Everywhere you look these days, someone is talking about gluten free diets. It’s the preferred diet in Hollywood. Gluten free products are popping up in the grocery story shelves and now many restaurant chains feature gluten free menus. It’s hard to feel like this is just a fad, so what is there to learn here? Have you wondered if you might benefit from trying to eat gluten free? And if so, what exactly would it entail? In this post, I will outline some of the basic principles and practices of eating gluten free and give you a quiz to help you decide if trying out a period of gluten free is right for you.
What’s Gluten and How is it Harmful?
Gluten is the name of a specific protein that is found in wheat and other grains. This gluten protein provides desirable qualities in baking and cooking such as chewiness and elasticity- imagine your favorite crusty bread or a al dente noodle. Many recipes for bread making call for additional gluten to be added to help produce an extra chewy product. Gluten can be found in other grains besides wheat such as barley, rye, spelt and even oatmeal. The problem comes when people’s immune system reacts to the protein. The reaction can very wide ranging, depending on which part of the immune system reacts to gluten. People with severe allergic reaction to gluten often have what is called “Celiac Disease.” In this case, the gluten protein actually causes damage to the inner walls of the small intestine, causing diarrhea, cramping and malabsorption. Diagnosis is typically done with a biopsy of the intestinal wall, verifying the immune reaction and intestinal damage.
However, you don’t need to have Celiac disease to experience a problem with gluten. With less extreme cases, a different part of the immune system can become activated in the presence of gluten. You may not produce acute symptoms, but rather have more generalized symptoms, such as a skin rash or nasal stuffiness. Some people experience “brain fog” or moodiness. These are a little bit harder to pinpoint since they are more vague and can come on more gradually. Part of the problem with gluten is that it has the ability to weaken the intestinal lining, which is the main barrier that keeps food particles out of our bloodstream. When this occurs, large proteins from improperly digested foods can stimulate immune reactions in other areas of the body and manifest as a skin rash or autoimmune disease.
Is Wheat Allergy the same as Celiac Disease?
No. Wheat Allergy is actually an example of the systemic reaction of the immune system that can have symptoms such as itching, swelling, runny nose, watery eyes, upset stomach and/or difficulty breathing. As with all food allergies, the best treatment is to avoid the offensive food entirely. Food allergies in childhood can be out grown on occasion, but if an adult develops a wheat allergy or celiac disease, it’s unlikely to reverse.
Is Going Gluten Free Right for Me?
The best way to determine if you feel better with a gluten free diet is to do a trial experiment of gluten free eating for a period of time. Your body needs an extended period of time to heal and recover and notice the difference. You can also undergo some testing to see if your immune system reacts to gluten or wheat, but those tests are pricey and aren’t 100% accurate.
Take moment to answer yes or no to these questions:
- I have a history (or family history) of autoimmune disease such as: Type 1 diabetes, MS, thyroid disorder, psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis or ulcerative colitis.
- I frequently have digestive issues such as diarrhea, constipation, or fluctuations between both.
- I feel foggy headed after meals or late in the day that I don’t normally have when I wake up.
- When I eat starchy meals, I feel really bloated afterward and sometimes need to loosen my clothing.
- I’ve been tested for environmental allergies, but continue to have nasal stuffiness or sinus infections for no apparent reason.
- I tend to suffer from migraines that aren’t related to caffeine or stress.
- I have hormonal problems like PMS, PCOS or infertility that can’t be explained.
- I’m frequently moody or have to manage anxiety or depression on a regular basis.
- I have inflammatory pain conditions such as fibromyalgia or swelling in my joints.
If you’ve answered Yes to 3 or more of these Quiz Questions, it may be worth the effort for you to try gluten free eating for minimum of 3 weeks. At this point, you can do a trial introduction and NOTICE how your body responds. Remember, the symptoms may not appear right away, but give it a few days to see the experiment play out.
How to Go Gluten Free for 30 Days
The first step is to identify where gluten appears in your current diet. Always read food labels. The most common sources are gluten containing grains such as wheat, barley and rye and all of the products created with these grains. Unless they are specifically labeled as “gluten free,” oats are generally considered to be contaminated with gluten from cross contamination with other grains. That means most flours, breads, crackers, noodles, cookies, cakes and cereals will need an alternative. Aside from these grain products, many other products in our food supply are made with ingredients that contain gluten. Some of these ingredients appear on the label as food starch, maltodextrin, or even soy sauce. Use this comprehensive resource to help you identify gluten containing ingredients.
When you are dining out, look for restaurants that offer a gluten free menu. When ordering, choose items prepared without sauces or cooked in the same surface as other items that are breaded. Be sure to ask the server to skip the bread basket, omit croutons from the salad and keep all sauces off your plate. Avoid breaded and fried foods as the fryer will be cross contaminated with other “breaded” items.
Before you get worried that you will never be able to eat your favorite foods again, let me assure you that there is an entire industry producing gluten free products. Your neighborhood grocery likely carries gluten free cake mixes, loaf bread and cereal. In fact, if any cereal is made of rice or corn, it’s likely gluten free already. There are many alternative flours made by Bob’s Red Mill and Hodgson Mill that you can use to create your own baked goods. They have recipes available on their sites as well. It will take a little vigilance to avoid gluten at first, but it will get easier with practice. You may decide that after your gluten free trial you feel better and would like to stay gluten free. To continue on a gluten free path, check out the Paleo Diet or grain free recipes.
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Have you experimented with a gluten free diet? What did you notice? Leave a comment below.