Gluten: The Good, The Bad & The Itchy
If you’re interested in the food world you’ve probably heard at least something about gluten-free eating. My introduction to this topic was brought about somewhat abruptly by a diagnosis of gluten-intolerance in February of 2009. My post-collegiate diet primarily consisted of processed and pre-made food and suddenly I was being told that I couldn’t eat those foods anymore.
Gluten is a protein composite that can be found in wheat and cereals, in addition to being an additive in a huge variety of other foods where it is commonly used as a thickening agent (ketchup, beer, salad dressings, soy sauce…). Gluten intolerance is a condition where the body cannot digest gluten. The recent increase in diagnoses of gluten-intolerance is thought to be the result of over consumption, essentially the American diet is so heavily saturated with gluten in this day in age that our bodies are starting to reject it.
A great summary on this subject can be found on The Fitnessista – Reader’s Request: Gluten Freedom.
There are varying levels of intolerance to gluten and the symptoms can range from an upset stomach to malnutrition. The most severe form is Celiac Disease, where the body’s inability to process gluten causes the villi of the intestines to atrophy and sufferers cannot consume any gluten. The form of gluten-intolerance that I have is called DH or Duhring’s Disease and I get mild to severe eczema following the consumption of gluten.
After I was diagnosed and thrown into the gluten-free world with a long – And I mean LONG – List of foods I couldn’t consume I was stunned to find not only a community dedicated to this lifestyle, but also a small group of people voluntarily eating this way.
Why would someone give up bread and pasta if they didn’t have to?
I must have asked myself that question a dozen times my first week without gluten. I was hungry. I was cranky. I was devastated that this was going to be my life from now on. I even, gasp, had to learn to cook. And then a funny thing happened. I started to… I started to feel better. My eczema went away. My frequent nausea and random stomach pains went away. My headaches went away.
I was officially a convert!
I researched mercilessly online, I bought cook books, I purchased my first set of knives, I started to learn my way around the kitchen, and I also discovered the wonderful wide world of food blogging. This was a hugely developmental stage of my life. I went from eating like a college student (i.e. forgetting everything my mother ever taught me about nutrition) to learning to cook, cutting out gluten, transitioning (slooooowly) to veganism, experimenting with raw foods, and most importantly, rediscovering the art of listening to my body.
Before I continue to sing the praises of a life without gluten and give you a peek into my cupboards, let me remind you that prior to making any major changes in your diet you should speak with a professional. There are right and wrong ways to go about any changes in your diet and speaking with a nutritionist, doctor, dietician, RN, or naturopath can help put you on the right path so that you stay healthy through your transition. I am a firm believer that there are very few blanket nutritional rules out there, every single body is different and needs different things to perform optimally. I’m just sharing my experiences and my insights, and they will not be applicable to everyone.
Now for the good stuff.
Yes, if you go gluten-free, the breadbasket at restaurants will taunt you for the rest of your life, Italian restaurants will become a dim memory, and you will have to explain your needs to every waiter or waitress you encounter. That being said, discovering that there’s more to life than white flour will give you a greater appreciation for food than you can imagine. Prior to my diagnosis I’d never tried the nutty deliciousness that is quinoa, I’d never considered the possibility of brown rice, seaweed or spinach pasta, and I’d never even heard of amaranth, millet, or tempeh. Not only am I healthier now, I am better educated and more knowledgeable. Can’t argue with that combination!
So what do I eat when I have good old-fashioned cravings?
- Pizza – I am a pizza girl through and through, and have spent many a night dreaming about cheesy, delicious pies and waxing nostalgic about my favorite pizza place (Za’s, if you’re curious). Luckily I have managed to find ways to circumvent this craving over the last two years. First, I love me some mini pizzas as a snack, which I discuss here. Second, I discovered Amy’s Non-Dairy Rice Crust Cheeze Pizzas. Score! And finally, I learned to make amazing socca flatbread pizzas. I started experimenting with socca after reading the Socca Tribute by the twins over at Pure 2 Raw and have been a devotee of the garbanzo bean flour delicacies ever since (Gluten-Free Vegan Pizza). Coat with hummus and cover with sautéed veggies and you have yourself an amazing, albeit unorthodox, pizza masterpiece.
- Pasta – All of my usual shops carry a variety of different types of gluten-free pasta choices. Trader Joe’s has brown rice pasta in multiple styles. And both Whole Foods and Real Foods carry quinoa pasta, brown rice pasta, spinach pasta, and other specialty types like kelp. I also invested in a spiralizer which allows you to make spaghetti-like pasta out of squash and zucchini. Gluten-free + a serving of vegetables, that’s a win-win situation, so check out my Vegan Mac n’ Cheese recipe.
- Bread – I’m not much for sandwiches (they make me uncomfortably full so I usually stick to wraps) but on the occasion when bread makes an appearance in my life (ahem, stuffing) I always reach for Food For Life’s Brown Rice Bread.
- Baking – I swear by Bob’s Red Mill flours and grains. The Real Food’s in Russian Hill has a great selection and I always run over to browse the choices whenever I have a baking project in the works.
While going gluten-free in order to manage a medical condition is obviously a necessity, there are those who voluntarily limit or exclude gluten from their diets. The Paleo Diet encourages its devotees to avoid gluten grains, citing them as potential factors in modern societies with high incidences of Celiac, Type 1 Diabetes, MS, arthritis, and other diseases. Even fad diets like Atkins tout the benefits of eliminating bread from the diet.
In addition to discussing your choice with a doctor or other health professional, I would caution those who exclude gluten from their diets for weight-loss purposes to avoid subsisting on processed and pre-made gluten-free foods as much of the nutritional value of these foods has been striped out. Your diet should focus on the consumption of organic fruits and vegetables, whole grains and plant-based protein sources like brown rice, quinoa, amaranth, millet, nuts, beans, tempeh, soy and tofu, and meat and low milk-fat or goat milk dairy products (as applicable to your lifestyle).
Tell me – Have you ever gone gluten-free?