Are gluten-free diets healthy?

When people find out I eat gluten-free, the response is often something like this:  “oh, I’ve heard of that!  I was thinking of trying it out.  Is gluten-free healthy?”

Before I answer, I want to talk about my summer a little bit.  I can’t even begin to remember everything I’ve done the last few months.  We had family visiting from Florida, family visiting from England, and family visiting from Windsor;  I went to cottages; I went to Vegas; I moved out of my apartment so my floors could be replaced post-flooding from our upstairs neighbours; I decided to do a kitchen renovation at the same time.

Here’s a little preview of the kitchen I’ve had to work with for the last few weeks:

2013-09-10 12.31.48

Before we demolished the kitchen, my boyfriend’s family visited for a week, and we ate out almost every meal.  So I’d say I’ve been eating like crap for about 33 days now.  Full disclosure:   I’ve polished off a Dairy Milk bar approximately every 3-4 days, and last week I bought a 2lb bag of Rockets for no reason besides they were by the checkout at Shoppers Drug Mart and I wanted to shovel them in my face.  I’ve eaten at restaurants (fast food and otherwise) for basically every meal besides breakfast since our kitchen was demolished.  I devoured a whole tub of frozen Greek yogurt by myself.  I’ve been eating nachos and pizza and burrito bowls and grilled cheese sandwiches.

Froyo.

I feel gross.  And I’ve probably gained about 8lbs (I haven’t checked; my scale is still in a box somewhere).

But it has all been gluten-free!  Every bite.  Not an ounce of gluten.

I went to the Gluten Free Expo (or as everyone else calls it, “the cardboard convention”) in Toronto a few weeks ago, and I tried all the samples.  Breads, cookies, cakes, bars, pasta, you name it.  Lots of them were delicious!  But by the end of the day, I felt awful.   I went home wondering, what’s the point?

My haul.

My haul.

Back to the question:  are gluten-free diets healthier than normal diets?

No.

Obviously, people who have celiac disease must not eat gluten.  I also believe strongly in non-celiac gluten intolerance, even if mainstream medicine does not (yet).  Not eating gluten has made enough positive changes in my health for me to never eat it again.  I believe it can play a role in autoimmune disease (like Hashimoto’s thyroiditis) and endocrine disorders (like PCOS), mental health issues (like depression), and neurological issues, just to name a few.

I also get really annoyed when I see articles like “The dangers of going gluten-free“, which reiterates the idea that people with celiac disease are the ONLY ones who should avoid gluten, and ONLY after they receive a confirmed diagnosis from a doctor.  Which could mean eating a ton of the thing that is literally destroying your intestinal lining, for months, and possibly getting a false negative anyway.  Why some doctors are so opposed to elimination diets and why some people are so desperate to eat gluten they won’t stop until a doctor says “your intestinal lining is finally destroyed enough for your biopsy to be positive!”, I’ll never understand.  Guess what?  If you have celiac disease, and you stop eating gluten, you will feel better!  There’s your diagnosis.

Articles like that always fail to actually explain the dangers of going gluten-free.  It makes a cool scary-sounding headline, but the “dangers” always end up being things like “it’s expensive!” and “gluten-free products might not be fortified with as many nutrients as gluten-filled products!”  As for the former, yes, if you buy pre-packaged stuff, it’s more expensive to eat gluten free, but it’s getting cheaper.  Eating whole foods isn’t really more expensive.  The latter is correct too, but it’s basically saying that it’s dangerous to eat gluten-free bread because it’s not enriched with as many nutrients as Wonderbread.  Here’s a crazy thought: maybe people shouldn’t be getting their nutrients from enriched wheat bread either?

There is nothing “dangerous” about eating gluten-free.  There are no nutrients found in gluten-containing foods (wheat and other grains) that cannot be attained from other foods.  In fact, I think anyone with a persistent medical issue (which includes most people in North America) should try not eating gluten to see if it helps or not.  However, a diet isn’t automatically healthy because it’s gluten-free.  You know what’s gluten-free?  Candy.  Chocolate.  Ice cream.  Sugar.  Corn chips.  Rice.  Eating a bag of gluten-free cookies is not healthier than eating a bag of Oreos simply because the Oreos contain gluten.  Shoveling roll after roll of Rockets into my mouth is not healthy because Rockets don’t contain gluten.

So, if you don’t think you have celiac disease, and you’re going to eat the exact same crap you are already eating, you may as well keep eating it with gluten.  If you really want to make a change in your health, try real food.  (Or the plant-based kind, if that’s your thing.)

Me?  I can’t wait to have a kitchen again so I can get back on the low-carb, paleo bandwagon.

The Medical Community Really Hates Paleo Diets

I had a “comprehensive health assessment” last Friday, which is a fancy way to say “physical”.  Since I don’t really have a family doctor right now, I went to the clinic my parents recommended, and they do everything from blood work to abdominal ultrasounds to fitness testing.  It was pretty neat.

I expected to be criticized for my diet and thyroid treatment, and I was.  I had a consultation with a dietitian who actually twitched as soon as I mentioned the word “paleo”.  He told me I eat too much fat, especially saturated fat, which will raise my cholesterol and give me a heart attack (no).  Also, my diet is severely lacking in fiber, of which grains are a necessary source (no).  Also, even though I eat around 100 grams of carbohydrates a day, it’s not enough for my brain to function and I need to eat more (no).  Also, it’s just too darn restrictive!  Everything in moderation!  (Sigh.)

The doctor herself mentioned “placebo effect” when I answered her question about why I cut out gluten.  (If the placebo effect can fix a swollen painful thyroid, depression, and interstitial cystitis, among other things, then I’ll take it.)  She also repeated the “everything in moderation” mantra, and told me I should start to eat bread, pasta, and other grains again, so I can have a healthy, balanced diet – because only people with specific gastrointestinal symptoms should cut out gluten.   Okay, I’ll take that under advisement (no).

At my last physical, I was still taking Synthroid, and I was a mess.  I was sleeping 10+ hours a night and napping every afternoon, I was miserable and depressed, all of my joints ached, and my hair was falling out.  I had no energy to exercise or do my job.  The doctor told me my thyroid was “adequately treated” because my TSH was under 10, and then gave me a lecture about my weight, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure (all being symptoms of – guess what – poor thyroid function).  I got a pathetic score on the treadmill fitness test and did 0 push ups because I had no upper body strength.  The physiotherapist told me I had the flexibility of an 80 year old woman, and my body fat measured in at almost 40%.  It was depressing.

So I was pretty thrilled when I took a peek at the screen in the treadmill room on Friday and saw that my time was the longest out of anyone that day, and when my body fat measurement came back 5% less than what my Withings scale says.  I passed the flexibility test with flying colours (“wow, you really must do a lot of yoga”).  I was even happier when I saw the doctor for a review of my blood work, after being told all day that my diet is terrible, and she said “oh – your blood work is actually really good.”  She even said “your cholesterol is amazing!”  And my blood pressure is 90/60.

This paleo diet, it’s ruining me!

Please Be Careful with Patient Advice

I don’t want to disparage the value of learning about your medical condition online, especially when getting proper treatment from professionals can be so frustrating.  I’ve certainly had my share of terrible doctors, and I wouldn’t have found proper treatment for Hashimoto’s thyroiditis if it weren’t for patient advocates like Mary Shomon, and the books and surrounding community of Stop the Thyroid Madness, among other sources.

HOWEVER, lately I’ve been noticing a lot of people seeking specific medical advice from the internet, and I think that’s dangerous.  Maybe it’s because all of the posts from thyroid patient Facebook groups are suddenly showing up all over my timeline, but it seems like every day someone is asking a question they should be asking to a doctor.   For example: “I ordered iodine supplements in the mail.  My doctor told me to only take half a pill; should I go ahead and take the whole thing?” 

NO, you should take half a pill, like your doctor said – the one who has a medical degree and knows your personal patient history!

“But Jen, lots of doctors are terrible.  What if this doctor doesn’t know what he’s doing?  Why should I trust this doctor’s advice when other patients are giving me different information?”

Then please, please find a new doctor.  I know it can be hard.  I know it can take a long time to get an appointment.  I know that some people live in areas where good doctors aren’t accessible.  I get it, and I know what it’s like to be so desperate to feel better that you’ll literally try anything.   But it’s scary when I see people asking for advice that could be potentially dangerous.

I know that patient communities aren’t allowed to give medical advice, because that’s illegal.  You’re supposed to say “patient experience has shown…”  But that doesn’t stop people from posting about a miracle supplement they tried that made them feel better, which leads to other people in the group ordering that supplement from the internet and taking it without consulting a physician.  Iodine is a good example, since its use is controversial - however, many patients online will tell you it’s not controversial and everyone should take it.  This weekend, I saw someone tell a patient who has a rare iodine allergy that her doctor is wrong and she should take it anyway.  Natural thyroid hormone is another example – I’m always seeing people post about ordering their own from the internet, and getting advice from other patients about dosage.  People will specifically post that they are going against their doctor’s dosage and ask other patients how much they should be taking.

I actually did the same thing when I started taking dessicated thyroid hormone.  My doctor prescribed a specific dosage, and I increased it on my own based on advice from the internet.  I ended up severely hyperthyroid, because I misjudged my symptoms as being hypothyroid symptoms instead of the opposite, and I was over-dosing.  I was told that the hyperthyroidism had put so much stress on my heart that I was at risk of heart failure.

Of course, there are success stories too.  People post every day about how they got their lives back, and they couldn’t have done it without support from the patient community.  There are some extremely intelligent, knowledgeable people in these communities, who work hard every day to fight for other patients to get the proper medical treatment they deserve.  But there is also bad advice, people who parrot things they’ve heard without doing research themselves, and people who think that if something worked for them, it will work for everyone.

So, make use of these communities, but be keep a few things in mind:

  • The people in thyroid communities are patients just like you.  They have struggled like you, and some of them have recovered.  But they are not medical practitioners.  Some of them are extremely well read and knowledgeable, and you should use their advice to educate yourself so you can work with your doctor on a treatment plan.  Finding a good doctor should be priority #1.  If this is an obstacle, then just be careful with the advice you follow.  (For instance, ordering medication on the internet without a prescription and dosing yourself based on advice from a stranger who knows nothing about your medical history is generally not a good idea.)
  • Thyroid treatment is not a one-size-fits-all solution.  Thyroid patients should understand this, since most of us have gone through the “Synthroid is all you need” treatment plan at least once.  So, if someone tells you “this combination of diet, supplements, and medication worked for me, so you need the exact same thing,” remember that you are a different person who likely requires a different solution.
  • Not every thyroid patient is an expert just because they post in a community group, just as not every doctor is good just because they have a medical degree.

Be smart!

Understanding Inadequate Thyroid Care

I got in an internet discussion a few weeks ago about the alternative medicine joke:

Q. What do you call alternative medicine that works?

A. Medicine.

There seems to be a misconception that alternative medicine is everything from healing crystals to all-juice diets, and “real” medicine is stuff that works.  One person said, “if a treatment were proven, my doctor would do it.  If he doesn’t, then it’s bullshit.”

Unfortunately, I have learned that thyroid treatment is a perfect example of why it is a lot more complicated than that, and how there is a massive gray area between “proven” and “BS”.

I was reminded of that discussion after The Coalition for Better Thyroid Care posted a link to this article today, which addresses the problems a lot of thyroid patients face in their medical treatment.  Most notably:

“The lag between the discovery of more effective forms of treatment and their incorporation into routine patient care averages 17 years.”  

17 years.  Seventeen years for something that is “proven” to make its way into routine patient care.  That’s an entire human being who has gone through puberty and acquired a drivers’ license.

It took me five tries to find my current thyroid doctor, and his clinic is considered an “alternative” clinic.  This is because he does things like:

Nothing he does is unsupported by science, and he’s happy to point to medical studies and literature for his patients to read.  One could argue that other doctors are aware of the debates about thyroid treatment and have simply made an informed decision that there isn’t enough compelling evidence to support them.  However, that hasn’t been my personal experience.

From of the four doctors I saw before my current doctor, questions were met with “I haven’t heard about that” or worse, “it doesn’t matter what new research says, because this is the gold standard for thyroid treatment”.  I have relatives whose doctors have never heard of dessicated thyroid medication, which has been used successfully in thyroid treatment since 1891.

All four doctors used the “whatever it says on the lab results page is correct” treatment method (if the lab says your TSH is too high, increase Synthroid dosage, if the lab says your TSH is too low, decrease Synthroid dosage, and if the lab says your TSH is in the normal range, you’re fine and your symptoms are in your imagination).

So what does this mean for patients?

It’s our responsibility to advocate for our own health.  Read and research (not to be confused with looking at WebMD and self-diagnosing every ache and pain as cancer), and learn how to have a conversation with your doctor as an active participant in your health care, and not be told what’s right for you.  Respect your doctor’s expertise, but still understand that you know if something isn’t right, and dismissing it is not an option.  And if you need to?  Find a new doctor.

Hopefully, the things listed above will be the gold standard for thyroid treatment sooner than 2030.

I need a factory reset on my diet.

Plane

I’m still Christmas-ing at my mom’s house.  The Christmas hasn’t stopped since December 23rd!  And neither has the eating.  It’s like a disease: if there is food in front of me, I will shove it into my face.  Unless it contains gluten.  Which worked pretty well while I was visiting family in Ottawa and couldn’t eat most of the cookies, but hasn’t worked so well at my mom’s house where there are 6+ tins of gluten-free goodies sitting in front of me at all times.  It’s amazing how bad sugar and carbs make me feel, and it’s equally amazing how I keep stuffing them in my cake hole anyway.  ‘Tis the season!

I was trying to look back and see if I made any New Year’s resolutions this year, and I didn’t really, but I did achieve my one goal of eating my way to feeling healthy again.  Aside from this last week.  I’ve never enjoyed food as much in my whole life as I do now that I added meat back into my diet – and I haven’t felt this good in years.  I also lost 30lbs this year and am wearing a size 6.

So I suppose my New Year’s resolutions for 2013 are:

  • Keep eating delicious awesome foods.
    • Improve on planning meals in advance and going to the grocery store, so I don’t let it get to 6pm before I try to figure out what to eat for dinner, find I have no food, and end up eating pizza for dinner.
    • Try out more recipes and new things.
    • Learn how to use the crock pot.
    • Try fish.
  • Keep going to yoga and Pilates 5-6 times a week.
    • I’d like to work towards yoga teacher training this year.  I’m not sure I’m ready yet, but I want to start planning for it and deciding where to do it.
    • Learn how to do wheel, crane, and plow poses.
  • Do some more cardio, like running.
  • Do more outdoorsy activities, like hiking.
  • Spend more time with family.
  • Work hard.
  • Get haircuts more often.  Just ’cause.

Living Well with Hypothyroidism

A post on Stop the Thyroid Madness led me to this woman’s blog post about how well she feels taking natural thyroid hormone vs. levothyroxine (Synthroid).  I thought it might be a good time to review how I’ve been feeling.

When I started this blog, I was feeling pretty awful.  I had been taking Synthroid for about 8 months, and my doctor told me that my TSH was normal, so any symptoms I might be experiencing weren’t actually symptoms, they were psychological problems.  Here are a few of the biggest symptoms I was experiencing:

  • Extreme fatigue (at its worst, I was sleeping about 18+ hours a day)
  • Serious depression, mood swings, anxiety, and general crankiness
  • Choking feeling / pressure and occasional pain in my neck
  • All-over soreness like I did the hardest workout of my life the day before, and constantly aching joints
  • Heart palpitations
  • Inability to exercise (as soon as my heart rate went up, I would get dizzy and feel like I was going to pass out, or my hands would go numb)
  • Inability to do my job (as a photographer, I didn’t have enough energy or strength to be on my feet for hours at a time, and I couldn’t book things in advance because I didn’t know how I would feel)
  • Weakness, especially in the upper body
  • Weight gain and a complete inability to lose weight no matter how hard I tried
  • Getting a cold/flu every few weeks
  • Daily headaches and frequent migraines
  • Dry skin, hair, and nails; nails that break like they’re made of paper and a ton of hair loss

It took four doctors to find someone amazing, several months of playing around with my dose of Thyroid, cutting gluten 100% out of my life, and then following a primal diet, to finally get my list of symptoms down to this:

  • Occasional fatigue or general “blah” feeling
  • Occasional mild depression/irritability

Both of those things usually happen after I eat something I’m not supposed to eat (like grains or sugar).

There might be a few other little things, but overall I feel amazing, and I’m so grateful I finally found a solution.

Last year on my 27th birthday, I said: “I bet by next year I will be feeling the healthiest I’ve ever felt!”  And it was true.  High five, past self.

How the Paleo Diet Changed My Life

Last time I really posted, I talked a little bit about struggling with eating meat again, and my doctor recommending that I try a primal/paleo diet.  That was in July, almost 4 months ago.

I’m happy to report that I had the best summer in as long as I can remember.  Here are a few positive changes since I begrudgingly started eating meat again:

- I’ve lost about 20lbs since that post in July.  I’m now within my ideal weight range.  The best part is, it has been virtually effortless.  I can’t tell you how many things I’ve tried over the last 6 or 7 years that promised the weight would “just melt off,” and I was left despising food, hating myself, and feeling like a failure.  It feels good to eat whatever I want and lose weight.

- I have never enjoyed food as much as I do now.  I enforce a strict policy of never feeling guilty about anything I eat, and that has changed my entire perspective on food.  Food is not an enemy, it’s not my nemesis, it’s delicious and amazing and I’m going to enjoy every bite.  Food makes me happy.

- I have more energy in one day than the last several years put together.  Not only do I not need my daily 4 hour afternoon nap anymore, I virtually can’t nap even when I try.

- I’m happy and I feel healthy.  Most of my hypothyroidism symptoms are gone.  No more depression and mood swings (mostly).

- Last but not least, jeggings.  6 months ago, this word made me cringe and unleash a barrage of mockery.  Truth is, I was too self-conscious to wear tight clothes, and now I live in them because they’re the most comfortable pants in the world.  Where have you been all my life?

I recommend this to everyone, especially if you have been struggling with chronic health and mental health issues.  Give the 21-day challenge a try.

I’m a Meat Eater?

I mentioned back in May that I was planning to start eating meat again.  And then I didn’t, because:

I’ve had bits and pieces.  My 90 year old grandmother in England cooked us a pile of bacon in May, and I ate half a piece.  In June, I ate eat half a piece of BBQ chicken for dinner.  Whoopdeedoo.  Basically, I decided I could just keep being a vegetarian for a while longer, because I’m a big baby and meat is yucky.

Over the last few months, my health has been a complete roller coaster.  Last time I saw my doctor, he gave me some probiotics to take for a month. They made me feel awful.  I was exhausted, depressed, lethargic, I couldn’t concentrate on anything – just a huge mess.  I stopped taking them and I felt better.  Then a few weeks ago, I forgot to bring my vitamins and supplements when I went away for a long weekend, so I didn’t take anything except my thyroid medication.  I felt amazing!  Obviously, I have been reacting to something in one (or more than one) of my supplements, and now this is the best I’ve felt since being diagnosed 2 years ago.  I’ve been going to the gym, working, and not taking any naps.  Amazing!

Now that I feel better, I’ve been noticing how much of an effect food has on how I feel.  Namely, my body doesn’t react well to carbs – which isn’t unusual for thyroid patients.  Eat a potato, sleep for 3 hours.  Eat a gluten-free bagel for breakfast, no energy for the rest of the day.  Something had to change.

Last week, I told my doctor all of this stuff, and he recommended a high-fat diet.  He told me to research primal/paleo eating.

Paleo is something I’ve read a little bit about since my parents were told in December that they were both gluten intolerant.  I bought them Make it Paleo for Christmas.  But I had this idea in my head that Paleo meant I would have to eat a ton of beef and it would be really gross, and then I would picture that scene from Game of Thrones.

This past weekend, I spent a couple hours looking at every single recipe in my parents’ book, and it turns out it’s amazing.  Everything from scrambled eggs and veggies to coconut flour waffles to amazing salads.  I ended up eating bacon and chicken this weekend, and you know what?  I enjoyed it.  And I have more energy.

It’s really hard to change something I’ve been doing since I was 19 years old, but so far: a) I feel better, and b) I can actually go to restaurants and travel and find things to eat.  Overall, so far so good.

Happy Anniversary

Today is my 1 year anniversary of being gluten-free.  It’s also the 1-year anniversary of this blog!

Day 1
1 Week
1 Month
6 Months

Things have improved a lot in the last year.  I have a new doctor who doesn’t treat me like a hypochondriac, I’m able to exercise and work again, I’m not sleeping 18 hours a day.  But I still don’t feel great.  I know that getting better is a process, and it takes time.  My doctor has been doing a lot for me, but I’m also looking for things I can do on my own.

That’s why I’ve decided to start eating meat again.

I became a vegetarian on Christmas day, 2005, though my mom would tell you I was born a vegetarian.  I’ve always hated meat.  As a kid, I would go to great lengths to avoid the meat on my plate.  I could tolerate chicken (but really, I think I just liked BBQ sauce) and turkey, but steak and fish grossed me out.  My parents told me I could stop eating meat when I did the research into what I needed to eat to be a healthy vegetarian.  Finally, in university, I decided it was time and I haven’t had meat since.

For the last year, I’ve been a gluten-free vegetarian.  It’s not so bad when I’m at home, but it’s hard to travel or eat at restaurants since most of the gluten-free options are meat based.  Lately I’ve been reading about the effect of soy on people with thyroid disorders.  Many doctors recommend thyroid patients cut soy out of their diets, and I actually had an ALCAT test tell me I’m intolerant to soy.  But while it’s hard being a gluten-free vegetarian, it’s even harder being a gluten-free soy-free vegetarian, so I haven’t stopped eating it.

I still believe that a vegetarian diet is fine for a normal, healthy person.  I am not a normal, healthy person.  If eating meat will help improve my situation, I’m going to try it.  Even if thinking about eating meat makes me make this face:

Tomorrow I’m headed to the UK for 12 days.  After that… meat time?  (That doesn’t sound right.)

CN Tower Climb

Remember how I impulsively decided to do the CN Tower Climb?  Well, it’s tomorrow.

I was mostly training in my building, which is only 7 stories and I had to walk down in between.  It got boring after a while, so last week I decided to try my mom’s building, which is 25 stories.

By the time I got to the top, my throat and my chest were so sore I was having trouble breathing – and this was after taking multiple breaks.  I felt like I was going to throw up and my lungs were burning.  I was really disappointed.  I thought, “how could I be this out of shape?”  I had a talk with my mom and pretty much decided that I wouldn’t do the climb.  And then I avoided my blog because I didn’t want to admit I was going to back out.

Then… I started to cough.  And I kept coughing for about 2 days.  Maybe I was just sick!  So last weekend, I tried again.  I did 70 flights (1120 steps), and while it wasn’t bad, I still wasn’t sure.

Then I realized that while the CN Tower Climb says it’s 144 flights of stairs, 1776 steps / 144 flights =  12 steps per flight.  My building and my mom’s building are an average of 16 steps per flight.  Since I’ve been counting flights and not steps, I’ve actually been closer to reaching my goal than I thought.

With that in mind, I headed over to my mom’s building on Tuesday for another try.  My goal was to go up 3 times – a total of 75 flights (1200 steps).  However, I felt so good that I ended up doing 5 rounds – 125 flights (2000 steps).  224 steps more than the CN Tower!

So I feel like I can do it.  I’m definitely going to need breaks, and I won’t be bragging about my time, but I’ll feel pretty satisfied just completing it.