Just about every where you look these days, you see the words, “Gluten-Free” – from food labels to restaurant menus to whole sections of grocery stores to weight loss programs. But what does gluten-free mean anyway? Well, first let’s take a look at what gluten is.
What Is Gluten?
Gluten is the name for one of the proteins in barley, rye, and all forms of wheat (including bulgur, cracked wheat, durum, farina, graham, semolina, kamut, triticale, spelt, einkorn, faro, white flour, wheat flour, and more). Gluten is the part of the grain that gives dough its elasticity.
While oats do not have the same gluten protein found in wheat, barley, and rye, they do have a very similar protein called avenin. Furthermore, oats are often cross contaminated with gluten-containing grains in processing.
Where is Gluten Found?
Gluten is found in all foods made with gluten-containing grains. These gluten-containing grains are used in a variety of foods, including bagels, bread, breadcrumbs, brownies, cake, cereal, cookies, couscous, crackers, croissants, croutons, donuts, graham crackers, granola, lavash, muffins, pasta, pie crust, pizza, pretzels, ramen noodles, rolls, pie crust, pita bread, seitan, tortillas, and more.
Gluten comes only from gluten-containing grains. Fruits, vegetables, legumes, fresh meat, fish, and poultry, dairy products, eggs, nuts, and seeds are all naturally gluten free. However, many of these naturally gluten-free foods are often processed or mixed with gluten-containing ingredients. (For example, while fresh meat is gluten free, lunch meat slices are often not.)
Because of this, you may find gluten in the most unsuspected places, like broth and bouillon, cheeses that are flavored, chocolate chips, cured meats, drink mixes, fried food, gravy, gravy mixes, hot dogs, instant soups, malt flavorings, marinades, marshmallows, meat analogs, natural flavors, nuts that are flavored, powdered sugar, pudding, salad dressings, sausage, self-basting poultry, soy sauce, spice blends, tamari, tempeh, vinegar, yogurt, beer, coffee, teas, vitamins, medications, cosmetics, mouthwash, and toothpaste.
The only safe course for those with a sensitivity to gluten or with Celiac disease is to always read labels.
What is Celiac Disease?
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder in which the ingestion of gluten causes antibodies to attack the small intestine, which can lead to decreased absorption of nutrients, malnutrition, weak bones, and anemia, and can increase the risk of certain cancers. The damaging effects of consuming gluten are cumulative.
Individuals with celiac disease need to adhere very strictly to a completely gluten-free diet in order to effectively manage the disease and avoid complications that come from ingesting gluten. Steering away from processed foods that can sometimes contain hidden sources of gluten carries with it the added benefit of helping to heal an already struggling digestive system.
Should I Follow a Gluten Free Diet Even If I Don’t Have Celiac?
A diet free of gluten is also recommended for individuals with a gluten sensitivity. In addition, many experts recommend a gluten-free diet for other conditions as well, such as autism, IBS, Crohn’s disease, gastrointestinal problems, and joint pain. However, there are probably no advantages of going gluten-free for those who eat a healthy diet and have no medical reasons to avoid gluten.
Gluten Free Diet and Weight Gain
While some may shed a few pounds on a gluten-free diet as a result of eliminating foods made with refined wheat flour (white flour), many discover their new diet sans gluten to be the road to weight gain.
From pizza to cookies, just about every gluten-containing, manufactured food now has a gluten-free counterpart. The problem is manufacturers often add fattening ingredients, like sweeteners, refined flours, eggs, and oils to processed and packaged gluten-free products in order to create flavors and/or textures similar to their gluten-containing counterpart. The result is a product that is low in fiber and nutrients and high in calories and/or refined fat.
And individuals often find themselves replacing the (now off-limits) healthy grains with foods that are more fattening. For example, now that their whole-grain morning cereal is forbidden, naturally gluten-free (but fattening) bacon, eggs, or hash browns are the typical breakfast foods. Without a sandwich for lunch, they find themselves filling up on French fries, chips, chicken/tuna salad, cheese, tacos, and gluten-free chicken nuggets. While these foods are free from gluten, they do tend to add inches to the waistline.
Slimming and Gluten-Free
To avoid weight gain (and other diseases common in our society), a healthy gluten-free diet should include plenty of fruits and vegetables, legumes, and whole (gluten-free) grains, and a moderate amount of nuts and seeds. All of these foods are high in fiber and other essential nutrients and contribute to a healthy, slim body.
Limit the amount of prepackaged gluten-free snack cakes, cookies, crackers, etc. you consume. Instead, prepare your own gluten-free goods at home (using the recipes here at jenniferskitchen.com!). Consider making naturally gluten-free foods the foundation and bulk of your diet, and using gluten-free breads, cookies, crackers, etc. only as a special treat.
What Foods are Gluten-Free?
Gluten-free whole grains and flours include:
Expand your horizons beyond long-grain, as rice offers many different shapes, sizes, and characteristics. Choose from long-grain, medium-grain, short-grain, sweet rice, basmati, sticky rice, and many more!
When using par-cooked, instant or seasoned rice, check labels carefully – these may contain gluten in the seasoning.
Make a batch of rice at the beginning of the week and use it throughout the week as the basis for a host of delicious dishes, like Cauliflower Rice Patties, Stuffed Squash, Fiesta Black Beans and Rice, Pineapple Coconut Rice with Strawberries, Vegetarian Stuffed Peppers, or Tex-Mex Beans and Rice.
Polenta is another simple-to-use, gluten-free option. While it is similar in appearance to grits, polenta is made from a different kind of corn than grits, has a slightly coarser texture, and most significantly, this Italian fare is traditionally served very thick (often sliceable) with a savory topping. Sometimes polenta is grilled or fried before serving.
Polenta can also be purchased precooked and ready to be sliced, heated, and served. Be sure to check the labels on rolls of precooked polenta to make sure it says “gluten-free”.
Top hot polenta with sautéed vegetables, tomato-based sauces, or bean chili for a quick and healthy meal.
This little grain-like seed is gluten-free, easy to digest, simple to cook, and packs a powerful punch nutritionally. It’s a complete protein, and provides a plethora of essential nutrients, like folate, magnesium, manganese, zinc, and iron.
Quinoa come in a wide array of colors, including black, red, gray, pink, yellow, purple, green, and orange. The most common colors are white and red.
Although not a grain, pasta, like grains, is the base for many dishes. Gluten-free pastas are made from a variety of ingredients, such as soybeans, quinoa, corn, buckwheat, white rice, and brown rice.
We have found Tinkyada brand pastas to have the very best taste and texture. Many say it tastes so close to regular semolina (white) pasta they can barely tell the difference.
Other gluten-free grains, or grain-like foods, include buckwheat, corn, amaranth, teff, sorghum, and millet. Click here for a list of gluten-free flours and grains.
There is a rapidly growing variety of ready-to-eat, gluten-free breakfast cereals on the market today. Be sure to check ingredient labels – some cereals contain so much added sweetener that they really should be considered dessert. Nature’s Path Mesa Sunrise cereal is a healthy option – and our favorite!
For a change, try putting some gluten-free grains, such as rice, buckwheat, or millet, in the crock pot before going to bed. In the morning top your hot cereal with nuts and fruit, and you have a hot, delicious, and wholesome breakfast.
Naturally Gluten-Free Foods
Legumes, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds are naturally gluten-free and together can be used in a plethora of gluten-free dishes that are not only provide essential nutrients (think antioxidants, fiber, phytonutrients, and more) and are low in fat, but these foods can be deliciously prepared as well.
How Do I Start a Gluten-Free Diet?
Going gluten-free isn’t as hard as is seems at first, but there is a huge adjustment period.
Revolving meals around natural, whole foods will make things simpler (fewer labels to decipher). Potatoes and sweet potatoes and brown rice are great bases for delicious meals!
Most major grocery stores now have a large section entirely devoted to gluten-free products, and many other products throughout the store carry the “gluten-free” label.
There are several gluten-free breads commercially available with a wide variety of quality and taste. Some are positively awful. We found it easier to avoid the store-bought gluten-free breads at first and included them only once our tastes adjusted. (We are currently writing a gluten-free cookbook that will include some delicious gluten-free bread recipes. Subscribe to JK via email to be among the first to know when it’s available!)
Happy and Healthy
Change is usually not easy. Trying something new takes effort.
Adjusting to a gluten-free diet can be challenging at first, but it can be done, and it will get easier and easier as time goes on.
If you suffered any of the many symptoms of celiac disease or gluten intolerance, you may soon count yourself among those who consider their diagnosis and treatment with a gluten-free diet one of the best things that ever happened. Day-by-day, week-by-week, month-by-month, you will learn to adjust to your new diet and lifestyle and what’s more, you will feel so much better.