I love it, but I am starting to think that I may have to break up with bread. The more I learn, the more I suspect that the relationship is not good for me.
The problem: Gluten.
Everywhere you look these days, you see foods that are advertised as "gluten-free." At the grocery store, you can buy gluten-free bread, gluten-free pasta and gluten-free potato chips, the last of which I'm pretty sure are gluten-free by nature. The menus of forward-thinking restaurants offer gluten-free fare. In health consciousness, gluten is the new trans fat. Or the new red meat. Gluten is what is wrong with every carb you've ever enjoyed.
So what is gluten's deal? When did it become shady? As a vegetarian, I am accustomed to meat substitutes that are made almost entirely of gluten.
A good friend was telling me about a book called "Wheat Belly" by Dr. William Davis. The cover of "Wheat Belly" is adorned with a stack of bagels. They look delicious, but presumably factor into many a wheat belly. "Lose the wheat, lose the weight, and find your path back to health" proclaims the book's subtitle.
My friend says that, according to Dr. Davis, a lot of pot bellies are actually caused by consuming wheat that has been genetically modified. He said that pictures of our great-grandparents and grandparents do not show the proliferation of pot bellies that we see around us today. It's true: Just go to Disneyland, or a mall, or anywhere a cross-section of America may gather, and people-watch for half an hour, and you'll see a parade of pot bellies. We're a nation of wheat-lovers.
My friend's timing was interesting, because he brought up his perusal of "Wheat Belly" just as my daughter has moved back to Tehachapi from Portland, Ore., and is living at home temporarily. My daughter no longer eats wheat or other grains containing gluten. She discovered through trial and error that if she eats anything with even a small amount of gluten, she suffers from pain and bloating of the stomach, a condition for which her friend up in Portland coined the descriptive phrase "gluten baby." I was struck by the parallel imagery of a wheat belly and a gluten baby, neither being an attractive prospect. My daughter says that since she has stopped eating gluten, she feels much better. And she looks marvelously healthy. When she was a young girl, we used to think that she just had a nervous stomach: she was the kind of kid whose stress always translated directly to an upset stomach. But maybe it was gluten all along.
My daughter is now old enough not to be on her parents' health plan, but not well-employed enough to have her own insurance, so she has not had the expensive diagnostic tests that would confirm gluten intolerance, also known as celiac disease. She just knows that by controlling what she eats, and by eliminating gluten, she feels better. The gluten baby goes away. She finds that the smallest things still catch her: She discovered the hard way that the soy sauce used in Chinese restaurants contains wheat, and one Halloween Kit Kat bar, with its wafery goodness, made her feel pretty sick. Once she started to read labels, all the products that contain gluten amazed her.
Since adapting a gluten-free lifestyle, my daughter has left her job at a French bakery. She has, however, maintained her love for baking, and so ours has been the lucky test kitchen for gluten-free baked goods. She has perfected corn bread, chocolate chip cookies and cupcakes. She made pumpkin waffles from scratch, and then froze them, so breakfast has been a happy event.
In order to write about life without gluten, I felt it was only fair to try it. With support from my daughter, I've found it easy to go gluten-free. I'd planned to try not eating any wheat for two days. I am now on my fifth day, however, and I feel good. I am noticing differences, like I am not hungry every half hour. I do not feel distended or bloaty by the end of the day.
In contrast, my husband, who always relishes a challenge and so went gluten-free with me, does not feel any better. He, in fact, after the two initial days, reported feeling a little worse. He has gladly gone back to bread.
I went to lunch with my sister and ordered soy tacos in corn tortillas, but then I wondered: what about corn? Isn't there controversy surrounding its genetic modification? And doesn't soy mess with a woman's estrogen levels, or is that a myth? Then there's rice: Didn't Consumer Reports recently expose its dangerous arsenic levels?
When I read the news too closely, I fear there is nothing safe left to eat. I am meat-free, and for now gluten-free, but I sure don't want to go food-free.
These are the opinions of Valerie Schultz, not necessarily those of The Californian. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org