ever since, the standard form of bread that we eat has been white bread leavened with baker’s yeast, due to both its convenience and its immediate gratification.

What does this have to do with gluten and celiac disease? While the transition from whole grain to white flour is part of the problem (due to the loss of nutrients that would otherwise aid digestion of the bread), the main culprit is the transition from sourdough bread to baker’s yeast-leavened bread. The bacteria that used to ferment all our bread just so happens to produce enzymes that help break down gluten proteins. In addition, the lactic acid byproduct weakens the gluten network by increasing the number of positively charged amino acids along the protein chains, and increasing the repulsive forces between chains. A similar process takes place when we soak meat in an acidic marinade to tenderize it: the protein-based tissues break down and the meat becomes more digestible. The gluten in sourdough bread, therefore, is much easier to digest, which explains why our ancestors could tolerate so much bread. True, their bread didn’t rise as much as ours, but they didn’t mind – they tended to eat it with a lot of butter, lard or olive oil, and just a small amount could sustain them for a long time, which reduced the amount of calories they ate overall.

We started turning our backs on sourdough around the year 1850; the first case of celiac was formally diagnosed only a few decades later, in 1887, and the disease has been getting more prevalent since then. To an extent, we are all gluten-sensitive, even if we don’t have readily apparent celiac disease, wheat allergies, or digestive disorders. We’re just not meant to eat large quantities of gluten unless in a form such as sourdough bread. Nevertheless, in the modern world, gluten is everywhere, not just in bread; in fact, it’s extremely difficult to avoid. Fortunately, we don’t need to cut it out completely, or genetically engineer it to be digestible; we just need to go back to eating it in the form that we did, without health issues, for thousands of years. In the next and final installment of this series, I’ll explain how we can change our baking ways to be more in line with traditional methods.


Freedom From Gluten-Free, Part 1

Celiac disease, also referred to as gluten intolerance, gluten sensitivity, or celiac sprue, is a chronic condition in which the immune system reacts negatively to the presence of gluten in the small intestine. As a side effect of the immune system’s inflammatory response to gluten, intestinal villi are destroyed.  Villi are small, finger-like projections on the intestinal wall that help us to absorb nutrients. Due to the destruction of the villi, celiac disease sufferers (aka celiacs) gradually lose their ability to digest nutrients. Symptoms of the disease include diarrhea, intestinal cramps, bloating, fatigue, excessive weight loss, failure to thrive (in children), allergies, anemia, and general malnutrition. The only known cure is to completely eliminate gluten from the diet.

Celiac was first described in 1887. Over the succeeding decades, it has become more commonly known and better understood. Today, many people are familiar with the concept of a gluten-free diet, and many people with digestive difficulties experiment with the diet to see if it eliminates their symptoms.  In fact, in recent years a whole cottage industry of gluten-free foods has emerged, catering to the needs of those who cannot tolerate gluten, a group whose numbers seem to be growing exponentially, whether due to better diagnosis of the disease, increase in incidence, or both.

Gluten is the type of protein that is contained in the grains wheat, rye, spelt, kamut and barley. Its elastic, sticky nature is what makes these grains ideal for grinding into flour and baking into bread. The strength and elasticity of gluten protein chains enables the bread to maintain its structure as yeast releases gases that cause the bread to rise. Gluten’s thickening and stabilizing properties also make it popular as a food additive, where it can be found in processed foods sometimes under the name dextrin. In addition to being present in virtually all bread products (essentially any food made with the grains named above), gluten can be found in candies, gravies, imitation meats, lunch meats, salad dresses, sauces, soups, and most processed foods in general. A celiac disease sufferer, in order to be symptom-free, must find a way to avoid all these foods while still managing to eat a balanced diet. Gluten is especially difficult to replace when it comes to foods such as bread and pasta that require its properties to maintain their structure.  As such, modern medical research is currently focused on trying to genetically engineer gluten to maintain its properties while not inflaming the immune system in celiacs.

One fact that these researchers have been able to determine is that celiac disease is hereditary. That is to say, our level of sensitivity to gluten tends to be determined by our genes.  Those populations with the highest sensitivity to gluten tend to be northern and western Europeans and Caucasians in general. Interestingly, these are the populations that are most closely associated with historical consumption of gluten-containing grains such as wheat and rye. Since celiac is a relatively recent disease, what must have happened to suddenly make gluten so intolerable to significant percentages of these populations? This is an area of celiac disease research that has regrettably been left under-explored. However, a look back at history of gluten consumption may shed some light. Actually, it’s best to start with an analogy to the history of maize, or corn, consumption.

Corn, along with rice, millet, amaranth, quinoa and buckwheat, among others, is one of the gluten-free grains, so it has never been linked to celiac disease. However, corn does pose its own digestive issues. The ratio of the different types of protein in corn is not ideal for our own amino acid balance. Corn can contain mycotoxins, byproducts of mold that are carcinogenic. Finally, corn contains niacin (aka vitamin B3), an essential nutrient, but in a form that is indigestible.  Anyone eating a diet that depended heavily on corn to meet nutritional needs would be at risk for a variety of serious health problems, including the vitamin B3 deficiency (aka pellagra), which, like celiac, can be ultimately fatal if the diet is not changed.

In ancient Mesoamerica, where corn was first cultivated, a process called nixtamalization was developed, in which the corn was soaked and cooked in an alkaline solution made of lime (calcium hydroxide) and ash (potassium hydroxide), then hulled. This process removed the mycotoxins, eliminated the excess protein, and freed up the niacin for absorption. As a result of this natural, time-honored form of processing, the Mesoamericans could rely on corn as a staple of their diet. However, when corn was brought to Europe by Christopher Columbus and quickly adopted by many due to its high yields, the nixtamalization process was not brought with it. Instead, corn was processed and hulled in mechanical mills. As a consequence, wherever corn became the staple food crop, malnutrition struck.

Today, if any single food has become our staple, it’s wheat, and gluten is clearly even more ubiquitous than wheat. The very people who were able to tolerate it for centuries now appear to be genetically incapable of safely digesting it. Unsurprisingly, the key to the riddle has to do with the change we’ve made from the traditional processing methods of gluten to the modern, just as in the case of the abandonment of corn nixtamalization. Next week’s article will explore the history of gluten processing and describe how, with the right preparation, gluten can be safely consumed – even by celiacs.

How to Control Your Cravings

Did I get your attention with the title of this article? Who doesn’t have at least a few food cravings they wish they could control? I’m afraid, though, that my title is nothing more than an attention–getter, because I’m not actually a believer in controlling cravings. Food cravings do not arise spontaneously, and they are not just a product of your genes. They arise from your body’s deep–seated desire for nourishment. Whether your particular craving is for a specific flavor of ice cream, Coke or Pepsi, potato chips, M&Ms, white–flour pasta, coffee, or any of the other usual suspects, that craving is actually a sign of your body crying out for some type of nutrition. That’s why controlling your cravings doesn’t work. Even though we know on an intellectual level that junk foods are not good for us, those foods have been designed to appeal to the body’s desire for nutrition and balance. Our bodies crave salty foods like French fries because the body thinks saltiness is an indicator of high levels of essential minerals. We like sodas with high amounts of caffeine because they make us feel detoxified and re–energized. In other words, you have these strong cravings for junk food precisely because your body wants so badly to be healthy. While your mind may be saying “I know that’s not good for me,” your body is responding “Are you nuts? Eat that or else! We need it to survive!”

While it may be technically possible to control your cravings for a limited time through sheer will power, the only effective, long–term solution is to meet your body’s needs with foods that are truly nourishing, rather than foods that simply appear nourishing. The former bring you into a ongoing state of balance and satisfaction; the latter are satisfying for a very brief time but then leave you in a state of even greater neediness. Sometimes it’s not just nutrition that is lacking—for example, a craving for caffeine is usually a result of not getting enough sleep. A craving for sugary foods could be from a series of stressful events in your life. Just yesterday, I found myself starting to devour a bar of chocolate after a long and stressful day. However, I realized that the real problem was not the bar of chocolate, or my craving for it, but that at that moment I was unwilling to focus my attention on resolving the source of stress in my life. Once I did that, my cravings vanished. And in fact, that did take a little willpower—but the key is that it was willpower applied in a productive direction.

My recommendation for you is not to control your cravings, but to analyze them. Ask yourself where this craving is coming from, and what kind of need your junk food is meeting (however temporary a solution it may be). That method will put you on the right path to the heart of the problem, instead of leaving you stuck focusing on the symptoms. Maybe your body is craving junk food because it really needs whole grains and green vegetables, but isn’t familiar enough with those foods to crave them (and believe me, once your body gets used to well–prepared brown rice, you’re likely to crave it daily). Maybe you’re just looking for a physical sensation to block out the pain from some frustrating events in your life, and it’s really those events that need to be attended to. Once you have taken some steps towards understanding your situation, rather than simply feeling guilty, you’ll find that it’s a lot easier to “control” those cravings than you would ever have believed.

Digestive Health

Digestive concerns are among the most common health problems in America. They range from minor, if chronic, concerns like stomachaches, gas, and heartburn to serious conditions such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, and there are many disorders in between. Pain, diarrhea, constipation, cramps, and bloating are all common symptoms. Sometimes poor digestion is, like other health concerns, a result of eating unhealthy or imbalanced meals. Many foods that are digestive aids have disappeared from the average American diet, and many foods that are very difficult to digest have been added in. Over time these foods put stress on the digestive system, and it can lose much of its ability to fulfill its basic function: metabolizing food into the proteins, sugars, fatty acids, and nutrients that are essential for life.

Digestion is special because, often, what you eat isn’t the whole story. It’s also important to take into accounthow you eat. When you’re eating under the proper conditions, even a supposedly unhealthy meal—like a high–fat meal—can pass through you causing relatively little damage. The reverse is also true: even a supposedly healthy meal may not do you much good unless you’re conscious of how you are eating it. By the “how” I mean things such as: whether you’re relaxed at home or rushing to get somewhere; whether you chew your food or gulp it down; whether you’re stressed or sociable; whether you combine the different food groups properly and eat foods in the right order; and so on.

The conventional recommendations for digestive problems are medications like steroids, antibiotics, and antacids. These substances often have side effects that are debilitating in themselves, and they represent the point of view that there is something innately and mysteriously wrong with the sick person’s digestive system. The body is malfunctioning, and the medication will fix it (if taken forever). In my experience, though, the problem is that as a society we’ve gotten accustomed to eating in a way that stresses the digestive system. Everyone I’ve worked with has seen their digestive problems begin to clear up for good, all because of making some simple changes in diet and lifestyle. In what follows, I’ll make some specific recommendations which highlight the difference for digestion between the traditional diets and the modern, and the way we ate then vs. now.

1. Maintain a healthy bacterial environment. The digestive system contains trillions of individual bacteria—more than there are cells in the body. They are responsible for much of the metabolism that occurs in the small intestine and elsewhere, because they secrete acids that help us absorb vitamins and minerals. They also aid the immune system by making the digestive system an inhospitable environment for disease–causing microbes. With a weak bacterial environment, we are both more susceptible to disease and have difficulty digesting our food. Many people have lost large amounts of their good bacteria through the use of antibiotics, which kill both good and bad bacteria indiscriminately. Antibiotics have saved many lives, but because they are so often prescribed (and not always with good cause), many people develop digestive problems and a weakened immune system as a result of overuse of antibiotics. The most direct way to replenish the intestinal flora is to take supplements (called Probiotics) that allow you to ingest large amounts of bacteria in capsule form, and I recommend them for those who have taken many antibiotics in the past. There are two strains of bacteria to take: Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacteria bifidum. You can easily find them in the supplements section of the health food store.

I rarely recommend supplements, because I think it’s important to get all of our nutrition from food. However, there are some people who have lost large amounts of bacteria through medications, and probiotics can help return a person to normal faster than bacteria–containing foods. Once your digestive problems clear up, you won’t need to keep taking these supplements.

Eating well and living a happy, healthy lifestyle is the best thing you can do to avoid being in a situation where antibiotics (and subsequently probiotics) are necessary. There is a food group that we can eat from for the purpose of maintaining digestive health: the fermented foods.

2. Make fermented foods a staple of your diet. Fermented foods have been eaten for thousands of years and should form a separate food group of their own in any respectable Food Pyramid. Controlled fermentation (probably discovered by accident) served as a way to preserve food for long periods of time. It was also soon discovered that fermented foods were very good for the digestion, and fermenting was done for this reason also.

Fermenting or culturing is a process in which bacteria are allowed to feast on a food (such as cabbage for making sauerkraut) and transform its sugars, or carbohydrates, into acids such as lactic acid. This is what gives many fermented foods a slightly sour taste. The reason why fermentation works as a preservation method is because the increased acidity prevents pathogenic bacteria from contaminating the food.

Fermented food is easier to digest because the bacteria have already done some of the work in digesting it for you. You can therefore access its nutrients much more easily and quickly. Another advantage of fermentation has to do with digestive enzymes. Enzymes are proteins that are catalysts for chemical reactions in the body. Without them, it’s impossible to metabolize food. Enzymes also are very important for eliminating toxins from the body. Many raw foods, including raw animal products, come with their own enzymes that are more easily accessible after fermentation. This is why yogurt can be tolerated by lactose intolerant people: the enzyme lactase converts the indigestible lactose sugar into lactic acid.

Cooking or baking, and pasteurization, will destroy both enzymes and bacteria. The advantage of cooking is that it’s also a form of metabolism making foods softer and easier to digest. A healthy diet will contain mostly cooked foods but also some raw fermented foods. These include dairy products like yogurt; pickles like pickled cabbage (sauerkraut) and other pickled foods such as umeboshi plums, pickled ginger, and plain old pickles; vinegar; and fermented soy foods like tamari soy sauce, miso, and tempeh. These foods have many digestive enzymes and live bacteria that make it possible to digest even very heavy, fatty food. It’s been theorized that part of the reason why we suffer so much from clogged arteries, overweight, constipation and poor digestion in this country is not necessarily because we eat too much meat and fat, but because all the fermented foods we used to eat are now either no longer part of the diet or heat–treated to destroy the very bacteria we need to be healthy.

3. Maintain an acid–alkaline balance. The overall pH of the body is meant to be just above 7.0 (slightly more alkaline than the pH of pure water). At this level of acidity, our immune system and our body’s metabolism work most efficiently. A balanced diet has a roughly equal amount of alkalizing foods and acidifying foods. Too much of one or the other can result in health problems. A good analogy for pH is temperature. Your body is always working to maintain a temperature of around 98.6. A few degrees too hot or cold and the body can’t survive. Similarly, the body is always working to maintain a pH balance. The average American diet, though, contains an excess of foods that make the body overly acid. This leads to a lot of health concerns like acid reflux and Crohn’s disease. Too many acidifying foods can also deplete the body of buffering minerals like calcium, because these are used to help excrete the acid. Coca–cola, with all its phosphoric acid, is a good example of an extremely acidifying food that may be partly responsible for health concerns like osteoporosis.

In general, acid–forming foods are meat, oils and fats, coffee, and most grains (both whole and refined), and other refined carbohydrates like sugars and alcoholic drinks. Since these foods are so prevalent in our diets, it’s no wonder we have so many excessive acid–related health concerns for which they sell antacids. But what’s best is to introduce more alkalizing foods into your diet, which means (as you may have guessed) fruits and vegetables. Some of the most alkalizing foods are onions, radishes, sweet potatoes, the aforementioned umeboshi plums, limes, tangerines, pineapples, grapefruits, broccoli and other green vegetables, and of course salt, though because salt is so extremely alkalizing it should be eaten almost as moderately as sugar. Sea salt and sea vegetables also contain many trace minerals that replenish those that the acidifying foods deplete. One of the best ways to get more alkaline quickly is to drink some lemon juice or water with some apple cider vinegar, or a teaspoon of umeboshi paste; these remedies will help with acid–related digestive problems very quickly. But if in general you balance out grains, fat, and meat with fresh vegetables at a meal, your digestion will improve.

4. Combine foods well. Sometimes problems like gas, stomachaches, and poor assimilation of nutrients are a result not of the ingredients in our food, but how we combine them. Since different kinds of foods break down at different times in different ways, eating them all randomly at once will cause problems. The combinations that work best are heavy foods like meat with vegetables (a sort of Atkins–like diet; no grains or beans, but also not a whole lot of fat); grains and beans with fats and cooked vegetables (rice and beans are both made more palatable and smoother to digest with the addition of some fat; like meat, they also go well with vegetables). Fruit is best eaten alone and not combined with any other foods, unless cooked, in which case it goes well with grains. Raw foods are also best eaten with other raw foods or alone, and not in the same dish as cooked foods. In general it’s important to avoid making recipes with too many different ingredients. A good experiment if you’re having digestive troubles such as those listed above is to try following these rules of food combining (having meat and vegetables for lunch, and a more vegan meal for dinner, and raw fruit as a snack).

Even more important than combining, though, may be the order in which you eat your foods. We have a custom of always eating our salad, or vegetables, as an appetizer at the beginning of a meal. This is precisely the dish we want to eat at the end! Refined grains, oils and fats, and animal foods don’t have fiber and have a tendency to stick in your digestive system without breaking down, causing weight gain and constipation, and sometimes they are assimilated into the bloodstream undigested, which can also cause serious problems. If you eat vegetables and whole grains last, they will push through these heavy foods and aid the digestive process. The foods that really should be eaten first, or at least alongside the heavy foods, are the fermented foods with enzymes like miso and sauerkraut. They will prepare the body to break down the fat and protein while the vegetables come in later to finish the job.

5. Eat mindfully. Even if you follow all these recommendations, your digestion may still suffer, unless you eat with awareness. Many people don’t even give their bodies a chance to focus on the job of digestion. We often eat under the worst of conditions: while stressed out, while driving, while watching TV or a movie, while working, or while doing any number of things that distract our attention from the food in front of us. Stress in particular draws resources away from digestion to deal with threats, real or imagined; digestion is effectively halted and stomachaches or headaches are often a result. Let’s say you are paying full attention to the meal in front of you. You might say a word of thanks before you begin, or start with a toast. You’re able to smell your meal and see it, perceptions that signal your body to be ready to receive the food. You’ll also taste it fully. I recommend always eating with this sort of mindfulness, if you can. Eat slowly, chew your food, and share the meal with someone; don’t eat alone. It’s very likely that even a high–fat diet (like that of the French, who typically take long social lunch breaks) will not cause as many problems if eaten in a relaxed and meditative mood. The best part is that when you’re paying attention, you’ll hear the automatic signals your body sends when telling you that it’s full. We don’t hear this stuff when we’re eating out of boredom or occupied with something else; and I recommend, even if you don’t change your diet at all to include bacteria or enzymes or more vegetables and alkalizers, that you at least slow down and enjoy your meals in good company.

This is a big topic, too much for me to cover in one article, but these recommendations are a basic foundation for how to overcome digestive problems and many health problems that are related (such as arthritis, osteoporosis, migraines, heart disease, autoimmune diseases in general, eczema and fatigue). As I mentioned above, I will be giving a workshop on this subject this weekend (February the 11th) at my home in Alexandria, in which I’ll discuss the above concepts in more detail and also discuss some others I didn’t have room for in this article (including more information about dairy products and digestion, chewing your food, pungent vegetables, further recommendations for eating mindfully, and recommendations for specific digestive concerns. I’ll also have samples of some of the more exotic foods I mentioned for people to try). Everyone is welcome to attend this workshop—if you are in the area, send me an email! I encourage you to come.