July 26, 2012

Wheat Belly and Carb Loading

My vacation last week had a few fun elements to it. I got to spend time with friends and family that I don’t often see, which was fantastic. I celebrated my birthday a whole bunch of times (thanks to conflicting schedules), which made me feel super special. I even got to go to a Counting Crows concert in Brooklyn, marking two things (seeing an outdoor concert and visiting an outer borough) off my “summer bucket list” that I intend to post about in a few days. At least I hope I make the time to write that soon – the summer is almost over so it will be pretty stale after that!

But the rest of my vacation? A lot of not-so-exciting stuff! My vacation to-do list included things like “scrub kitchen floor,” “take clothes to tailor”, and “buy new shower curtain” – all things that most people do on a random Tuesday night instead of taking vacation time to accomplish. In the process of doing them, I got incredibly frustrated with how long many things took, and how my efforts often seemed to get thwarted (e.g., deciding to try out a new dry cleaning service but then having my concierge temporarily lose my dry cleaning when they came to pick it up because it wasn’t in the usual black bag and he couldn’t find it). I used to think that I could get so much more done if only I were home on a permanent basis. But now? I think it’s just that “getting stuff done” is hard! Perhaps finding a way to stop traveling wouldn’t be quite as helpful as I once thought.

Changing gears, I did two things over my vacation that have made me think a lot. The first was writing my latest Greatist article, this time on carb loading. As usual, I learned a lot of interesting and totally random things while researching this article. For example, did you know that carb loading doesn’t work for women during certain phases of the menstrual cycle? I’ve never noticed or had a second thought as to how my cycle affected my performance (other than to hazard a guess that it probably changed things somehow), but it’s interesting to learn that carb loading is basically useless during certain times of the month. I also learned a lot about the correct way to carb load, and was pleasantly surprised to find that it was a lot of what I practiced when I was in the height of my marathoning: go low-carb most of the time and only introduce carbs a few days before the race. I never had any scientific basis for that before writing that article! I just tried to avoid starchy carbs because they tend to be kind of empty calories and I was trying to watch my weight, but then I reintroduced them before a long run when I knew I would need them. Cool to know that I was instinctively doing what lots of research actually advocates!

On the opposite side of carb loading (or I guess the same side, if you think about how important the low-carb phase is to getting it right), I read a book called Wheat Belly, by William Davis. I can’t remember where I first heard about this book, but I picked it up initially thinking that it was going to be one of those silly fad diets (e.g., the grapefruit diet, the leek soup diet). I don’t necessarily shy away from reading books like that, as I think it’s interesting to learn new techniques and science around weight loss, but I always try to make sure I take it with a grain of salt and read those books “critically” – what is wrong with this plan? What pitfalls come from such a diet? What parts of this should I ignore, and what should I actually try to incorporate?

While Wheat Belly has an incredibly sensationalistic cover and tagline (“Lose the wheat, lose the weight, and find your path back to health”), I found the research within it to be quite compelling. Besides the anecdotal testimonials that fill every weight loss book, the author included hundreds of pages of scientific details about how the body chemistry changes upon introduction of wheat to the system – and I found myself drinking the Kool Aid. In some ways, giving up wheat products isn’t really a novel concept – Atkins is basically a wheat-free diet, and Paleo advocates no grains for a lot of the same reasons.

In the various sample case studies (“Jane came to me 50 pounds overweight and I helped her lose it all!”), every single one seemed to include the doctor’s challenge: “Just try it for a few weeks; what do you have to lose?” Which got me thinking – maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to try that myself and see what happens? Unfortunately, the section where he stops talking science and actually tells you how to put it into practice leaves something to be desired. While before there was a focus on your average person and how they could benefit from going wheat-free, this section seemed to focus more on Celiacs sufferers and the many products that don’t necessarily have wheat but still have gluten. Maybe I’m just slow, but I was very confused about a lot of the recommendations – for example, the suggestion that oatmeal is a terrible breakfast (despite the fact that it is wheat-free) simply because it’s not gluten-free. But all the science wasn’t about the dangers of glutens!

I think going wheat-free sounds like a neat idea, but definitely hard to implement (Exhibit A: working lunch on Monday where sandwiches were brought in with no other options – I just didn’t have the willpower to resist, especially since they were delicious!). Even beyond the trickiness of group meals, the author points out that wheat is hidden in a lot of foods that most people wouldn’t realize. While I’m not going to worry about the wheat flour that’s dusted onto gum to keep it from sticking to the package, I think I’d need more help figuring this out than just the “avoid all gluten products” lists in the book. But it could certainly be an interesting experiment!

What are your thoughts on going wheat-free? And what carb-loading techniques work for you? I know my friend Jocelyn has some gluten-free carb loading tips, and I’m sure you all have some other interesting insights to report!


7 thoughts on “Wheat Belly and Carb Loading”

  1. I definitely have to take out this book from the library.

    Maybe I should do a post about gluten free snacks…its weird how much I don’t really think about it anymore. I just grab the snacks that I know I can have.

  2. While many things may be wheat-free, they’re not always gluten-free because of different starches used in place of wheat that also contain gluten, or how different grains also produce gluten. In your example, most oatmeals on the market are mostly wheat-free in that, obviously, it’s made from whole groats rather than wheat but the oats themselves may get mixed with a wheat starch, barley starch, or other related grains. This is why stuff made from coconut is naturally gluten-free as it’s not a flour produced from an endosperm, same with any rice products not made with glutinous rice.

    Going wheat-free is very easy to do, it just requires the realization that eating out will be extremely difficult to do (you never know exactly what’s in a dish or how it’s prepared, exactly) and that most of the foods in a grocery store are now your enemy. But the upside is that since you’ll more than likely be cooking most of your meals, you’ll be eating much higher quality foods and much better tasting foods on the whole.

    After a month or two, you hardly miss wheat products but there’s always carb re-feed days.

  3. Wow, thanks for the detailed response, Richard! Cooking at home unfortunately isn’t an option for me due to my travel schedule, but I assume that I’d get a lot of the benefits just by cutting out major sources of wheat (even if there are still additives in some foods)? Ugh, your last line about healthier/better foods at home makes me wish so much that I were able to cook – I love cooking and miss it a ton when I’m traveling!

  4. I’ve tried the Paleo diet a few times, and while it is really hard, I actually think it’d be easier when you can eat out a lot. A basic Paleo dinner is meat and vegetables; restaurants usually have different marinades and spice combinations that I find too difficult/time consuming to make at home. I do think that wheat based carbs make a difference but you can choose to have certain kinds that may be slightly healthier (bagel thins, whole grain engligsh muffins etc). Other wheat free carbs are harder to find when eating out, so I usually stick to the meat and veggies, (and sweet potato fries, if I want something sweeter). Good luck!

  5. Meredith, that makes sense, but is it possible to get full on meat and veggies from a restaurant? Maybe I am just bad with portion sizes, but I find that most restaurants bulk out the meal with starch, so if I don’t eat pasta/bread/rice/potatoes/etc, I can’t get full from the meal.

  6. My coworker went wheat free and it has really helped her rheumatoid arthritis and psoriasis. I highly recommend it to anyone who has autoimmune diseases like RA.

    I have thought about cutting out wheat in order to be healthier, but I find it extremely hard to do. I like whole wheat toast with my eggs and a bun with my veggie burger. I just try to eat less wheat products – I try to avoid pasta, pizza, bagels, etc. Since I don’t have health problems, I don’t feel that it is necessary to become crazy over it. Life is too short. Everything in moderation.

  7. ok your review sounds a lot like what I think I would feel reading it…ok some of this makes sense, some of this is just too intense for me to even care 🙂 I will probably check it out to see the science behind it

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