There is a lot of controversy regarding gluten in the mainstream media and it can be overwhelming. Is it healthy? What contains gluten? Should I be gluten free? Let’s clear up some of the confusion. F
irst of all, what is gluten? Gluten is a mixture of glutenin and gliadin which are present in all gluten-containing grains. Gliadin is the substance responsible for the immune reaction in Celiac disease. It is the glutenin in wheat flour that gives bread elasticity and allows it to rise. Gluten is actually derived from the Latin word for “glue”. Gluten-containing grains include wheat, barley, spelt, rye and kamut. However, gluten is often found in products you would not expect, such as soy sauce, vitamins, sausages, cheeses, prepared soups, beer, ice cream, and ketchup, among others. People with Celiac disease must avoid all sources of gluten or they become very sick. The absorptive surface of their small intestine is damaged by an autoimmune response, and they are therefore unable to absorb nutrients properly. Because of this, toxins from the gut can leak into the bloodstream, creating further problems. This is becoming very common, and medical tests to determine if someone has Celiac disease are available.
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The controversy begins with whether or not removing gluten from the diet can benefit people who do not have Celiac disease. We can think of gluten sensitivity as a spectrum, with Celiac disease being the tip of the iceberg. You do not need to be diagnosed as Celiac to be adversely affected by gluten. It is estimated that as many as 1 in 7 people are gluten-sensitive. Many people have increased their health by removing gluten. I have seen people lose weight, increase brain function, increase energy, and reverse certain health conditions by removing gluten from their diet. Popular books, such as “Wheat Belly” by Dr. William Davis, investigate the possibility that removing wheat from your diet may help with digestion, weight loss, insulin resistance, pH balance, aging, heartdisease, and skin problems. That’s quite a list! And it has certainly created a firestorm of debate. A quick Google search brings up numerous raving fans of the gluten free lifestyle as well as many skeptics who hotly debate the merits of it. So, who to believe?
Well, first of all, let’s look at why some people get so upset at the possibility of removing gluten from the diet. The main concern seems to be that people believe we will end up being malnourished. The Canada Food Guide tells us that grains should be a staple of our diet with a recommended 6-8 servings per day. Skeptics are often worried about the impact of removing an entire food group from the diet. Of course, a gluten free diet can include other grains such as rice, quinoa, and millet, so it does not necessarily mean dropping this whole “food group”. But do we in fact need these grains in our diet? In order to create good health, our bodies need the three macronutrients: protein, fats, and carbohydrates. We also need micronutrients: vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients. That’s it.
So, if we remove gluten-containing grains, where do we get our carbohydrates? We get them from nutritionally superior sources such as fruits and, most importantly, vegetables. There are far more nutrients in vegetables than there are in grains. Vegetables are what we call “nutrient dense”. You get a better bang for your buck (nutritionally speaking) with fruits and vegetables than you do with grains. Grains, both whole grains and more refined grains, raise our blood sugars to a greater degree than the carbohydrates in vegetables. So, when grains are the basis of our diet, it can lead to serious consequences such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
So, removing wheat should not be a problem… but sometimes it is. The problems arise when people decide to try living gluten free but continue to eat the same types of products they are used to, only without the gluten. There is no shortage of gluten free products on store shelves these days. Food manufacturers have jumped on the gluten free bandwagon with great enthusiasm. But just because a product is gluten free does not mean that it’s healthy. A gluten free cookie is still a cookie.
Our standard North American diet relies heavily on wheat. We consume pasta, breads, and cereals – often at every meal. So, taking wheat out of the diet can seem like a very difficult thing to do. Replacing breads, pasta, cereals, pastries, and cookies with other processed refined starches (even if they state “gluten free”), will only lead to blood sugar imbalance and obesity. Clients often ask “So what’s left to eat?!” In order to make the transition to a gluten free diet easier for people, I often recommend “transition foods”. To begin with, you can replace your pasta with one made of brown rice or quinoa. Gluten free breads can be substituted for regular breads. Ditto for cereals.
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I know... I just said that gluten free products are not necessarily healthy. This is where the transition comes in. Gluten has addictive qualities that affect the brain. Consuming it makes us crave more. Once you have excluded gluten from the diet and have made the transition to gluten free substitutes, you can go one step further by replacing those gluten free products with healthier options. Replace your breakfast cereal, bagel, or drive-thru donut with gluten free oatmeal, free-run eggs, or, my favourite, a protein smoothie made with berries and leafy greens. Lunch does not have to be a sandwich. Instead, try homemade soups, stews, or salads with some clean protein or leftover dinner. Dinner does not require pasta, bread, or pizza, either. Start with a whole pile of nutrient dense vegetables and add a clean protein.
Other tips include using spaghetti squash instead of noodles with your favourite pasta sauce. Replace gluten free tortillas with collard greens to wrap sandwich fillings. Experiment with using quinoa to replace other starches. While primarily a carbohydrate, quinoa is also a good source of protein, making it superior to other gluten free grains. It cooks just like rice and can be used in the same manner or added to soups, stews, and salads.
Eating out seems to be another stumbling block that people often face when living gluten free. However, more and more restaurants are offering gluten free items on their menus, and if you choose to eat whole foods, you’ll opt for a chicken or salmon dinner with veggies or a salad, anyway. For those evenings when you’re pressed for time, Goodness Me! has a wonderful selection of prepared gluten free and, most importantly, delicious foods to easily pick up on your way home.
After eating gluten free (the healthy way) for a period of time, it no longer seems difficult. It simply becomes a way of life. Along with your new lifestyle, you may reap the benefits of increased energy, better brain function, decreased risk of diabetes and heart disease and a smaller waist size! Click here to see more GF products