[this post was originally featured as a guest post on 'Strictly Nutritious' - sharing here for anyone who missed it!]
In the last decade, the idea of gluten-free eating has gone from the fringe of food awareness (somewhere out there with wheatgrass shots and oil pulling) to mainstream, with chain restaurants nationwide modifying menu items to suit this growing trend towards cutting out the dreaded G-word.
For many people, wheat and other gluten-filled foods do not pose a problem - they cause no notable adverse side effects and can easily wedge their way into three meals a day. For others, gluten poses a variety of problems, from headaches to skin rashes and changes in mood to poor digestion.
So what gives? Why are so many people suddenly noticing they are allergic to something we've been consuming since the advent of modern agriculture?
Research has started to focus on this very question to find the answer - our diets are saturated with gluten (the sticky, stretchy protein content of wheat, rye, barley and triticale). It's one of the most widely consumed nutrients in the Western diet, and there is evidence to suggest that our bodies arenot in fact evolved enough to break it down properly. On top of that, it doesn't help that wheat is more often than not genetically altered to have higher gluten content, which increases the soft, chewy texture of processed foods. This is the perfect storm of hard to digest substances in large amounts. No wonder the accompanying digestive upset is so prevalent!
Gluten sensitivity can manifest in many different forms depending on the individual. It can range from slight abdominal discomfort (a mild intolerance) to headaches/changes in mood (a medium intolerance) to full-blown celiac disease, which for some people has no noticeable short term physical symptoms, just long term concerns. Celiac disease is defined by a severe intolerance to gluten that causes the body to produce an inflammatory immune response when exposed to the protein.
In people with celiac disease, ingesting these foods causes gaps to form between the cells in the intestinal walls, which leads to toxins and fragments of gluten leaching into the bloodstream. Because the body interprets these particles as foreign entities, it launches an immune response to destroy them; unfortunately, celiac disease is autoimmune, which means it causes the body to attack its own tissues. This response directly targets the small hairs (villi) that line the intestinal walls. Villi add surface area to the inside of the digestive tract and are essential for proper nutrient absorption.
This is where the real long term danger of celiac disease comes in - many people with the condition become deficient in essential vitamins and minerals, even if the rest of their diet is impeccable (deficiencies can include vitamins A, B6, B12, K, calcium and magnesium). The disease can also manifest as dermatitis herpetiformis, an autoimmune reaction that shows up on the skin and in increased inflammation throughout the body (which includes increased storage of cellulite).
Gluten sensitivity and intolerance are just as serious and just as frustrating for those who deal with it. If you suspect you might have a sensitivity, try eliminating gluten from your diet for 1-2 weeks and observe any differences in how you feel. How is your brain - a little less foggy? What about your energy - higher and more stable? Do you notice changes in your digestion, particularly with bloating or elimination? If reducing your intake of gluten has positive effects for you, it might be worth considering a more long term reduction (as a bonus, many people who go gluten-free tend to reduce other conditions, including breakouts, excess weight and depression).
There are many products available on the market that cater to those with sensitivities, but it's important to be diligent about reading food labels. Wheat-free doesn't mean gluten-free. Barley, rye and triticale can hide in products you might not expect. Wheat lurks in the most surprising places (soy sauce, anyone?). And more importantly,gluten-free does not automatically mean healthy, especially when it comes to packaged crackers, cookies or baked goods. Get used to the words to look for: pasta, wheat or flour references are all good indicators that this food might not be for you.
The best advice for anyone looking to transition to gluten-free or reduce their intake is to stick with whole foods (ie. ones without labels). These will definitely be free of the offending protein. Some great alternatives for grains include millet, quinoa, gluten-free oats, amaranth and buckwheat. There are also terrific alternative flours available; almond flour, chickpea flour and brown rice flour are versatile, easily-swappable options.
When it comes to eating out, stick to whole foods. Most restaurants can be very accommodating if you let your server know about your intolerance. Steer clear of menu wording like 'breaded', 'deep fried', and 'crispy' - chances are, it is full of gluten OR has come in contact with gluten. You can make easy switches by asking for sandwiches to be served on a bed of greens or in a wrap (brown rice wraps are a great option).
Cutting down - or cutting out - gluten can have enormous health benefits, even in people who are not diagnosed as gluten-intolerant. Think of the energy required to break down something sticky and troublesome for the digestive tract - could that little bit of energy serve you better if it was used someplace else? With all of the great substitutions available to us, it's worth exploring how gluten-free alternatives could make a positive impact in your life!