Gluten: Friend or Foe
‘Gluten free’ seems to be the new buzz. Leaving grains out of the diet is a big part of the Paleo diet that you may have heard people talk about. There are those of us who may be Celiac (5-10% of the population are) and those who may just be a little sensitive to it and by largely avoiding it can see numerous health benefits. People with sensitivity can range from feeling very ill to completely symptom free. What is it and why should we get caught up in the buzz?
Gluten is found in grains (wheat, rye, spelt, barley, kamut, semolina, durum) and can be present in oats through cross contamination. It largely adds texture and chewiness to foods (like a glue!). It is also a thickener and in some cases a flavour enhancer so is found in a multitude of products. In susceptible people the Gliagin (secalin in rye or hordein in barley) portion of gluten (a chain of amino acids essentially the protein part) can damage the lining of the small intestine where most of your food absorption takes place and create an immune response.
It is this immune response and inflammation that is what causes the damage rather than an action actually done by the Gliagin. These individuals may find absorbing vital minerals (iron and calcium), vitamins (mostly b vitamins like niacin and folate), proteins (essential amino acids) and essential fats (mostly fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K) difficult. This may cause malnourishment which can then lead to a whole host of symptoms you may not have associated with gluten insensitivity such as iron (anaemia) or Vitamin D deficiency. Gluten can also contain opiod-like proteins making gluten products such as bread addictive to some people.
Most individuals who do have an intolerance will also have an intolerance to dairy products (70% of the population cannot digest lactase in milk). This is mainly due to the damage to the small intestine which produces the necessary enzymes to break down the components in milk that people are intolerant to. So generally it is recommended to reduce these products at the same time – this can make some people’s lives even more difficult. Other food intolerances may also be experienced because of gluten’s resulting inflammation increasing the permeability of the gut which results in a greater opening of food into the blood, which in turns triggers an immune response.
Celiac disease is genetic and so if a child is diagnosed it is possible one of the parents is also and vice versa. It is difficult to test for as in order for the marker to show up, gluten must have been eaten recently. An elimination diet is where I would start. Normally when eliminating it from the diet obvious changes should be noticed within days. However it could take up to 4-6 weeks for the digestive tract to heal before any real change can be experienced. Changes you may experience are less abdominal bloating, less pain in the abdominal area after eating, less urgency in needing to go to the toilet, less gas and firmer stool. However increased energy, better skin, a reduction in psoriasis or eczema, less headaches, improved sinus’, enhanced breathing (asthma may be reduced), enhanced sleep and mood is also reported by those with either celiac or an intolerance to gluten.
Gluten is found in many products you may eat everyday such as sausages, seasoning mixes, gravy powders, soy sauce, ketchup, instant coffee, salad dressings, processed meats (including vegetarian imitation meat), cheese and ice-cream. Of course it is also in the obvious breads, pastas, cakes, beer and cereals. So going completely Gluten-free can be a massive change to a family’s lifestyle. This is especially the case when it is a child who is experiencing these symptoms.
However replacements are easy to find. Try to stay focused on what you can eat and with a little creativity and patience, it can be easy to make little changes here and there to greatly reduce if not remove Gluten from your diet.
All nuts, rice and beans can still be eaten as can seeds like quinoa, amaranth and millet; also fresh fruit and vegetables as well as all fresh meat, fish and eggs. Flours like rice, tapioca, quinoa, chickpea, coconut and almond are a big favourite in my house! Gluten free All Purpose flour can replace normal flour in almost all recipes and you can also buy Biscuit and Baking gluten free mixes, pancake mixes and pizza base mixes around Hong Kong. Gluten free pasta is readily available and almost indistinguishable from wheaten pasta. Bread can be hard to replace but I have found adding a vegetable such as courgette, banana or pumpkin can have a big effect on the graininess and crumbliness you normally find in readymade and homemade gluten free breads.
We’ve put together some great gluten free recipes to help you to create food that tastes great and is good for you. Check them out here.
Eating out can be a challenge but many places if you call ahead can make changes for you. Join Gluten Free in HK if you are on facebook for some great advice and support. Also Healthy Living HK has great tips from people making the same changes. Personally I am 80-90% Gluten free and feel 100% better for it, as does my waistline as my body shape has completely changed. Contact me for any further tips and recipes.
Article written for The Hub