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How to Eat Gluten-Free
You cut out wheat, now what can you eat?
There’s been a lot of buzz around gluten-free eating lately, but many people — including some who have already switched to a gluten-free diet — don’t know exactly what gluten is or how it impacts their system.
Gluten is composed of two proteins that exist mostly in wheat, rye and barley. It is the gluten in wheat flour that gives dough its elasticity and biscuits and bagels their chewy texture. Because it is such an excellent source of protein, gluten is often used as an additive in foods that are otherwise low in protein.
The problem arises when people can’t properly digest gluten. For instance, patients with celiac disease, a digestive condition triggered by consumption of gluten proteins, may experience fatigue, abdominal pain, diarrhea or constipation, nausea, anemia and other problems as a result of eating wheat, rye, barley or, in some cases, oats. This occurs because the immune system cross-reacts with small-bowel tissue, resulting in an inflammatory reaction.
A Life-Long Diet
Dr. Alessio Fasano, professor and director of the Center for Celiac Research at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, says that the first step is to consult your doctor to make sure that your diagnosis is correct. But that hasn’t always been easy.
“When you go to the doctor with gluten intolerance, you say, ‘Look I’m sick,’ and most physicians used to say, ‘This is just in your mind because I do not see the disease,’” Fasano says. But times have changed. Most doctors are now able to diagnose problems like celiac disease by using new technology and by better understanding symptoms.
If celiac disease is the culprit, the cure (or part of it, at least), is a gluten-free diet. According to Anne Roland Lee, M.S.Ed, R.D., L.D. and Director of Nutritional Services for Schar USA, people who experience extreme reactions to gluten should adhere to a gluten-free diet long term. “Whether it’s celiac disease or auto-immune sensitivity, the only treatment is a diet for life,” she says. “That’s right — day in, day out, no vacations, no time out, no cheating.”
In fact, Lee indicates that as little as an eighth of a teaspoon of flour may cause intestinal damage to people who are sensitive to gluten. “That’s not much; it’s like the size of a pinky nail, but because of that we need to think about how this impacts our daily life.”
Creating a Gluten-Free Kitchen
According to Bruce Riezenman, Executive Chef/Owner of Park Avenue Catering in Cotati, Calif., creating a gluten-free menu in your home gives you the opportunity to try new foods, such as Schar’s gluten-free products, which include everything from breadsticks to cookies.
“There are a lot of great gluten-free products out there,” says Riezenman. “For example, quinoa is a wonderful grain that is gluten-free, very nutritious and makes a great salad. Corn meal makes polenta a good carb alternative, and wild rice and brown rice are also great options.”
Riezenman also recommends buying fresh ingredients at your local farmers’ market. “It allows us plenty of gluten-free options by offering lots of fresh veggies and fruit and staying away from processed foods that can often have 'hidden' ingredients that may contain gluten.”
While there are plenty of great options for gluten-free eaters, there are also many products that they should avoid, some of them surprising. For instance, many people may not know that gluten lurks in many condiments, including most bottles and jars of mustard. Eva Pestantez, Executive Chef at Brother Jimmy’s in New York City, explains that “the biggest challenge in integrating gluten-free foods is that gluten hides in some surprising places, like natural flavoring, sour cream and most vinegars, to name a few.”
But that doesn’t mean you have to give up your favorite condiments altogether — just that you may have to do a little extra work. “Instead of eating mustard, you can take whole mustard seeds (I like to toast mine ever so slightly), crush them or grind them, and rub them onto a pork tenderloin with some herbs and a little oil, salt and pepper,” suggests Pestantez.
Other substitutions are a little easier, as your grocery store likely has alternatives to many foods that traditionally contain gluten. “For those who miss Asian food because soy sauce has wheat and gluten, there are products out there without the gluten,” says Pestantez. “Tamari is traditionally wheat free, whereas Shoyu is not. For breakfast, instead of cooking up oatmeal, try cooking millet. Throw in some fresh or dried fruit, a little cinnamon or some pure maple syrup.”
Canned Food Is Not Your Friend
Panzano Executive Chef Elise Wiggins in Denver, Colo., suggests avoiding purchasing food that is canned or preserved. “If you want ice cream or sorbet, make it yourself, because most typical producers use wheat to stabilize,” she explains. She says that many shelf-stable items have ingredient lists that include “artificial flavors,” which usually means that gluten is present. She adds, “Rice pastas are a great substitute for semolina pastas if you're going for Italian. If you want Asian pasta dishes, use Vietnamese rice noodles. If you like Mexican food, use or make corn tortillas. Not only are they better for you, but in my opinion taste better than the flour ones. Corn chips are great for snacks, as well as rice or nut crackers.”
Even when you're eating out, Wiggins emphasizes the importance of asking how food is prepared. “When in doubt ask the server ... if they seem unsure ask, to speak to the chef. If the chef is unsure, don't risk it.”
Above all, gluten consciousness has made us more aware of what we’re eating as we search for fresh, organic products and stock our kitchens — and minds — with healthy alternatives to foods and condiments laced with gluten. Even if you’re not experiencing symptoms of this disease, the odds are that eating products with fewer chemicals will still do your body good.