How and Why to be Gluten-Free
Becoming gluten-free can seem like a daunting task -- which foods do you throw out, which ones do you keep and what do you need to buy? Keep in mind that the transition to being gluten-free is best done as a process, not as an overnight commando raid on your kitchen. Yes, you can change overnight, but the switch will be more smooth and less stressful if done over the course of one to two weeks. I recommend you read this quick article, take a look around your pantry, refrigerator and freezer and then peruse the shelves of the gluten-free section of your supermarket before you embark on your gluten-free journey.
What is Gluten?
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, rye, kamut and spelt. To be technical, gluten is actually a protein composite found in the aforementioned grains (glutenin and gliadin in wheat, hordein in barley and secalin in rye). For the sake of simplicity, we'll just call it "gluten" to mean all of the proteins in that family. Gluten gives bread that lovely chewy texture and structure. Alternately, gluten is also what makes muffins and pancakes tough if the batter is over-mixed.
What Products have Gluten?
The most basic groceries with gluten are bread and grain-related products -- breads, tortillas, muffins, doughnuts, pasta, crackers, cakes and anything made with white or whole-wheat flour. Other products with gluten include pizza dough, breaded items that may be in your freezer like fish sticks and chicken nuggets and anything pastry-like (pot pies, toaster pastries, waffles, etc.). Any food item made with any kind of white or wheat flours contains gluten, but there are other items with gluten that may surprise most people. These include (but are not limited to):
oats (technically oats are gluten-free, however most are contaminated with gluten at the processing plant unless otherwise labeled)
Most of the products listed above come in gluten-free varieties, so you should be able to find foods to fit your needs. It's important to read food labels carefully and to check the ingredients list. Better yet, the product will be labeled "gluten-free." And even better than that, the item will also specify that it's made in a gluten-free facility (not all gluten-free products are made in a gluten-free facility and cross-contamination can occur, which is especially harmful for those suffering from Celiac Disease or severe forms of Gluten Intolerance).
Which Foods are Gluten-Free?
Many foods are naturally gluten-free and these are the foods you should concentrate on the most. These include:
Whole Grains such as rice, quinoa and millet
Sweeteners such as honey, pure maple syrup, molasses, and agave nectar
Oils (olive, grapeseed, canola, etc.) and Butter
Many supermarkets also sell gluten-free foods such as crackers, pretzels, pizza dough, breads, cereals, cake mixes, pastas and a variety of frozen entrees and breakfast items. However, these processed items should not take up the bulk of your gluten-free diet since they often lack essential nutrients (they are often not fortified the same way their gluten counterparts are enriched). You'll end up getting filled up without giving your body the vitamins and minerals it needs to carry out vital functions, so consume processed foods sparingly. In addition, many processed foods -- even gluten-free ones -- can be full of chemical preservatives that may wreak havoc on the lining of the intestines. If you have just begun your gluten-free journey, then chances are your gut is already a little inflamed, so staying away from further irritants may help you feel better faster.
Why do I keep hearing about more and more people going gluten-free?
Many people may consider going gluten-free as another fad diet, but the incidence of Celiac Disease (a serious auto-immune disorder) and gluten sensitivity appear to be on the rise in the U.S.. While data across the board varies, many experts predict that 5%-10% of the U.S. population has some sensitivity to gluten -- that's 15 to 30 million people, most of which are undiagnosed. You may be wondering why this number is so high, but nobody has a firm answer. Some theories include the ingestion of chemical preservatives and artificial ingredients, the use of pesticides on conventionally grown produce and the over-consumption gluten in the Standard American Diet (high on refined white flour).
Celiac Disease and Gluten Intolerance/Sensitivity can manifest itself in a number of seemingly random symptoms including but not limited to:
Abdominal pain, cramping or distention
Alternating bouts of diarrhea and constipation
Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD)
Depression and Anxiety
Headaches and Migraines
Numbness or Tingling in the hands or feet
Teeth and Gum problems
Many people are switching to gluten-free lifestyles in an attempt to take back control of their diets and their lives. Most of us have experienced one or more of the above symptoms at some time or another, and instead of being put on a medication, perhaps eating in a different way can help cure our bodies in a more natural way. A simple elimination of gluten for 6 to 8 weeks can often reveal if your symptoms are caused by Gluten Intolerance or Celiac Disease. After being gluten-free for the prescribed amount of time, simply add a small amount of gluten back to your diet for a day, then observe if your symptoms return.
Becoming gluten-free can be a relatively simple and inexpensive method for achieving optimal health. Although the initial effort requires some work, the end result can be a more healthful, enjoyable life.