February 26, 2014

Gluten: Fact, Fiction or Fad?


A friend recently tipped me off to a new bakery and told me it would be great for me because they made gluten-free items. It’s funny, I’ve never actually told anyone that I don’t eat gluten, yet it seems that somehow, eating gluten free has become synonymous with eating healthily. I am a healthy eater, yes. I carefully choose what I eat and what I don’t, but as I make those choices, gluten is a long way down the list of things I look to avoid. The first I knew of gluten was 10 years ago when I lived with a girl who had severe Celiac Disease. As I watched her struggle I would never have imagined that the disease she so hated would in time become almost trendy. So how did it happen and should we be jumping on the bandwagon?

A quick disclaimer so you don’t eat me alive in your gluten-free sandwich: I know there is far more to this topic.  I know I’m not even touching the GMO issue for example, but this is just the thoughts I can fit in one post.  In brief, gluten is a protein. It’s found in wheat and some other grains and it’s what makes that stretchy, doughy yumminess we love in bread. Over time, perhaps as the amount of wheat in our standard diet has increased, we are seeing more and more people have an intolerance or sensitivity to that little protein. There are two kinds of adverse response to gluten.  Firstly, and affecting about 1% of the population, is complete gluten intolerance (celiac disease).  This means there is an autoimmune response causing your body to eat the gut when it sees gluten.  The only way to combat that is with a diet completely free of gluten.  What is much more common, but still affecting only 5-10% of the population is some level of gluten sensitivity. Here the body reacts to gluten in some uncomfortable way.  This post is really for the majority of the population who aren’t affected by gluten, or are wondering what to do with some level of sensitivity to it.  Whichever group you fall into though, you are part of another statistic, my favorite one: 100% of humans have bodies that run best on a diet made up of natural, organic, unprocessed food.  And that, is the main point in my stance on the gluten free trend.  Let me explain.

The label gluten-free very simply is telling us that if we eat that product and have celiac disease or gluten intolerance, it will not affect us. The label is not a statement of health, the nutrition content or the quality of the food.  It is simply a statement about one protein, gluten, that is not present in the product. It has now, though, become a buzz phrase and because avoiding it has made a lot of people feel better, finding those words on a food item now leads many to believe they are eating healthily, but what should we really be avoiding?

In my early teens I went vegetarian. Being an all or nothing personality that meant looking up every food additive and small ingredient that was meat derived, making a list and then not touching anything containing the items on the list. Within the first few months, I felt great and lost a significant amount of excess weight. Was it because eating meat makes you fat? No. It was because I couldn’t eat any processed sweet food due to animal derived additives, any cheese due to rennet, and so many other foods as well. My diet was reduced to something very simple with a lot of unprocessed, plant-based foods. Well ladies and gentlemen, I think the same is happening with gluten. For a while now, people have been cutting gluten from their diet and feeling great. While I realise that for some, gluten really does affect their system, for the majority of people, I believe it’s actually a life with fewer refined grains and heavy cooked processed foods that is actually helping them feel great.

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So do we eat gluten? Yes. (And we love it.) Pasta I can leave but a good fresh loaf of bread… oh oh. I make our own bread and when that loaf comes out of the oven, oh I could make it disappear faster than you can say ‘gluten free’.  So I understand the love of bread and gluten. That said, most days I actually go without the bread, but not for want of a gluten free life.  Gluten aside, I prefer to center my diet around nutrient dense, fresh vegetable carbs and once I’ve done that I just don’t need the bread.  Sometimes I’ll be in a restaurant and see those trendy words ‘GF options available’.  Do I rush to add the newly fashionable twist to my order, ‘Oh and I’ll take that gluten-free’? Nope, I still go breadless. To me ‘gluten-free’ isn’t a glowing halo over food that saves it from all its refined and processed sins. The chances are, I still don’t want to eat that bread.

When I eat I’m not primarily working to avoid certain things but to fill my diet with good clean ingredients; organic fresh fruits and vegetables, unprocessed ingredients, whole grains, local produce in it’s natural state, local organic well raised meats, unrefined sweeteners like raw honey and dates. This usually means I choose to put the food together myself so I’m only ever purchasing whole, raw ingredients that I know and love and want in my body. This does mean I end up living a diet that’s technically ‘free’ of a lot stuff but that’s not my focus, my focus is on what my diet is full of.

Think about it… What do cocaine, a snickers bar and a dishwasher tablet all have in common? Yes, you got it, they are all gluten-free.

For most of the population I think gluten is a lot less scary than some of the other things we readily consume. I would rather eat gluten than say, artificial sweeteners, or refined sugar, or unorganic processed meat. For me the real question is, how is my gluten packaged? Gluten itself is a very natural protein, and by itself doesn’t scare me, but like so many things the question is in what that gluten looks like and how it’s packaged.

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So what should we eat? Everyone is different and ultimately the right diet for your body is the one that works for your body.  We have to find what our bodies love and what loves our bodies.  To try and help though I’m going to give you three steps that I think will give a lot of people the knowledge to get a little more healthy without blindly jumping on a bandwagon:

1) Before you look at what’s not in something, look at what is in it. Don’t be sold by a slogan, read the ingredients. When looking at the typical gluten containing processed products, instead of looking just for ‘gluten-free’, make sure you’re also getting clean ingredients: whole grains or no grains, unrefined carbs.  Look for simple ingredients. Make sure the ingredients are natural and not processed, that they are grown and not man made.  For example, despite containing gluten, in my opinion a whole grain wheat burger bun is often a better choice than the refined, white, gluten free alternative.  (Unless you are intolerant/sensitive of course).

2) Begin to switch up the grains you eat. Some grains are easier for your body to digest and less likely to cause any kind of reaction or discomfort. Wheat is a highly altered grain with a lot more gluten than is natural, so switching to something like spelt (always go whole grain), which is in a more natural form, with a lower gluten content can help a lot of people. You can also try brown rice, whole oats, quinoa, kamut and millet.

3) Trade out the grains and grain based foods for something different altogether! Start basing more meals around plant foods, veggies, fruit, nuts and seeds and you’ll find your need for the grains (gluten free or not), will start to decrease. Enjoy the naturally gluten free whole foods rather than finding modified alternatives.


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