I'll take gluten for $1,000, Alex.
Unless you're living under a food trend rock, you're well aware that gluten was food public enemy number ONE for a long time there, and anyone who was trying to do anything useful with their health was avoiding gluten. (And, not to be callous previously... I am SO sorry if you are living under a rock—let us know if you need help out from under there!)
Also, you've probably had a few conversations about gluten. If you've ever tried giving up gluten or had to give up gluten on a doctor's orders, you may have run into some of the following scenarios:
- The person who cannot believe you can't eat bread and says they could never in a million years give up bread (to which you tell this person that if they had terrible stomach pain like witch's fingers wriggling through their intestines, they'd probably be a-okay without bread)
- The person who immediately questions you and asks if you aren't eating gluten because you have an allergy or you're just trying to lose weight (this one is always tricky. Sometimes the person feels judged, whether they realize it or not, by your desire not to chow down on gluten. Just know that when someone questions you about your food, it's usually more about them than it is about you and a simple, "I'm just not eating it, thanks," will suffice. No need to explain yourself!)
- The person who is gluten sensitive and will only suffer a bit from eating gluten. This person typically avoids it but can be tempted by a decadent cake, croissant, or particularly good beer. This person is comparable to someone with a lactose intolerance.
- The person who has Celiac and literally cannot share a toaster with you for fear of cross contamination.
- The person who confuses gluten with glucose and is, therefore, avoiding sugar.
- The person who is gluten free for weight loss purposes.
- The person who has never heard of gluten (hello, there, person under a food trend rock! Sometimes I wish I could join you!)
Most packaged items in the store are now labeled gluten free (whether they need to be or not—like that bottle of spring water I saw on the shelf), and many shoppers automatically think this means that item is a healthier choice.
I hear it all the time when sampling Honey Crumble Cornbread, my gluten, soy, and refined sugar free cornbread mix out on the town. It goes down a little something like this:
Consumer: "Oh! This is gluten free? Meh... don't think I want to try it."
Me: "Swear on my life you won't be able to tell."
Consumer: "It's gluten free? So this is healthy cornbread?"
First off, let’s do a little breakdown on gluten, Celiac disease, and gluten intolerance.
Simply: Gluten is a storage protein.
It is not bread or pasta or pizza crust, nor is it wheat or barley or rye; rather, gluten is a protein within the larger whole. This protein is found in grains such as wheat, barley, and rye, as well as products such as bread, pasta, and pizza crust (if those things are made of a gluten-containing product.)
The gluten protein is found in the endosperm of certain grains (the endosperm is the part of the grain that surrounds the embryo/seed). The endosperm contains oils, protein, and starch—which is what makes it nutritious for us humans. When the endosperm from wheat, for example, is ground into flour, you end up with white flour. If some of the bran and the germ are included, you get brown flour. Whole wheat/wholemeal/whole grain flour is made of the entire grain: the bran, endosperm, and germ. There are different types of flour mixes using these various types of flour, and each yield a varying amount of gluten (bread flour has the highest gluten content, for example, while cake flour has the least).
It follows that any flour made from a grain containing gluten will therefore not be gluten free, which include: wheat, kamut, spelt, rye, and barley. (Oats are generally avoided because they are almost always processed in mills that also process grains containing gluten.)
Gluten sensitivities range from minimal to extreme. Celiac disease is the extreme version of a gluten intolerance and is an autoimmune disease, which means that when it is consumed, the body attacks itself. In someone with Celiac, even the tiniest crumb of gluten will cause a D-Day style attack on his or her very own intestine.
This is why someone with Celiac can’t share a knife, fork, or cutting board with you. (So, you know, don’t take it personally.)
A gluten sensitivity or intolerance is someone who tests negative for Celiac disease but still feels better when not eating gluten. There are certain genetic markers for Celiac, but not for a gluten intolerance. No one really knows what causes a gluten sensitivity, but it has been linked to other autoimmune diseases, such as Lyme disease, diabetes, MS, and some studies even link it with autism and other sensory processing issues.
Then there are those who cut out gluten to lose weight. While this is admirable and certainly effective for reasons I’ll get to in a minute, it is not the best reason to cut out gluten. Yes, cutting out gluten will probably mean dropping a couple pounds because for most this will mean cutting back on processed foods. However, the second gluten is added back on, the pounds will come back on, as well.
I personally went gluten-free several years ago after spending quite a pretty penny at the doctor’s office. I was experiencing migraines, fatigue, stabbing pains in my abdomen, as well as the feeling of someone with very long, sharp fingernails intertwining said fingernails through my intestines.
As a struggling artist (so romantic), I didn’t have health insurance, and so when I reached $1500 in medical bills with no answers, I decided to take matters into my own hands.
Process of elimination style, I removed gluten from my diet, and voila: symptoms vanished.
Caveat here: I do not recommend going this route. I recommend testing with your doctor to see if you do have the genetic markers. If you do not and you still want to try eliminating gluten from your diet, working with a health professional is the best way to go. I spent years destroying my health by restricting foods and screwing with my body. It's taken a lot of work, school, and time to get back to factory settings. While I still do not eat gluten, I wish I'd had support and guidance when I was making this change in my food world.
I used to think that, as a health coach, I had to be 100% "healthy" and make "healthy" choices all the time. And my definition of healthy at the time was not what I’m talking about these days. Back then, I thought healthy meant eating purely for nutritional value and keeping hunger at bay. I didn’t savor life. I didn’t really enJOY much food. I was so obsessed with being perfect all the damn time. Not. Sustainable.
But I was rebounding from a life of the extreme opposite--late nights partying, working in a bar until 4 am and then eating a plate of nachos, having no regard for my body or health—simply eating and drinking whatever I wanted all the time with no awareness.
The tricky thing about taking care of our sweet bodies is... sometimes it's WAY more fun to NOT.
Gimme pizza. Gimme doughnuts. I want a cronut. I want to lay on the couch ALL DAMN DAY. Work out schmurck out. Netflix binging. "Life's short. Have dessert."
“Wine is constant proof that God loves us and loves to see us happy." (good ol' Ben Franklin)
So, there’s a total case of cognizant dissonance going on here: we feel mentally compelled to be healthy... but... if it there's no immediate danger? It's hard to actually DO it.
The human body is pretty damn amazing--it can put up with a LOT of crap. It’s full of organs that are designed for detoxification and it works hard to digest and process and sort whatever we put into it. But it often has to work overtime...
It's WAY easier to take the seemingly more fun route, but then we end up sick and tired and upset with ourselves, feeling guilty and frustrated and once again like we’ve got no willpower, no self-discipline, and we’ll never get this damn thing RIGHT. Which is true, you more than likely won’t get it right because there truly isn’t a RIGHT. There’s no right way. The only right way is to get to the WHY behind the choices you make. You're here, so I know you would like to make the choice where the why is an effort to maintain balance in your life more often than not.
The pendulum can swing with extreme momentum from perfection to complete and total hedonism.
A diet that is extremely restrictive and eliminates so many things 100% of the time isn’t sustainable for the rest of your life. If, however, you realize that you don’t FEEL as amazing when you eat them, you will be more prone to avoid them.
I know that when I eat dairy I’m going to get mucousy, and if I keep it up, a sinus infection and serious bowel distress will visit in my near future (it's not ESP, it's logic). If I eat gluten, a migraine and abdominal cramping are right around the corner. But when I visit France? You better believe I eat a goddamned croissant, eat some salted pistachio Berthillion ice cream on the Ile St Louis, and get me a chocolate filled crepe to walk along the Seine.
My WHY prevents me from binging on these things all the time. But my hedonistic approach to life reminds me that my value isn’t on avoiding these things to be thin, and if the pleasure of the experience outweighs the distress that I know will result, then I partake.
So, onto the issue at hand: Gluten.
Because gluten issues are becoming more common, you can now find gluten-free pasta, cereal, bread, waffles, pancakes, baking mixes, and cookies at many super markets and local grocery stores. (Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Target, and even Wal-mart each have a large assortment.)
To avoid gluten on boxed/packaged items that are not labeled gluten free, make sure you are reading the ingredients listed on EVERY packaged item. Keywords on nutrition labels that may signal gluten are: wheat, barley, rye, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, flour, cereal, vegetable protein, malt, malt flavoring, modified starch, vegetable gum and soy sauce. Look for other potential gluten indicators, such as stabilizer, starch, flavoring, emulsifier, hydrolyzed or plant protein.
Naturally Gluten-Free Foods
- oats (*must be labeled gluten-free to avoid cross-contamination)
- corn/ maize
- nuts and nut butters
- fresh fruit
- fresh vegetables
- herbs and spices
- meats and fish purchased without sauce or seasonings
- home-made soups (avoid bouillon cubes, barley malt, culinary stocks, and all types of pasta)
- juice (all-natural, 100% fruit juice.)
Foods to Avoid
Commonly used ingredients to avoid are modified food starch, barley enzymes (found in a majority of breakfast cereals), soy sauce and distilled vinegar (malt vinegar).
Good luck out there, food adventurers! And when food confusion hits, you know who to call! (Me!)