If that’s how you found the site, great. Maybe you can chime in and help me with something.
The unsexy gluten-free rage
Gluten-free and grain-free strike me as just about the most boring diet premises one could dream up. Especially for vegetarians, for whom grain is one of the last bastions of comforting, cooked food, nixing it sounds terribly unappealing.
So the fact that everyone (including top endurance athletes) is talking about getting the grain out of their diets has left has me thinking that maybe there’s something to it. Drastic improvements in endurance and recovery, perhaps?
Grain-free is a central premise of the Paleo diet, and one that requires no modification in my vegetarian version of Paleo. Among the other credible sources in my universe who advocate low-gluten or low-grain: Brendan Brazier, Rich Roll, Tim Ferriss, and Brian MacKenzie of CrossFit Endurance.
In the case of gluten, a protein composite primarily found in wheat, the main rationale for avoiding it is that it’s difficult for our bodies to process it. Wheat allergies and Celiac’s disease are the extreme cases, but proponents of a low-gluten diet say that wheat is an inflammatory in everyone, and it can slow us down and cause weight gain.
Why I’m not yet a No-Wheat Athlete
Only in the past few months have I really started listening to any of them. I’ve reduced my wheat intake to the point where it’s a cheat food, something I’ll eat only on binge days. (Spelt pasta is a nearly indiscernible alternative to whole wheat, spaghetti freaks. [UPDATE: Spelt is actually a form of wheat -- so not gluten free, but I still think it's healthier than most whole-wheat products.)
But I'm hesitant to give up other grains. I mean, brown rice? That's an absolute staple for me. (My latest snack/meal obsession: brown rice, avocado, Bragg's amino acids, and lime juice.) Even quinoa, not technically a grain but a seed, is banished under the strictest plans.
But that's the not biggest problem. When I get to the point where I'm convinced that my long-term health or performance as an ultrarunner can be improved with a diet change, I'm usually pretty good at exacting that change. (Coffee being a notable blemish on my record.) That's why I went vegetarian, and why I'm tending recently towards vegan.
No, the problem isn't that it's too hard. The problem is that I'm just not convinced. I can't truthfully say that I've noticed a single benefit since cutting out the wheat. In fact, I've just found it harder to fill the plate with enough calories.
I'm hoping a few success stories will inspire me and others to stick with it, or that enough stories of failure will convince me that it's not for everyone. So that's what I'd like to hear from you about.
Have you experienced significant changes in your energy levels, your endurance or strength, or y0ur recovery time since going gluten-free or grain-free? And while I understand the idea that gluten is an inflammatory agent in our bodies, what's the deal with gluten-free grains? What's the rationale for avoiding them?
Grain-free cannellini bean curry
While we’re talking grain-free, here’s a recipe for a fantastic dish I made for the second time last night. It’s grain-free, not on purpose really, it just happens to be that way. It can accompany rice or naan if you like, but I’ve served it alongside broccoli or spinach.
I’d classify it as non-spicy Indian, which is one reason it’s one of my wife’s favorite dishes we’ve had recently. It’s from Anjum’s New Indian, and (sadly) it will be the last recipe I can post from that book. But up next is Vegetarian Times’ Everything Vegan, so have no fear.
This curry uses cannellini beans, which is slightly odd-seeming since “cannellini” doesn’t exactly sound Indian. But it works, and that’s sort of what makes Anjum’s book unique; for example, you might remember the black-eyed pea curry recipe I posted a while back.
A few other notes: If you don’t have asafoetida, Anjum says you can skip it. It’s mainly a digestive aid. And if you don’t have curry leaves, she often recommends substituting basil leaves, so that’s what I did here. I also added a little bit of lemon juice before serving.
Give this one a try. It has a very subtle, coconuty and lightly sweet flavor. Which of course I had to lay waste to with a big pinch of cayenne pepper. Just how I roll, I suppose.
From Anjum’s New Indian, Anjum Anand, John Wiley and Sons, 2008
- 1/4 cup vegetable oil
- good pinch of asafoetida (I skipped this)
- 1 tsp brown mustard seeds
- 14 fresh curry leaves
- 1 small-medium onion, peeled and chopped
- 1/4 inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped
- 5 large cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped
- salt, to taste
- 1/2 tsp ground turmeric
- 1/2 tsp pure red chile powder
- 1 rounded tsp ground coriander
- 2/3 cup coconut milk
- 2 cups cannellini (white kidney) beans, drained and rinsed
- 10 cherry tomatoes, halved if large or left whole if small
- 1 tsp brown sugar or jaggery
- 3/4-1 tsp tamarind paste, or to taste (some brands are really strong)
- handful of fresh or frozen grated coconut, to garnish
- handful of fresh cilantro, chopped
Heat the oil in a large nonstick saucepan. Add the asafoetida and, once it sizzles, add the mustard seeds. Once they start to pop, add the curry leaves, then the onion and cook until these are soft and golden, around 8-10 minutes. Add the ginger and garlic and cook for 1 minute over medium heat. Add the salt and powdered spices and stir for 30 seconds. Add the coconut milk and 3/4 cup water and bring to the boil, then simmer for 10 minutes.
Add the beans and tomatoes and simmer for 5 minutes, allowing the flavors to marry. Stir in the sugar and tamarind paste, then mash some beans against the side of the pan to thicken the curry a little. Taste and adjust the tartness, sweetness and seasoning to taste. Garnish with the grated coconut and fresh cilantro and serve.