So you have just learned, or decided, that you want to go gluten-free. This is an exciting time, right? After all, going gluten free also means that you find freedom from stomach aches, skin issues, anxiety, and other emotional and mental issues. Not to mention, you experience reduced cravings for those unhealthy products. In addition, you get to share everything you learn with your friends and loved ones. After all, the chances are that they should be on a gluten free diet too.
But let’s say that this is not the attitude that you have towards this change in your life, at least not right now. Maybe you feel overwhelmed by what seems like an extremely limiting diet. Perhaps you worry about accidentally eating gluten. Maybe you are in denial or are not confident in your decision to go gluten-free. Regardless, this article is for you. We discuss the gluten connection and health benefits of omitting it from your regular diet, as well as how to pick naturally gluten-free foods, and much more. By the end of the article, you will hopefully feel more excited and empowered to embrace this new chapter of your life.
What is Gluten? Why is Gluten Harmful to Some People?
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley. Unfortunately, in the United States, the wheat is modified to contain more gluten today than in previous decades. Therefore, while your grandparents might not understand the big concern about gluten, you feel it in your gut (literally). In addition, you may find that wheat products in other countries do not cause the same reaction as wheat products in the United States. This could be due to different agricultural practices.
Regardless, why do some people suffer while others do not? For several reasons. For instance, plenty of people who remain undiagnosed in fact do have celiac disease – about 97%, actually. This means that while they may not know that they are suffering, especially because they have none of the obvious symptoms, the body is still being harmed.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder. When a person with celiac disease eats gluten, the protein destroys the villi (tiny hair-like structures that line the small intestine). This not only destroys the small intestine over time but it also stops the body from absorbing nutrients. Therefore, a lot of people who have celiac disease remain underweight and malnourished, even if they eat a hearty diet.
But, gluten can affect other people as well due to gluten intolerance and gluten sensitivity. Unfortunately, no specific scientific tests can currently confirm these conditions. This adds to part of the gluten controversy. Still, symptoms of such conditions include depression, stomach pain, skin issues, insomnia, anxiety, and more. Not to mention, gluten is connected with other health complications, as cited in “The Gluten Connection” by Shari Lieberman.
How to be Gluten Free in a Pastry World
Luckily, the current trend in the food industry is becoming more friendly to gluten free populations. With ancient grains on the rise and gluten-free fad diets abounding, you can likely dine out with friends while staying gluten-free. This said, the general public still remains relatively unaware when it comes to safe practices surrounding food prep, ingredients, and other products.
For instance, while oats are a naturally gluten-free food, the risk of cross-contamination is so huge that oats should be avoided UNLESS they are certified gluten-free. Take a look at the following foods you should gravitate towards while staying away from other options:
- Pick corn tacos over tortillas.
- Choose rice over bread.
- Ask for lemon and olive oil rather than standard restaurant salad dressings.
- Request that restaurant staff changes their gloves.
- Avoid Asian food unless you are 100% sure that the soy sauce has no gluten.
- Always check ingredients in packaged foods.
Opt for fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and meats.
This will surely cover all your bases. Always speak up and say that you cannot eat gluten, and clearly explain that even a crumb can cause a reaction. If in doubt, just do not eat the food.
Is the Gluten Free Diet Healthy?
The short answer: It depends. The label “gluten free” can mean many different things. For instance, a gluten-free diet that consists of packages of sweets, bread, and waffles is comparable to a regular diet rich in carbohydrates and unhealthy sugars. On the other hand, a gluten free diet that incorporates vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and good protein provides necessary nutrition. Though, you can achieve this same diet without going gluten-free.
Some studies say that people on gluten free diets suffer a deficiency in nutrients like calcium and iron. While this may be the case, it is important to remember what would be happening if the person was eating gluten, especially if diagnosed with celiac disease. The body would absorb fewer nutrients, which would result in even more deficiencies.
All in all, a gluten free diet can be just as healthy, if not more so, than the standard American diet (which varies as well). But, most people who go gluten-free also gradually grow aware of how to differentiate healthy and unhealthy foods. They start checking ingredients and labels. Not to mention, they will probably choose a piece of fruit over the cookie marked “gluten free” at the buffet simply because of the risk of cross-contamination.
Health Benefits of Going Gluten Free
You’ll experience numerous health benefits, both short and long term, to going gluten-free. Nails grow stronger, acne and skin rashes heal, and the stomach no longer feels bloated. In addition, you will feel stronger, and your general mood and emotions will grow more balanced.
Finally, a lot of foods that contain gluten are unhealthy already as they are loaded with sugars. Eating foods lower on the glycemic index, often the case when going gluten-free, can also help populations diagnosed with diabetes and those who identify as overweight. Some chronic diseases are cured, or improved, upon adopting a gluten-free diet. For instance, MS, Parkinson’s disease, and Hashimotos.
Once you learn how easy it is to be gluten-free, you will no longer think about what you are missing out on. Let’s face it, gluten-free food tastes better anyway. Read on for tips on making gluten-free foods, and some ideas to get you started.
Amazing Gluten-Free Foods to Make and Taste
Going gluten-free opens the doors for getting more creative in the kitchen. No longer do you confine yourself to one type of flour. Now you can use over ten different types of grains! Your bread can serve as a complete protein!
Eating naturally gluten-free foods will also help you to truly appreciate the cuisine of other cultures. For instance, Mexican food is a great option for people diagnosed with celiac disease. The main ingredients in the carb foods consist of corn, not wheat. Not to mention, rice is abundant. Same with Indian food and most Asian foods (minus the soy sauce). These cultural foods work with ancient grains, like quinoa, teff, and amaranth. Ancient grains just means that they have not been modified over the years, like wheat has.
A lot of these grains are complete in amino acids, like quinoa and buckwheat. This makes them excellent options for plant-based eaters. But let’s say you want more variety than just the grains, fruits, vegetables, and nuts that nature kindly offers. You want to bake!
Just because you must follow a gluten-free diet does not mean you cannot eat your cookies, bread, and cakes. The biggest change in the composition of these foods is that there is no longer a binding agent. Gluten acts as a glue in baking. So, using eggs (or chia or flax seeds) can provide a great alternative. A lot of gluten-free bakers will also use a combination of different types of flours. (A single flour can have an overpowering flavor.) A great combination to modify pumpkin bread, for instance, includes tapioca, brown rice, white rice, and coconut.
Take some time to experiment with different flour combinations and ratios. Once you find one that you like, life becomes almost “normal” again, if that is what you are striving for.
Embrace the Gluten Free Life
Gluten-free is surrounded by controversies, myths, and a host of misinformation. The health and wellness community continue to promote it, however. As a result, people new to the gluten-free life are sometimes very overwhelmed and lost. Suddenly they must check all the ingredients and say no to their favorite muffin. For the most part though, once that door is permanently shut, a much brighter window opens. When this happens, eating gluten can seem like a death sentence, and you wonder why the whole world has not already gone gluten-free.
When it comes to sharing the news with family members, asking them to be supportive and even change their ways as well, you may be met with resistance. After all, there probably was a time when you did the same thing. Do not fear. Change is gradual and the more that you learn in order to take care of your needs, the more positive energy gets put back out in the universe. Maybe, just maybe, you will provide the domino effect for your family and circle of friends, and what is more exciting that that?If you are interested in the subject of Gluten-free eating, it is most likely that you have no choice in the matter. Most people who opt for a Gluten-free diet (GFD for short) do so because of a specific medical condition called Celiac disease (1).
This condition makes the human body unable to tolerate gluten. This means that wheat, barley, rye, and anything made from them are strictly off-limits. Even the smallest crumb of wheat bread (for instance) can trigger serious problems. If you happen to be diabetic, you should definitely have a doctor test you for Celiac disease, because about 10% of people with type 1 diabetes will also have Celiac disease (2).
Some people opt for this diet even if they do not have Celiac disease. Many of these people claim that they have experienced various health benefits after cutting gluten out of their diet. Many of them claim to have a sensitivity to gluten that has nothing to do with Celiac disease. For this reason, researchers have dubbed this new disorder as “Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity” or NCGS (3).
Step 1 to Being Gluten Free: Examine Your Current Diet
The first step is to take a look at your diet and determine what has to go. Pretty much every food product will have the ingredients listed on the package. This is required by law, but if need be, you can always look up the information online. A damaged label or a discarded outer package shouldn’t hinder you as long as you have internet access. You are looking for three things in particular: wheat, barley, and rye in any form (including derivatives).
Here you must buy a notebook and make two lists. One of these lists will contain the foods you can eat, and the other will contain the foods that you cannot safely eat. After a while, you will probably memorize the contents, but writing it down will help you to more quickly do so. Here are a couple of short lists to give you a start:
- Fresh Eggs
- Fresh Meat/Poultry
- Beans (unprocessed)
- Seeds and Nuts
- Most Dairy
- Almost All Breads
- Most Desserts
- Some processed meats
Step 2 to Being Gluten Free: Take A Trip To The Grocery Store
Cooking is, to some degree, a matter of creativity. So, you will need to determine what kinds of materials you can use. Since a gluten-free diet rules out many of the carbohydrate-rich foods that most of us are accustomed to, your cooking methods must change accordingly, and substitutes must be found. We will delve more into substitutes shortly, but for now, just take your notebook to the grocery store.
Go down the aisles and check the ingredients on any product that appeals to you. As you check their ingredients, update your list accordingly, so that you will have a better point of reference. Again, be sure to research anything about which you feel unsure. As you do this, be aware that most products will not specifically say that they contain gluten. However, if a product is labeled as “gluten-free,” you can be pretty sure that it actually is gluten free. The law forbids them from lying in this case, so that label is fairly trustworthy. As before, you are looking for wheat, barley, rye, and anything derived from them. Wheat will be your most common issue by far, as it is used much more extensively than the other two.
Step 3 to Being Gluten Free: Inform Friends And Family
As with all pack animals, humans often eat together as a social activity. As such, you should probably let all your friends and relatives (or at least those you see regularly) know about your GFD. This will help to ensure that you are not tempted with gluten-containing foods and that you do not accidentally ingest gluten at Christmas dinner or on some other occasion. A college environment also presents unique challenges.
For those who live with you, certain precautions will be required in order to avoid cross-contamination. These precautions shouldn’t be too much trouble. For instance, let’s say someone makes a sandwich on the kitchen counter, and they leave a few breadcrumbs behind. Then, someone else with a gluten intolerance comes along and prepares food on the same counter and has a reaction to the crumbs. Either household member could have avoided this problem simply by wiping off the counter.
Peer pressure is one of those things that affect all of us (even though we don’t want to admit this). Sticking to a gluten-free diet is a lot easier if those around you are not trying to impose their ideas upon you. Of course, I’m not telling you to cut your friends off for offering you some toast, but only to be aware that humans are pack animals, and thus we naturally want to do what the rest of the pack is doing.
Step 4 to Being Gluten Free: Research Substitutes
Having adjusted your diet, you can now look for substitutes. It is a good idea to wean yourself from bread products entirely so that you don’t even desire something that is harmful to you. However, once you have fully divorced yourself from bread, you should begin looking at substitutes like rice flour.
Technically, flour can be made from any dried and powdered substance. People have made flour from so many different things, that the list might amaze you. Of course, none of them will work exactly like wheat flour. Still, your options are numerous here(4).
Step 5 to Being Gluten Free: Research The Grey Areas
There are some non-food products that often contain gluten, such as certain cosmetics that use gluten products as a filler. Play-dough also contains gluten, making it a risk for gluten-sensitive children. Children have long been known to occasionally eat play-dough (don’t lie, you did it at least once) so keep it out of the house if your child cannot eat gluten. Some multivitamins also contain gluten, so always check the label.
Medications are another potential source of unwanted gluten. While the vast majority of medications contain little to no gluten, some of them have been known to use it as a base for other substances. This problem is not particularly difficult to deal with, however, because any good doctor will avoid giving you drugs that contain gluten. Just make sure that you always inform your doctor of your gluten intolerance, even if you are being treated for a totally unrelated condition.
Thankfully, you can double-check your doctor if you feel it necessary. The FDA requires proper labeling of gluten-containing drugs so that those with Celiac disease or NCGS can avoid them.
Certain food products exist in a grey area between “safe” and “unsafe.”
Soup is a good example. While most soups do not contain bread, some of them do use wheat as a base. This is something that you mostly see in cheaper brands, as wheat makes for a cheap and readily available filler. This is why some soups are gluten-free and some are not. Another good example would be vinegar. Malted vinegar contains gluten, and is thus to be avoided. However, apple cider vinegar and other non-malted vinegar is fine.
When it comes to candy, be especially careful because about half of the most popular types contain gluten. When you add candy products to your lists, make sure that you list them by the specific product name since there is so much variance.
Soy sauce and oats are different cases. These are examples of foods that do not contain gluten, but which are normally processed with foods that do contain gluten. Thus, this is another case where it will vary by brand.
As you can see, a gluten-free lifestyle doesn’t need to be a difficult lifestyle. Once you get used to a few simple rules and precautions, it will become like second nature and will no longer require serious effort. So, let’s revisit the five easy steps:
- Examine your diet, throwing away anything made with wheat, barley, or rye. At the same time, prepare your “safe” and “unsafe” lists.
- Take a trip to the grocery store with your notebook and complete your lists.
- Inform your family and close friends that gluten is dangerous to your health. This is both so that they can avoid cross-contamination and so that you will feel less tempted to stray from your gluten-free lifestyle.
- Do some research on the various substitutions that can be used in place of your favorite gluten-containing foods.
- Consider and research the grey areas, such as non-food items that contain gluten, and food items that are only sometimes safe.
By following these five easy steps, you can transition into a gluten-free diet with minimal fuss and minimal risk. Try not to look at your condition as a problem. In a very real way, it is a problem, but it will not benefit you to think of it this way. Instead, look at it as a challenge, and an excuse to live a healthier life … something we should all be doing anyway.