Is gluten bad?

There’s a lot of press around gluten, and many people are now avoiding it. Some writers have associated it with bloating, weight gain and ill health and none of us want those things! So surely, avoidance is best?

Not so fast…

There is clear evidence that gluten is very damaging to those who have Coeliac Disease. But there is no evidence that either gluten or grains are bad for the rest of us, despite books like ‘Grain Brain’.

So what does science show beyond doubt? (very little, actually).

It shows that high fibre diets, that include whole grains (and gluten) are very beneficial for health as they help ward of cancer and heart disease. Increasingly, it looks as though part of the reason is because they encourage beneficial microbiome (gut bacteria).

What about if you think you have a reaction to gluten?

Many experiments have been run on people who have a diagnosed gluten-intolerance, and when given gluten in random doses, they displayed no reaction to it. So it looks as though something else is going on, but what?

Firstly, any carbohydrate consumed in a large quantity will cause bloating, and as our portion sizes are now completely out of whack, it’s hard to know when to stop. We’re talking half a bagel, or one to two slices of bread (depending on the size of the slice and the loaf). That’s a serving, and some of us are feeling bloated because we’re eating too much.

Secondly, in some instances, the use of herbicides on the grain prior to harvesting (yes, this is common practice in some countries, especially America – where wheat is sprayed with Glyphosate a few days before harvest to make it easier because the wheat is already dying). These herbicides remain in the grain and do us no favours at all.

Thirdly, highly processed carbs don’t always sit well in the body.

Many people are fine with barley and oats – both whole grains that contain gluten.

It seems that the gluten itself isn’t a problem for most people, but some of the processing of the grain might be.

What suits your body?

Eating in the car: it still counts

Michael is a delightful restaurant owner – he is the epitome of what you might imagine – jolly, jovial, larger than life. And you might be forgiven for assuming that the larger than life part is due to the abundance of food in his restaurants…. Think again. Because every night, on his way home from the restaurant, he buys a 1kg bar of Dairy Milk, and consumes the lot.

Perhaps you’ve done it? You’ve just filled up with petrol, and somehow a bar of chocolate is in your lap, bought in a rush, an impulse at the checkout. You fumble at it, fingers slipping on the wrapper as you try to keep your hands on the steering wheel, heart pounding. You glance at the other drivers. They aren’t looking at you, their focus is on the road. Unlike yours. Your focus is on the wrapper that isn’t tearing.

You put both hands in your lap and rip, and the paper tears. Saliva rushes into your mouth like a dam breaking. The chocolate is already melting with the heat of your lap and the urgency of your desire. You break a piece off, the brown staining your fingertips as you cram it into your mouth. The traffic ahead stops sharply and you slam your foot down, pulse racing as you swallow down the sticky sweetness.

A long drive, you might think? Maybe a two hour commute where he’s hungry and needs sustenance? That’s not the case – his drive is approximately ten minutes. Maybe fifteen if the traffic is bad (which, by the time he leaves the restaurant, it never is). And in that time, during that brief drive, he ate (although I’m not sure this is the best word – perhaps inhaled?) a kilogram of chocolate.

Did he really taste it? Did he enjoy it? Did he focus on it? Or did he shove it down as fast as he could so that no-one would know?

When Michael came to see me, he told me this, with a bit of a giggle: laughter to cover his shame. He knew what the problem was, he just couldn’t stop it.

You saw it, so you want it…

Pavlov is well known for his experiments regarding dogs. When he fed them, he rang a little bell. Eventually, he only needed to ring the bell and the dogs salivated, even when there was no food.

I know we’d like to think that we’re superior to dogs. But there are lots of things in our lives that act like this trigger. Events that induce salivation due to habit. It might be turning on the television, if you usually eat in front of it. Or driving past a garage if you buy snacks when you fill up. Or walking past a certain bakery if you often buy cakes there.

You weren’t thinking of eating a cinnamon roll, were you, until you walked past the bakery and that delicious sweet, spicy smell engulfed you? All at once, your tongue tingles with the anticipation of the sugary coating, the warm, yeasty bread beneath. You find yourself in the shop. A moment earlier you weren’t even hungry.

Or maybe you’re watching television and there is Nigella, dipping her finger into an oozing mass of chocolatey sauce. All at once, the idea of chocolate, or Nutella or a hot pudding fills your mind. The next thing you know, you’re on the hunt for it.

What in your life, acts like that bell, and has you salivating for food whether you’re hungry or not? Can you retrain the dog?

Excerpt from ‘Why we Cheat when we Eat and how to stop’.

Neuroscience is proving what food manufacturers have known for years…

Until recently, research focused on physical hunger, and assumed that being obese meant you were just incredibly hungry and therefore had to eat loads. I suspect a number of us could have told them that eating dessert has nothing to do with feeling hungry or full. And at last, research is catching up.

Michael Lowe, a clinical psychologist at Drexel University coined the term “hedonic hunger” in 2007. He says: “A lot of overeating, maybe all of the eating people do beyond their energy needs, is based on consuming some of our most palatable foods.” No kidding! Please don’t tell me it took years of scientific research to work that out. Who gets fat on cucumber?

Research shows that extremely sweet or fatty foods light up the brain’s reward circuit in the same way that cocaine, drugs, gambling and other ‘addictive’ behaviours do. The brain begins to react to fatty and sugary foods even before they enter our mouth: just seeing them excites the reward circuit. As soon as such it touches the tongue, taste buds send signals to the brain, which ramps up dopamine. The result is an intense feeling of pleasure.

Over time, the brain gets desensitised, so to get the same ‘high’ or pleasurable feeling, we need to eat more. It’s the same with any addiction. We need a bigger and bigger hit. The brain needs a lot more sugar and fat to reach the same level of pleasure that it once felt with smaller amounts of the foods.

This isn’t a sign of us being weak. It’s us being in thrall to an addictive circuit in our brain. When dopamine levels drop, we feel down. So no wonder we turn to fat and sugar. They are literally acting as an anti-depressant. Food is acting like a drug.

Excerpt from ‘Why we Cheat when we Eat and how to stop’.

The bites that ‘don’t count’

Perhaps you turned down a slice of cake, but now you find yourself at the plate, knife in hand, just making sure that the edge is even. You cut a sliver and shove it into your mouth. The cake tastes delicious. You return to the platter and ease off another morsel. Now the edge is a mess. You take the knife again and cut to smooth the ends. A short while later, the cake is considerably smaller…

It’s very easy to say that one mouthful won’t make a difference. The question is then, which mouthful makes us fat? Is it the first? Or the hundredth?

Maybe your friends are saying, come on, you’ve done really well! One dessert won’t kill you! They are right, it won’t, but it’s very easy for that one dessert to become many.

There are many times we can tell ourselves ‘This doesn’t count’. I didn’t order a dessert – I ate it from my husband’s plate, so that doesn’t count. Or I was just clearing dishes, and it was a shame to let the rest go to waste. So I scoffed it rather than put it in the garbage.

It’s much easier to let ourselves off the hook than stick to a diet because diets require us to make a huge effort. They ask for such a large change. Everything we know, everything we do is thrown out of the window. Your normal eating habits are utterly disrupted to make way for a new miracle fix that promises amazing results.

This is mainly because most of us believe that losing weight is so hard, so painful and so mysterious, that only the truly radical solutions will work.

But what if that wasn’t the case at all? What if one tiny change was all that was needed?

Excerpt from ‘Why we Cheat when we Eat and how to stop’.

How food porn arouses us

I love the introduction to the scientific paper called Eating with our Eyes: “One of the brain’s key roles is to facilitate foraging and feeding. It is presumably no coincidence, then, that the mouth is situated close to the brain in most animal species.”

The mouth is close to the brain, indeed! This same paper talks of ‘food porn’. We are currently obsessed with images of food. Instagram feeds are crammed with photographs of meals and snacks. Cookery channels dominate television with depictions of luscious ingredients whisked into appetising meals. Food has become more forbidden than sex. We are ogling pictures of it in the same way that men used to sneak glances at 1970’s centrefolds.

In America, digital media influences more than 70 percent of the food eaten by households. Research show that “external food cues, such as the sight of appetizing food can evoke a desire to eat, even in the absence of hunger.” Again – no kidding… these scientists seem to spend years researching things that you and I knew to be true from a relatively young age.

What’s really interesting is that physical things occur within us, just from seeing a picture. We salivate (we all know that). But more worryingly, we produce insulin. Our bodies shoot out the hormone required to deal with the sugar even when we haven’t eaten it. And of course, when our insulin goes up, we crave sugar even more to balance it out. Even our heart beats faster in anticipation of the food.

This is where we need to track back to hunger. Food manufacturers know that seductive images of delicious food will draw us in, hungry or not. And our brains will take the trigger and act on it, without even consulting our conscious selves.

If we can stay in touch with our natural appetite, and eat when we are hungry, it reduces the impact of these external stimuli, and allows us to remain in control of what we eat and when.

Excerpt from ‘Why we Cheat when we Eat and how to stop’.

How did the packet end up empty? Part 2

Not only is this embarrassing. It’s extraordinary. It seems that our left hand literally doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.

The first thing to do, is not to add to your woes with a large helping of guilt. These are well worn paths that you are travelling. Part of your being is just doing what it thinks you want.

David Kessler, the former head of the US government’s most powerful food agency, the FDA, talks of ‘priming’. Sometimes just one taste of a food, a single bite, is enough to trigger conditioned ‘hyper-eating’. Priming involves stimulating areas of your brain. The use of the word ‘conditioned’ means it’s already a habit. Your body recognises the primer, or taste, as the beginning of a conditioned or habituated pattern of behaviour.

The problem is that it’s hard to shut those habits off. Once primed, they stay activated and you may continue to eat until all the food is gone. That’s what the food industry knows when it tells us “Bet you can’t eat just one.”

The good news is that priming only holds power for a short time. If you eat one piece of candy and there’s a bowl of them in front of you, chances are you will keep eating more. But if no more are available or you have to search for them, the priming response may be undermined.

If you travel these paths less, or stop doing the behaviour, the priming will fade and it will stop being automatic, and you will not feel so compelled. But how to get there?

It’s easiest to stop the habit in the earliest stages. If you know there are times when you eat unconsciously, and they are usually in a certain place, or preceded by a certain thing, then try to address the first step.

What do you need to do to arrest the behaviour? To wake yourself up before your subconscious takes over?

When Food is Love…

Some foods can feel like love. They fill us, soothe us, comfort us. They are there for us after a hard day, no matter what. A few mouthfuls later and a sensation of bliss flows through our bodies. It can feel as safe and nurturing as a mother’s embrace, as sublime as a lover’s kiss.

Often, these are foods we have learned to crave since childhood. Strong memories and associations underpin some of the meanings they hold for us. Somewhere in the past we have had experiences where we made a connection between the food and the emotions.

A friend told me: “I’m going home and I just know that Mum is going to ply me with cake. She’ll have baked just for me, and I both want to gorge myself on it, and want to refuse it. Because I’ll feel crap the next day.”

Who wouldn’t want to gorge themselves on their mother’s love? To feel replete with worthiness, safe as a fluffy chick in a nest.

But food isn’t love. And cake isn’t worthiness.

They can feel similar physically, which is part of the mix-up. Both trigger dopamine, and can release endorphins and other chemicals that do indeed make us ‘feel better’. We have a physiological response both to hugs and love, and to certain foods, and that response in our body is close enough for us to get confused. In fact, it not only gets us confused, it can make us rely on  one when the other (usually love) isn’t available, or doesn’t feel like it is.

One of the first things we can do is to recognise that we have conflated the two, confused ourselves by mixing love into the pie.

Then, if we find ourselves turning to food, when what we really want is love, we need to ask what else might serve in its place? Would curling up under a blanket do it? Or walking in nature? Do you need to be with a friend, even if its on the other end of the phone? Or can you bear to be with yourself, take your need for love and treasure it, and love that need in yourself enough that all thoughts of cake fade away?

 

Struggling to eat healthily on a budget?

This article in The Guardian describes a weekly shop for £20 (US$26 or AU$36) together with recipes that look delicious. In a bid to reduce food waste, and therefore help our environment, the inventive meals mean that nothing is thrown away.

There are pancakes and porridge for breakfast followed an enticing pasta dish with pesto and vegetables for lunch.

Dinner is a spectacular vegetable dish.

I love the way this looks after the planet, our wallets and our waistlines. Very few ways of eating balance all three. The Paleo and low carb diets are very hard on the environment, as eating meat is the single most detrimental thing any of us do. If you’re interested you can read more here. Supplements and shakes and pre-prepared foods are expensive.

And here is a simple way to look after all three.

Need inspiration? Check out the article.

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