Following up on last month’s column, we’re going to take a few months to explore what to do when you need (or want) to eliminate a certain food from your diet—not necessarily by substituting processed products but by finding a workaround using whole foods.
When I was getting certified to be a health coach, I often envied my single, childless classmates: as we were introduced to a large number of dietary theories—from veganism to the meat-centric Atkins plan, from high carb to low carb, from high-protein to low protein, etc.—the staff frequently reminded us that no one theory was right for everyone and that we should experiment with any/all of the theories and see what worked for us in preparation for doing the same with clients.
“Right,” I thought, “that’s a great plan for someone who won’t be dragging three other family members kicking and screaming along with them.”
Although we never ate the Standard American Diet (yes, that acronym really is SAD!), we haven’t always eaten this way; rather, we gradually made the shift over the past 10 years as I learned more about nutrition and about the food system in our country. If I had to describe our diet, I’d call it the SOLE food diet.
Why do we eat the way we do? Because I’m the head chef and the one who does the shopping.
This realization was reinforced in a workshop I taught: one student vigorously nodded along to the (lengthy) list of symptoms that can be caused by a sensitivity to gluten and finally said, “Every one of those applies to me. But I’m not the cook at our house, so it’s not going to happen….”
Obviously, whoever is in charge of the kitchen most often dictates the menu, and I like to think that the crown (toque?) is worn by a benevolent, wise ruler who has the best interest of his/her subjects as a top priority and is willing to learn new ways when they are called for—and that can be difficult when the new way seems impossibly difficult.
Gluten is a hot topic in the nutrition field these days—you’ll hear opinions ranging from “Everyone should go gluten free” to “Gluten free is just the latest diet craze and is totally a passing fad.”
What is gluten? In layman’s terms, it is a protein found in wheat, rye, triticale, and barley—yes, that’s right: those are the ONLY whole foods that naturally contain gluten!
Unfortunately, gluten’s what makes the long, gluey strands when you mix flours from these grains with water, what forms the webbing that traps air bubbles and gives artisanal breads their divine texture, what holds together most cakes and pastries and pastas, and oh, do we love those foods!
What’s a consumer to do? Is this the time to join the crowd and go gluten free, or is it the time to stand fast and not abandon your favorite sourdough?
As always, my advice is to educate yourself! Read both sides of the argument, and pay attention to who sponsors the studies and articles you read—is there a hidden agenda in play?
If you have been diagnosed with celiac disease (an autoimmune disease in which the villi that line your small intestine are destroyed, causing malnutrition and other major repercussions), take your diagnosis seriously: gluten can indeed kill you. If you suspect you may suffer from celiac disease, do get tested—your primary care physician can order the test, and if s/he resists the idea, find a practitioner of functional medicine who is more open to the idea.
If you have been tested and the results are negative, you may still have a sensitivity to gluten. Common symptoms are thought to include “brain fog,” depression and mood swings, ADHD-like behavior, abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, mouth ulcers and skin rashes, headaches, bone or joint pain, and chronic fatigue.
If you have any of these symptoms, consider trying an elimination diet, preferably with some guidance from a healthcare practitioner or health coach.
If you decide to go gluten free, you will need to become a real label detective.
- Wheat (and its products and cousins, including but not limited to bulgur, durum, emmer, einkorn, farro, spelt), barley, rye, and triticale (a cross between wheat and rye) are automatically out.
- Oats, which are naturally gluten-free, are often contaminated with gluten during processing, so look for the gluten-free label.
- Gluten, like sugar, has many pseudonyms and can sometimes (but not always) be found in items listed as natural flavor, monosodium glutamate, emulsifiers, lecithin, caramel color, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, hydrolyzed plant protein, and textured vegetable protein (TVP), malto-dextrose, maltodextrin, dextrin….
Yeah, it’s definitely not a lifestyle choice for the fainthearted but one that can bring markedly improved health.
Does it mean you have to find replacements for your bread, pasta, pastries…?
There are several reasons I recommend that you don’t simply substitute their gluten-free counterparts:
- The vast majority of gluten-free baked goods are in some ways nutritionally inferior to those containing gluten: unlike most wheat flour products available today, they are not enriched with vitamins and minerals. Many people on the Standard American Diet do get decent amounts of micronutrients from enriched flour products.
- The flours and starches in gluten-free baked goods tend to be highly processed—white rice, tapioca starch, potato starch, cornstarch, etc.—and this removes even more nutrition from them, rendering them the equivalent of sugars in the way they are metabolized by the body.
- Gluten-free foods tend to be expensive, whether you’re buying the finished product or the flour(s) to make them yourself.
- In my opinion, gluten-free goods Just. Don’t. Taste. As. Good! Yes, they look like bread and pasta, but they lack the chewiness of their gluten-ful counterparts.
- Gluten-free pasta can be a close second to semolina pasta, but it’s very difficult to cook: not yet, not yet, not yet…oops—overcooked!
- Because large baked goods mostly rely on gluten for their structure, it’s virtually impossible to simply replace wheat flour with gluten-free alternatives when baking them at home. Smaller baked goods (cookies, scones, muffins) can be made with gluten-free flours more successfully than breads, cakes, and larger items.
As a professionally trained cook and baker, I have tried valiantly to create gluten-free equivalents to numerous recipes. My conclusion: while I’ve had some luck with nut-butter and oat-flour based cookie recipes, the best gluten-free homemade goods are the ones that are gluten-free to begin with: meringues (and the macarons you can assemble from them), flourless cakes that rely on eggs for their structure, etc.
I always find that the most healthful approach to removing something from the diet is not replacing it but retraining the palate to not want it.
Ready to try this approach?
- Instead of reaching for the gluten-free English Muffin or bagel for an egg sandwich, think of what else could serve as the base, especially what else you might already have in the refrigerator—a grilled Portobello mushroom? a hamburger or veggie burger or fish cake? a potato pancake or rice fritter? Heat one of those up, add your egg, and you have an open-face sandwich!
- Granola makes a great breakfast or snack.
- Does lunch usually consist of some sort of wrap? Try a collard or lettuce leaf for a wrap. No – it’s not bread, but it’s handy and even better for you.
- Deconstruct your sandwich or burrito and put the fillings on a bed of lettuce or brown rice or quinoa (or are “bowls” already passé?)
- Instead of serving bread with dinner, serve a cooked whole grain—and as I teach in my cookbook, make extra: intentional leftovers can be used for porridge, salads, fritters…. You just saved yourself some time in the kitchen!)
Think outside the box, and allow yourself to experiment!
Ann Arbor’s Liza Baker, a WLAA health columnist, is a full-time Integrative Nutrition® health coach, cookbook author, part-time consultant, and woefully underpaid COO of a busy family of four. Her work is grounded in the belief that women can live happy, healthy lives, meeting all our obligations and honoring our own wildest, sweetest dreams. Her programs support women 40+ who feel that the only way out of their overscheduled lives involves a plane ticket, a wad of cash, and a change of identity. Liza coaches them in identifying and interrupting the patterns that contribute to overwhelm and in establishing simple, sustainable new habits that will help them not just survive but thrive in what—contrary to popular belief—can be the happiest, healthiest decades of our lives. Liza lives in a half-empty nest in Ann Arbor and is passionate about health and happiness, education and exercise, SOLE/SOUL food and social justice. You can get a taste of her work at https://simply-healthcoaching.com and join the (Sorta) Secret Sisterhood, her membership site for women over 40, at https://simply-healthcoaching.com/membership.