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Should we all go gluten-free?

2013 January 11

Years ago — sometime around 2003, 2004 — my father’s doctor recommended that he eliminate gluten from his diet for a few weeks, to see if he felt any relief from digestive problems he was experiencing.

The doctor didn’t test my dad for gluten-related issues — it was just a first-step suggestion, before the medical sciences stepped in with probes and prescriptions. Digestive issues can be tricky and wide-ranging, and doctors were just beginning to wrap their minds around the effects of gluten at the time.

It worked. Relief arrived in days (not weeks). And my father never consumed gluten again.

Back then, “gluten-free” wasn’t in the mainstream yet. The gluten-free section at the grocery was limited to a few shelves in the natural foods section’s freezer. The bread was awful, dry — a sawdust puck. The pasta, inedible.

Gluten was in everything, and in the most unexpected places. Salad dressings and pickles. Hot dogs, ketchup, and mustard. Beer and spirits. Vitamin supplements. Grocery shopping suddenly took twice as long, because Mom had to read the ingredients on every label, and compare it to a list of individual gluten ingredients that she kept tucked in her purse: wheat, rye, barley, and their flours (of course), malt vinegar, dextrin, maltodextrin, rennet, grain alcohols, modified food starch.

The official list is incredibly long.

And then there’s the whole issue of cross-contamination. Oats, while naturally gluten-free, are often processed on the same equipment as wheat-containing products. Ditto with many nut products. For celiacs and others with severe gluten allergies, even mere residue on random grains is enough to provoke a reaction. Manufacturing had yet to commit to separate processing facilities, so cross-contamination was guaranteed: no morning oatmeal.

It’s amazing how much things change in just a handful of years. Gluten-free products are available in almost every section of the grocery. Science is learning more and more about the effects of gluten, including that gluten is a possible aggravator (to use a more neutral word than cause, since we really don’t know yet) of many conditions, including autism, osteoporosis, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis — many autoimmune diseases, in fact, and gluten sensitivity itself is considered an autoimmune disorder — migraines, epilepsy, and others [source].

So, this raises the inevitable question: should we all proactively go gluten-free? Some folks without any sign of gluten-sensitivity have done just that. The interwebs is well-stocked with gluten info and advice, plus all the gluten-free recipes a cook could ever want. High-quality gluten-free food blogs attract everyone, not just celiacs. It’s easier than ever to control your gluten intake.

I’ve thought about this question a lot since my father’s passing. If only he had lived to see the last few years: he would’ve been ecstatic at the progress made in gluten-free eating (same for my mom, who was often frustrated by the lack of available information and guidance). It’s so much easier now to maintain a gluten-free diet — thanks in part to better product labeling and consumer education — without any sacrifice of the joys of eating beautiful, delicious food.

I’ve been forming a theory of my own the last few years (completely unscientific, mind you):

We simply consume too much gluten in our diet. If science is right about gluten’s effects, then at some point, there is the potential for our bodies to reach a tipping point where gluten slides into enemy territory (much like carbohydrates and Type II diabetes).

Think about the average American’s day:

Breakfast: toast, bagel English muffin, maybe a doughnut or pastry.
Mid-morning snack: granola bar.
Lunch: sandwich or burger.
Dinner: pasta salad, or meat dish with a side of bread, salad with dressing and croutons.
Dessert: pie, cake, brownie, cookie

Every meal in this menu contains gluten. Every meal. If gluten does cause an inflammatory response and kick-starts a subsequent disease processes, then we’re fueling that inflammation relentlessly, 3 to 5 times a day.

So, I’m dialing back on gluten. Way back. One or two servings per day, max. Not completely GF, but definitely gluten-reduced.

This has been much, much easier than I expected (given our experience when Dad went gluten-free). I have a few tips to share, if you’re interested in trying it yourself:

  • Bread:  this is the biggie for most people, I think. I don’t even attempt to substitute regular bread with gluten-free bread. If I really, really want a bagel, I’ll have a bagel, and count that as my day’s serving of gluten. GF bread is not bad at all, don’t get me wrong, but I do prefer wheat bread. Since I’m not 100% GF, I don’t feel the need to completely deprive myself of that particular treat. Lately, I’ve been really enjoying sprouted grains bread (found in the natural foods freezer). I’ve been won over by the health benefits of sprouts, and breads made from sprouted grains (which may or may not include sprouted wheat as an ingredient) are hearty and quite delicious.
  • If you are going the bread substitution route, watch your calorie intake. For a while, there was a popular trend in GF bread that replaced wheat flour with almond flour, with the goal of using a great tasting flour (some GF flours taste {ahem} better than others). There’s no doubt that these almond flour breads are lovely, but almond flour is incredibly high in calories. This goes for desserts, too, where nut flours — and lots of eggs — step in for wheat flour.
  • Pasta:  this was a great surprise for me. GF pastas have improved leaps and bounds over the dreadful, grimace-inducing specimens I sampled 8 years ago. Corn and rice blends are my favorite — they have both great flavor and texture. Try a few different brands to see what suits you best — this could be the most seamless change you make. I’ve also recently discovered einkorn pasta in my area. Einkorn is an ancient wheat grain, thought to be the earliest, truest form of wheat. It is not GF (nor is it necessarily appropriate for gluten-intolerant people, although some are able to consume it without effect), but studies show it’s lower in gluten than our modern grains. And, it just tastes great. I can find it locally in spaghetti, penne, and rotini forms under the Jovial brand.
  • Other grains:  quinoa — which is naturally gluten-free — is all the rage right now, with good reason. It’s delicious, it’s quick to prepare, and, as a complete protein, it’s quite healthy. (Bonus: it’s widely available in different colors, including red and black. How fun is that!) All that being said, do vary your GF grain/seed/legume intake: lentils, chickpeas, black beans, brown rice, wild rice, quinoa. I’m a bit concerned about recent brown rice and arsenic reports — I don’t think we quite understand what we’re looking at on that front, but I’m also cutting way back on brown rice (one serving per week). In the spirit of not over-indulging in gluten, I’m mixing up my diet as best I can to avoid consuming too much of any one thing.

What do you think? Would you reduce your gluten intake to avoid possible future disease?


7 Responses
  1. Dana permalink
    January 12, 2013

    Thank you for sharing this post with us. I had the exact same question in my mind..should we?

  2. Madison permalink
    January 12, 2013

    I’ve always loved the thought of going gluten free, but how much is it going to add to my grocery budget? When I go out to eat, say at Cafe Rio, I always ask for their gluten free tortillas because it’s no extra cost. But whats the price difference between baking a regular cookie, to baking a gluten free cookie with all sorts of odd ingredients? What I would really love, is to learn how to eat gluten free on a BUDGET, because I’m a poor college student with a year and a half left to go!

    • Karen @ Leaf & Grain permalink*
      January 12, 2013

      It could be a challenge, especially if you enjoy baking sweets. Check around in your area and see if there are bulk suppliers of dried goods – the kind where you can buy as much (or as little) as you need. I have a Whole Foods nearby. They’re not necessarily cheap, but I’d rather buy only what I need, instead of 3 or 5 lb bags of flours that I’ll never use by their expiration date. Or, maybe you and a friend/family member could go halfsies on ingredients. Another approach to consider (the one I took when I went vegetarian): leave substitution for special occasions, and cook/bake naturally gluten-free. On the sweets side, there are recipes like this one: that are not converted, but rather were gluten-free from the start (and no weird ingredients). Scour the gluten-free blogs for advice and tips. It’s definitely doable on a budget – you might just have to be creative about it. Whatever route you go, just do your best and cut yourself some slack when things slip a bit. :)

  3. January 12, 2013

    That is a tough question. we’ve been struggling with similar lines of thinking regarding meat and dairy intake in our house – which makes tackling the GF issue extremely daunting.

    The rationale I seem to be moving toward is letting my body tell me what it needs – if eating less of a certain food makes me a little less sluggish or holds off migraines, etc., I run with that. Perhaps not the most scientific method, but it’s a start.

    There is a large natural foods store near my daughter’s college and the GF pasta selections there have been a revelation – black bean pasta is tasty, who knew?

    • Karen @ Leaf & Grain permalink*
      January 12, 2013

      I’m still working on the dairy thing. It’s greek yogurt and kefir that I’m having trouble giving up. I’m leaving it be for now – yogurt, kefir (and occasionally cheese and butter), yes. Straight up milk and cream, no. Fortunately, coconut milk has been a seamless substitution for animal milk (strange, isn’t it, since you know I have a severe aversion to shredded coconut).

      Honestly, I think it’s a victory that we’re even thinking about these questions at all – finally, analyzing diet to determine how much of it is the cause of our aches and pains. Even if our execution of a solution is piecemeal, small steps matter.

  4. Marieke permalink
    January 14, 2013

    Great post. I have recently gone temporarily gluten free (and dairy free) as recommended by my naturopath. She gave me a very worried look when she heard the amount of white pasta I ate weekly. It’s definitely been challenging, but I am learning about a lot of new foods and once I go back to a regular diet, I see it being a lot more balanced, like you are doing yourself. I had some brown rice pasta the other night though and thought it was terrible! So gummy… Other recommendations welcome :)

    • Karen @ Leaf & Grain permalink*
      January 15, 2013

      I hear ya! There’s a brand of corn pasta that I really, really like: Mrs. Leepers. I know that corn has a few of its own issues, but since I’ve cut back on pasta, period, I feel pretty good about consuming corn pasta instead of wheat. It holds its shape – you can actually cook it al dente and it stays al dente – and tastes great. I can find it locally in some specialty stores (I think Whole Foods, as well), but I know Amazon sells it. I also find the blended rice pastas to be not so bad – brown rice blended with other gluten-free grains that offset the mushy quality of the rice.

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