All About Gluten

Photo by: Stephanie Crocker 

Photo by: Stephanie Crocker 

Due to the protein gluten, wheat is one of the eight most common foods that account for about 90% of allergic reactions in the U.S.* Why? Unfortunately, most of the wheat grown today is exposed to pesticides, chemicals, molds and fungi. It has also been hybridized to be more palatable (giving cookies and breads that soft, chewy feeling) and many of our digestive systems haven’t adapted to properly digest gluten. Because it is so cheap to grow, wheat and/or gluten is included in many common packaged and processed foods, including pastries, salad dressings, sauces, condiments, meats and soups. This has led to overexposure, and many individuals’ digestive systems have not adapted.

In our bodies, gluten can trigger the immune system and cause inflammation in the intestinal tract. Those with celiac disease and other autoimmune disorders, like hypothyroidism and rheumatoid arthritis, are allergic to gluten, which triggers the body’s immune system. Ask your doctor about an allergy test for you (or your kids) if you suspect you (or he/she) might have a gluten allergy.

Even for those without such conditions, sensitivities to gluten or other proteins found in wheat can still exist. Some individuals have sensitivities that provoke delayed reactions, making the link between food and symptoms difficult to detect.

Whether or not you have a known allergy or sensitivity, eliminating gluten from your diet can help improve overall health. Adopting a gluten-free diet may improve your health directly, by eliminating sugar and carb cravings, stabilizing mood, increasing energy and eventually decreasing inflammation, and indirectly, due to eliminating processed foods in which gluten often hides, causing a shift toward a more whole foods-based diet, increasing mindful eating, and ultimately resulting in weight loss.

Gluten has found its way into many foods, and can hide in some unexpected locations. Since gluten is not included on nutrition facts labels, always read ingredient lists and keep an eye out for other words that mean gluten.

Common food sources of hidden gluten:

  • vegetable cooking sprays

  • artificial coffee creamers

  • bouillon cubes or powder

  • imitation seafood products

  • ground spices

  • chewing gum (some are dusted with wheat starch)

Food labels that mean “gluten”:

  • hydrolyzed plant/vegetable protein

  • modified food starch (from corn or wheat)

  • monosodium glutamate (MSG)

  • gelatinized starch

  • natural flavorings, fillers

  • white grain vinegar

  • rice malt / syrup

  • dextrin, malt, maltodextrin

Non-food items commonly containing gluten:

  • makeup

  • shampoo

  • lipstick and lip balm

  • sunscreen

  • laundry detergents

  • toothpaste and mouthwash

  • lotions and creams

Food products containing gluten can easily be replaced with health-enhancing whole foods that are delicious and satisfying. Main meals that include wheat can be replaced with starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes, yams or many varieties of squash. There are also non-gluten grains and flours that replace many gluten sources. For instance, coconut or almond flour instead of wheat flour, or 100% buckwheat soba noodles instead of whole wheat pasta.

Gluten containing grains: wheat, barley, rye and sometimes oats if cross-contaminated

Non-gluten grains: millet, quinoa, brown rice, buckwheat, non-GMO corn, amaranth

Non-gluten flours: coconut flour, potato starch flour, oat flour (if not cross-contaminated), tapioca flour, teff flour

There are hundreds of naturally gluten-free recipes and cookbooks available to experiment with. Or, you can adapt your favorite recipes to replace wheat flour; when converting a wheat recipe to a gluten-free one, try the following combination:

  • Two parts rice flour

  • Two-thirds potato starch flour

  • One-third tapioca flour

  • Also add extra egg and leavening

Most importantly, recognize that everyone’s body is different, and while there are certainly rules of thumb that will improve your health (like eating less processed/more whole foods), there is no one-size-fits-all diet. Learn to eat intuitively, listen to your body and identify how various foods make you feel.

*Other top allergens include dairy, nuts, soy and egg.

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