One month ago, I would never have considered cutting gluten out of my diet. I love pizza and brownies on occasion. However, I have recently been put on a gluten-free diet for health reasons. Though most associate gluten-free with Celiac Disease, there are other reasons including gluten sensitivity and autoimmune issues. I fall into the latter categories rather than Celiac Disease.
Any dietary change is hard to adjust to, but especially going gluten-free. It is not just because of the breads, but lots of foods have wheat, barley, or rye in them, which are each a no-no on a gluten-free diet. Pastas, pastries, pizzas, many sauces, and even, sigh, beer are all memories of the past with my new gluten-free me. Plus, I am a vegetarian so many of the proteins I used to eat (like Morning Star veggie burgers and Tofurkey) are out for me. This just means that I will have to be even more protein aware by eating non-GMO tofu, more beans, nuts, and other foods with protein that are not meats. I will have to make my veggie or bean burgers from scratch. Yes, it will be a pain in the, well, you know.
But there is hope, and option. True, I can no longer enjoy a traditional IPA (click here for one of my favorites), but I can still enjoy hard ciders and wines and even some gluten-free beers. I cannot have a traditional French baguette, but I can still have gluten-free breads if I choose. And though I can no longer have my favorite brownie mix, I can still have brownies as long as they are gluten-free. Really, what this change has meant for me is making my baked goods from scratch with gluten-free flours (such as tapioca, rice, almond, sorghum, and a litany of others). I even bought a really great gluten-free recipe book called “1,000 Gluten-Free Recipes” by Carol Fenster.
I also started checking out gluten-free blogs (click here for a list of great ones) and doing research on gluten-free. One of the most important tidbits of information I learned was understanding just what gluten was and how it worked. It is important to know that gluten is a protein in wheat, barley, and rye, but it is not present until the substances called gliadin and glutenin mix with water. Then gliadin and glutenin molecularly combine to become gluten. These are only found in wheat grains, and gluten only exists when they mix with water.
Gluten is what makes bread light and fluffy and pizza dough stretchy. Once I understood that, I realized that I had to replace that protein peptide in my cooking and baking. Products like xanthan gum and guar gum are good substitutes as well as eggs, corn or potato starch, and sometimes even gelatin. These have really had an impact on the texture of my gluten-free foods that I make at home. I am still experimenting, but understanding what gluten is and its purpose in cooking has really helped me to bake and cook tasty foods of nice texture without it.
Knowing what has gluten and what does not has also helped me when shopping for foods. For sure, raw and frozen fruits and veggies, lean meats, fresh eggs, beans, seeds, nuts, and most dairy products are usually gluten-free. Here is a great list of gluten-free foods, and here is one with foods to avoid. The Mayo Clinic also has a great article outlining what to eat and what to avoid. What is important to note is that if you must follow a gluten-free diet, or even if you choose to follow one, you cannot simply cut out the gluten and not replace those foods that do have good nutrients like whole grains, vitamins, minerals, and fiber. You can still get those nutrients from other foods like quinoa, amaranth, millet, buckwheat, and teff, not to mention fruits and vegetables.
For those of us on a gluten-free diet, one necessary step when purchasing foods is reading the ingredients label. This helps to identify foods with gluten or gluten ingredients, as well as foods with other ingredients that I am not comfortable with. Sure, it has made grocery shopping a longer process, but my health is worth that. And so is yours.
Gluten-free means planning better. For me, it has led me to be even more balanced-diet aware. I was already pretty good about eating a balanced diet, but now that I cannot have traditional wheat, barley, and rye foods, I have had to learn to substitute other foods in order to gain those nutrients. I am new at this, and still learning, but it really has not been as hard as I thought. I am eating even more fruits and veggies, baking and cooking more fresh foods (that are gluten-free for me), and really paying attention to what is in the foods I buy. All of those are good developments, I think.
Image Credit: Thinkstock.com