When trying to improve health or lose weight many women are tempted by going gluten free. In this article I take a closer look at gluten and show you how gluten free can be healthier, but is not always healthier.
What is gluten?
Gluten is a protein found in some grains. Wheat has the highest gluten content, but it is also found in rye and barley. Gluten is the glue that gives bread an elasticity that allows gas bubbles to form as it rises. That is why it is so hard to make a satisfying bread that is gluten free.
Grains like rice, corn and oats do not contain gluten. Oats are usually processed in facility that also processes wheat, so if you are celiac you will need to find a gluten free variety of oats. Beware that people with celiac disease can also be sensitive to a protein found in oats.
Foods like quinoa, millet, amaranth and buckwheat are actually seeds that can substitute for grains in many cases. Legumes can also be a substitute and have the advantage of being higher in protein than grains and seeds. It may take some time for your digestive system to adjust to legumes, so add them slowly to your diet.
Celiac disease and gluten intolerance
Approximately one percent of the population has celiac disease. People with celiac disease cannot consume even tiny amounts of gluten. With celiac disease, gluten is treated by the immune system as a foreign invader. Unfortunately the immune system also attacks the lining of the gut which leads to other digestive issues. If you have been diagnosed with celiac disease then avoiding all gluten is necessary. You can use some of the information in this article for ideas on how to have a healthy gluten free diet.
Other people have what is called non celiac gluten intolerance. They do not test positive for celiac disease, but seem to react to gluten in their diets. Some experts don’t believe that non celiac gluten intolerance exists, but many people show signs of this intolerance. But beware that what looks like a gluten intolerance could be a FODMAP intolerance or a food additive intolerance. If you haven’t tested positive for celiac disease, and display symptoms of gluten intolerance, you might want to ask your doctor about FODMAP intolerance. You can also make sure that you reduce or eliminate food additives from your diet.
If you are not gluten intolerant should you jump on the gluten free bandwagon?
If you are have celiac disease you should definitely avoid gluten completely. And if you suspect you are gluten intolerant, then avoiding gluten might be a good idea, but you might want to look at other areas as well.
There is some evidence that too much wheat in your diet can lead to inflammation, which can lead to conditions like heart disease, weight gain and arthritis if it becomes chronic. Inflammation also effects gut health.
When your diet contains a lot of wheat then switching things up can be a good idea, even if you don’t decide to go gluten free. If you eat a wheat based cereal, toast or a muffin for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch and pasta for dinner, then you might be overdoing it on the wheat. If you are choosing white rather than whole wheat versions you are not even getting the advantages of eating whole grains.
Because of the popularity of gluten free diets right now, many foods are labelled as gluten free, even ones that would not normally have gluten like ice cream. This is great is you are celiac, but don’t use it as a way of determining if a food is healthy.
Not all gluten free foods are healthy
Many gluten free foods are not the healthiest. They are often highly processed and often made with refined grains like corn or rice. A gluten free cookie is still a cookie. Gluten free foods often have less fibre than the food they are replacing. We often assume that because we are buying a food at a health food store that it is healthy, but this is not the case with many packaged gluten free foods.
If you want to reduce the amount of gluten you eat, then don’t do a simple replacement, replacing one processed food with another even more processed food. Instead of gluten free bread for lunch consider a salad with lentils, chickpeas or chicken instead. Change your processed breakfast cereal to steel cut oats, or eggs. Replace your pasta with a whole grain or legume based gluten free version, not one based on white rice and corn. Or replace the pasta dinner with a vegetable based curry with brown rice.
If you are a bread lover, then try reducing your bread consumption. Use the tips mentioned earlier to add some other foods to your diet. Try to find whole grain bread that is baked without a lot of sweeteners and additives, or learn to bake your own bread. If you decide to go gluten free you can use some of your bread making skills to find a way to make gluten free bread.
A gluten free diet can be a healthy diet, but it won’t be if you replace gluten containing foods with highly processed gluten free foods. If you decide to reduce or eliminate gluten then try to do it by replacing gluten containing foods with whole food alternatives.
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