The journey to a gluten-free diet has been an incredible learning experience for me in the months since I wrote about Wheat Belly. In fact, the more I’ve read, the more I am amazed (and horrified!) at all the marketing and messaging from our government and the food industry about how we should eat … and how deeply flawed it is.
For me the biggest takeaway (first from Wheat Belly and in my subsequent reading) been that making these dietary changes is not really about the gluten. Rather, what this and Atkins and the latest Paleo fad and all these new low-carb diets have in common are reducing carbohydrate intake. The main concern is processed grains like bread, which quickly metabolizes from carbohydrates into sugars.
In an article about carbohydrate intake for women, author Aglaee Jacob writes:
Even though 130 grams of carbohydrates is the minimal amount of carbohydrates recommended daily for women, the USDA recommends that you consume more than this minimal requirement. The “Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010” suggests that adults, both male and female, get 45 to 65 percent of their calories from carbohydrates. Considering a typical calorie intake of 2,000 to 2,200 calories a day for a moderately active woman, this recommendation corresponds to 225 to 358 grams of carbohydrates a day.
… The daily carbohydrate requirements recommended by the USDA can be defined as a high-carb diet. Nutrition researchers Stephen D. Phinney and Jeff S. Volek, authors of “The Art and Science of Low-Carbohydrate Living,” explain that many people, especially overweight and diabetic women as well as those with polycystic ovarian syndrome, benefit from reducing their carbohydrate intake below daily recommendations.
The authors go on to recommend a daily carbohydrate intake of 100 grams a day or less depending on the health issues the individual is dealing with.
In another article, the Mark Sisson of the blog Mark’s Daily Apple was working on research and recommendations to influence the USDA’s update to daily intake recommendations, and referencing attempts by several doctors to do the same. In one article he describes the following levels:
- 300 grams or more a day is a danger zone, leading to ‘high risk of fat storage, inflammation, increased disease markers including Metabolic Syndrom or diabetes.
- 150-300 grams a day results in ‘steady, insidious weight gain’. This is the range ‘irresponsibly recommended by the USDA and other diet authorities”. It can lead to ‘the statistical US average gain of 1.5 pounds of fat per year’.
- 100-150 grams a day ‘allows for genetically optimal fat burning and muscle development. It requires ‘enjoying abundant vegetables and fruits and avoiding grains and sugars’.
- 50-100 grams a day is the ‘sweet spot for effortless weight loss’, and is also the target recommended by Dr. William Davis in his book Wheat Belly.
- 0-50 grams a day is acceptable for brief periods of fasting or ‘aggressive weight loss efforts’. It may also be necessary for diabetics, but it’s not otherwise recommended for healthy people as it may result in nutritional deprivation.
In the past I learned about Weight Watchers and how to calculate my daily points intake. Some people learn how to count calories. In an article about the USDA recommendation for carbohydrate intake, author Michelle Fisk describes the government guidelines in a similar way, and also describes that carbohydrates have 4 calories per gram (for those that know how to count calories).
Knowing my tendencies, I focus on aiming for about 25 carbs per meal, which means that if I run a little bit over the target of 75 grams, I’ll still be under 100. In trying to get there in the past few months, I’ve learned more than I ever wanted to know about the carbohydrate values of food! Here, for example, is a portion of what would have been a typical breakfast in the past:
But when I calculate the carbohydrates for a banana (over 30 grams!) and a quarter cup of gluten-free granola, it equals nearly 60 grams of carbohydrates … which is 60% of a healthy allowance (of 100 grams) according to the authors above.
Although that may seem horrifying, I would say that my experience has been that breakfast is definitely the hardest meal – in our society it seems to center around grains and different sugary treats. I feel that most of what we see and hear about breakfast is cereal, breakfast bars, pancakes, waffles, donuts and pastries, or breakfast sandwiches. Even the good gluten-free breakfast bars run around 25 carbs each, and I’m usually hungry a few hours later. What I’ve learned is that if I can find a way to get through breakfast, the rest of the day is generally not as hard for me. Which is not to say easy! But it seems to be way less challenging than breakfast.
Here’s another example that may resonate with you coffee drinkers out there. I never really drank coffee until I was working on my dissertation, but it quickly became a routine. I don’t really like my coffee plain, though, so I’ve always doctored it up with milk and sugar (or better yet, chocolate syrup)! At the beginning of my gluten-free journey, eliminating coffee was definitely not on my list. It’s gluten-free, right?! But as I learned more about managing carbohydrate intake in general, I realized I needed to make some changes.
I was one of those people that would sidle up to the Starbucks counter and ask for a venti soy mocha (hold the whipped cream). Mmm. When I finally admitted I needed to do more than eliminate wheat, I checked out Starbucks’ beverage nutrition page. I learned that my favorite beverage is 58 grams of carbohydrates – more than half the daily recommended allowance (if you stop listening to the USDA).
But it wasn’t the easiest thing in the world to change that habit. I learned that a venti has four pumps of chocolate syrup in it, so I started requesting only two. Then I reduced to a grande. Then I reduced to one pump of chocolate … and eventually I stripped it down to a grande soy latte. The first day I went without chocolate I thought that I would never drink coffee again – it was so plain! But I was down to 23 carbohydrates. Still, it was a quarter of my daily carb allowance, and I knew that espresso alone was only 1 carb. I learned that Starbucks has their own vanilla soy milk which (in the US) has a lot of sugar in it. That was reinforced by a trip to London, where a soy latte from Pret a Manger tasted completely different – not sweet at all! So I started experimenting with making a coffee at home in the morning (I’m lactose intolerant, so I can’t just get a skinny latte). And it turns out that coconut milk, almond milk, and rice milk all make crummy lattes. Vanilla almond milk is probably the closest, and at 14 carbs it cut the carb intake by half yet again.
What did I really learn in all that? Once I took all the chocolate and sweetened soy milk out of the picture, I really don’t like coffee all that much. In fact, it had just been a vehicle for sugar. I learned that the rush I thought I was getting from the espresso was more likely a sugar rush. And so a little bit at a time, I just got over it! I did have a Starbucks soy latte the other day, and I was overwhelmed by how sweet it was – I couldn’t finish it! It just goes to show, yet again, how the food industry has such a huge influence on how we think about food and what tastes good. You can read more about that in a post I wrote about Dr. Jan Chozen Bays’ book Mindful Eating, if you like.
I could say a lot more about this, but my main takeaway has really been to be conscious of the fact that carbohydrates = sugar, and we have to find ways to reduce the intake of sugar in our diets. The challenge is that many restaurants post calories per serving now, but nothing is labelled for carbs. The first step is to reduce the unnecessary carb intake (bread, pastries, for example), and then really get informed about the carbohydrate values of the food you eat the most frequently. As you’ve seen from this post – that alone will have you on your way.
Good luck, and leave a note in the comments if you give it a try. I’d love to learn more about how other people make it work!