Gluten-free food is taking over supermarket shelves, hipster cafes and your favourite restaurants alike.
So what’s the big deal? Is a gluten-free diet just a trendy fad or is there legitimate health concerns with eating gluten? Should everyone avoid gluten or just some people? Is gluten intolerance the same as coeliac disease? Don’t worry, I’ve answered all of these questions and loads more below, so that you can clearly navigate this brave, new, gluten-free world.
Also, if you want to get your hands on some awesome plant- based recipes, download this Plant-Based Recipe eBook, filled with exclusive recipes from qualified health experts. Sign up here to grab your copy – it’s free and exclusive to CDK tribe members.
What is gluten?
I’m often asked the definition of gluten or, what it actually is. Gluten is simply a family of proteins found in common grains such as wheat, barley and rye (oats can also be dicey, as while they don’t contain gluten inherently, they are often processed in the same factories and become contaminated with it).
Why is gluten bad for you?
Gluten is not bad for everyone, but it’s quite an inflammatory substance, and it has long been known that a small percentage of people – those suffering from coeliac disease – have a genuine and often debilitating allergy to gluten. However, a much larger segment of the population may have a milder intolerance to gluten, and this seems to be steadily increasing.
One of the issues with gluten, is that in can damage the microvilli of the small intestine – meaning that we become less able to absorb nutrients and our gut-wall can become permeable. This is known as leaky-gut syndrome, and when this occurs, small undigested food particles are able to breach the gut wall instead of being properly digested. Your body then starts to freak out a bit. With 70% of your immune system located in your gut, the body tries really hard not to let foreign invaders in through your digestive tract, so these undigested food particles trigger an immune reaction and wide-spread inflammation ensues.
Symptoms and testing for gluten intolerance
Because of this large-scale inflammatory response, the symptoms of gluten intolerance can affect different body-systems and vary a lot from one person to the next. Common symptoms include:
- Digestive issues such as gas, bloating, stomach cramps, reflux, diarrhea and even constipation
- Auto-immune conditions such as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, Rheumatoid arthritis, Ulcerative colitis, Lupus, Scleroderma or Multiple sclerosi
- Neurologic symptoms such as dizziness, headaches or feeling of being off balance
- Hormone imbalances such as PMS, PCOS or unexplained infertility
- Immune and Respiratory issues such as excessive mucous production from gluten can lead to frequent ear, nose, throat infections and sinus issues; as well as decreased immunity in general
- Diagnosis of syndromes such as chronic fatigue or fibromyalgia
- Inflammation, swelling or pain in your joints such as fingers, knees or hips
- Mood issues such as anxiety, depression, mood swings and ADD
- Skin conditions such as dermatitis, eczema, acne and psoriasis.
If you suspect you may have a gluten intolerance or even an allergy you have two options:
- A blood test with your GP will be able to diagnose a genuine gluten allergy (coeliac disease).
- If you are only suffering from an intolerance, the best thing you can do is an elimination diet for one month. Cut out all gluten from your diet for 30 days and keep a daily log of your symptoms and how you feel – at the end of the month reintroduce gluten and see if any of your symptoms return.
Should you go gluten-free or just wheat free?
One of the reasons why it appears that gluten issues are on the rise has a lot to do with modern-day wheat.
In the 50s and 60s a new breed of wheat was developed that was hardier and cheaper to grow, and farmers all over the world started to grow this new short-dwarf species.
Unfortunately, this new derivative is much lower in nutrients and much higher in gliadin – one of the gluten proteins that is particularly inflammatory to the gut.
According to Wheat Belly author Dr. William Davis,
“This thing being sold to us called wheat—it ain’t wheat. It’s this stocky little high-yield plant, a distant relative of the wheat our mothers used to bake muffins, genetically and biochemically light-years removed from the wheat of just 40 years ago”.
Several studies have shown that even people with a diagnosed coeliac condition have been able to tolerate older, original forms of wheat such as spelt, einkhorn and kamut with no ill-effects, suggesting that it may be this new breed of wheat that is the real culprit.
So depending on your own symptoms, you may find that while wheat could be a problem for you, spelt, kamut and einkhorn as well as other gluten-containing grains such as rye and barley may actually be ok for you. You will have to do an elimination diet and experiment for yourself to know for sure.
I would like to point out however, that the modern diet relies too much on grains in general. All grains can potentially irritate the gut to some extent and are also very high in carbohydrates (which can mean blood-sugar issues and weight gain) so it is wise in my view to just eat smaller amounts of grains in general, whether you tolerate them well or not.
Foods to avoid when on a gluten-free diet:
- Wheat products (such as biscuits, muffins, cakes, breads, pasta and other baked goods)
- Varieties and derivatives of wheat such as:
- KAMUT® khorasan wheat
- einkorn wheat
- cous cous
- Malt (in various forms including: malted barley flour, malted milk or milkshakes, malt extract, malt syrup, malt flavouring, malt vinegar)
- Brewer’s Yeast
- Wheat starch (that hasn’t been processed to remove the presence of gluten to below 20ppm).
- Many processed sauces and condiments (the products often have wheat derivatives added so reading the labels of packaged foods is essential).
I often get asked, is brown rice gluten free, and are potatoes gluten-free. The answer is yes, both are gluten-free. You may want to save a gluten-free foods list to your phone incase you ever need to refer to it, however as a start, here are several grains that you can tuck into if you’re trying to avoid gluten.
- Chia seeds
- Oats (if processed in a gluten free environment. Most regular oats in Australia are not gluten-free).
- Beans and legumes such as lentils, peas, peanuts, chickpeas etc are also gluten-free.
Modern day gluten-free products
As you may have noticed, supermarkets these days now sell a lot of gluten-free alternatives to the usual wheat-based products. There are now commercially available gluten-free pastas, muffins, cake mixes, biscuits, crackers and more. They are commonly produced with a mixture of gluten-free flours derived from corn, potato, tapioca and rice.
While this is great news for coeliacs and those of you are who are hankering for a treat and don’t want to irritate your gut, just bear in mind that just because a product is gluten-free it doesn’t necessarily make it a health food.
A lot of these commercial products are still highly processed, high in empty calories and carbs and may have plenty of sugar and fat added. So check the ingredients list.
Ultimately, a healthy diet ideally should consist of lots of vegetables, good-quality protein and fats and only small amounts of wholegrains – whether gluten-free or not.
If you’re in need of gluten-free recipe inspiration, check out the NOURISH section here at CASA DE KARMA. Most of the recipes are naturally gluten-free, and they’re all scrumptious! For example:
- Easy Green Goddess Smoothie
- Nutrient-Packed Lentil & Nut Loaf
- Hearty Broccoli Soup With Coconut Milk
- Coconut Bark With Rosewater, Pistachios & Raspberries
Do you follow a gluten-free diet? Share your story and experience with me via the comment section below. Remember many people visit CASA DE KARMA every month, so by sharing you’re supporting and inspiring them too!
P.S. Do you know someone who needs to read this beginner’s guide to a gluten-free diet? Share it with them now.