How Diet Choices Are Like Religious Choices: Evaluating “The Gluten Lie”

Y’all know I’m pretty passionate about science. And I care a lot about food and healthy eating choices.

Well, I’ve been reading a book called The Gluten Lie (please pay no attention to the stupid clickbait title), and although I haven’t finished it, I’m finding it interesting so far. The book is written buy a guy who studies religions, meaning he’s used to evaluating cultural beliefs and myths, and looking for patterns in those areas. He brings this interesting perspective to the field of nutrition.

What this means is that, while he does allude to scientific research, he’s not presenting rock-solid scientific arguments with tons of research studies backing up his discussion points. For example, he discusses the current cultural fad of thinking gluten is “bad” for you and that all people would be healthier avoiding gluten. While he does offer some counter-research and some investigation of why those claims probably aren’t accurate, he isn’t trying to completely dismantle the claims of people advocating low- or no-gluten diets. Instead, he explores historical context for avoiding grains and how we came to hold this belief — and he calls on the reader to acknowledge that it is, in fact, a belief, ultimately taken on faith.

Because, as he points out, nutrition research is incredibly difficult. How do you run a controlled study on what people eat? How do you get a statistically meaningful number of people to let you control every molecule of what they put into their mouths every day, probably for years? Alternatively, when you ask people to self-report what they’ve eaten, who wants to admit they ate a dozen 2″-square brownies after dinner when they could simply round down to a half-dozen 1″ brownies? Or if people aren’t intentionally lying, they aren’t remembering accurately: How many brownies was it, again? and how big were they?

So when people object to all the conflicting reports we hear about different foods — are eggs full of dangerous cholesterol, or are they actually healthful protein packages? — they’re right. Recommendations are constantly changing. That’s because, honestly, researchers don’t know. Add to this the fact that many news articles tend to take cautious scientific statements like “There was a statistically significant correlation between consumption of eggs and slightly increased HDL cholesterol, which may contribute to heart disease,” and turn it into “Eggs cause heart attacks!” and you’ve certainly got a recipe for setting the general public up for disillusionment and distrust of mainstream experts.

Okay, let’s take that, and then ask, “How do people decide what to eat?” If it’s not based on serious, rigorous science, what’s the basis for deciding what to put in our pie holes when it’s not pie?

Belief. Myth. Stories.

“You are what you eat,” for example. We scoff at the idea that eating a (ahem) part of a tiger could make a man more virile (a belief held in Asia), but we still think eating high-fat foods will make us fat. Uh, nope; that’s actually excess calories. Eating a piece of bacon or bread with real butter on it isn’t more likely to make you fat than eating an equivalent amount of other calories — at least, there’s no research demonstrating that yet.

Yet this belief that eating fat makes you fat has persisted from the time of the ancient Greeks to today. I grew up eating nonfat everything, including nonfat frozen yogurt instead of ice cream, margarine instead of butter, and seeing my parents showing every evidence of obsessively avoiding fat. And look what it’s brought us: Gross fake substitutes and mountains of guilt over indulging in “sinful pleasures.”

Oh, yes, notice the religious language there? The author points out that we use quite a few religious terms when talking about food, such as the way we talk about “good” and “bad” foods rather than “nutritious/healthy” or “non-nutritious/unhealthy” foods.

Another common belief he discusses is that food and eating were healthier in the past. He calls it the “paradise past,” where we think that the way people ate at some point in history–be it 10,000 years ago or 100–is better than today, and that people in that time lived healthier lives because of their mythical perfect diets. The funny thing is that this belief has been around for a long time. When people 100 years ago said diets need to go back to a healthier past diet, what does that mean for us today claiming that diets 100 years ago were the ideal we should strive for?

That idea of an eating “paradise past” ties in not only with the idea of the Paleo diet’s claim that we haven’t “evolved” to eat grains, but also the suspicion of “chemicals” in our food, the mistrust of GMO foods, and the whole “only use ingredients your great-grandmother would recognize” claim. (Good thing it doesn’t say “grandmother,” or else we might be going back to the 1950s era of lime Jell-O mixed with canned spinach and topped with whipped cream and grapes. It’s all green!)

He doesn’t call this out specifically, but all this got me thinking about how people really do treat food choices like a religion. Ever talked to someone who’s on the Paleo diet? They have the evangelistic zeal of a Mormon missionary: Boy do they know they’re right and want to convert you to their thinking. They aren’t alone; many people, when you scratch the surface, hold equally powerful beliefs around food. Similarly, the rules and rituals around food and the avoiding of specific foods parallels religious behavior in many ways.

Most of all, like when a person believes in a certain religion, no amount of counter-evidence is going to change the believer’s mind. They know they feel better when they cut out gluten (never mind the other lifestyle changes that may have contributed), and that’s much more powerful than a discussion of the nocebo effect and sociogenic illness. Plus, once you buy into a specific diet or food belief system, it becomes a fundamental part of how you think of yourself. It’s incredibly hard to ask someone to then evaluate that decision in a cool, rational way.

What does all this mean?

Well, I haven’t finished the book yet, so I don’t know how the author wraps it up. But it reminds me of a few things:

  1. Respect other people’s food choices, even if I think they’re ridiculous. Odds are I’m making dietary decisions on an equally flimsy foundation.
  2. Don’t worry too much about the exact foods I’m eating. Instead, eat in moderation when I’m hungry, and choose foods that have high nutritional value: Carbs for energy, protein for building muscle, and vitamins and minerals my body needs to be healthy. Try not to obsess about avoiding certain things or adding in certain things because of some study that claims sugar causes Alzheimer’s or something.
  3. Don’t try to change anyone’s mind about food. This ultimately is a matter of faith, not subject to rational analysis and evaluation. In fact, maybe food is another topic like religion and politics, best left untouched in the workplace and at family gatherings.

That’s most of what I’ve got so far. There’s more, but I’ll save it for another day. I’d love to hear what y’all think about all this.

Benji’s Weight in Cereal

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This is what 25 pounds* of freshly-milled (as in, August 13, five days ago) farro wheat porridge mix looks like. It’s grown by a farm in the Methow Valley called Bluebird Grain Farms, and they process and ship it directly to the consumer. I’ve tried several of their hot cereals, and liked this enough to make a big commitment.

I love this farro wheat; it’s delicious, slightly nutty and sweet. But it also has a significant amount of protein (unusual for a grain) and, naturally, tons of fiber as well as much less gluten than other wheat. I’m not anti-gluten, by any stretch, but if that matters to you, this is a wheat that fits with a low-gluten diet. I eat it for breakfast with in-season fruit of any kind and topped with an extremely generous serving of yogurt, but I’m also excited to try the pudding recipe enclosed in this shipment.

In short, nutrition-wise, this is serious fuel that keeps me going on long bike rides or, more important, on long mornings with an energetic toddler.

* In unrelated news, Benji had his 2-year checkup and now is 35.5″ tall and 25.2 lbs. I didn’t get the “compared to other kids percentile” numbers, so I can’t feel irrationally proud and/or bummed at his percentiles. He’s healthy and normal, got one shot, and we were outta there. See you next year, doc!

A Moment

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Benji and Daddy have a moment during tummy time. Benji finally decided to turn his head and look around, which resulted in much happy astonishment when he discovered things on the other side of the blanket.

The last week or so has been pretty rough for us. Benji started waking up hungry at random times in the night, after having slept well through the night for weeks. We figure he’s going through a growth spurt, and try to feed him more during the day, but he also gets distracted easily, looking rapidly from lights to face to ceiling fan to quilt to window…

Eating has never been smooth sailing for Benji, and that trend continues despite our best efforts. When he does eat, it takes about 10 minutes per ounce, or 40 to 60 minutes, plus time spent burping, changing (poos always seem to happen during feeds), waiting, and cajoling him to stop flitting his head from side to side so fast and please FOCUS. That excludes time nursing, which has never gone well and remains a small, supplementary part of his eating.

We offer him food immediately after he wakes up, but lately he’s only taken maybe four oz then, so we also offer right before he goes down. I’ve heard four-month-old babies should go four hours between feeds, but we’re at more like every two (or less, since he’s only up for an hour and a half to two hours between naps and eating at both ends of that time).

I’m not sure if we should try to extend time between feeds, because at this point that would mean he eats a small meal and then goes a long time before eating again. Perhaps he’d get the idea and eat more at each feed, but perhaps not.

Basically, I would like to see him eat more volume at wider, more age-appropriate intervals, but I don’t know how to get there and I don’t want to lose and calorie intake for him because he’s already really small.

High-Calorie Smoothies

Perhaps you saw this title and thought: Who would want high-calorie anything? Usually we only hear about lowering calories, watching caloric intake and cutting back. A recent issue of Bicycling magazine actually suggested cyclists replace cookies with whole-wheat waffles. PUH-LEEZ! That may be healthier, but I don’t eat cookies for health; I eat them for enjoyment.

Smoothies, however, we usually do eat for health. They’re a great way to get fruits and even some veggies in a tasty, healthy, quick-to-consume snack. They’re versatile and forgiving, and you can toss in almost anything with happy results. For athletes – and, as it turns out, nursing moms – they can also provide an excellent way of consuming the extra calories and/or fats needed to stay healthy (and, in our case, produce enough milk).

I’ve been making smoothies for the last eight or nine years, so when I started nursing Benji and learned I had to consume 500 extra calories a day on top of my normal intake, smoothies naturally came to mind. I started experimenting. Here are my results.

1. Peanut butter is very hard to work in without ruining the flavor. Any suggestions for PB integration are welcome.

2. These are ingredients I always use:
-OJ, canned pineapple juice, or milk (for a base)
-Banana (frozen or fresh)
-Yogurt (Greek or regular, always full-fat, always plain)
-Berries (frozen or fresh; includes blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries)

3. Other ingredients I add based on availability or taste:
-Canned pineapple
-Half to one-third of an avocado
-Carnations Instant Breakfast (various flavors, depending on other ingredients)
-Dash of vanilla
-Shredded coconut
-Other fresh fruit
-Vanilla ice cream (if very decadent or out of yogurt)

I have heard people put spinach and other veggies in smoothies, too, and although I haven’t tried it, I can well believe it would work. I imagine the fruit would mask those flavors.

I particularly like a milk, banana, Greek yogurt, strawberry, avocado, and chocolate Carnation Instant Breakfast combo. Yum.

One last note: You can save smoothies in the fridge for up to 24 hours. It might need a little stirring, but should age well… Unless it contains avocado. Then it turns brown and the flavor goes off a bit. Enjoy avocado smoothies immediately and make friends by sharing extra.

For the Benji picture, a dark one of him and Daddy playing.

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Fun Friends

Day’s Verse:
Every time you cross my mind, I break out in exclamations of thanks to God. Each exclamation is a trigger to prayer. I find myself praying for you with a glad heart.
Philippians 1:3-4

I have been having way too much fun to spend time posting on my blog lately. I took Friday off and therefore get a four-day weekend — the longest break from the Bike Alliance I’ve had in a while. Not only that, but after last weekend’s intense house-related effort, we decided to take this weekend totally easy. Accordingly, we have…no plans. None. It’s a beautiful thing. I thought I’d have to work on Monday for a little bit, tabling at a bike ride, but then at the last minute a volunteer stepped up and said he’d do it, freeing me from work for four glorious days.

On Friday a designer from the Blind Alley* came by and we decided on blinds for downstairs; the rest of the day, I worked hard neatening up the house for a BBQ our Journey Community had here. I did my first few loads of laundry and found that The Marshmallows clean our clothes quite acceptably. In the afternoon Rachel came over and we finished reading The 13 Clocks aloud, went for a walk and found a few alluring blackberry patches, and got food ready for the BBQ. People started showing up about 6:15, and eventually we ended up with maybe a dozen people, including a couple small kids. This definitively demonstrated that our house is not child-proof. That went well and I think everybody had a good time.

Then Saturday we slept in (aaahhhh! First time in a long time) and I read The Bourne Identity all morning (much more enjoyable than the movie), followed by taking a walk with Ian to the Woodinville Farmer’s Market. I tried my hand at making wheat tortillas in the afternoon and although they turned out tolerably like tortillas, I just wasn’t excited about them. I need to get a different tortilla recipe, I think. Rachel spent the afternoon and evening with us; she and I harvested some of the blackberries we’d seen earlier, turned them into a gooey, delicious blackberry-peach cobbler. We also tried our hand at deep-frying some of the tortillas I’d made to turn them into tortilla chips, and that’s when we learned that (a) The oil on the tortilla keeps cooking it after you pull it out of the pot, so you have to take it out looking a little less cooked than you think ideal; (b) Oil goes from hot to producing a column of smoke in no time flat. Fortunately our column of smoke didn’t set the fire alarm off, since Ian was off getting the stuff we needed for taco salad. He also picked up his friend Ryan, who lives right next to the grocery store, and when they came back we’d converted tortillas into tortilla chips and had the cobbler about ready to bake. The rest of the evening we spent laughing a lot, and we all agreed it was a great time.

For me the last couple days felt like pulling a very large splinter out. I’ve had this long-term, low-grade doldrum hanging around my head (if that’s possible); I just haven’t laughed very much. Funny things may happen and I’ll smile, but nothing’s really relaxed me enough to let me just feel happy and laugh freely. It was a huge blessing for me to spend time with Rachel, Ryan, and the people from church, all of whom have been a balm on my lonely heart. God made people for relationships, and throughout my tenure in Massachusetts, I sorely felt the lack of friends to just share life with. This weekend marks a turning point, I think. And there’s still 1.5 whole huge days left.

* Don’t let their dorky, old-fashioned website lead you astray — they know their window coverings, they have a service department to die for, and the Better Business Bureau gives them an A+ rating.