Photo by Roman Kraft on Unsplash
Gluten was the last thing on my mind when I did a food sensitivity test in June. My doctor ordered the test and I gave little thought to what might show up. But stuff sure did show up! As a result, I’m now dairy-free, egg-free, sugar-free, and gluten-free, at least for the next six to twelve months. Yikes!
Concerned friends and family ask: “So… what DO you eat?” 🙂 Well, let me share with you how I’m adjusting to a gluten-free (GF) diet.
A sticky problem
Gluten is a collective term for a group of proteins found in grains such as wheat, spelt, bulgur, rye, and barley. The name gluten comes from the latin word glue, as it creates the glue-like consistency of flour and water when combined. Gluten binds together breads, baked goods, pastas, sauces, dressings, cereals, and even beer to create a denser product.
However, more people are now noticing that consuming bread products that contain gluten leads to nausea and vomiting and a host of digestive troubles. Gliadin, the most abundant protein in wheat, is the source of most of their gluten problems. It increases the production of zonulin, a protein that pries the cells in the gut wall open, triggering leaky gut, a condition that can lead to inflammation and autoimmune illnesses, such as celiac disease (CD). In CD, the immune system attacks the smallest bit of gluten as if it’s a foreign invader. The result: inflammation and damage to the gut lining, as well as symptoms like headaches, tingling, fatigue, muscle pain, and skin rashes.
A second group of people affected by gluten are those with non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS)–which is what I’m now dealing with. NCGS can be difficult to diagnose. We end up labeled as gluten sensitive almost by default because we often have many of the symptoms of celiac disease (digestive woes, skin conditions, bone and joint pain, and fatigue) without the intestinal damage or a wheat allergy. The digestive symptoms are similar to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), so it’s easy to not recognize that gluten may be at the root of IBS problems. If we’re not removing toxic waste properly (hello, constipation!), it may well be that gluten sensitivity is causing leaky gut. Elimination diets (even for a week) and food journaling are good tools to help identify whether gluten sensitivity is at play.
The holistic solution
So, as I enter this “new normal” diet, I’m applying these first steps to my gluten-free life:
Clean up your food space
I packed up boxes of frozen, refrigerated, and shelf-stable gluten-filled food and gave it away to friends. Remove temptation, guys! If you’re the only one in the house going gluten-free, designate dedicated space in cupboards, the pantry, and the fridge for your GF items. Clean your cupboards, fridge, and freezer thoroughly to lessen the risk of cross-contamination from gluten products, and include kitchen equipment like toasters, pans, and cutting boards in your cleanup.
Think whole foods
You’ll remove a lot of food items, but now you’ll replace them with unprocessed, nutrient-dense whole foods. You’ll be shopping the perimeter of the grocery store, particularly the produce section, so vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, seeds, and lean animal protein will be your go-to items. Naturally GF grains, such as brown and wild rice, quinoa, and buckwheat, are good grain choices, and you can try out less-familiar GF grains like sorghum and teff.
Avoid pre-packaged gluten-free products
I know it’s easy to grab them in a pinch, but beware in particular of GF products that have corn flour, potato starch, rice starch, or tapioca starch as ingredients. They can cause your blood sugar to spike and can lead to the dreaded muffin top or “wheat belly.” They also can contain more sugar or fat than gluten-filled products, so you’d be exchanging one problem for another.
Brush up on your culinary skills
This is perhaps the most encouraging aspect of this diet change: I can get really creative in the kitchen! Here’s a chance to make simple healthy, gluten-free alternatives yourself and to avoid “cheating” by sneaking in gluten-filled foods. I plan to make my own gluten free bread and have already ventured into GF versions of zucchini bread and coconut macaroons. Turning lunch or dinner into breakfast has eliminated the normal “eggs, toast, and bacon” breakfast rut. There are lots of gluten-free recipes online, and the Whole Life Nutrition Cookbook has been a great starting point for me. Experiment with Asian, Latin, or Middle Eastern cuisine and adapt it to your new dietary needs. Find a balance between eating healthily and happily!
Learn to read labels
Gluten can be sneaky, so learn its aliases. It shows up even in frozen foods, salad dressing, canned soup, dry roasted nuts, toothpaste, and chewing gum! Look out for names like modified food starch, malt flavoring, malt vinegar, and other thickeners or stabilizers. Check whether they are wheat-based, as it should be explicitly stated on the label. As of August 2014, the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) has mandated manufacturers who label their items as gluten free to make sure that those products contain less than 20 ppm (parts per million) gluten. Your best bet is to buy items that are certified gluten-free by the Gluten-Free Certification Organization (GFCO) and the National Celiac Association (NCA).
Don’t go gluten-free alone!
Solicit support from other gluten-free people. I’m still working on this one! Join a local gluten-free Meetup or other support group where you’ll find like-minded individuals on the gluten-free path. You’ll feel less isolated and learn from others about good gluten-free food and restaurant choices. Plus, you can seek out online support on sites like the Gluten Intolerance Group. Most important, work with a health practitioner who can help you avoid vitamin deficiencies and maintain your health while gluten-free. For example, you’ll need to ensure that you’re getting sufficient vitamin B and D, and dietary fiber, which are often found in glutinous foods but less so in GF foods.
Have you ever wondered whether you are gluten-sensitive? Would you consider doing a five-day gluten-free challenge or detox?