gluten free

Like many personal trainers, my career in fitness began as a receptionist for a big-box corporate gym. I was 19 at the time, a college student, and no, I’m not going to tell you what year that was. What I will say, however, is that the low fat era had just begun and while my blond crew cut moment didn’t occur for another decade (salon accident, don’t ask), I, like a lot of fitness folk, was busy running around Susan Powter-style advocating a fat-free lifestyle and screaming, “Stop The Insanity!” “Insanity” during those dark days was defined as the consumption of nearly any dietary fat on the grounds that A) as a macronutrient fat contained more than double the number of calories per gram of either carbohydrate or protein, and B) the only behavior that mattered when it came to losing weight was consuming fewer calories than we burned. Like my age, my existential guilt over the many metabolisms my industry helped to destroy following that misguided logic (my own included), is a topic for another day. We were doing the best we could with the information we had available at the time. We know better now, so we do better now.

What is relevant as a hold-over from the low-fat era is the concept of insanity. We may have been shouting “Stop The Insanity,” but our actions spoke far louder. Avocados, salmon, certain cuts of beef, nuts, olive oil and virtually every other variety of fat was off the menu, demonized even, and sugar became king. Following its coronation, the trainers at the gym where I worked consumed entire packages of fat-free Fig Newtons (as did I) along with fistfuls of red licorice. At one memorable after-hours staff party we assembled a menu of fat free tortilla chips, salsa, Snackwell’s cookies, Rold Gold pretzels, licorice, Skittles, wine and margaritas. We were eating healthy. It was all fat free. Rationality and discernment had gone out the window, and in its place we essentially became a pack of spandex-clad zombies. Never in the history of the zombie genre, from Night of the Living Dead to today’s Walking Dead, have I ever seen a walker stop to contemplate the quality of the brains about to be devoured. In the world of the undead, all brains are created equal. Such was the case for many of us during the early 1990’s. As long as the label said, “fat free,” it was health food. Had we not all been suffering from a collective state of carbohydrate addiction and insulin spike/crash brain fog, someone surely would have come to their senses earlier. When avocados are a problem and Skittles are health food, something has gone seriously awry.

Roughly a decade later, after our high sugar diet began to catch up with us and rates of both obesity and diabetes skyrocketed, many in the fitness and nutrition world repeated this performance with products labeled “sugar free.” Just as we had stripped all fat from “food products” in the 90’s and replaced it with sugar for taste, we now stripped both fat and sugar from “food products” and turned to chemists to imbibe what was left of whatever it is we’re still eating with something resembling flavor. Thus the creation of today’s fat-free, sugar-free, non-dairy, vanilla-flavored Coffeemate. For the life of me, I can’t tell you what’s in it, only what is not.

In today’s fitness and nutrition world, gluten is the villain du-jour, and for the most part, I concur. Today’s genetically-altered, hybridized, disease resistant “wheat” bears little genetic resemblance to the grain our grandmother’s used to bake bread. Most of us, as many as 70% by some estimates, are simply unable to digest and process today’s harvest, lovingly known around here as “Frankenfood.” Instead, consumption of today’s wheat and wheat gluten leaves many of us, myself included, fighting a state of body-wide inflammation: gas, bloating, and diarrhea to be sure, but also swollen and painful joints, reduced immunity, inability to concentrate, chronic infections, weight gain and more. Moreover, removal of gluten from the diet is a fairly certain way to achieve weight loss. The entire paleo movement, for example, is premised in part on this idea. By removing gluten from the diet, weight loss is achieved both by reducing levels of inflammation in the body and by helping to control levels of blood sugar and blood insulin. And it works… unless you develop gluten free insanity.

One trip down the “gluten free aisle” or a search for “gluten free” on Amazon Fresh suggests that a return to a collective dietary mental health condition is a very real possibility. Everything, it seems, can now be produced in a version that is free of gluten: cakes, cupcakes, crackers, pretzels, chips, beer, cookies, cereal, cinnamon rolls, muffins, macaroni and more. But before we put fork to food to face, we ought to pause and acknowledge that apparently unlike human brains (yum), not all gluten free foods are created equal. A gluten free diet comprised of the foods available to humans since pre-agricultural times, things like eggs, meat, fruits and vegetables in season, nuts, and some dairy products, will, without question, reduce inflammation, lower bad cholesterol, raise good cholesterol, improve immunity, enhance mental clarity, reduce body fat, and lower your risk of hypertension, heart disease, diabetes and obesity. A diet full of processed, gluten free junk food, however, will still make you sick and fat. Less sick and fat, perhaps, than on a diet of gluten and junk food, but sick and fat regardless.

Gluten free pizza, pretzels and beer aren’t health food. If they have a role to play in today’s diet, it is identical to the role of their original gluten-packed predecessors. Pizza, beer, cupcakes, cookies, etc, are foods for truly special occasions and/or inclusion in our weekly cheat meal. They can also offer a way for the gluten intolerant and celiac sufferers among us to feel “normal” at a birthday party or holiday gathering. They just don’t merit inclusion in our daily menu, and to put them there would be insane.

I suppose if the goal of a gluten free diet was merely to avoid the side effects association with gluten consumption, regular ingestion of these processed, sugar-laden “food products,” would be acceptable. But most of us want more. Most of us want to get or stay lean, look as great as we feel, and avoid both the expense and the discomfort of chronic disease. If this is more fully our goal, products such as gluten free cupcakes are not on the menu. In fact, if fat loss and control of both blood sugar and risk of chronic disease are the goal, some gluten free foods are worse for the body than their original version. Gluten free macaroni and cheese is a prime example. With a glycemic index of double regular pasta and 40% greater than table sugar, rice pasta is a food product entirely antithetical to fat loss and control of blood sugar. Add fat to that high glycemic carbohydrate and body fat storage is all but guaranteed, potentially followed by all the health problems associated with being overweight or obese. In short, it may be comfort food, but if you eat it regularly you won’t feel comfortable for long.

It’s time to really stop the insanity – this time, without the quotation marks. As we usher in this next development in our understanding of human nutrition, let’s focus instead on establishing a baseline of what is sane. Let’s concentrate on being free of disease instead of free from specific ingredients. Let’s acknowledge that gluten free junk food is still junk food.