Dietary Restriction: Helpful or Harmful?

Roughly five years ago I decided to eliminate gluten from my life 100%. I could no longer suffer through the constant migraines, gastrointestinal cramping, and body aches, so, one night I decided; I did it cold turkey, and never looked back. I even shelled out the money to get tested for celiac disease (it is prominent in my family tree), to no avail. As many of us know, in order to get true results, you must be consuming gluten for accurate results - I was not. I’ve also given up dairy for very similar reasons. This was not such a difficult choice at the time as I’d been having issues with lactose intolerance for much of my life. Despite this, it has been both rewarding and challenging to live a dairy and gluten free life (not to mention, for roughly four years I was also vegetarian).

Why am I sharing this about myself? Well, lately I’ve been questioning my dietary choices. I’ve been considering something: when we decide to cut entire food categories out of our diets, are we actually doing good? Is there a chance that our ‘cold turkey’ decisions are actually hindering our body’s ability to accept certain kinds of food?

Unfortunately, I’m not in a position to answer these questions scientifically. I am not a doctor or dietician. Like many who suffer from IBS, all I can do is guess, guess, and guess some more. And lately, I’ve been guessing a lot.

Fishing for answers

About a week ago I got frustrated with my own dietary restrictions. I decided they were useless (not really true) and entirely idiotic (they really aren’t). Mostly, I just wanted to eat a piece of my partner’s pizza pocket (seriously, it looked amazing). Alas, I’d succumbed to the deliciousness of gluten… but I didn’t die. I felt a little discomfort, yes, but, ultimately, came out unscathed. Success! I felt vindicated and slightly giddy. A few days later, I even ate one of my partner's yummy chocolate covered malt balls. Did the barley and milk ingredients give me a little gassy discomfort? Possibly. But once again I survived, relatively unharmed.

So, I’ve been toying with the idea of slowly introducing some gluten back into my diet, just as I’d done recently with meat. Side note: about eight months ago I realized that with all my dietary restrictions I was not getting the nutrients I needed so I began eating meat again. Understand that this was not an easy decision. It required some serious existential soul searching. I’d given up animal products not because I couldn’t eat it but because I didn’t want to; because I loved animals and detested the inhumane ways many were killed for their meat, their horns, their pelts. I researched, a lot. I found some rather quaint local farms that I was able to visit and see how/where they housed and treated their animals. And the rest is history. The unfortunate thing here is that if I did not have IBS, if I did not have these dietary restrictions, I know for a fact that I would still be vegetarian today. Alas, yet another thing IBS has taken from me.

Anyway… as I was saying, I’ve recently started questioning my gluten-free life. Maybe I could start introducing it here and there - a bite of dough here, a crunch of cracker there. Maybe it isn’t all gluten that is the problem, but rather, certain kinds. Spelt? Barley? Wheat? Surely it can’t all be the same?

The problem here isn’t that we have these queries; but rather, that there’s really no way of knowing the answers. When we make these decisions, ask these questions, we’re really just guessing. We’re hoping. Wishing. We’re fishing for answers to make our lives - our symptoms and dietary restrictions - less complicated, less cruel.

Time to research

Like many of my other decisions in life I’ve decided to do a little research. One of the most interesting, topical, and educational articles I found was Leslie Beck’s “Is gluten always to blame for digestive distress” from The Globe and Mail.

According to Beck, recent medical studies reveal that cutting gluten from your life 100% can not only be harmful to your diet and nutrition but your overall health as well. Though I cannot be entirely sure that I don’t have celiac disease, as I was not consuming much gluten at the time of my test (accuracy depends upon this fact), there is a good chance that I do not. Apparently, the lovely symptoms I feel when I ingest gluten (i.e. gas, bloating, cramping, headaches, etc.) might just be a couple more fun side effects of IBS.

Though some might scoff at the thought, there is such a thing as a gluten sensitivity. Medically, it is referred to non-celiac gluten sensitivity. However, it is important to note that contemporary research suggests that it might be less about the gluten and more about the carbohydrates themselves. According to Beck, FODMAPs (fermentable, oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols) might be to blame. These fun little carbs can be found in everything from wheat and rye, to garlic, onions, fruit, lactose, beans and sweeteners. Basically, just another list of more yummy things I can’t eat. Great.

Ultimately, it seems that recent studies indicate that simply eliminating these foods from your diet entirely can be potentially harmful - especially since Canada does not regulate the enrichment or addition of nutrients in gluten-free food. Additionally, these foods are often higher in fat/sugar and have even been accused of causing type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease!1

So, after all my research I seem to have come full circle back to all my prior questions. Alas, lingering and unending questions seem to be yet another side effect of IBS.

Perhaps I will experiment and document my findings… stay tuned.

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