Gluten-free for Dummies

bread-breakfast-gluten-intoleranceDamned, cursed, the evil in one word: Gluten. Before even knowing what it is and where it comes from everyone understood pretty fast, you’re better off without it. (Could you imagine) the food industry got it even faster! All of a sudden gluten-free products were all over the place and to find in the average pantry. Also foods naturally free of gluten suddenly couldn’t hold themselves back from marketing their (new) benefit. Passing the dairy- and lactose-free segment, gluten-free has in the recent years rapidly increased its share on the market and yet not exhausted its full growth potential. Is it really healthier than the “conventional” choice?

Gluten is a protein contained in wheat, barley and rye. In fact, its main purpose in the grain is to nourish the plant during the seed germination – it’s needed to make the plant grow (up to that point a rather charitable guy, no?) Furthermore, and maybe more interesting to us: It’s sexy! Gluten gives bakery products, pizza and pasta their elastic and chewy texture… mhhhhmm… an entire food culture living on gluten! However, coming from what must be heaven to some people at least (yes, pastry does appear in my dreams) now back to what was indicated before: There is a dark side in the life cycle of gluten: when it enters the gut.

Gluten is the only dietary protein that is indigestible for our stomachs. You might think: Fair enough, there are other food components (like fibre) that we cannot digest… however, being a protein it is more likely to interfere with the autoimmune system causing more or less severe reactions. With a prevalence of 1-2 % a rather small proportion of the European population suffer from celiac disease – an inherited autoimmune disease where gluten becomes life-threatening by strongly damaging the intestinal wall. People affected often show stomach pain, diarrhoea, anemia and weight loss because the inflamed gut cannot absorb nutrients well. Still incurable there is only one treatment: A life-long strict gluten-free diet.

Apart from celiac disease more and more people claim to have stomach ache and digestion problems due to not tolerating gluten. However, while celiac disease can be diagnosed by anti-bodies or biopsy tests there are no reliable tests for other related intolerances. Moreover, it became clear that the intestinal discomfort some people develop when they eat wheat and other grains does not necessarily need be due to gluten exclusively and therefore it should be rather referred to as wheat intolerance. In any case, the only way to know if you might be sensitive to gluten or wheat in general is to undergo an elimination diet (means excluding the respective from your diet over a given time frame) – bearing in mind that a wide range of processed foods and drinks such as instant food (and, sorry guys, beer too!) may contain gluten as well.

Even though the gluten-free hype has already shown to be able to cause a placebo effect in part of the healthy population – some people argue they feel healthier as they believe they do good by avoiding gluten. However, there is no scientific evidence on beneficial health outcomes resulting from a gluten-free diet in the broad (“healthy”) population. On the contrary, merely celiac disease patients and people with gluten sensitivity are recommended to follow a strictly gluten-free diet. For all others there is to consider:

  • Don’t underestimate whole grain products. It’s a shame that products that have served us as staple foods (especially not to neglect during winter and war periods) over thousands of years lose their dignity within not even a decade. Whole grain products are a good source for fibre, iron, folic acid, zinc, calcium, and vitamin D. By eliminating wheat and co. you should make sure to replace their nutritional profile by varying your choice among other nutrient-dense foods.
  • Not feeling bloated? Concerns arise that a diet low in gluten may actually “cover” wheat intolerances or even celiac disease and increase the risk for not being diagnosed. Symptoms may just not occur strong or frequent enough and remain disregarded. If you are concerned about gluten intolerance you may go on a medically supervised elimination diet.
  • Think Paleo. Processed gluten-free foods often contain more fat, sugar or other additives compensating for the texture and therefore can result in undesirable weight gain. The Paleo or “stone age” diet excludes gluten as well but so does it with highly processed products. “Allowed” as carbohydrate source in Paleo are root vegetables and fruits, however, if your aim is to go gluten-free only, you could of course include unprocessed carb sources such as pseudocereals as buckwheat or quinoa, and legumes which are rich in protein and fibre.

As for everything else, the dose makes the poison and gluten doesn’t come on it’s own but in foods that contain much more than this one substance. Even researchers want to often ignore the fact (it would make their life a lot easier indeed) that finding a significant cause-effect-relationship between a single ingredient and a health outcome is a long way to go and can be biased by many factors. I see it as important to listen to your body. Eat consciously and you’ll be the one who knows what works best for you.

The truth about your cup of coffee.

love-beans-caffeine-coffeeBlack or white? I’m sure you know how you like your coffee and have not changed your preference as many times as you changed your attitude towards it – Meaning that even though many people simply cannot live without their daily dose of coffee it seems like science couldn’t make up its mind yet about whether it is good or bad for you. Is it a relish or an addiction? Living in Sweden I can for sure tell you it’s almost impossible to live without coffee. A phenomenon also called “fika”. Simply translated “coffee break” fika provides the opportunity to catch up, get together or mingle in the frame of a small refreshment any time for any occasion. A tradition that makes the Nordic country one of the nations with the largest coffee consumption worldwide. Apart from the social aspect – what are the pros and cons for drinking coffee?

One of the most frequent claims you might have heard is that “coffee dehydrates you”. Well, the caffeine contained in coffee does have diuretic effects which may make you run to the toilet faster – but only in the short term. Scientific research has shown that the effect is balanced out over the course of the day and people regularly consuming the beverage even become tolerant to it (ok, not to exclude the possibility of “placebo pee”). Interestingly in some countries it is common to get a glass of water served with your espresso. Adaptation on the dehydration hypothesis? Not necessarily – or I would wonder why tea isn’t served with extra water too (cause yes, black and green tea contains caffeine as well – often pampered calling it theine but chemically we’re talking about one and the same substance). Besides historical reasons a glass of water makes the consumption of espresso more gentle to your stomach, neutralizing the increased secretion of stomach acids promoted by the coffee. However, what sensitive tummies would call irritating could be one part of the explanation how coffee can help you with digestion…

Other earlier studies made the coffee’s reputation suffer when the beloved drink got associated with increased risk for heart disease or cancer but more recently health organizations relieved coffee from this burden. (Sigh…) Drawing general conclusions became too complicated since people react and break down caffeine differently. Furthermore, there are lifestyle confounders that make cause-relationship assumptions even more difficult – people with high coffee consumption in many cases are smokers which could bias the study results considerably. And coffee is not all the same. The sort of bean, the roasting and the brewing method has impact on the caffeine content – not making it any easier for the ambitious scientist to find a significant relationship to health outcomes. Indeed other studies have shown positive effects on heart health, type 2 diabetes and mental diseases. Caffeine works as a stimulant, binding to receptors in the nervous system preventing from fatigue and in turn promoting concentration – perceived as energy boost. Moreover, some studies showed that caffeine has positive effects on the increase of muscle mass when working out, and promoting fatty acids to be released for energy supply… a reason why the substance is often used in so called “fat burners”, weight loss supplements – however, as a stimulant it is solely contributing and only has minor effects to the actual aim of weight reduction (not to mention the side effects of these kind of supplements… that however is another topic).

Talking about the beverage’s content people often start and end with caffeine. Poor coffee, not fair. There is a lot more to acknowledge about our favourite drink. Coffee does provide considerably high levels of the B vitamin niacin, magnesium, potassium and many many antioxidants (someone did make the effort and counted them… it’s over 1000 substances, pretty impressive right?). For coffee lovers the stimulating drink is actually one of the key sources for antioxidant intake – which is supposed to contribute to coffee’s positive health outcomes.

As you might have noticed from my argumentation: I just love my cup of coffee – which doesn’t mean that also here you have to bare some things in mind:

  • 300 mg / day is “safe” as part of a healthy diet. Awesome news! You’re good with even 4-6 cups of coffee per day – and filter coffee is one of the brewing methods that results in the highest caffeine content. However, with the abundance of sport and energy drinks on the market the daily dose adds up pretty easily. Some of them even cover the full maximum recommended dose of 300 mg. So check out the label and skip the one or the other cup of coffee…
  • Black coffee has close to 0 calories. Black coffee. If you have a sweet tooth and add milk or sugar (or you do both), guess what adds up! Right, the calories. A café latte may contain 200 cal… not to talk about the Frappuccino or iced coffee that could replace a whole meal calorie-wise. And coming back to the energy drinks, yet calorie-free you’ll find a long list of sweeteners, preservatives and other additives tagged. Mmmh. Sometimes you might just want to stay with the black version of caffeine.
  • Caffeine vs. the other good stuff. Yes, there are some sad news, too. Caffeine decreases the uptake of other vitamins and minerals in your guts. As much as we love to combine our cup of joe with breakfast or dessert they interfere with many necessary nutrients (we might already get too little of). That’s why you should neither binge drink your coffee for its benefits. You maybe don’t want to do your müsli without the obligatory hot drink (remember tea has the same drawback) but maybe leave 1 hour distance between coffee and your meals for the rest of the day.

Not eating is Not the answer.

pexels-photo-95212To many people it happens more than once per day: They stop eating. (Not sure, if you got me? You did.) After the last meal minutes become hours, and soon half a day has passed without facing a bite. The body goes towards the fasting state. Many of us do it without even knowing yet some get there on purpose: The breakfast skipping. The non-snacking. The sleeping. Fasting has many faces but what’s the deal with it? Hungry as you are, I’ll explain to you.

To begin with, fasting is since ancient times a healing practice of willing abstinence or reduction from food or drinks (sometimes both) for a defined period, and can be put into spiritual, religious or medical context. It might however be all traced back to the observation that our bodies naturally tend to fast during times of stress or illness – targeting the energy spent for digestion to the “weak spot” (mechanisms a trendsetter once started calling “detox”). People who go on a fast usually don’t consume more than a maximum of 500 calories per day and for preparation of a longer period without food it is often combined with a (rather shitty business) of bowel rinsing. Well, this just to touch upon the vast scope of fasting… I don’t want to go too deep into the origin or application of it as healing practice. The severe energy restriction linked to these methods artificially introduce a starvation mode, not uncommonly used for the sake of weight loss. However, applied as dieting you may want to discuss the aim or approach of your fasting with a doctor or dietitian (…or nutritionist, yes we exist out there) in order to understand it properly or even avoid unappreciated side effects.

So, the organism’s first fuel for energy is glucose. Simple. I mean simple sugar. Carbohydrates to be more fancy. Glucose can be directly sourced from food delivered to our cells but the sooner or later after our last meal low blood sugar levels call for action. By this time we often feel hungry – maybe a primitive signal and not impressive yet – but it’s at this stage we can say the body begins to “fast” (when it starts living on its own energy sources). The easiest way to replenish blood sugar levels thereby is the release of glucose primarily from the liver, however, as this storage is limited soon fat is converted into glucose: Fat is burnt for energy. And BAM, there’s all eyes on fasting. Well, it’s true that the fasting mechanism can be used in favour for weight loss.

However (and for this reason I many times reconsidered squeezing it all into one article) weight loss is complex. You might argue: Wait, you many times mentioned the equation “Calories in versus calories out.” Fair enough. Ok, let me rephrase then: Sustainable weight loss is complex. As long as you consume less calories as your body needs you will lose weight but any temporary diet even though initially successful will fail at the time you go back to “eating normal”. And no, I’m not talking about the “yo yo effect” as it is often told to be linked to the loss of muscle mass slowing down our metabolism. Rather a myth than a fact. Even for fasting over several days muscle protein is the last substrate used for energy. Its mobilization from body tissues simply takes too long and it carries little energy per unit thus other substances are prefered: After glucose and fatty acids themselves ketone bodies (converted from fatty acids) are the magical fuel your body can effectively use for energy. Or: Damn, we are bloody efficient! Anyways, assuming you are disciplined but not gonna go for the 5 days without eating straight you probably don’t care. What seems more interesting to you on a rather daily application is the looong breaks in between your meals. I can understand you must be already confused around the ever-changing recommendations regarding 3 or 5 meals per day. And I feel you, I’ve been there. Insulin levels back and forth, up and down etc… in the end science is still controversial about how many meals per day are good for you – from where we could conclude: Whatever works best for you! While 5 hours without food already get you “starving” or craving for more and junk food you may just need a snack between your meals to avoid the binge eating after being hungry.

And back to talking about protein – everyone’s favorite topic! Even if your body won’t “eat” your muscle for energy as quickly as some literature scares the sh*t out of you protein turnover is a true story: There is a certain demand of protein that needs to be covered by our daily diet which is needed for the production of enzymes and reparation of body tissues. Our bodies are under continuous reconstruction and proteins are one of the major type of building blocks.

However, in the end many studies show that not even after days of fasting people significantly decreased in muscle mass. On the downside of it, muscle mass cannot be increased either when we have a negative energy balance. – And another factor to sustainable weight loss is? Yes, muscle mass for increase of total energy demand. Again, I’m not talking about bodybuilders here who do the diet cycling and at times consume 4000 calories to bulk their muscles and have a much higher energy demand to maintain them – and believe me, for these athletes every gram of mass less hurts!

Anyways, I know there are still many question marks left that just YOU wanted to know about achieving your weight goals but I decided to leave you hungry for more (…maybe cause that was the theme of this article hehe). Don’t worry, you just got me started. What’s however the message I wanted to put across is: For some people any form of fasting may work as a part of their lifestyle but as a temporary solution aiming rapid weight loss it may just lead to the same effect as coming from any other diet. And here we actually talk yo yo effect! After diet cycling many people get back to the same lifestyle as before. Instead of just focusing on calories you may want to consider that eating on a more frequent basis throughout the day gives you a higher chance to vary your food and increase your intake of micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals as well. Overthink your diet habits and sustainably replace with healthier choices instead.