Whether you’re thinking about cutting gluten out of interest or due to a medical condition, the potential health benefits are best enjoyed with your eyes open. That means being aware of the basics. Firstly — what the heck is gluten?
So What IS Gluten Anyway?
Put simply, “gluten” refers to the proteins found in wheat that bind wheat-based foods together and give them some elasticity and softness. During digestion, our bodies often have a hard time breaking down the gluten in foods. Undigested, gluten can damage the inner walls of our digestive organs and cause all kinds of discomfort — everything from compromised immunity to bloating.
Some people can break down gluten easier than others. According to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, about 18 million Americans experience some type of gluten sensitivity.
Gluten sensitivity is connected to a variety of conditions, including celiac, Crohn’s disease, leaky gut syndrome, and irritable bowel syndrome. Others see it as part of a general move towards improving overall digestive health and achieving a more natural, unprocessed diet.
Why Go Gluten Free?
Gluten isn’t inherently harmful. At the same time, you can trace all kinds of stomach aches and pains back to gluten intolerance or sensitivity. As well, anxiety about food or nutrition can often spur on gluten sensitivity, and vice versa. Going gluten-free isn’t a catch-all cure for anything that ails you, but it can be a great tool for folks encountering frequent digestive distress.
What Can I Eat?
The first thing you need to know is that a lot of food contain gluten. You can find gluten in all wheats, including spelt, rye, barley, flour (you get the idea). Unless otherwise indicated, there’s a good chance that any wheat product you pick up is going to contain gluten.
However, wheat-free flour substitutes abound. Rice — white, brown, wild, basmati, etc. — is gluten-free, and rice flour is one of the most popular gluten-free options available to use in pastas, breads, and baking supplies. Nut flours, potato flour, bean flour, coconut flour, and corn flour are all great options for the gluten-free — though bean and corn starches is usually a no-no for folks with Crohn’s disease.
Aside from grains and flours, you can track down most natural ingredients sans gluten without much trouble. A gluten free diet tends to lean heavily on beans and seeds, and fresh, high-protein ingredients. Because so many foods are prepared with breading or mixed with glutinous ingredients, it’s important to stay on the lookout for gluten free alternatives — one common example is soy sauce, which many restaurants now stock in both glutinous and gluten free varieties.