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When looking into healthier ways to eat, or trying to find solutions for certain health issues, more and more people are choosing to ditch gluten from their diet. However, as the gluten-free diet has become more popular as a lifestyle choice, it has got people confused about whether gluten is actually bad to eat or whether it's just another fad diet.
Most people will have no symptoms or problems from eating gluten as part of a healthy whole-food diet. However, many people are finding that giving up gluten has relieved their digestive issues, restored their skin health, and eliminated their fatigue. With much conflicting advice, it can be hard to understand if gluten is unhealthy and if you should consider giving up gluten yourself. If you are considering a gluten-free diet, we hope this article will allow you to make a more informed decision about your personal health choices.
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WHAT IS GLUTEN?
Gluten is essentially a group of proteins found in high quantities in wheat and lower quantities in barley, rye, and spelt. No other grains or cereals such as oats, quinoa, or rice naturally contain gluten. Discovering the qualities of gluten in wheat is what led us to create bread thousands of years ago. Bread making has been traced back all the way to Ancient Egypt and the Middle East where wheat grew in abundance. From there, the art of turning wheat into flour and then into bread spread across Europe and Asia, making bread a staple food in many cultures across the world.
In the baking process, gluten is what makes the dough elastic. When the dough is proving and releasing carbon dioxide, it is the gluten that traps the bubbles that allow the dough to rise and grow. When the dough is baked, the gluten will coagulate and stabilize to allow the bread to set and stay in shape. Though it is possible to make bread with grains and flours that don't contain gluten, it will produce different results than traditional wheat-based breads.
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WHAT IS A GLUTEN-FREE DIET?
A gluten-free diet means that you remove any source of gluten from your diet. That means no flours, breads, cakes, pastas, or pastries made from wheat, barley, rye, or spelt. When considering that these foods are often the staple ingredients for many popular American dishes, this can seem like an extreme and difficult diet to maintain. However, many people do not have the choice as they may suffer from celiac disease or gluten sensitivity.
People with celiac disease can have serious adverse effects almost immediately if gluten is eaten. Due to an autoimmune response in these individuals, the body's immune system attacks the gluten proteins which in turn damages the small intestine and prohibits the absorption of nutrients from other food. Symptoms often show as digestive problems, severe stomach pains, vomiting, or fatigue. If not diagnosed, this condition can lead to nerve damage and seizures. As there are no medical drugs or prescriptions for celiac disease, the only solution is to simply avoid eating grains containing gluten and to adopt a gluten-free diet.
Gluten sensitivity is a very mild intolerance with people having similar symptoms to celiac disease without the intestinal damage. Stomach pains, IBS, and constant fatigue can be hard to tolerate when trying to live a healthy life so often it is easier for people to have a gluten-free diet rather than eating foods that simply don't agree with them. Though gluten intolerance does affect many people, the sudden uptake of a gluten-free diet in the US has got people thinking that gluten must be unhealthy for everyone.
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A HEALTHIER WAY TO EAT GLUTEN
When considering that bread and flour have been staples in the human diet for centuries, it can be hard to understand why all of a sudden, in the last few decades, we are all intolerant to gluten. In 2013, a study showed about ⅓ of Americans were choosing to avoid gluten. Some food scientists claim that we are simply eating too much highly-processed gluten and that resorting back to more natural ways of baking bread will alleviate some common symptoms. If you are only mildly gluten sensitive, you may find that you can eat homemade bread, cake, and pasta, made with good-quality flour, without any adverse effects.
Sourdough bread could also be an ideal alternative if you find yourself mildly intolerant to more standard yeasted bread. The slow proving process of sourdough allows the flour to naturally start fermenting which softens and breaks down the gluten. This makes the bread easier to digest and people often find that they do not get their usual symptoms after eating high-quality sourdough. However, if you are celiac, sourdough is still high in gluten and should not be eaten.
HEALTH BENEFITS OF GOING GLUTEN-FREE
Besides the gluten-free diet being a solution for people seeking relief from serious autoimmune conditions, it may also offer some relief for people who find themselves mildly sensitive or intolerant to gluten. Most people give up gluten to help with their digestion issues. Though a variety of unhealthy dietary choices can lead to IBS digestive issues, many people claim that going on a gluten-free diet alleviated their stomach pains and improved their digestion.
A gluten-free diet is also often recommended for people with certain skin conditions such as acne or eczema, as well as people who suffer heavily from constant fatigue and low levels of energy. However, these symptoms are also associated with overall poor dietary health. If you are eating a healthy whole-food diet with a minimal amount of processed food and still have painful symptoms, then trying a gluten-free diet or other elimination diets could be the next step.
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TIPS & TRICKS ON HOW TO GO GLUTEN-FREE
What Foods To Avoid On A Gluten-free Diet
The key is to avoid anything that is made from wheat, rye, barley, and spelt, most commonly found in the form of flour. Typically, that means any kind of bread, pizza, cookie, cake, pasta, pastry, vegan seitan, and even beer is a no-go. As wheat flour is such a commonly used ingredient, you need to also be aware that gluten is in many products you wouldn't necessarily expect. Gluten is also present in soy sauce, many stock powders, and often used as a thickener in many processed or pre-made foods.
If you just panicked about all the food you have to give up to go gluten-free, rest assured that it is still possible to eat a healthy well-balanced diet and indulge in your favorite treats without the gluten. There are many grains that are naturally gluten-free. Quinoa and rice are perfect alternative grains for pasta or couscous salads and you can even replace grains with beans or legumes such as lentils, split peas, or chickpeas. Most gluten-free grains, legumes, and nuts can also be used to make flours which can then be used to make breads, cakes, and pastas. For example, our Gluten-Free Pumpkin Bread uses almond flour instead of conventional wheat flour and is still so deliciously soft and moreish your family and friends might struggle to believe that it is completely gluten-free.
With the rise of gluten-free eating, you can find gluten-free alternatives for pretty much everything you thought you would have to miss out on. Most supermarkets now have aisles dedicated to gluten-free options and so you can find gluten-free breakfast cereals, cakes, breads, pastas, and beers pretty easily these days.
When buying any processed or pre-made food, it is always best to get into the habit of reading the ingredients lists and food labels. Though nowadays many products will have "gluten-free" or "GF" highlighted on the packaging, it is always good to check the ingredients list for any traces of wheat or gluten protein.
Avoiding Gluten Outside Of The Home
When at a restaurant always ask for the gluten-free options. Even though a dish may seem gluten-free at first glance, there is a chance flour could have been used to thicken sauces or bind ingredients together. Most restaurants and cafes these days will have gluten-free options or have gluten-free breads, pizza dough, or pasta to offer instead of the traditional wheat versions. However, if that's not the case, try asking to have the dish without the gluten component. For example, you can always ask for burgers to come without the bun or ask for a simple green salad instead of the side of bread.
RISKS & CONS OF GLUTEN-FREE EATING
As the gluten-free diet is still highly contested between scientists and nutritionists, there is the thought that going gluten-free may eliminate a range of healthy nutrients from your diet. Wheat is an ideal source of fiber as well as selenium, manganese, and certain B vitamins: all important for optimal health. However eating grains and legumes like quinoa, wholegrain rice and lentils are perfectly healthy naturally gluten-free alternatives that can provide adequate levels of protein, fiber, and other required nutrients.
The main problem is that people will remove wheat from their diet and replace it with highly-processed gluten-free products. Traditional homemade bread will contain flour, yeast, and water while some gluten-free bread products contain low nutrient grains, such as white rice, plus sugars, starches, binding agents, additives, and preservatives. Though these are all naturally gluten-free ingredients, it doesn't necessarily make these products nutritional alternatives to traditional carbohydrate options. However, there are gluten-free options out there where the makers are concerned about the nutritional value of their gluten-free products and so choose high quality, nutrient-dense ingredients such as chickpeas, almonds, or quinoa.
People also argue that the gluten-free diet is an expensive lifestyle choice. Gluten-free loaves of bread tend to be smaller and twice the price of a standard loaf of bread. However, gluten-free products are trickier to make and often contain extra ingredients or pricier grains and flours. However, don't feel like you have to buy expensive alternatives all the time to stay gluten-free. Ingredients such as lentils, rice, and oats are some of the cheapest things you can buy in the supermarket, and making your own gluten-free homemade granola or crackers, for example, can be an easy way to keep your food costs down.
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THE BEST GLUTEN-FREE PRODUCTS
When cooking at home, there are plenty of natural whole-food gluten-free ingredients to use. However, if you are really craving the taste and texture of your once-favorite dishes, then these products are great gluten-free alternatives.
GLUTEN-FREE DIET RESOURCES
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
- How Do I Know If I Am Gluten Intolerant?
People claim that having pains in the stomach, fatigue after eating and regular skin breakouts can all be signs of some sort of intolerance to the food you are eating. If you find that after eating regular bread, pasta or cake you feel lethargic and heavy then you might be sensitive to gluten. The best thing to do is experiment. Give up gluten for a week and see if you feel any different. If you are concerned that you may have celiac disease, you can go to your doctor and ask for a blood test.
- Will I Still See Some Benefit If I Eat Gluten Occasionally?
This depends on how sensitive you are to gluten. If you are only mildly sensitive, then treating yourself to an occasional pasta dish or pizza might work for you. For others, they may need to be a lot more strict at risk of falling ill. You may find giving up gluten for 80% of your meals may lessen or possibly increase your reaction when you do choose to indulge in a gluten dish. The thing about your gluten-free diet is that you are in control and only you know how you feel and react to certain foods.
- Can A Gluten-free Diet Work Alongside Other Diets?
Quite often people who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet will also choose to eat gluten-free to further enhance their overall health. Other "clean-eating" diets such as the Keto Diet and the low FODMAP diet also eliminate gluten as part of their guidelines. It is possible to eat most diets gluten-free, just be aware of how much restriction you are putting on yourself and be realistic about whether it will be easy to maintain.
- Is A Grain-free Diet Different To A Gluten-free Diet?
A grain-free diet eliminates all types of grains regardless of the gluten content. Therefore, a grain-free diet is naturally also gluten-free. The paleo diet is grain-free as it focuses on ancestral "clean" natural whole-foods. Giving up all grains is considered extreme as many gluten-free grains such as quinoa and oats are very nutritious ingredients to incorporate into a healthy diet.
- Any Suggestion For Tasty Gluten-free Recipes?
Check out the cookbooks we suggested above, plus you can find so many recipe blogs online that are dedicated to making gluten-free food tasty. We have our own selection of gluten-free recipes that we would love for you to try. We have some tasty dinner & lunch ideas as well as some easy and healthy gluten-free bakes: our Gluten-Free Zucchini Brownies are especially delicious!
THE BOTTOM LINE
Unless you have been diagnosed with celiac disease, a gluten-free diet is a very personal lifestyle choice. Only you really know how you feel when eating conventional wheat products. If you do choose to go gluten-free, try to incorporate a variety of natural gluten-free alternatives and whole-food ingredients to make sure you continue to get a broad spectrum of nutrients in your diet. Experimenting with a healthy gluten-free diet could be a great first step in helping you find what optimal health feels like for you.
The information provided in this article is not nutritional or medical advice. Please read our disclaimer.