I recently wrote an article extolling the virtues of adopting a diet that is low-carb and wheat-free. I went on to describe the phenomenally positive effect a wheat-free diet had on my lipids and overall heart health. I want to follow up with a few key facts and observations about going wheat-free and how to avoid some of the “traps” you can fall prey to when putting together your wheat-free diet as well as present a few tips to help make the transition.
Avoiding wheat "traps"
The overwhelming majority of people intuitively understand that most breads, crackers, baked goods, and pasta have wheat as their main ingredient. The biggest trap one can fall into when adopting a wheat-free diet is to simply assume other foods are wheat-free. Unfortunately, wheat has crept into many areas of our food supply that you may not have considered. Here are a few good examples.
Gluten-free foods. The first rule of wheat-free dieting is that gluten-free is not synonymous with wheat free. It simply means the gluten-protein has been removed from the wheat. There are still dozens of other suspicious proteins remaining, put there by genetic engineering and hybridization—not by nature.
Also, keep in mind that wheat carbs, even gluten-free wheat, are made up of amylopectin A, the carb that produces the greatest spike in blood sugar among the carbohydrates found in grains, vegetables, and legumes. It is believed that high blood sugars lead to the formation of small LDL cholesterol particles and are suspected to be one of the leading causes of heart disease.
Cereals and breads made from grains other than wheat. Although your favorite cereal may say it is made from oats or some other grain, read the ingredients list carefully. It is not uncommon for wheat or wheat starch to be a substantial ingredient. Think that slice of rye bread is made exclusively from rye? You might be surprised to find your favorite brand or recipe contains as much or more wheat flour as rye flour.
Meat patties, sausages, and loaves. I still try to be reasonable about the meats I eat, so I substitute a lot of turkey, chicken, and even pork in dishes calling for traditional red meats. I recently found a deli that makes a turkey burger that I loved. Imagine my surprise when I asked for the ingredient list and found that the second-most plentiful ingredient in the patty was wheat.
Another place to look for hidden wheat is in sausages—especially breakfast sausages—where wheat is used as a filler. Lastly, it still hurts that I cannot make my mother’s meatloaf recipe (which I loved to eat cold) because it contained an entire package of cracker crumbs!
Breaded products. I love seafood and chicken. One of the hardest things I had to learn to give up (besides pretzels) was breaded seafood—whether fried or baked—as it is usually coated (although not always) with a wheat-based coating. If I eat as few as three breaded shrimp I pay for it for the next week. Crab cakes? Yum—except for fact that the “cake” part is usually made of wheat flour. And, of course, who doesn’t like breaded chicken (again whether fried, roasted, or baked)? It was a happy day for me when Colonel Sanders introduced a grilled chicken product.
The first and final rule. Unfortunately there are many more seemingly innocent products like candy, gum, soup, and sauces (even lipstick) that may contain wheat. The first and final rule for eating wheat-free is to ALWAYS check the ingredients first. You will be amazed at where you might find wheat and probably where you least expected it.
Tips to make going wheat-free easier
If we all had perfect willpower, it would be pretty easy to make any dietary change. The fact is, we don’t. We are creatures of habit, and most of us have lived our lives eating wheat-based products. Even though I know I should not eat wheat, even though I KNOW certain food products will make me sick, I sometimes give in—and pay the price! But I have also developed an extensive set of coping mechanisms that work great. Here are a few.
Avoid temptation. Willpower begins in the grocery store. Be clinical about the way you shop. Read labels before you buy any new product and avoid purchasing wheat-containing products that you know you will hate yourself for later. If there is no wheat in your house, there will be no temptation.
Remember what REALLY feels good. Before I sat down to finish this article, I passed by a bag of pretzels someone left open on a counter. Pretzels had been constant and enjoyable companions of mine for decades. I stared at the bag thinking of the smooth, crisp, saltiness, and rationalizing, “Just one can’t hurt.” Perhaps, but, as the saying goes, “Nobody can eat just one!” Then I stopped to think about how bad I feel when I betray my health. I always admit to myself later that the pretzel didn’t really taste as good as I imagined beforehand.
I did not eat any of those pretzels simply because I was able to overcome the instinctive response of how good it would feel to eat a pretzel with the rational thoughts of how terrible I have felt in the past after giving in. I also remembered how good I feel about myself when I resist temptation. With practice, you will be surprised at how easy it will get to respond to wheat as if it were poison rather than pleasure.
The recipe for willpower
Eliminate the cravings and willpower becomes secondary to the equation. When you eliminate wheat, what you tend to crave is more about texture than taste. If you think about it, do you really “taste” the crust on a pizza? Are pretzels about the wheat or the crunch and the salt? Are crackers anything more than an “edible scoop” for whatever is on top of them?
What I am saying is, you can often eat what you crave by judiciously substituting something else that performs the same function as the wheat or by simply focusing on what you are really tasting. Here are a few examples of what I have done to cope.
One of the things I missed most by going wheat-free was baked goods. Most everything commercially available is baked with wheat. However, I soon found that nut meals (especially almond meal) and flax seed meal made great substitutes with the added advantage of having a far lower glycemic index and contain healthy fats. In fact, the definition of a “torte” is a cake made with little or no flour (think “flourless chocolate torte”). I developed a recipe for a blueberry muffin using almond meal that people rave about.
My wife and mother-in-law (who are Italian, of course) both make a fantastic spaghetti sauce. My problem is: what do I eat it on? Most noodles are made with wheat. It turns out that baked spaghetti squash makes a great spaghetti-like base on which to slather sauce and meatballs. Is it just like wheat-based spaghetti noodles? No, but it is close enough in form and texture and I realized what I really taste is the sauce and the meatballs.
The above substitutes are great for cooking at home, but what about eating out—especially fast food? Well, certainly you can eat salads (without croutons), but that can get old. I really like Italian sub sandwiches and BLT club sandwiches. But, what to do about the bread? In the first case, Jimmy Johns, a national sandwich fast food, offers the “unwich.” Virtually all of their subs are available as a lettuce wrap. I have also found that numerous restaurants can make my BLT club sandwich on leaf lettuce. Is it exactly the same? No, but, again, close enough if you focus your taste buds on all the other ingredients.
Finally, it is a little embarrassing, but I now regularly eat pizza. It involves picking off and eating the toppings and leaving the crust. Do I have to do a lot of explaining? Yeah, but when you really crave your favorite pizza it is worth it! Worst case, just order take-out! By the way, I have heard that recipes calling for a cauliflower crust are supposed to be great, though I have not tried them.
I could go on and on, but I think you get the message. Going wheat-free might be the tool that helps you turn the corner on heart disease. There are numerous free recipes and resources on the blog that discusses the concepts presented in the book, “Wheat Belly” written by cardiologist William R. Davis. You can access these recipes here.