What is Gluten?
Gluten is a protein that is found in grains such as wheat and wheat varieties such as spelt, farro, kamut, durum, bulgar, couscous and semolina. It is also found in barley, rye and triticale. Oats are naturally gluten free, but are usually processed alongside the previous grains. Certified gluten free oats can be found at many health food stores. Gluten provides the elasticity to breads and cakes. Gluten free wholegrains and grain-like substitutes are a great option as many still provide fibre, B vitamins, magnesium, vitamin E such as quinoa, teff, buckwheat even boast a greater protein content than their gluten-containing buddies.
Why is gluten an issue?
Coeliac disease is an autoimmune condition that causes atrophy or wasting of the vili (lining) of the small intestine when exposed to gluten. This atrophy greatly reduces the surface area for absorption of nutrients such as iron, calcium and vitamin D and many more, that are absorbed in the small intestine. If your blood test or gastroscopy confirms Coeliac disease, gluten is off the menu for you, in all its forms, as even a trace can lead to a flare up of symptoms that include bloating, pain, changes in bowel movements such as diarrhoea or constipation and nausea. Complete avoidance can be difficult when eating out, or when choosing processed or packaged foods as much is manufactured alongside other gluten-containing foods that can cause cross-contamination.
On the other hand, those with Non-Coeliac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS) can experience similar digestive symptoms to Coeliac disease, and whilst there may be inflammation of the gut, it is not to the extent of an autoimmune response. Avoidance of gluten containing grains can alleviate other symptoms such as a reduction in skin breakouts including acne and eczema, headaches, weight loss and an improvement in mood. People experiencing intolerance to gluten may also be reacting to components of the gluten such as the gliadin in wheat. Some people may not experience any negative reactions to gluten, in which case, be sure to select wholegrain options to get the most benefit from your grains.
Going gluten free…
Gluten free does not necessarily mean healthy. Check the labels of foods before purchasing processed or packaged gluten free products as inferior products may be supplemented with fats, sugars, flavours, colours and salt to improve the taste and texture of regular wheat products. The gluten free grains used may be stripped of their essential nutrients (as with white wheat breads), particularly fibre. Without the fibre and protein found in the wholegrain, foods are broken down and utilised more quickly, spiking blood sugar levels and subsequent energy slumps. These energy dense foods can be associated with various health concerns such as weight gain or difficulty losing weight, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
Avoiding processed foods also means avoiding sneaky gluten-containing additives (as well as other little nasties), such as flavourings, vegetable gum or protein, thickeners, malted products and seasonings. Substitute bread with flatbreads made with ground gluten-free wholegrains or legume-based flours such as chickpea flour. Try filling sturdy vegetable leaves such as cabbage or lettuce with your favourite sandwich fillings. Pile your burger fillings in between two grilled Portobello mushrooms or grilled eggplant. Keep a look out for delicious coconut based wraps, or create your own deconstructed burrito bowls with a serving of spiced quinoa or beans to add a great source of fibre.
There are great health benefits for following a fresh, wholefoods-based, gluten free diet that is delicious and diverse, containing fresh fruit, vegetables, herbs, spices, good-quality protein (animal or plant based), nuts, seeds, legumes, gluten free wholegrains, healthy oils and fermented foods. You shouldn’t have to feel like you are missing out, the options are endless!
Written by Melbourne Naturopath Bree Jenner