In the last five years, the term “gluten-free” has gone from being understood by only a very small percentage of people to being a common label on mainstream products on grocery store shelves. Why? Is it really possible that all of a sudden many of us are celiac or, at the very least, intolerant to wheat?
The answer is yes, and no. Yes, many, many people are having problems digesting the most popular grain in North America. But no, it is not all of a sudden. The change is merely speeding up because we have passed a tipping point in how much we now understand about gluten and how it affects our bodies.
In Canada, it is possible to eat wheat for every meal and every snack. For some, that could mean consuming it up to six times a day! A bagel for breakfast, a bran muffin during coffee break, a sandwich for lunch, a granola bar in the afternoon and pasta for dinner. Even if all those choices are healthful whole grain options, you are still eating a lot of only one type of food. With this ongoing onslaught of your system, your digestive tract will have difficulty completely breaking down the proteins from the grain. This can create an inflammatory condition in your intestines, leading to intolerance to the protein, gluten, or wheat itself. Once the inflammation becomes systemic, the body can manifest symptoms in many ways—allergies, stomach pain caused by gas and bloating, sore joints, headaches, concentration issues and more.
Wheat is easy to access when you are out and about. It is at every fast food restaurant and hidden in everything from breakfast cereals to condiments. Whole wheat does contain high amounts of B vitamins, complex carbohydrates and fiber, but so do many other foods. We do not need to rely on wheat to live, and, in fact, reducing the amount we eat could do us all a world of good.
When families are transitioning to a gluten-free lifestyle, their first instinct is to try to replace wheat with other gluten-free grains and go on making the same choices for their meals. From my experience, this can be a very frustrating way to live. Gluten makes bread soft, fluffy and fragrant, and to suddenly try to make a sandwich with a hard loaf of rice bread can be a huge disappointment.
If you are not celiac, but simply need to reduce gluten, a great alternative is spelt flour, which has 50% less gluten. Baking with it produces the same results as whole wheat flour and still tastes great. If, however, you are completely gluten-free, my suggestion is to put aside your old dietary patterns and begin looking at a new way of eating.
Keep in mind that pre-packaged products that are “gluten-free” are not necessarily the most healthful choices. Many of these products contain large amounts of sugars, bad fats or other ingredients that are added to compensate for the lack of gluten. Read your labels and do your research. Know what it is you are consuming and what it is doing for or to your body. Knowledge is power!
Look towards Eastern cultures for new ideas for your family’s meals. Protein and vegetable-based meals like curries, stir fries, sushi and salads are a great start. Also consider the hunter-gatherer way of life—grain-free eating with beautiful cuts of organic fish and meat, loads of fresh veggies, seeds, nuts and fruits can work very well for some.
There are also delicious, amazing gluten-free grains that are incredibly versatile. My clients by now are probably sick of hearing me talk about quinoa, but it is, without a doubt, one of my favorite grains on earth.
Actually not a grain at all but the seed of the gooseberry plant, quinoa is a complete protein, just like a steak or a piece of chicken. It cooks just like rice and makes lovely, grainy salads and porridges. You can bake with the flour, but should follow a recipe because you cannot just substitute it for wheat. There are many great cookbooks that help you learn how to cook with quinoa, and provide endless possibilities for ways to enjoy it. One note on quinoa: many brands must be rinsed well in a sieve before cooking, or your meal will have a bitter taste.
Buckwheat is another amazing grain. It is almost a complete protein and has a lovely, pilaf-like texture to it. Buckwheat noodles are a healthy choice for children’s lunches because of their high protein and high fiber content.
Barley, teff, rice, oat, kamut … the list of low-gluten and gluten-free grains is long and varied. If you are interested in learning to work with these grains, I recommend you check out a few cookbooks with tried-and-true recipes. You may also want to try the full lesson on “How to Cook Grains” in the Rouxbe Cooking School.
One last word on working with gluten-free grains. If you decide that you would like to bake something “normal,” such as cookies or banana bread, I highly recommend that you use a product that is pre-blended to produce results similar to those of wheat flour. Namaste Foods has a great line of gluten-free flours, and the Whole Foods chain of stores also has its own blends. These flours usually contain rice, sorghum, potato starch and a leavening agent. They typically have a high glycemic index and are low in fiber, though, so I recommend adding a bit of flax or oat bran to your blend before baking.
Going gluten-free can be tough. Keeping a sense of humor about your culinary adventures as you get used to being wheat-free will certainly help. Read, research and arm yourself with the tools you will need to be successful—recipes, fresh food, portable lunch containers, advice from experts on nutrition and the will to feel the best you have felt in years. The beginning will probably not be easy. If you can, give yourself a couple of months to make the transition, and watch for the subtle but powerful changes in your body that result from reducing or eliminating wheat from your life!
Barb Thomas – Rouxbe Instructor, RHN
p.s. Click here to learn more about “What is Gluten”