In the past few years, “gluten” has become a bit of a buzzword. Mainstream grocery stores now have shelves (or entire aisles!) dedicated to gluten free products. Restaurants are offering alternative menus, and the media frequently profiles the gluten-free lifestyle (although they seemingly alternate between supporting and ridiculing those that choose this dietary path!).
Let’s look at the basics to understand why the gluten free diet has become popular.
What is gluten, and how does it affect us?
It is clear that a gluten free diet proves beneficial for many individuals. With so many people listening to their bodies, looking for root causes, and taking a holistic/preventative approach, it is true that ‘gluten free’ has become more mainstream, and is even viewed by some as a trend.
The benefits to the gluten free ‘trend’.
- The idea of gluten being an inflammatory and possibly allergenic food has become more widely recognized. In terms of empowering ourselves to learn more, and discover our own ideal nutrition, this is a positive awareness.
- More research is being conducted, more anecdotal evidence is coming forward, and mainstream medical practitioners are slowly becoming supportive of the link between dietary factors (such as gluten) and optimal physical, mental and emotional well-being.
- Also as a result of this ‘trend’, the variety and availability of ‘gluten free’ products has grown substantially.
What about gluten free packaged products?
For those making the move away from gluten, the shelves full of shiny ‘gluten free’ labels can feel encouraging. From breads, to granola bars, crackers , and gluten free cookies, there seems to be a gluten free alternative for just about any food that is commonly found in our cupboards and pantries. Food companies are definitely aiming to cash in on this shift in consumer purchasing. But are these glutenfree products worth our money (especially considering their elevated costs)?
When making food substitutions, we need to be mindful of what we are replacing the undesirable ingredient with. Yes, the new products may indeed be free of gluten, but what is taking its place, and is it any more desirable?
Most gluten free products remove the gluten, and replace it with rice – an ingredient that comes with its own concerns (i.e. potential arsenic contamination) and does not provide much in the way of nutrition. The most common gluten replacements (rice, corn, buckwheat, etc) may also further irritate an inflamed digestive system, and some can even cross-react with gluten, eliciting the type of immune response that we are trying to avoid.
How To Go Gluten Free ‘The Right Way'
Don’t just focus on what you are eliminating (gluten), but also consider these four factors:
Focus on whole foods.
As is the best with any nutritional plan, focus on whole foods is the best baseline approach. Fruits, vegetables, meats, eggs, nuts seeds, and legumes.
Consider missing nutrients.
Take into consideration those nutrients that are present in gluten-containing foods, and make sure that you are including other sources of these nutrients in your diet. Some nutrients to keep in mind when going gluten-free are: B vitamins, fibre, iron, and magnesium.
To fill in any potential nutrient gaps when going gluten-free, focus on naturally-occurring food sources of these nutrients whenever possible, rather than relying on fortified foods. For some individuals, supplementation may be required.
Don’t worry too much about the ‘fortified’ vitamins that are added to most commercial bread products, as these synthetic vitamins are not ideal for our bodies anyway.)
Limit packaged foods, and always read ingredients.
Unfortunately, there are not many nutrient-dense gluten free products available in Canada at this time.
If your only option is a packaged food, and you’re stuck between 2 choices of rice-based products, compare the labels side-by-side. Opt for the product that has less sugar, and fewer additives (artificial flavours/colours/preservatives, binders/fillers/gums), and try to find a product that is boosted with more nutrient-rich ingredients such as nuts & seeds.
When swapping out your favourite recipes, start fresh.
Rather than using ‘gluten free’ flour blends in your current recipes, find new recipes that use nutrient-dense alternatives such as coconut, almond, or chickpea flours (all rich in fibre and healthy fats).
A tip for finding new recipes is to use recipe books and websites that focus on the ‘Paleo’ approach. Paleo recipes will be free of grains (gluten-containing grains as well as rice, corn, etc), and as an added ‘bonus’, will also be free of dairy and refined sugars. The texture of Paleo baked goods can take a bit of getting used to, but keep trying until you find a recipe that appeals to you, as there are many delicious recipes out there. Stick with it – soon your tastebuds won’t recall what your gluten-containing recipes taste like, and they’ll be used to the new normal.
To help get you started on the path to a nutrient-dense, gluten-free diet, I am sharing one of my favourite breakfast recipes. Rich in proteins, fats and fibre…and with a sprinkling of chocolate chips and a drizzle of maple syrup…these pancakes get the thumbs-up from my whole family. Enjoy!
Gluten-Free Chocolate Chip Pancakes
- ½ cup coconut flour
- ½ cup coconut milk (canned, full fat)
- ½ teaspoon cinnamon
- 8 eggs
- 2 teaspoons vanilla
- Pinch sea salt
- ¼ cup dairy-free chocolate chips
Mix all ingredients except chocolate chips; let sit for 5 minutes.
Fold in chocolate chips.
Heat pan on medium heat, and add 1 tablespoon of coconut oil. Cook ¼ cup portions until brown and set, turning once.
Still confused about going gluten free?
Seek support from a holistic practitioner such as a Nutritionist. With the proper guidance, you can feel confident that your new dietary approach is nutritionally-sound, and is helping, rather than hindering your body.
Adopting food substitutions can feel overwhelming at first; ongoing support reduces stress, and greatly improves your rate of success. And for most people, the positive effects you will experience on a well-executed gluten-free diet will be motivation enough to keep it going long-term.
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