Students’ New Year’s resolution: Living vegan and gluten-free

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‘Tis the season for New Year’s resolutions, meaning health is on the minds of many: 38 percent of American’s resolutions in 2014 were weight-related, according to statisticbrain.com.

Food restrictions like gluten-free and vegan eating may have their benefits, but they may not help the average person become healthier.

“Gluten-free snacks have just as many calories and usually lots of sugar to make up for flavor and texture,” said Elizabeth Pusey, a first-year BYU graduate in the comparative studies program. Pusey is a gluten-free eater.

Monica's husband, Nathan Russell, enjoys a home-cooked meal. (Monica Russell)
Nathan Russell enjoys a home-cooked meal free of gluten and sugar. (Monica Russell)

She discovered her gluten sensitivity on her mission in early 2012, when the gluten-free trend seemed to take off on food blogs and in grocery store aisles. She said many people advised her to go gluten-free, and she was finally able to try when she returned from her mission.

According to the website for the National Foundation of Celiac Awareness, celiac disease only affects 1 percent of the population but requires a 100 percent gluten-free diet as a treatment.

“It is so hard,” Pusey said about not being able to eat out with friends or go to dessert parties easily. She found that gluten sensitivities often trigger depression and anxiety even though she looked and felt better within a few days of avoiding gluten.

Pusey tested negative for celiac disease but discovered she was allergic to gluten. Celiac is not just a gluten allergy but an autoimmune disorder in which gluten damages one’s small intestine and stimulates the creation of antibodies against its own tissues.

These antibodies weaken one’s immune system and can lead to anemia, osteoporosis, infertility, nervous system disorders and gastrointestinal cancers, according to celiac.org.

According to the Celiac Central website, the celiac disease diagnosis rate “may reach 50 to 60 percent by 2019, thanks to efforts to raise public awareness of celiac disease.”

BYU senior Monica Russell has celiac disease and a fructose sensitivity, leaving her with minimal food options since she cannot eat grains or most fruits. She has capitalized on her creativity and cooking skills to create gluten-free and sugar-free foods.

“Figure out for yourself what your body needs … you’ll feel the best you’ve felt in your entire life,” Russell said. She said she is grateful for her food allergies and sensitivities because they have fueled her passion to open a gluten-free bakery and help others like herself learn to enjoy food again.

BYU nutrition professor Merrill Christensen has two sons with celiac disease and believes the disorder is under-diagnosed. People easily bypass common symptoms like gastrointestinal discomfort and bloating.

Senior Monica Russell made grain-free southern-style battered turkey, onion and cheese bites. Russell has celiac disease and a fructose sensitivity, leaving her with minimal food options since she cannot eat grains and most fruits. (Monica Russell)
Senior Monica Russell made grain-free southern-style battered turkey, onion and cheese bites. Russell has celiac disease and a fructose sensitivity, leaving her with minimal food options since she cannot eat grains and most fruits. (Monica Russell)

Christensen said celiac disease is often hereditary but can manifest itself at random times during a person’s life. One of his sons was diagnosed with celiac disease at 18 months old, the other at age 30.

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye that gives bread its structure. Christensen said gluten is found in unsuspected foods like Rice Krispies and soy sauce, making gluten avoidance difficult.

“If you can digest gluten just fine, (avoiding gluten) isn’t going to provide any additional benefit (to your body),” Christensen said. He described the average American as “uneducated” about gluten-free eating.

Jimmy Kimmel sent out a camera crew in July 2014 to ask gluten-free dieters, “What is gluten?” but most were unable to explain.

Pusey said grocery shopping in the gluten-free section is “ridiculously more expensive” and that gluten-free substitutes do not taste as good as gluten-filled food.

“A gluten-free lifestyle is very helpful in teaching yourself to have control and be smart about what you eat,” Pusey said. “(But) if people are choosing to eat gluten-free (just) for a diet, then they are idiots.”

The gluten-free trend has benefited those with celiac or other gluten sensitivities by making gluten-free foods more available at grocery stores and restaurants. Pusey believes the trend will eventually become a regular nutritional option as more people are diagnosed with celiac or gluten allergies.

Gluten-free eating is not for everyone, but Christensen suggested vegan eating for a wider range of Americans. In 2012, 69 percent of Americans over age 19 were overweight or obese, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Vegan diets or vegetarian diets would be terrific for the average overweight American,” Christensen said. A vegan diet is much less calorie-dense than a regular omnivorous diet, which could naturally help people lose weight.

BYU Vegetarian and Vegan Club President Eric Smith began a vegetarian diet on his mission after studying the Word of Wisdom to see how his body felt without meat. He said he felt lethargic at first but soon felt more energetic and found he could sleep better than before.

Smith was hooked after researching the associated environmental benefits and effects on world hunger and animal rights. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, one acre of land could produce 20 pounds of usable protein from cattle or 356 pounds of protein from soybeans.

BYU nutrition professor Paul Johnston advised people on vegetarian or vegan diets to be careful to get enough iron and protein. He said phytic acid binds with the minerals in plant sources, making them more difficult for humans to absorb.

Christensen recommended that people on vegan diets take a vitamin B12 supplement, since no plant source can provide it. Without enough vitamins and minerals, the body may suffer nervous system problems, an impaired immune system or anemia similar to people with gluten sensitivities or celiac disease.

Smith, Pusey and Russell all eat differently but agreed their eating habits interfere with their social or family lives. All three continue to stick with their diets because they say they feel better and their bodies function properly when they do.

“Attention to your body helps you understand how to nourish and not just feed your body,” Pusey said.

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