Food & Drink Lifestyle

Please don’t eat your wheaties! The Truth about gluten-free living

Baked hams, sour cream mashed potatoes, and green beans
Baked hams, sour cream mashed potatoes, and green beans on a plate. Photo by Ashley Fleming.

Gluten-free. Dairy-free. Raw. Vegan. Paleo. With so many alternative ways of eating and so many people weighing in on the debate, it is difficult to determine legitimate advice from foodie opinion.

Not only that, anyone facing any diet elimination or change is faced with several questions. First, how do you completely eliminate anything from your diet? Is it even possible? How strict do you want to be? Most importantly, how do you follow the elimination in a healthy way?  If you are considering eliminating gluten from your diet, I have some advice.

Gluten is a protein found in spelt, wheat, barley, rye, oats, and in a hybrid of wheat called triticale. A gluten-free diet is one that does not contain gluten, but does contain all macronutrients your body needs. It is calorically sufficient. When done right, it is healthy.

My family has made several forays into the gluten-free world. My mother had a rash she wanted to get rid of, and I had terrible allergies. My first attempt at gluten-free eating involved chocolate chip cookies, which always crumbled to pieces before I made it to work. I would salvage the remaining bits at lunch time, and throw what looked like a bag full of sand (actually the remaining cookie crumbs) in the trash. I ate sandwiches with tapioca and potato starch. I even told a good friend that I would cook dinner, and fed him a large bowl of rice pasta. Nothing seemed satisfying, and I always ended up angry at my meals.

Three years later, I tried it again. My body was bloated, my allergies were out of control, and a typical anti­-inflammatory diet wasn’t helping. I also have a genetic condition which predisposes me to diabetes, celiac disease, and thyroid issues. There is a good possibility that I may have some sort of gluten sensitivity. So, off I went, down the gluten-free road (again). This time I’m going to stick with it one hundred percent, I told myself.

Poached eggs with roasted potatoes and cherries on the side
Poached eggs with roasted potatoes and cherries on the side. Photo by Ashley Fleming.

Have I? Absolutely not. A good 85 percent of the time, I am committed. Sometimes, though, I just want a gin and tonic. I also want to go out to dinner and enjoy my meals. I want to eat stuffing at Thanksgiving. Despite my “cheats,” I can say that the second time around, I am more successful, and feel healthier, than the first.

It is best to keep in mind three things before attempting your gluten-free diet.

First, do not expect gluten-free substitutes to be satisfying. A sandwich on gluten-free bread or a gluten-free muffin is very rarely going to be as good as the real deal. It’s like eating vegan meat. Don’t eat the substitutes.

Instead of gluten-free bread, have quinoa, brown rice, or sweet potatoes. gluten-free cookies? Never as good as the real thing. Have some dark chocolate instead. Chocolate does not naturally contain flour, so you won’t be eating a cheap knock-off.  Please check the labels to ensure that there are no gluten-containing fillers or stabilizers.  Any candy that is labeled as gluten-free is acceptable to eat.  Most candy is not.  Once again, eat foods that do not naturally contain gluten.  You will be happier.

Second, do not expect gluten to be completely eliminated from your body. That jar of peanut butter? Somebody smeared some of it all over their bread, then stuck the knife back in the jar. The toaster you are using? Chances are it has breadcrumbs at the bottom. You can minimize gluten considerably, but there will come a day when it will sneak into your food. Ordering eggs when you go out to breakfast? Chances are the restaurant makes french toast and breakfast sandwiches on the same grill as your scrambled eggs.

Thirdly, please be aware of how much sugar you eat. Juice, maple syrup, cane sugar, brown sugar, artificial sweeteners….all of these are technically allowed on a gluten­ free diet. Will you achieve optimal health eating these foods in large quantities? No, absolutely not! When undertaking any elimination diet, the goal is to heal your body, and increase its ability to function. A diet high in refined sugar will do none of the above. Sugar is found in most pre­-cooked foods, such as salad dressings and pre-marinated meat  so prepare to cook for yourself.

Slow-cooked pork with maple sweet potatoes and blanched asparagus
Slow-cooked pork with maple sweet potatoes and blanched asparagus on a plate. Photo by Ashley Fleming.

Make sure you are not missing out on needed vitamins and minerals.  Pasta and other gluten­-containing breads, cereals, and flours are enriched. This means vitamins and minerals are added to them. For example, iron, folic acid and niacin are added to bread. These nutrients can be found in many other foods, so it is best to discuss with a qualified professional whether or not you should take any additional supplements.

So what’s the deal with gluten-free eating? When done right–that is, without yucky imitation baked goods–a gluten-free diet is satisfying. If you do go gluten-free, be prepared to make a radical change in your diet, not simple food substitutions.

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