We all know by now that what we put into our bodies affects how those bodies work. Eat well, you feel better. Eat junk, and you’ll feel that too. This may seem like an obvious point, but the part of your body that’s most immediately affected by what you eat is your gastrointestinal tract. We’re talking about a good 30 feet of tubing running through your body, so it’s not surprising that most people, at some point, experience some form of GI trouble. One of the most common complaints is gluten intolerance.

Gluten is a protein found mainly in the common grains that form a large part of most people’s diets. There are worse things than gluten, but like so much in life, it’s our own reaction to it that can create problems. One of the ways this can happy is Celiac disease, a condition in which the presence of gluten triggers an autoimmune response. The immune system attacks the villi, areas of the intestinal lining that aid in digestion, and as a result impairs the body’s ability to digest food as it should. This can lead to a wide variety of symptoms: abdominal pain, gas, indigestions, constipation, diarrhea, lactose intolerance, nausea or unexplained weight loss. The resulting lack of nutrients in the body can also trigger hair loss, mouth ulcers, depression, fatigue or joint pain.

Celiac disease affects less than one in a hundred people in the US, but many more people suffer from similar symptoms and yet test negative for the disease. The fact is that Celiac disease is only the extreme and medically diagnosable end of a broader spectrum of gluten intolerance. Some researchers estimate that as much as 10% of us have some form of intolerance to gluten which irritates the digestive system enough to create Celiac-like symptoms but does not qualify as Celiac.  This is known as being Non-Celiac Gluten Intolerant (NCGI), which gives you a good idea of just how little we really know about the condition.

In looking at which foods to avoid, it’s important to understand that the form of gluten which triggers intolerances is specifically that found in wheat, barley and rye. Rice and corn also contain gluten, but in a form which seems not to trigger intolerances. So clearly bread is out, as is pasta and most breakfast cereals. Simple, right?

Well, no. The bad news is that wheat crops up in all sorts of unexpected places, and to make matters worse, modern wheat contains far more gluten than its ancestor varieties did.  Soy sauce, for example, contains gluten. Wheat powder is used as a thickener in many processed foods, showing up in mustard, tomato paste, pasta sauces and even in some medications. If you are mildly NCGI, this may not be a problem, but if you have Celiac, you’ll need to be very careful about even trace amounts of wheat. Sufferers of Celiac should always consult a nutritionist to devise appropriate meal-plans and detailed shopping lists to avoid hidden glutens.

In either case, to eat gluten-free and healthy means more than simply buying “gluten-free” bread and pasta. Many of these gluten-free products compensate for the lack of gluten by adding sugar and other additives – always keep in mind that gluten-free junk food is still junk food. Your better bet, as always, is to focus on real food alternatives. Potatoes, corn, rice and beans are all starches that are safe for those with gluten intolerances, and while I’m not suggesting you should load up on potatoes every day, they can offer a creative alternative to pasta when looking for ways to use a sauce. Quinoa pasta is a delicious option than many people prefer to the wheat variety. Otherwise, use the misfortune of gluten intolerance as a way of cutting down on carbohydrate intake – building your meals around vegetable dishes and non-breaded poultry and fish options is a healthy and natural way of avoiding gluten. Remember though that balance is always the key; grains are a common source of vitamins B and D, so be sure to vary your diet and consider extra helpings of vitamin B and D rich foods such as oily fish (salmon, sardines, mackerel), eggs, avocadoes and walnuts. With all those options to choose from, a little culinary creativity will go far to compensate for all those pasta dishes you’ve left behind.

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