Going Gluten Free
Have you ever toyed with the notion of going gluten free? It’s rapidly become the latest fad diet, and even given the restrictions that the lifestyle entails, gluten-free shopping is easier than ever these days. Formerly relegated to the back corner of the health food store and looked down on by the gastronomes of common society due to poor taste and texture, gluten-free products are now a dime a dozen (well, more like $10 a dozen) in the local grocery. Celiac sufferers and healthy people alike now enjoy breads, pastas, cookies and pizzas without a speck of gluten.
However, most people are unaware of what exactly gluten is and what it does – but all the same they want to eliminate it from their meal plans. Gluten forms the main protein component of many common grains: wheat, rye, barley, durum, semolina, and spelt; as well as many other, lesser-known grains like einkorn, graham, bulgur wheat, farro, Kamut, and triticale. This protein makes flours milled from them elastic and “sticky” – allowing for the texture and rise in common baked goods, the “springiness” of pasta dough and the basis for many vegetarian meat analogues in the form of seitan or “wheat meat”.
Regardless of the reasons for adopting a gluten-free life, it’s key to note just what is and isn’t accepted. Aside from the obvious wheat-flour based foods and the grains listed above, bear in mind that alcoholic beverages such as beer, rye, scotch and vodka also include gluten.
Most deep fried foods are off the list as well – unless made in a dedicated deep fryer and (if battered or breaded) with coatings that are safe. Processed meat and vegetarian meat analogues, flavorings and sauces are often bound with vital wheat gluten or flavoured with soy sauce. Many candies, gums, and chocolate are also risky for those needing to avoid gluten. When in doubt as to the ingredients on the label, a phone call to most customer service departments can verify your decision.
So what can you eat – and enjoy – that’s gluten free and healthy? Most newcomers to the lifestyle fall into the trap of buying anything and everything with the “GF” label on the package. Not only are these products usually no better for you than conventional processed goods, the “specialty” status of the breads, cookies, pizza and other assorted items commands a premium price well above most grocery budgets.
The simplest, cheapest and healthiest way to go gluten free is to emulate what many celiac sufferers have been doing for years – stock up on naturally gluten-free whole grains (rice, buckwheat, millet, quinoa and tapioca) in bulk stores and pick up corn and potatoes to fill the starch gap in traditional meals. Enjoy the naturally pure eggs, meat, fish and produce that line the outer borders of the grocery store.
This new way of shopping – whether your diet is medically mandated or not – will enhance your total body health by keeping the majority of additives and preservatives out of your cart. Embracing unflavored nuts, seeds and legumes is another good way to bring protein, good fats and fiber to your meal plan. Almonds, chickpeas, lentils and most seeds (like sesame, pumpkin, flax and chia) are excellent additions to your menu.
When it comes to cooking these new grains, start by finding a few reliable recipe sources like gluten-free cookbooks. “Flying Apron’s Gluten-Free and Vegan Baking Book”, “Gluten-Free on a Shoestring: 125 Easy Recipes for Eating Well on the Cheap” and “Gluten-Free Quick & Easy: From Prep to Plate Without the Fuss” are good places to start. Also check out blogs such as those written by Karina Allrich, Ricki Heller and Shauna James Ahern (all the links to these resources are at the bottom of this article). Once you’re comfortable with your new kitchen menu, branch out and make your own favorites to share with your friends and family.
Finally, be patient when it comes to incorporating the gluten-free world into your life. While you may have to go “cold turkey” (as in the case of celiac disease), it can take up to two weeks for your tongue and body to re-adjust. The flavors, textures and nutritional profiles of gluten-free foods are all different, and it may be harder than you ever imagined at first. But the tough times will pass, and within a month you’ll wonder why you ever missed what made you feel so awful in the first place.