(This is the 4th post from a series on gluten. If you want the complete story, start here.)
You may not remember the fat-free craze of the 90s, but if you do, you’ll likely agree that it had much of society whipped into a frenzy. For those of you who weren’t lucky enough to live through it all, I’m here to tell you there were a lot of high waisted (and belted) jeans, Doc Martins, bare midriffs, and the plea for us all to “Stop The Insanity!” Society was advised to tell their waiters they were “allergic” to fat in an effort to keep oil & butter off of their plates, because that was the key to weight loss.
And remember all of the fat-free products that became available? There were fat-free cookies, ice cream and cake. Hot Tamales and other hard candy were totally fine because – no fat – “just” sugar, so enjoy! A loaf of sourdough bread in one sitting? Go for it! Oh, and let’s not forget about the excitement around the development of Olestra – the synthetic oil that was developed to prevent fat absorption. Exciting! Eat those fat-free chips, just don’t read the fine print about the ensuing abdominal cramping and diarrhea.
The enthusiasm around the gluten-free movement can feel very similar to the excitement around fat-free. Society loves a quick fix. If someone believes they can get thin by cutting out gluten (or fat, or carbs…) even if it means exposing themselves to something harmful (i.e. Olestra), they want in.But don’t hate the player, hate the game.
We believe what we’re told and in our quick fix quest, so we don’t always ask why or how. And big corporations make big money by capitalizing on the consumer urge to spend on a speedy solution. So they tell us what they think we want to hear (in all caps), and they put all the warnings and ingredients we can’t pronounce in a point size that requires a magnifying glass to read.
But focusing only on the headlines takes us away from looking at the bigger picture, which is our overall health and wellness. It’s about inflammation in our bodies. And inflammation isn’t just about consuming gluten – it is about the quality of all of the ingredients we eat. So many people who are sensitive to gluten have also been found to be sensitive to other foods. Both gluten and casein (milk) sensitivities (hold on for upcoming posts) are considered “root sensitivities” that lead to the development of other sensitivities.
Originally, the impetus for many of the original gluten-free brands and foods was celiac disease. These early products were considered a godsend for those with celiac disease who were feeling deprived and desperate for options in their attempt to lead a semi-normal life. Now, even conventional grocery retailers are flooded with a gluten-free version of every type of product from sliced bread to pie crust.
Completely eliminating gluten from the diet was, and continues to be, the only treatment for celiac disease. However, just eliminating gluten in a product does not make it an optimal food. “Gluten-free” and “good for you” aren’t automatically interchangeable terms.
There have been a lot of companies desperate to get on the gluten-free gravy train, and they are compromising quality to get there. They take gluten out, yes, but in an effort to hold on to flavor (and time and money), they are filling that void with a whole bunch of other stuff you don’t want either. Ingredients like corn starch, white rice, potato flour/starch, added sugars, processed oils, preservatives and chemicals, soy and milk-based products – which are all causing inflammation, raising your insulin levels and not providing you with the whole grains and nutrients you need. In an effort to truly eat healthfully, AND gluten-free, we have to stop listening to the marketing hype and start opening our eyes to ingredients.
Why are food companies promoting the “healthy” gluten-free diet, but creating inflammatory products?
A few reasons that all roll into one primary factor: margins. Starches and chemically-derived ingredients are more abundant – and thus, cheaper – than whole, unprocessed ingredients. With a relative cap on what can be charged for a food, a manufacturer is already working with very little wiggle room to make the financials work. So cutting the cost to make the food is the only play they have. Chemicals also prolong shelf-life, which means less waste. And all of those added sugars and oils enhance the taste of the product, which causes you to eat more of the package and hopefully quickly come back for more. As a natural food vendor, I was always resisting pressure from manufacturers and business consultants to compromise my ingredient list to increase my margin.
There are some winners out there with pretty clean ingredients lists, and I’ll continue to share those finds as I encounter them, but your first simple rule is to aim for foods that are naturally gluten-free. And I am all for baby steps, so in times of desperation (or just to avoid losing your mind when you have 10,000 balls in the air), some of the less-than-perfect options may sneak onto our plates. However, a great standard to remember is this: If something is whole and started on this earth as gluten-free, you can’t go wrong – with or without a sensitivity.
So, What The Hell Can I Eat?
Great question. Start with the healthy, whole food items that started on this great green earth without a speck of gluten:
- Fresh fruits and vegetables. This includes leafy greens, sweet berries, creamy avocados, and grapes. And grapes = wine, so don’t panic. When consuming in moderation, you are fine.
- Beans and legumes. And if we’re talking beans it wouldn’t be right to exclude our friend the cacao bean, i.e. dark chocolate. Still with me?
- Nuts and seeds and unprocessed oils. This includes almond butter, which can be the base for many tasty recipes, and pine nuts (Ciao, pesto!).
- Sustainably raised animal products like grass-fed beef, pasture-raised poultry and eggs
Now, before you go all glass half empty on me, think about some of the savory foods you’ve been depriving yourself of in your attempts to cut calories and fat grams. Now look for those things on the list. Find any? Think of the creative ways you can mix them together to make delicious meals and snacks. I promise – if I can transfer my mac and cheese obsession to a gluten-, dairy- and guilt-free pesto pizza, you can too.
The elephant in the room is obvious: how do I get my bread fix? And, agreed, the toughest foods to substitute are your non-fruit and non-veggie based carbs. We should all be trying to get out of the antiquated thinking of the Food Guide Pyramid and stop making starches and grains the cornerstone of every meal, but unless you are dealing with a separate specific health concern (and I’ll address what those are in later posts), those don’t have to be banished altogether. You just have to find high quality versions. This means you’ll look for options that are higher in fiber, more nutrient-dense, and in most cases low glycemic index (bonus for blood sugar regulation and weight loss).
Some of the products I re-discovered once my wheat dependency had to be uprooted include:
- Sweet potatoes/yams and all their versatile, nutrient-dense glory: Baked, boiled and mashed, flavored with cinnamon and your favorite clean spread, sliced and baked for sweet potato fries, cubed and roasted then thrown into a bed of greens with walnuts and apples, sweet potato toast for breakfast. These are a low-glycemic superfood packed with Vitamins A, C & B6, fiber and minerals with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
- Quinoa and other alternative grains to wheat – millet, teff, amaranth, gluten-free oats: These grains are not half as scary-sounding as they used to be, with recent popularity and increased availability. They cook up similar to rice, and can be used as the base ingredients in clean, gluten-free products. They are whole grains, so they are high in necessary fiber and complete proteins. Nut flours are also widely available, and you can use them to re-create clean versions of many of your favorite dishes and baked goods.
- Brown rice: Steams up in minutes. And it makes a great, high fiber side for just about any entrée. It is also used as the flour in many healthful gluten-free products.
- Root vegetables. Taro chips, anyone? Delish and probably the best salty/crunchy snack satisfier I’ve found.
- Beans: Black, pinto, garbanzo, navy, red – we don’t discriminate here. Used in soups, salads, cooked up in a casserole, or rolled up in a burrito with a brown rice tortilla. Make some clean nachos. They’ll get you your fiber, protein and other vitamins and minerals.
- Lentils: These lovelies are great for soups and salads, make a perfect dip base and…are a fantastic meat replacement. (Really!) Especially if you are going the vegan route, lentils are a necessary staple. Especially high in iron and folate, they’ll provide you with fiber, protein, vitamin B6.
NOTE: for certain digestive issues or severe autoimmune issues, beans, legumes and all grains may need to be eliminated or limited for a period of time.
That was a lot of information…some good, some bad, some ugly. So listen. Bottom line is that taking gluten out of your diet means you will need to turn to whole foods, but soon, you will naturally be drawn in that direction. Promise.
Gluten, It’s Not You, It’s Me.
Sometimes our bodies play tricks on us and we crave (and eat) what isn’t good for us. But when you break up with gluten, your body will start to perform better. Less inflammation, less bloat, more effective internal systems. Your cravings will begin to change, and you won’t need a starchy, sugary, chemical-laden substitute. Because you will start to shift from a scarcity mindset (“Holy crap, who am I without my coffee cake and baguette?!”) to one of abundance (“It’s go time, guacamole!”).
I encourage you to take a ride on this gluten-free journey and see what you discover about yourself. Take the time to replace your old staple and find out what works better for you. You just might realize, as I did, that when you kick your habit to the curb, your inner light will shine brighter. So whether you have a recognized sensitivity or a diagnosed disease, know this: If you cut gluten out of your diet, you could literally be saving your own life…and that tastes better than any wheat-laden meal ever could.
If you would like to receive free tips and tools to help you get your shelves freshly stocked, be sure to join our community below. And if you’re serious about making changes, but need some expert guidance to kick it through the goal posts, I can help.
For much more information about gluten, gut health, food sensitivities, inflammation and a personalized, step-by-step plan to heal, check out my book, INFLAMED: Discover the root cause of inflammation and personalize a step-by-step plan to create a healthy, vibrant life.
- Challem, Jack. The Inflammation Syndrome: The Complete Nutritional Program to Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease, Arthritis, Diabetes, Allergies and Asthma. Hoboken, NJ: J. Wiley, 2003.
- Braly, James, and Ron Hoggan. Dangerous Grains: Why Gluten Cereal Grains May Be Hazardous to Your Health. New York: Avery, 2002. Print.
- Bizzaro, N., R. Tozzoli, D. Villalta, M. Fabris, and E. Tonutti. “Cutting-Edge Issues in Celiac Disease and in Gluten Intolerance.” Clinical Reviews in Allergy & Immunology3 (2012): 279-87.