There is a new movement in the health world: going gluten free. Gluten free is becoming mainstream, it’s no longer just for the devout health conscious among us. New gluten free products abound on the shelves, new items popping up weekly. But what is ‘gluten free’ exactly? For that matter, what’s gluten?
Gluten is a complex protein molecule found in many of the most commonly available grains. Wheat is the primary grain associated with gluten, but it can also be found in rye, barley, and ancient varieties of wheat (such as triticale, spelt, and einkorn). Gluten is the molecule responsible for the chewiness in bread products, and is in part responsible for trapping the gasses that make bread rise. Because of gluten’s sticky nature, it is also commonly used as a filler or binder in processed food, and is frequently used to make imitation meat products or boost the protein content of foods.
Going gluten free means avoiding any and all products that have gluten, be it whole wheat or barley, or any processed products that contain the flours of the gluten grains (such crackers, pasta, etc.). The reasons for going gluten free deal specifically with your overall health and your sense of well being. The major disorder associated with gluten is Celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder caused by the ingestion of gluten. Symptoms of Celiac disease can be broad, but can include: bloating, diarrhea, headaches, depression, joint pain, and a multitude of others. However, it is becoming more widely accepted that Celiac disease may be the most extreme of gluten sensitivities, and that a broad range of sensitivities from the mild to the extreme exists.
The only way to be sure you have Celiac disease is to get tested by your doctor. However, many people will test negative for the condition. That doesn’t mean you aren’t sensitive to gluten, however. Many of the common symptoms of Celiac disease are also experienced by those who test negative. One of the best ways to test your sensitivity is to self-test for a gluten allergy or intolerance. Try removing gluten from your diet for a week if you suspect you may be sensitive, and note how you feel.
Many people find that by removing gluten from their diet they have increased physical energy, increased mental energy, better sleep, less joint and body aches, less headaches, better physical recovery, better digestion (including bowel movements), less skin issues (including acne and skin blemishes), and even better mood. Many of these benefits have been reaped in my own life since removing gluten from my diet, especially increased mood and body aches. Additionally, I have found that by eliminating wheat and barley specifically from my diet, many seasonal allergies that I once thought ‘normal’ have either minimized or disappeared.
Note that not everyone is sensitive to gluten. Many individuals find that they tolerate gluten just fine and receive no benefit by removing it from their diet. Cutting gluten from your diet also doesn’t automatically mean your diet will be healthier than if you did include gluten. With the numerous products being released, gluten free varieties of over-processed foods are also in the mix. A gluten free cookie is still a cookie filled with sugar and excess calories – it just doesn’t have wheat or barley. However, they are numerous excellent products abound that are gluten free and healthful – choose your products wisely.
Testing positive for Celiac disease or self-testing and finding you have a gluten sensitivity is not the end of your food world. There are numerous alternatives to the common gluten grains, such as cutting out grains entirely, or including the non-gluten grains in your diet: rice, corn, quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat, millet, and oats (Note: many oats are produced on equipment that also process gluten grains. If you are extremely sensitive to gluten, buy gluten-free oats, or oats processed in a gluten-free facility). While a life without bread may seem difficult, it is quite doable. You’ll want to experiment with your foods, find the dishes that best suit your tastes, and learn to incorporate them into your lifestyle. For example, try making this gluten free sunflower cake! It is especially important to read all food labels if you find you cannot tolerate gluten, as it is added to numerous products. Read carefully, and select products that do not include gluten.
As with gluten sensitivity itself, there is a spectrum of how much gluten some people can tolerate. Some will find they will be able to tolerate small amounts, while some may find they cannot tolerate any. Continue self-testing for your sensitivity and see where you lie on the spectrum! And again, if you suspect you might be at all sensitive to gluten, try cutting out all gluten products for 7 days and see how you feel!