This is a guest post that I wrote originally for HomeFresh Community, HomeFresh Organics’ new blog and community site.
“Gluten free” is a phase which is pretty difficult to escape nowadays in any discussion connected to health and nutrition. Go down the supermarket and health food store aisle and there is a profusion of gluten free products from mueslis, energy bars, cakes and breads.
Which brings us to the question..what is so important about gluten anyway? And should you go gluten free?
What is gluten?
Gluten is a spongy protein that naturally occurs in certain grains. Another way to think of it is “nature’s food glue”, because it helps things stick together for a great mouth feel. Gluten is behind the comforting texture of breads and baked goods, and is also used extensively as a thickener in processed food. This is why it is so difficult to avoid, because it can be in anything from pasta and muesli to seasoned meat and soy sauce.
Gluten is also, unfortunately, a “trigger food”, or one of the foods that a large number of people are intolerant to. Most gluten sensitivity or intolerance can go undiagnosed as the symptoms are not as obvious as allergy symptoms.
Which foods contain gluten?
The following acronym easily summarises the most common sources of gluten:
B – arley
R – rye
O – ats*
W – heat
S – spelt
T – riticale (hybrid of wheat and rye)
Note: Oats are technically gluten free but are usually processed with wheat, so look for “wheat free” oats.
It is very important to read food labels and to familiarise yourself with what has gluten and what doesn’t. For example, couscous is actually made of durum wheat. Even white vinegar can be made from wheat (so make sure your vinegar clearly says rice / balsamic / white wine). Soy sauce is usually made with wheat, unless the bottle says “Wheat Free or Gluten Free Soy Sauce” or gluten free Tamari.
Other gluten sources are: graham flour, farina, durum, semolina, wheat glucose (or labels sometimes just say glucose), synthetic Vitamin E (usually derived from wheat germ), modified food starch, wheat maltodextrin (a popular thickener), and hydrolysed vegetable protein.
Are gluten free foods healthier?
Going on a gluten free diet can help alleviate inflammation and symptoms associated with gluten sensitivity. However, just because a food is gluten free doesn’t mean it is a healthier alternative. Most packaged gluten free foods on supermarket aisles are just as full of chemicals and sugar as their gluten-containing alternatives. When gluten is taken out of processed food, manufacturers will usually add more sugar or more fillers to retain the mouth feel.
Gluten free processed foods are also usually made with rice flour / tapioca / corn or potato starch, which are very quickly turned into sugar by the body and can cause blood sugar issues and weight gain.
What is the healthier way to go gluten free?
The healthier and cheaper way to go gluten free is to focus on real, whole food, such as vegetables, fruit, meat, nuts, seeds, lentils and pulses. Smoothies, soups, salads, hearty meat dishes and stews, and fresh fruit are safe options. If you are more adventurous, start adding superfoods or more protein-rich gluten free grain alternatives such as buckwheat, quinoa, and amaranth.
Miss bread and muesli? You can either experiment with gluten free baking or check out the Homefresh Organics range of gluten free breads and gluten free muesli. Just remember to keep bread consumption in moderation to also avoid issues associated with blood sugar and weight gain as mentioned above.
Should you go gluten free?
If you have been feeling sub-par for some time now, it may benefit you to experiment with taking gluten off your diet for at least a week and observe how you feel when you reintroduce it slowly. This principle is called an “elimination diet” and can be done very safely and deliciously. My Eat to Nourish Program is a version of this that you can do in a guided, structured way, and should give you an idea of how to eat gluten free for a short period of time.
Continuing to eat gluten when your body is intolerant to it can lead to continuing inflammation within the body, and can even lead to autoimmune issues such as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. If you have a history of coeliac disease (another serious autoimmune response to gluten) or have been diagnosed as being coeliac, you should definitely be staying off all gluten-containing foods.
Contrary to popular belief, gluten sensitivity does not always manifest as an obvious digestive issue. Gluten sensitivity symptoms can range from: tiredness and fatigue, bloating, diaorrhea, feeling of “fogginess”, moodiness, difficulties in losing weight, low immunity, headaches / migraines, blood sugar issues, to joint aches and pains.
Gluten Free Recipe Ideas
For more gluten free inspiration, hop over to Apple Bites Wholistic Nutrition for real food-based recipes (like Paleo Bread, chocolate chip cookies and gluten free meatballs), and to download your free 3-Day Mini Reboot with 100% gluten free recipes.
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