What’s Wrong With Gluten?

measuring scoops of gluten free flours (almond, coconut, teff, flaxseed meal, whole rice, brown rice, buckwheat) wit a text in letterpress wood type

So after a month of super clean recipes and lots of hard work from many of you sticking with your new healthier lifestyles, I thought I would start February off with the (long ago promised) low down on gluten.  After all, if you’re doing something to improve your health, it’s important you know why, right?

First, just so we’re clear, gluten is a protein that is found naturally in wheat, barley and rye (and oats by contamination only).  The most common gluten containing foods are things like bread, pasta, cereals, cakes and pastries.  For many people, there is not very much at all wrong with gluten.  Grains on the whole are best eaten in moderation, as they offer little goodness as well as quick releases of sugar (leading to insulin spikes) compared to other, more nutrient rich options.  If you do choose to eat them, always eat them in the wholegrain variety, rather than the refined versions (white breads, etc) as these have been been stripped of most, if not all, of their nutrients and will simply fill us up – providing calories, without essential nutrients.

However, there is a massive and rapidly growing population of people all over the world who struggle to tolerate gluten in their diets.  There are those with Coeliacs Disease, an autoimmune condition where the body launches an immune reaction against digested gluten, treating it as a foreign invader.  If the person continues to eat gluten, the resulting inflammation permanently damages the lining of the intestine so that it can’t properly digest other food stuffs.  Then there are those with non-coeliac gluten sensitivity.   Symptoms in both cases can range from mild (bloating, wind) to extreme (extreme diarrhoea and pain) and scientists are now recognising that gluten intolerance can bring about much more wide ranging symptoms than digestive ones, attributing things such as fatigue, infertility, cancer, rheumatoid arthritis and even schizophrenia to gluten intolerances.  Some scientists, such as renowned CD expert, Dr Alessio Fasano of the University of Maryland School of Medicine, are starting to believe that none of us can properly digest gluten.  There is a growing body of evidence that today’s grains are playing a role in autoimmune diseases such as type 1 diabetes and arthritis, as well as depression, skin disorders, IBS and joint pain.

So why is this happening now?  Part of the problem may be that we are consuming so much of it – cereal or toast for breakfast, sandwiches or pastries for lunch, pasta for dinner, cereal bars and biscuits for snacks.  It’s also lurking in ready meals, sauces, drinks, beer, packaged soups, medicines and even some toothpastes.  It could also be a symptom of our already overloaded and poorly functioning digestive systems; that we are just struggling to digest it.  Problems such as inflamed or leaky guts can lead to large, undigested molecules entering the bloodstream.  The body sees these as foreign invaders and triggers an immune response, so creating an intolerance to a seemingly harmless foodstuff (this is true of other things as well as gluten).

Think back to how our diets have been for the millions of years we humans have walked the earth.  Since we evolved from the ape, our hunter-gatherer diets have been predominantly vegetable and meat, with the addition of seasonal fruit.  Now I do believe that we continue to evolve and adapt, but the food we eat in 2016 has changed so much and so rapidly in the last 100 years or so that our bodies just cannot keep up.  Wheat based agriculture has indeed been around for around 10,000 years, but the wheat of today is very different to way back then!  These days they tend to be heavily hybridised, genetically modified and sprayed with chemicals.  Furthermore, the soils they are grown in are over-cultivated and low in natural minerals that would have been present in the past.

Even more than the scientific evidence that is slowly feeding into the mainstream, the biggest convincing factor for me is (my own experience and) the anecdotal evidence from literally millions of people.  Think about some of the authors of the popular ‘clean eating’ recipe books – Sarah Wilson of ‘I Quit Sugar for Life, Ella Woodward of ‘Deliciously Ella’, Jasmine and Melissa Helmsley of ‘The Art of Eating Well’.  Ask anybody you know who has given up gluten (and/or grains), they will all report a general sense of ‘feeling better’, whether it is having more energy, a clearer mind, better skin, improved digestion, less achy joints…  It took me a while to recognise some of the symptoms that I had been experiencing and you may find you are the same, but I am yet to meet a single person who doesn’t report improvements to cutting gluten out of their diet.

If you need any more convincing, there’s also the added benefit of weight loss.  Having a food sensitivity can seriously inhibit weight loss due to inflammation within the gut and the immune system activation.  The process inhibits glucose from entering our cells and instead it get converted straight into fat.  Also, cutting these high calorie, low nutrient foods from our diet and swapping them for highly nutritious and natural alternatives brings amazing benefits.

So what’s my advice?  Well, the best way to discover if you will feel better by cutting out (or at least severely limiting) gluten (and grains) from your diet is to try it and see!   Spend a few weeks living without gluten, then spend a day eating lots of it and listen and look very carefully to your body.  If you experience improvements in weight, skin, mood, digestion that are reversed when you re-introduce it, then perhaps you can live a happier life without it??  A word of caution though, don’t turn to the ‘free from’ isle, as these products tend to be loaded with sugar, starches and preservatives.  Choose naturally gluten free products that will nourish your body such as fresh vegetables, lean meat and pseudocereals such as Quinoa, Amaranth and Buckwheat.   I’m not going to pretend that this will be easy for everybody, it can be incredibly difficult and daunting to change the way you eat, but use the recipes on here to help you to provide delicious, rounded alternatives.  It might just be the best thing you ever do!!