On a recent Monday afternoon, I sat in my cubicle, practicing my breathing and holding back tears. Should I cry in the bathroom or in my car? Would a third cup of coffee make the jaw-clenching irritability and throbbing headache go away? Could my coworkers tell I was moments from curling into a ball under my desk?
No, this wasn’t pregnancy; it was a symptom of withdrawal from “poisonous” grains. And it just so happened that the first day of my 10-day cleanse was also the first day of deadline week for this magazine. Grains, Milwaukee cardiologist William Davis writes, “yield opiates” among other villainy, and they’re “not too different from morphine or heroin.” Giving them up, however, would yield the “ride” of my life.
In fact, Davis argues in the Wheat Belly 10-Day Grain Detox, if I could successfully ignore my criminal popcorn cravings, I would be assured a “world of health, single-digit clothes sizes, feeling wonderful and being the recipient of jealous looks from the perplexed and frustrated grain-eaters.”
I was as buckled in as I was ever going to be.
I made it through that first day by following the Wheat Belly commandments that include eliminating grain of all kinds – even vegetable oil! – and wheat, corn and sugar in all of their delicious forms. This meant saying sayonara to tortilla chips and quinoa, and telling my afternoon chocolate stash I’d be back soon.
The book, part of a Wheat Belly empire that now includes an online “lifestyle institute,” spends a handful of chapters describing and repeating wheat’s evils, with testimonials from middle-aged women as reinforcement. (The science backing all of this, Davis writes, can be found in earlier books.) The rest is devoted to recipes and shopping lists. The general principles are similar to the first phase of the Atkins diet – the low-carbohydrate, all-the-calories-you-can-handle regimen popular in the early aughts – but with limited dairy and an emphasis on coconut in all of its liquid and solid forms. If something can be replaced with a coconut product during this 10-day journey, you can bet it most certainly will.
Davis says the program’s use of probiotics and prebiotics will restore “a diverse profile of microorganisms” in my intestines, in addition to transforming me into a more wonderful person. And they’re essential to promote a healthy bowel flora that is no longer abused by grains. The existence of a probiotic garden was news to me, but I enjoyed sprinkling the term “bowel flora” into as many conversations as I could.
After reading the book, I gathered my supplies, which included tons of chicken, sausage, eggs, vegetables, seeds, nuts, olive oil, the sweetener stevia and almond butter, plus the aforementioned coconut products. The haul included nothing absurdly expensive, but still, the bill came to nearly $150, and most of it was gone within four days. A budget-friendly plan this is not.
The book prescribes a different recipe for each meal, including “shakes,” meatloaf, eggplant lasagna, BLT wraps, frittatas and bratwurst with sauerkraut – a nod to Davis’ hometown. They don’t sound like diet foods, but there’s no kidding yourself come Day 5. When I didn’t recreate a recipe, I followed the guidelines of no more than 15 net carbs per meal, which meant eating mostly meat, vegetables and the world’s saddest “granola.”
The night before this exploit began, I spent an hour preparing 10 cups of “apricot ginger granola,” by mixing coconut flakes, seeds, nuts, a couple pinches of dried apricots, mild spices and coconut oil. I ate that blasted granola every morning for the following nine days, because it was too expensive to waste. Eating the flavorless, gritty mix became my least favorite morning ritual, and with every passing day I resented it, and Davis and his books, and the Lucifer of the food pyramid, even more. I learned the hard way why Davis warns prospective wheat bellies not to endure this during stressful periods, when you’re traveling, or in my case, in deadline week.
The first few days included the irritability Davis describes, including the near-tears episode at my desk. For each of the 10 days I wrote down everything I ate (“almond milk is basically white water”), noted my weight, described my sleep and reflected on my intestinal flower bed. My husband decided to keep a running journal of his own, including the afternoon of Day 2, when I couldn’t remember if I needed to pick him up after work.
“Did we carpool?” I texted him. “Subject suffering from memory loss due to probiotic rebalancing in gastrointestinal system,” he responded, ever helpfully.
After three days in low-carb land, the side effects improved. I lost almost a pound each day, and my face felt hollow, though its appearance stayed the same. I experienced the fleeting assurance that weight loss can occasion, and imagined that in no time at all I’d be 5’11” and built like Gisele. My breath changed for the better and my sense of smell seemed more sensitive – all changes that sound a lot like pregnancy when you’re 28. But to my great disappointment, grain eaters around me weren’t overcome with envy. Instead, my coworkers seemed intent on bringing every sugary treat in Milwaukee into the office, then feigning sympathy when I tried not to make eye contact with their cannoli.
Throughout that week and a half, I was constantly thirsty, but the thirst and the mood swings didn’t compare with what turned out to be the tallest wheat-made mountain, Super Bowl Sunday.
On Saturday, Day 7 of this saga, my co-diarist husband invited friends to our duplex to watch the game. I didn’t think they would want to share my granola or green banana shakes (imagine liquefied chalk – with coconut!), so I devised a tastier, nutrionally corrupt menu.
This last-minute fete taught me if you haven’t mastered meal planning and purposeful grocery shopping, spontaneity will lead to your dietary undoing. My sins that day included buffalo chicken dip (too much dairy), pulled pork (too much sugar), and two gluten-free beers. For these, I paid penance on the scale, and my sense of defeat lasted the remainder of the detox.
The three days following the Super Bowl came and went, and the number on the scale stayed the same. My sleep quality and intestinal health hadn’t changed throughout this experiment – not even the green bananas could throw them off course. Mentally, it seemed nothing would restore my grain-free superiority. Even Davis couldn’t console me: He warns that anything besides perfect adherence could yield no results, and in the event of an unsanctioned detour, the ritual needs to be restarted entirely. The thought of that was too much.
By the end of Day 10, or in Davis-speak, “the number of days it takes your husband to stop procrastinating over fixing a leaky kitchen faucet,” I’d survived with almost nothing to show for it, except a new appreciation for real granola. The book stresses taking a break from heavy exercise for the duration of the regimen, but even without wheat and sugar, I felt sluggish from inactivity. I did learn, however, that I could easily live on very little grain. I’m not ready to excommunicate store-bought salad dressing or gluten-filled beer, but I’m sure as hell done with all things coconut.