The Power of Gluten: Why Gluten-Free Will NEVER be a Fad Diet to Me

Yes, complete with embarrasing photos.Flying By Night novel

Before I headed out in May to walk the Camino de Santiago in Spain as part of a spiritual pilgrimage, I had been off wheat gluten for close to a year, though I was noticing some weight gain in specific places after adding corn gluten to my diet about 3 times a week.   Without wheat gluten, my 5 major medical concerns had vanished in a matter of months, with a couple of minor issues close behind.  I’m not as sensitive to gluten as some of my friends–it won’t put me in the hospital–but I am sensitive enough that I will feel quite horrible after one slice of bread and the cumulative effects after a return to a Standard American Diet (SAD) are debilitating.   After reducing gluten and then finally last year ditching gluten, I was suddenly in the best health of my life.  I figured walking the Camino with my 22-year-old daughter, even in the mountains, would be a breeze.  If anything, I expected to outpace my youngster as my athleticism had shot way up since omitting the energy-sapper from my meals.

I had packed specific gluten-free foods in my checked luggage to Madrid (I took more food than anything!) so that I could stay as gluten-free as possible in Europe, particularly while hiking through some obscure little towns that would feature fresh bread, fresh cheese, and wine.  Yes, pretty much everything that causes me to feel like I have the flu and makes me swell all over.  I had loaded my checked suitcase with Jay Robb protein powder by the individual packet and Think Thin gluten-free protein bars.  I don’t consider either “real food” but in emergencies, they’ll do nicely to supplement or substitute so I don’t have to resort to gluten.

But I’m not stupid:  Just in case my checked luggage was delayed by a day or maybe two, I had packed a solid two days of gluten-free food in my carryon.

Unfortunately (and that’s a word that the useless Delta customer service rep said over and over and over in excusing why Delta had no clue who they had given my checked  SCANNED suitcase to, only that it was last seen in a city I hadn’t flown to or through), our flight with the special meal for me was delayed, Delta put us on Air Europa without a special meal for me and without telling us they were switching us to another airline until we were at the gate, and by the time we arrived without suitcases at our hotel in Madrid, I had one protein shake mix left.  By the first day on the Camino, I’d given up and resorted to gluten and later dairy.  By the time our luggage was finally found (after many calls every day to Delta in the US and in Madrid and to equally clueless Air Europa who never touched our bag), it was the evening of our sixth day.  I had given up and decided I’d just eat off my protocol for the rest of the trip and detox as soon as I got home, knowing that would take me around 10 days to recover.

After eating gluten for a few days,  my few clothes in my carryon were about one size too small and my weight jumped up. In fact, even with walking over 100 miles in a week at a fast, sweaty clip and burning over 4000 calories a day, I gained over 5 pounds in a week and I know specifically WHERE I gained weight. I’m certain I had gained more than that but I waited until the water retention and jet lag were over before I stepped on the scales at home.  While on the Camino, I could tell that my entire body felt inflamed and I had several tough physical days where I felt like I had the flu and was sore all over without my usual next-day recovery after a workout.  In spite of months of walking as much as 13 miles a day to prepare for the trip, much of the trail was a tremendous physical struggle for me.  I could feel the strain on my heart with every step uphill…and the long missing arthritis in my knees from my fencing injury years ago with every step downhill.  There were times when I really thought I wasn’t going to be able to keep up on the trail or even finish it.  It was force of will to push through when I feflt so awful but I also didn’t want anyone to know just how rough the Camino was for me physically…just in case they couldn’t figure it out over my gasping for breath.

After I returned home from the trip, I immediately ditched gluten, dairy, and–of course–sugar.  I went into detox mode.   When I look at the pictures from the trip, I cannot believe how bloated I was on the trail and how out of shape I felt.                So allow me to show you a photo of the Glutenated Lorna early on the trip (4 days of gluten) and the De-glutenated Lorna around two weeks after being back home and off gluten.  This will give you a better of idea of the power of gluten in my own body (and maybe yours) and why gluten-free can never be just a fad diet for me. Click on the photos for larger versions.




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