Intestinal Fortitude

Sometimes, for me, having food restrictions isn’t a big deal. It is what it is. I wouldn’t “kill for a piece of bread.” I mostly cook at home, and mostly stick to the same types of foods. Generally I’m not tempted by foods outside my norm, like sweets, because I feel better when I stay away from them.

It took months of slowly transitioning different foods into and out of my diet to find my equilibrium. For example, I’ve been gluten-free for years, but only in the past year have I started changing other parts of my diet. First came the switch from dairy milk to dairy-free milk when I realized that I was intolerant. Then all dairy products followed with the exception of cheese. I love cheese, and have not given it up completely, but I did take a hard look at the type of cheese I was eating, and how often.

I’ve always seen cheese as a treat. A good cheese plate makes me disproportionately happy. But that wasn’t the type of cheese I was eating. I was eating the type that lasts for almost a year in the package, with lots of ingredients that don’t sound edible, and which doesn’t taste like cheese. So, I stopped.

With every change I made—which included not only eliminating foods, but adding foods and being picky about their origins and journey to my plate—I felt a little better. My workouts were better, my mind was clearer. I was even pleasantly surprised when I went out to dinner and requested steamed vegetables, a plain baked potato, and steak, “with nothing on any of it—no salt, no spices, zero, nothing, just the food itself, totally plain,” that my request was honored. It may seem bland, but the taste of food itself, when totally unmasked, it quite astounding.

But then. After weeks, months of me swapping foods, perfecting my meal plans and prep, and reaching maximum efficiency such that I never even thought about what to purchase or what to cook, having food restrictions became a big deal.

As nice as it had been to be in my little food bubble, sometimes you have meals with people, and sometimes those people are business contacts. Maybe those contacts are interviewing you for a position over lunch. There are some times when you just don’t want to spend twelve minutes detailing your dietary restrictions to the waiter. My plain-eating regimen was working well for me, and whenever I strayed, I felt unwell. As if lactose were angry with me for giving it up, and got its revenge with even the slightest amount of cream in my soup. But in order to maintain my plain eating standards, even if I order the plainest thing on the menu, I might still spend twelve minutes grilling the waiter about how it’s made and with what.

This is where “intestinal fortitude” comes into play, particularly for celiacs, who must be diligent and insistent about making sure their meal is uncontaminated. Quite literally, the physical intestinal fortitude of celiacs is directly related to their mental intestinal fortitude. Courage, stamina. Guts. How fitting.

No matter what your food restriction is, there will likely come a time when your intestinal fortitude will wane. Just remember to listen to your gut (okay, I know, I couldn’t help it), because your health should always be your priority, even when it’s inconvenient, and difficult, and you wish it weren’t so.

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– Kaitlin Puccio

Six Ways to Fit Days is an important part of my life, not only for my physical health, but also for mental clarity. But with a busy schedule, going to the gym may not always seem like a priority. Here is how I stay healthy, and fit everything in without sacrificing sleep.

1) Make it a priority.

There is no doubt that our schedules get busier every year. Between time spent at work and time spent with family, there seems to be little time for me-time. But just as work and family are priorities, your health should be a priority, and a large part of that depends on staying fit. Don’t want to live out your days down the road in a nursing home, or be too frail to run around with your grandchildren? Staying fit can help prevent that.

2) Change it up.

My routine isn’t very routine. I make sure to balance strength exercises with endurance training, and always stretch after my muscles are warm. And I don’t mean touch my toes for ten counts. I mean splits, back bends, and calf stretches against the wall for thirty minutes. Short muscles will make me tight. Cross-training is also important. I regularly run, bike, and do ballet, but I also play tennis, take aerial classes, ballroom dance, and practice Pilates to make sure that I’m using different muscles in different ways and keeping my body alert.

3) Get enough rest.

Sleeping enough at night and allowing your body rest days are just as important as regularly working out. Your body needs time off to prevent injury. Ever go to the gym having only four hours of sleep and with already fatigues muscles? Better make sure your spotter is on his toes. My brother once went to the gym so exhausted that he fell asleep between sets of sit-ups. Your body will tell you what it needs. Listen and oblige.

4) Eat right.

Your body will also tell you what you need nutrition-wise. If you aren’t eating enough carbs, you will feel it. But it will take some time to understand this second type of body language. Only after you start eating right will your body recognize what it’s missing or getting too much of (and I don’t just mean cutting down on the brownies—I mean really knowing how many fruits, vegetables, carbs, fats, proteins, etc. you are consuming, and adjusting it for what you actually need). That doesn’t mean you can never have a brownie, or that you always need to measure your vegetables. Once you adjust to what’s right, any other way will feel unnatural.

5) Have a workout corner.

Do you roll out your muscles while watching TV, but only if the roller is right there? Maybe you always do your ankle exercises with the TheraBand, as long as it’s within reach. But you put your five-pound dumbbells away last spring and haven’t used them since. It’s certainly unsightly to have a pile of exercise equipment anywhere in the house that’s not a gym, but if you need to roll your muscles before bed and will only do it if the roller is right there, there is a solution. Make yourself a little workout corner in whatever room is most practical. If you roll out in front of the TV, put it in the TV room. The equipment will be small—a foam roller, dumbbells, TheraBand, etc. so it won’t be too cumbersome. Place everything in the same corner of the room, and put it back when you are finished using it. Remember when you took toys out of the toy chest in your parents’ living room as a child? Same idea. Everything will be where you need it when you need it, without being unsightly.

6) Don’t buy into the myths.

Carefully consider the beliefs you have about fitness and nutrition. Where do they come from? How do you know they are accurate? If you want to be the master of your own fitness and health, there will be some research to do. Think about things that you might not even think you need to consider. Are you doing push-ups correctly? How did you learn? If you aren’t doing them properly, you aren’t doing much good. Think you can’t be a runner because you’re a ballet dancer? Find out where that idea came from, why, and whether it’s true for your body before you write off running.

It may seem impossible, but getting and staying healthy doesn’t require a lot. Even if you start by working out one day per week, it’s better than doing absolutely nothing. Start small and build up. Soon it will become a regular part of your schedule—and you might find that even though you’re doing more in your day, you’re more focused and productive at work and have more energy for your family.

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– Kaitlin Puccio

The Truth About Pasta

Buena Vista Images via Getty ImagesOn the heels of the low-carb diet emerged the gluten-free fad. Pasta, which is generally made with wheat flour, was widely deemed “bad.” Now some are advocating that pasta is actually good for you, despite the widespread avoidance of it. So which is it?

Foods themselves are neither “good” nor “bad.” In the case of pasta, it’s the way — and amount — of pasta that is eaten that is generally not healthy. For example, in the United States, the portions of pasta consumed are much larger than those consumed in Italy. What Americans might think of as the size of a side dish or appetizer, Italians would consider an entire portion. Is a controlled portion of pasta bad? No. But heaping, extra-large portions of pasta is certainly not good.

The way pasta is prepared can help determine how healthful it is. Large bowls of pasta topped with heavy alfredo or another cream-based sauce is not uncommon in the United States. This type of sauce adds large amounts of fat and salt to the pasta dish. In Italy, pasta is more often prepared with vegetables or black beans — a combination that provides a substantial amount of folate as opposed to alfredo’s fat contribution.

Pasta, when prepared the right way, can be an excellent source of carbohydrate. Diets that eliminate carbohydrate (or fat) deprive the body of an essential macronutrient. The body needs to take in enough carbohydrate so that body proteins are not broken down to satisfy glucose or energy needs. However, excess dietary carbohydrate alters the body’s fuel preferences to burning more carbohydrates and less fatty acids. Thus dietary fat accumulates in body fat stores. To put it simply, carbohydrates are needed in moderation. So, while that family-sized helping of fettuccine alfredo might not be the best idea, it’s not the pasta that should be reconsidered — it’s what it’s paired with and the portion.

There are many people who need to follow a gluten-free diet for medical reasons, and there are many people who choose to follow a gluten-free diet because they believe that it is healthier. This is not necessarily the case. Being gluten-free doesn’t mean being pasta-free, or low-carb, or low-fat. There are plenty of gluten-free foods available such as bread, pasta, and cakes that contain just as much carbohydrate, fat, and sugar as their gluten-containing counterparts. Being gluten-free doesn’t automatically mean being healthy — though it can, depending on the approach.

If someone who has been known to eat a box of cookies in one sitting adopts a gluten-free diet and does not replace the consumption of gluten-containing cookies with gluten-free cookies, that person may indeed lose excess body fat. Reducing excess body fat reduces the risk of heart disease and diabetes. Is this person healthier because she is gluten-free? No — it’s because she stopped eating cookies.

Being healthy isn’t about demonizing and avoiding certain foods. The body likes balance. When more energy is consumed than is needed (i.e., when pasta is eaten in larger portions than necessary), the body is considered to have a positive energy balance, meaning the surplus energy (pasta) is stored as fat and glycogen (energy reserves). When less energy is consumed than needed, the body has a negative energy balance. The body uses glycogen and fat stores to provide energy, and body weight drops. Energy equilibrium is the goal: a balance of energy intake and expenditure. Controlling portion size, exercising, and choosing healthful food combinations are key to releasing foods like pasta from being labeled “bad” or “forbidden.” Despite its reputation, it is indeed possible to consume pasta while maintaining health. It’s how we choose to eat that pasta that is critical to balanced health.

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– The Editors

What’s So Bad About Wheat? was speaking with a friend the other day who commented that “wheat is just so bad for you.” For me personally, yes, it is bad. Bad things happen to my insides when I consume gluten, the protein found in wheat and other grains such as rye and barley. For celiacs, my friend’s comment couldn’t be truer. But to hear my friend say that wheat in general is bad struck me as strange.

As I assessed my friend’s claim, I noticed three things about the way our society functions that I suspected might contribute to the perplexing way my friend thinks about wheat.

1) Blogs provide the freedom to publish just about anything.

I could easily publish anything without running them by editors or fact-checkers. I could write a post that is a list of “healthy foods that are really bad for you,” and I could write one about “demonized foods that are actually healthy.” I could put wheat on both lists and publish them as if they were fact.

When I started writing about gluten sensitivity, I made a conscious decision to write about my experience. And though experience varies for everyone, in many cases the experiences I describe are deemed some variant of “false” by some readers who perhaps had an experience that differs from my own. Can experiences be said to be definitively true or false? No. Does a new logic apply to blogs that allows experience to be objective rather than subjective? No.

When is the last time you googled something and said to yourself “I hope there’s something written about this online”? It’s not a thought that crosses my mind when I start typing in the search bar. I just assume that someone “out there” will have information on whatever topic I’m searching.

It occurred to me that because there is so much unfiltered information available online, perhaps we have developed our own internal filters. Some articles or posts might make factual claims that are in actuality unsupported by research, but they can make those claims unchecked because of the ease of Internet publishing. We read articles and sort them into two mental folders: things we believe, and things we don’t believe (let’s disregard the “I don’t know” folder for now). Those mental folders, however, don’t always correspond to what is actually true or false.

Did my friend read a compelling but ultimately unsupported argument for why wheat is bad? Did she read an experiential account of the consequences of ingesting wheat for a celiac? An anecdote of giving up gluten and shedding 15 pounds? Or maybe just an intriguing but misleading headline?

2) Provocative or catchy headlines are sometimes the only part of the article that is read, but they don’t necessarily sum up the article.

Look at the title of this article. “What’s So Bad About Wheat” might mislead you into thinking that the article is about all the ways wheat is bad for you. If you only read the headline, that might be your takeaway. You would miss the idea that “what’s so bad about wheat” is the question I asked after my friend made the claim that wheat is “just so bad for you.”

As I mentioned above, there is a lot of information online. A lot to read, a lot to retain. Say I’m reading an article online and the title of another article in the sidebar catches my eye. If it sounds better than what I’m currently reading, I’ll abandon my current article and click on it. Short attention span? Perhaps. Clickbait? Likely.

I happen to know that my friend weighs 10 pounds more than her goal weight. How long does she spend researching, talking to trusted dietitians, nutritionists, her fitness coach? Not very long. It’s easier for her to go online and search “five miracle exercises to lose every inch of belly fat in five days.” A few articles will pop up; she’ll click on the first. Because it aligns with her wish to lose 10 pounds as soon as possible, she’ll bookmark the page. She’s hooked on the idea of it only taking five days because of her desire for instant gratification. She is willing to accept the first, simplest solution, because she wants it to be true.

So if she reads a headline that says, “I stopped eating wheat and lost 15 pounds,” it seems like a fairly straightforward cause-effect and she skips the article, retaining only the headline. Her takeaway: Stop eating wheat and lose weight. But what if in the article the author specifies that he didn’t replace the wheat-containing sweets he used to eat with gluten-free sweets? If she had read that, my friend may have considered that the cause of the weight loss was likely a combination of cutting down on fat, sugar, and carbs.

3) We seem to always need a group to condemn or praise.

Has there been a time in recent history when there was no popular diet to follow? (Down with carbs! No, down with fat! No, down with wheat!) Or when there was no miracle superfood that was the new very best thing to eat? (Avocado is king! No, kale is king! No wait, coconut oil is king!)

Would we create groups to condemn if there were no “bad” groups, like we might pick fights when we’re bored? What would happen if there were no foods to condemn?

Over the years, different foods have been deemed “bad for you” and “good for you” at different times. By cutting down tremendously or eliminating fat from our diets, we stocked up on carb-rich foods. Then carbs “became” unhealthy, and fruits took a fall alongside carbs. Now wheat is experiencing it’s own fall from the idea that whole wheat = healthy, not surprisingly on the heels of an increased awareness of celiac disease.

The idea of “everything in moderation” seems pretty sensible, but it doesn’t seem to work for us. (For celiacs, it would be “everything in moderation except gluten.” For those with nut allergies: everything in moderation except nuts, etc.) Perhaps because everything in moderation doesn’t seem “active” enough for us. It seems to be the case that if my friend wants to lose weight, she wants something real that she can grasp, some specific food group that she can demonize and eliminate because she will feel that she is actively dieting her way to weight loss. If there were no “bad” foods, she might wonder: “Then why am I overweight?” Portion control seems insufficient as a direct cause of weight loss. Perhaps because then it would be her own fault if she didn’t lose weight: It’s not that the brownie was bad, it was that she had two of them. It puts the blame on her.

How exactly my friend deduced that wheat is bad from everything she consumed (mentally as well as physically), I cannot know. But I suspect it is a combination of the availability of unchecked information on the internet, sexy headlines, and the need for a dietary scapegoat.

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– Kaitlin Puccio