Turning forty brought on the “I can’t believe I am 40-blues”. So I decided to drown myself in cake. In fact, the most delicious, amazing chocolate coconut cake in the whole wide world. While this may seem normal to some, it is not for me especially given the fact that I have been gluten free for roughly thirteen years. And the cake was NOT gluten-free (GF). If you are wondering, this cake came into my life long before my GF days and ever since it’s been hard to shake.
I don’t drink. I eat cake. And the hangover from this gluten-laced mound of yum was intense—my head hurt (major stuffy nose, eyes sensitive to light, headache); joints ached; stomach felt funky; and the inevitable exhaustion and irritability took over. Not fun when you have two very small children to care for. And this feeling was not just a “day-after” thing like most alcohol-related hangovers. It was more like a 2-3 “days-after” thing. Perhaps wine would have been a better choice!
Clearly tolerating gluten is an issue. Many years ago, when feeling worn down all the time (experiencing the above symptoms on a daily basis including bloating and sharp stomach pains) I sought the guidance of a forward thinking doctor who recommended removing gluten from my diet. At the time I was in my early years of formal nutrition training so welcoming guidance from others was a must.
Mind you, ten plus years ago the gluten free diet wasn’t the “fad” it has become today—no plethora of products on the shelves to choose from or restaurants serving up anti gluten options. Thus turning to my culinary wizardry and finding the best GF products became my personal quest. And this experience paid off! Combined with my professional training, I now have many tools to help you get the gist.
So, for all of the novices out there, here’s the 411—firstly wheat-free does not mean gluten-free but often people use the terms synonymously. Let me explain…
Wheat is a whole grain that comes in many forms, is an ingredient in many foods and is the foundation of many foodstuffs that you eat today including (but not limited to):
- Wheat berries
- Cous cous
- White flour
- Whole wheat flour
- Durham wheat flour
- Graham flour
- Semolina flour
- Wheat germ
- Hydrolyzed wheat protein
- Pizza crust
- Fried food/tempura (breading)
- Dumpling/wonton shells
- Soy sauce
- Food starch (commonly seen as modified food starch or maltodextrin on ingredient labels)
- Sweeteners (oftentimes notated as “malted” something or other)
When someone is wheat-free, it is typically because he/she has a sensitivity to this grain (and anything derived from it) in the form of gastrointestinal distress like bloating, gas, constipation, diarrhea and acid reflux; skin issues such as rashes; and allergies/asthma such as congestion and wheezing. If symptomatic and wheat is eliminated, typically after a week or two symptoms start to improve (if not immediately for some).
Have no fear for if you are sensitive to wheat, there are plenty of great alternatives like spelt (or farro) and kamut—both ancient forms of wheat that don’t bring the baggage—as well as every other whole grain from rice to oats and barley.
Food labels can be confusing so rest assured that anything gluten-free is always wheat-free.
Gluten is the general term used to describe the protein found in many grains including wheat (and its many forms), rye, barley, spelt, kamut, oats, triticale and pumpernickel. Though oats can be tolerated by some with gluten issues.
A gluten-free diet is imperative for those with Celiac Sprue, an autoimmune disease whereby gluten damages the absorptive surface of the small intestine resulting in malabsorption of carbohydrates, fat, protein, vitamins and minerals, all of which are needed for good health. According to statistics, while it is estimated that 1 in 133 people actually have Celiac only 1 in 4,700 is diagnosed—it is one of the most under-diagnosed diseases due to it’s wide range of symptoms affecting multiple body systems. Celiac disease is a serious chronic illness that can be determined through blood tests and intestinal biopsy.
The other day a client asked, “What’s all this hype with a gluten-free diet? Everyone is doing it and now my doctor wants me on it.” The short answer is that gluten is thought to promote inflammation (the root cause of disease) and bottom line is that our nation is pretty inflamed. Thus consider that a person's tolerance to gluten lies on a spectrum called non-celiac gluten sensitivity whereby many people experience celiac-like symptoms when consuming some level of gluten (like me and my cake).
Whether Celiac or just intolerant to gluten, the options are extensive. Let’s start with the grains (and starches), you can choose from:
- Rice, all kinds (but beware of pilafs as wheat is often wrapped in)
- Buckwheat (but when it comes to buckwheat soba noodles, make sure it’s 100% buckwheat)
These foods, as well as beans, nuts and seeds are used to make most gluten-free products from breads and pastas to snacks and sweets. Speaking of which, here are some of my favorite (and most accessible) GF brands that take deprivation out of going gluten free:
- Canyon Bakehouse (breads)
- Udi’s (breads, pizza crusts)
- Sam Mills (pasta)
- Bionaturae (pasta)
- Mary’s Gone (snacks)
- Glutino (snacks and sweets)
- Pamela’s (sweets)
- Enjoy Life Foods (sweets)
- Let’s Do (sprinkles/cones)
- Yummy Earth (candy)
Personally, my health has dramatically shifted since removing gluten from my diet. But, it is not for everyone (and shouldn’t be). Removing gluten is for improving healthnot weight loss! Many people choose the GF way to shed the pounds but don’t be fooled, GF products don’t have less fat, sugar or calories!
If you suspect issues with either wheat or gluten, please seek guidance of a qualified health professional. As mentioned, many with Celiac go un-diagnosed so don’t take it upon yourself to remove wheat or gluten without proper support and preliminary tests. You don’t want to be one of the thousands who never know. Once you know (and if not Celiac), surely remove the wheat first to see if symptoms improve. If not, go for the gluten! And be sure to check out the GF “Bible”—Gluten Free Diet by Shelly Case, RD.
Let’s keep this conversation going. Please feel free to share your thoughts and opinions. I would love to hear from you!
And, don’t forget to tune in to Stirring the Pot on WPPB 88.3 FM Thursdays at 5:30pm (with an encore Saturdays at 5pm) for Farmer’s Markets, Building Community. And surely check out theWeekly Yum Recipe.