Gluten-free symbolThe answer, as you can guess, is not that straightforward and requires some work on your part.  “Gluten-free” is not a diet, per se, but a way of life.  Eating gluten for those with gluten intolerance makes life miserable.

Gluten is the generic name used to describe the proteins found in some grains such as wheat, barley, and rye.  It can be difficult for some to digest it.  At the extreme, it can cause the body to elicit an autoimmune response– where the body’s immune system begins to attack cells of the body it mistakes as an invader (i.e. the gluten protein).  Celiac disease is the most common autoimmune disease people think of when talking about gluten but there are others such as Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis (autoimmune thyriod) or Multiple Sclerosis.  It’s important to remember that you do not have to have an autoimmune disease to be sensitive to gluten.   More ‘benign’ symptoms or issues include constipation, diarrhea, bloating, eczema, hives, foggy-headedness, joint pain or menstrual irregularity.

I put benign in quotes because these are often brushed off as being not a big deal or a normal part of everyday life. These symptoms are actually your body’s way of waving a red flag. While not a full blown autoimmune response, these still signal inflammation in the body and warrant serious attention.

While there are tests to determine if you are having an autoimmune response, there are no reliable tests to determine a gluten intolerance. So even if you came up negative for antibodies, you could still have an intolerance to gluten and you’ll have to rely on some investigative work on your end.

How do you know if you should?
The best way to determine if you should be gluten-free is to keep a food journal.  Start by recording what you eat on a daily basis and also track how you are feeling and your bowel movements.

After you’ve done this for a couple days (or a week), then cut out gluten containing foods from your diet. This requires you to be vigilant and to do some homework to find out which foods contain gluten.   Get informed, read labels, and don’t be afraid to ask waiters.

After you cut out gluten, continue to record what you are eating and how you are feeling in your food journal.   Has anything changed?  Are you feeling better/worse?

It usually takes one to three weeks to notice improvements. Then, reintroduce gluten into your diet.  It’s best reintroduce in the morning after a bowel movement.  Record how you feel immediately after and for the next 2- to 3- days.

If you notice an improvement and your symptoms return when you add gluten back, then you likely have a gluten intolerance and you would benefit greatly from being ‘gluten-free’.

Unfortunately, sometimes it’s not so cut and dry.

If you don’t notice a difference either way, then, you have to dig a little further. The issue may not only be the gluten protein but the sugars in wheat and other foods as well. Here you may be dealing with a leaky gut or irritable bowels. In this case, trying a full elimination diet would be best. There are several diets – The Specific Carbohydrate Diet, the GAPS diet, and FODMAPS – that can serve as a guide for you.

Is there any benefit to going “Gluten-Free” if you don’t have a gluten intolerance?

This is an interesting question.

Wheat, barley and rye when prepared in the right way and eaten in the proper quantities can be very healthful foods.

The problem is that most of us eat a lot of gluten.  All day long.  And most of the time, we are eating wheat in refined forms not as a whole grain.  Some of us eat TOO many refined foods  – plain and simple.  Bread, pasta, cupcakes, and muffins are high in simple carbs (i.e. sugar) and cause many issues, including messing with your blood sugar – which can then affect different things – like your sleep, waistline, cycles and hot flashes.

Our bodies like variety.  A bagel for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch and pasta for dinner doesn’t provide much.  Reducing the amount of ‘gluten’ would be good for everyone.

‘Gluten-free’ doesn’t necessarily mean it is healthy.  Over-consuming gluten-free refined foods can be just as harmful as the gluten ones.  Filling up on gluten-free breads, desserts, or pasta doesn’t get you any closer to a balanced meal.

So, what can you replace gluten foods with?  

Here are a few ideas for you go a long way in managing your blood sugar, shrinking your waistline and supporting your health …

  • Have a salad instead of a sandwich;
  • Replace regular pasta with a vegetable “pasta” (zuchinni spirals or collard strips);
  • Bake a peach instead of a cupcake to satisfy your sweet tooth; or
  • Try some gluten-free whole grain alternatives like millet, amaranth, buckwheat or quinoa.

For more tips and information on gluten free grains, join me at the Cooking with Alternative Grains Cooking Class on Wednesday, January 28 (at TASTE Kitchen and Table in Fairfax, CA).

For more information on grain-free eating, join me at the Grain-Free Eating Cooking Class on Wednesday, March 25 (at TASTE Kitchen and Table in Fairfax, CA).

And of course, if you can’t make the cooking class and want to contact me about gluten-free eating, please contact me here.

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