Gluten is a protein found in wheat, oats, rye, barley and most processed foods. It is often used as a binding and thickening agent and is found in many packaged foods and products. The list of foods containing gluten is extensive and often surprising, making a gluten free diet challenging and at times frustrating.
Gluten free diets, although normally used to treat celiac disease and other gluten related intolerances, are becoming more mainstream all the time. Since living gluten free is the only treatment for celiac disease, it is crucial to be very strict for those that struggle with it. For others, a gluten free diet can offer some benefits while allowing more leeway.
How Gluten Affects the Body
Our digestive systems do not recognize gluten as a food. When we consume a food containing gluten, the immune system sends out antibodies to attack it, potentially damaging our own tissue in the process. Depending on how sensitive our system is, this can cause severe irritation.
For those with diagnosed celiac disease, the affects of gluten in the diet are severe. When gluten is detected in the digestive tract, it causes irritation to the small intestine and damages the villi. Villi are small hairs responsible for pushing nutrients through the digestive tract and absorbing them along the way. The stomach upset this causes in someone with celiac can be extreme and very detrimental to quality of life and health.
People that have not been diagnosed with celiac may still experience gluten intolerances. Symptoms may include irritable bowel, diarrhea, stomach upset, skin rashes and bloating to name a few. If you suspect intolerance, it is best to try a gluten free diet for a period of time to determine if that is the cause of any such symptoms.
How to be Gluten Free
The switch from the average diet to a gluten free diet can seem drastic at first. If nothing else it provides a great awareness of how much food we are consuming that in fact isn’t really food at all. With some knowledge, patience and creativity, a gluten free diet can be full of variety and easy to follow.
The first step in eliminating gluten is to throw out and avoid any and all foods containing wheat such as wheat flour, wheat germ and wheat bran. It is important to note that many types of wheat have a different name such as durum and kamut.
You will need to research and read labels to ensure the foods you are consuming do not contain wheat. This may be confusing at first because we have long been taught that whole wheat is good for us. In fact the food pyramid recommends numerous servings a day.
Rye bread and flour, foods containing oats, spelt, pasta, couscous and beer are some other very common foods that contain gluten. Many of these foods are available in gluten free form, although they are usually more expensive.
Any type of packaged food is likely to contain gluten. Due to its binding capacity, it is used in everything from cookies to rice cakes, cheese spreads, dips and stir fry sauces. Fillers made from wheat are also added to processed meats and imitation fish products.
As you are learning the basics of going gluten free, you may want to be on the safe side by limiting yourself to strictly whole, organic foods like lean meats, fish, vegetables, fruits and legumes. This way you can be sure you are free of gluten and your diet will be cleaned up at the same time, omitting all processed foods.
Benefits of a Gluten Free Life
For those with celiac and other gluten intolerances the benefits of a gluten free diet are life changing. Even if you are someone that doesn’t seem to have an issue with gluten, you still can benefit from eating this way.
Once you start a gluten free diet you‘ll be shocked at how much junk you’ve actually been consuming. Eliminating gluten requires eliminating nearly all processed foods and for many of us, that’s a big challenge.
Aside from cleaning up your nutrition, you’ll be forced to do more cooking. Since avoiding all packaged foods is a must, all of your meals and snacks will be homemade. This allows the opportunity to really see everything that’s going in to your body.
You’ll get a great education on nutrition. You will be forced to research how food is made and produced and what goes in to everything you consume. Knowledge is power and can be a very valuable tool when it comes to both your health and the appearance of your physique.
Gluten free diets have been shown to help in stabilizing blood sugar. Nutrition that focuses on unprocessed, whole foods will omit the types of products that cause dramatic spikes in blood sugar. Stable blood sugar levels lead to a healthier weight, less risk of diabetes, improved moods and more energy.
More research needs to be done but there may be a connection between a gluten free lifestyle and an improvement in symptoms such as fatigue, irritability and possibly even attention deficit disorder. This may be due to the stabilizing of blood sugar.
Things to Consider
Many people assume that any gluten free food is a good choice. That’s not necessarily the case. There are many gluten free foods that are heavily processed and should be avoided if you’re hoping to control calories. Gluten free cookies, snack cakes, chips and bars have been created for their convenience factor but that doesn’t make them a smart option. The calorie and sugar content may still be high, reversing the benefits.
Pay attention to labels. The list of foods and food products containing gluten is extensive and can be surprising. If you want to be one hundred percent gluten free, you will need to read the labels of any and all products you purchase and you’ll need to know what to look for.
Gluten free diet
If you do opt for packaged, pre made gluten free foods it is important to understand that many of them are not enriched with the vitamins and minerals that many wheat based products are enriched with. If this is the case, nutrients such as folate, iron and B vitamins will need to supplemented elsewhere.