30-day Gluten-Free Challenge Wrap Up

One of the big lessons I took away from my 30-day gluten-free challenge is not to enter in diet modifications lightly. The times I felt the most significant changes to my overall well-being were when I removed gluten from my diet and when I reintegrated it. Neither times were positive, bringing headaches, mood swings, and a digestive retooling. Do not enter this type of challenge lightly.

The second lesson I took away from this is how quickly something becomes a habit. After a few weeks, I honestly did not miss gluten. Not eating baked goods no longer became a will power issue. It was mostly an inconvenience, as in, I am hungry and see nothing easily accessible that I can eat. I now find it difficult to eat gluten after 30 days without it, not physically difficult, but mentally. I have become so use to rejecting it that I no longer desire it. Not that this stopped me from eating birthday cake on my birthday or pizza on vacation.

The big question for me remains, is gluten really the culprit? Or is it a heavy starch-based diet of processed foods? Obviously, for those with celiac disease gluten is the problem. But what about the others who claim miraculous transformations from cutting out gluten?

Moving forward, I will do my best to follow a clean, whole food diet, not as a 30-day challenge, but as part of my everyday life. This means less processed foods and more time at the farmer’s market.


Day 21 – Gluten-Free Challenge Check In

I have now completed three weeks completely gluten-free. So far, I do not feel any miraculous change. My stomach is still sensitive. I am not thinking more sharply nor am I less moody. Perhaps the only change is that I am a bit more energetic. However, I can easily attribute this to the change of season. It’s hard to keep all the other variables in my life the same. For instance, since my children’s school let out for summer, I have not made it to the gym. I have, though, been generally more physically active: bouncing on the trampoline, swimming in the pool, and taking care of household messes both indoors and out.

Still, while I do not think I will remain gluten-free after my thirty days are up, I think I will remain more gluten conscious. One of the greatest benefits from doing this challenge has been a sense of mindfulness about what I eat. Usually, I just finish my children’s food or grab a handful of whatever is in the cupboards without any thought. Without the ability to eat pasta or crackers, this practice became much more difficult.

Despite my mindfulness, I did not lose any weight. My body has remained at a state of homeostasis for so long, through new exercise regimens, holiday binges, and seasonal changes, that I would fear a terminal disease if I began to lose weight. I also found a way to replace the calories from the foods I cut. The first five days of my challenge I ate an entire pound of almonds! This wouldn’t have been so bad if most of those almonds weren’t followed by a dark chocolate chaser.

It’s important to note that a gluten-free diet is not necessarily low-carb diet. My bunless burgers sometimes came with French fries on the side. After I finish this challenge, I plan to engage in a different healthy eating plan, which will include less carbohydrates and processed foods in general.

The Blue and Black Salad, A Paradigm Shift

The first time I experienced a blue and black burger I was at an alumni magazine editor conference (yes, such a thing exists) in Boston. Because the travel gods were against me, my true fun and adventurous self was buried beneath a head cold. Still, I rallied as best I could to see the city with my boyfriend and travel partner. After a long day of conferencing, which peaked with the unbelievably big name speaker Susan Orlean, whom I still consider to be the ultimate profile writer and a pioneer of creative nonfiction journalism, we tried to find a restaurant close to our hotel.

Near the campus of MIT, we discovered the Boston Burger Company. I really never considered myself a burger person, as meat in general is not a large staple in my diet. At the time, my favorite hamburger came from McDonald’s, and I do not mean the Quarter Pounder or double patty Big Mac, but the 99 cent one with the thin slab of barely detectable meat. Mostly because I am a big fan of those partially dehydrated onions that are sold in vats at Gordon Foods, which are generously doled on every McDonalds burger. I know, as I spent a year of my adolescence working underneath the golden arches. Nothing helps teenage acne like steam from the deep fryers.

Despite my health and hesitations, I looked for a new culinary experience at every Boston stop. The best part of travel is food discoveries: salmon in Seattle, gumbo in New Orleans, deep dish pizza in Chicago, etc. Two of the criteria of a good trip are a good meal and a new experience. Often, they go hand and hand.

I initially chose the black and blue burger because I associated the term “blackened” with well done, which is the only way I like my beef. Any sign of red, reminding me that this was once blood-filled animal flesh, causes me to immediately gag. Again, not a meat person. However, that night I became a burger person. The sheer quantity of seasonings penetrated my plugged sinuses and actually made an impression on my dulled taste buds. I especially enjoyed the combination of sharp flavors as the seasonings melded with the blue cheese. The burger, which included an eight ounce patty, was dauntingly large. And I ate the whole thing. Every crumb.

Since that trip, I’ve ordered many blue and black burgers: some with a blue cheese sauce instead of crumbles, some with bacon, some with caramelized onions, some with turkey instead of beef. I loved them all. For 30 days I am saying goodbye to brioche and pretzel buns, which means I am saying good-bye to burgers.

Tonight, as I adjust to this new diet paradigm, I attempted to make a blue and black salad. I took my burger meat and instead of making patties fried it into crumbles. As it cooked I dosed it with a black and blue seasoning recipe I found online (minus the thyme, which tastes like how musty smells). I softened some onions in the microwave, as sautéed onions are my favorite burger topping. Then I sprinkled this over baby lettuce and blue cheese crumbles. I drizzle the whole concoction with a yogurt based blue cheese dressing. It was tasty, but I found the blue cheese a bit overpowering in this format.

The challenge is still a challenge. While I felt full after eating my blue and black salad, I still felt a craving for something. I don’t necessarily crave bread — it’s more of an intangible yearning. What can fill the gluten void?

Going Nuts: Making My Own Almond Butter

As I was gorging myself on breadless peanut butter and banana sandwiches yesterday morning, I already knew that while this was gluten-free, it was not healthy. Despite or perhaps because of it’s reduced fat peanut butter status, my JIF contains a lot of ingredients besides peanuts, such as the number 2 ingredient corn syrup solids. So I decided to make my first DIY jar of nut butter.

At the start of my Google search, all the recipes I found recommended I first soak the nuts and then go through a drying process. Way too much fuss and way too much time! Then I found the Detoxinista, who listed a simpler process—roast raw almonds for 10-12 minutes in a 325 degree oven and then throw in the food processor. Sold!


If you try this at home, be prepared for the blast of sound as your processor tries to break down the hard shells of a pound of almonds. I seriously stopped and put on headphones, but I am unusually noise sensitive. No one is allowed to watch TV in my house over volume 8. Luckily, it soon died down to a normal processing whir. Get comfortable with this sound, as the process from nut to nut butter is a LONG one. It took me a full 20 minutes of starting and stopping to scrape the sides.

To enhance the flavor, which was a little blasé, I added a tablespoon of coconut butter and a tablespoon of pure maple syrup. The end result was heavenly, especially when it was still warm from the roasting process. I added some dark chocolate chips and grabbed a spoon. Let the dieting begin J

Day Two: Wheat Opiate Withdrawal

In my current English class, one of my students is doing a 30-day challenge to quit smoking. The toll it is taking on him is clearly visible — the fidgeting, the irritability, the need for candy to dull the pulsating physical need for nicotine. When I see struggles like these, I always feel a profound sense of gratefulness that I never had to fight a powerful addiction. My new 30-day challenge is a humbling exercise in empathy.

Steadily over the years, I have made increasingly healthy choices when it comes to breads, abandoning white bread for whole grain breads, and recently only eating the 35-calorie breads. I eat the low-carb versions of flour tortillas and healthier versions of pasta as well. So, honestly, I thought doing a gluten-free challenge would be a nuisance more than anything, a restaurant inconvenience.

This morning I woke up at 5 a.m. paralyzed with anxiety about the policy changes at my children’s daycare. Yes, childcare is a good reason to stress, but usually I can control my worries and focus on the task at hand, in this case sleep. I’m notoriously easygoing, at least I am when I am pumped fuel of gluten.

As I shopped in the morning for my healthy substitutes and emergency microwavable meals, I was reminded of those late night runs to Meijer’s in college, when the bars closed and suddenly someone wanted a bag of combos. A somnambulant haze descended on me, and I had to constantly remind myself to focus. At the time, I blamed on the hunger. For breakfast, I scooped slices of bananas out of a peanut butter jar, which had the appetite-suppressing shelf life of two hours.

However, later, after I gorged myself on Indian cuisine, leftover tofu, and lime flavored corn chips, the mental fog remained. The issue was larger than my appetite, which is saying quite a lot.

In addition, I found it more difficult than usual to deal with the sibling squabbles and general shenanigans of my children. I estimate I used the word “hush” approximately 108 times tonight. Everything bothered me. My son was tipping a water bottle back and forth, making a slight swooshing sound. The repetitious low noise nearly drove me from the house. Luckily I am a rational person who could recognize the abnormal signs of crazy.

When I searched for answers on Google, I was not surprised to find an array of articles discussing gluten withdrawal. However, I was surprised to read that there are gliadin-derived optiates in wheat. I had no idea the depth of physiological changes that could happen just from removing this one ingredient from my diet. I mean, come on, it is not like I am cutting out sugar. The associated withdrawal symptoms are numerous: fatigue, moodiness, constipation, joint pain, headaches, etc. Often, the symptoms a gluten-free diet is suppose to cure get worse before they get better. While I am comforted to know that my crazy is temporary, I am less comforted to know the temporary state varies from several days to several weeks. Let’s hope it is several days.

Don’t poke my wheat belly — the gluten-free question

Philosophically, I love the concept of a holistic doctor. As human beings are complex systems of interrelated parts, it makes sense to treat the whole person. We specifically chose our doctor because of her homeopathic, holistic bend. However, I am not sure we really belong with this type of doctor. It’s kind of like Mac computers. We like the image associated with the product more than actually using the product itself.

Our doctor believes in half hour, hands-on office sessions. There is no nurse who ushers you into a room and takes your vitals. She does everything herself. Like my doctor, I believe that diet and exercise are the best medicine. The exception, of course, is when I am sick. Then I want a clear diagnosis and course of action.

Today I went in due to hernia-like symptoms and additional digestive problems, which I thought could be related. While she listened sympathetically, she also listened with an agenda, which is to promote a gluten-free lifestyle. Over the past two years, she has tried to convince me that my health could be vastly improved by cutting out gluten. It would help with my digestive issues, regulate my moods, and help me think more clearly. She even went as far as ordering an expensive blood test to determine whether or not I had gluten sensitivity. The test showed that gluten and I are very compatible. Still, I did try to go gluten-free for about a week. I gained two pounds and quit out of frustration.

Just because cutting out gluten helped the doctor and some of her patients, it does not mean it will help out everyone. She does have some good research to support her, such as Wheat Belly and Grain Brain. However, not everyone agrees that going gluten-free is beneficial. The New Yorker has a fascinating article on the gluten-free trend. The most compelling piece of evidence given is a study that showed that a gluten-free diet eliminated symptoms related to irritable bowel syndrome.

I do not believe cutting gluten will be a cure-all. However, I cannot say for sure unless I try it for thirty days. According to my doctor, it has to be cold turkey. Even one bite of gluten and I will have to start over. I will only be able to say with certainty that I have an issue with gluten if I abstain totally for 30 days. If I do this and feel no health improvements, I will be finding a new doctor.