What is gluten and why go gluten free?

Gluten is a protein found naturally in several types of grains, such as rye, wheat, oats and barley. There are plenty of reasons people choose to cut gluten from their diet. For me, I developed adrenal fatigue and my digestive symptoms became too painful to bear, so making my choice to adopt a gluten free diet one of comfort over pleasure.

“According to Coeliac Australia, on average, approximately 1 in 70 Australians suffer from coeliac disease…”

For others, it may be a lifestyle choice, a way to lose weight or even a lifesaving medical decision. According to Coeliac Australia, on average, approximately 1 in 70 Australians suffer from coeliac disease, a condition where a person’s immune system reacts abnormally to gluten, causing small bowel damage. However a staggering 80% of this number remain undiagnosed. Those without coeliac disease may still suffer side effects from eating gluten, otherwise known as non-coeliac gluten sensitivity or gluten intolerance.

Photo by Evi Radauscher on Unsplash

So what’s wrong with gluten?

Haven’t we been eating it forever without any problems? Numerous studies have shown link between gut health and overall health. Looking back at how things have changed, even as close as two generations ago, may provide us with some insight as to the prevalence of allergies and sensitivities to gluten, and food in general, that we see today. For example:

  • the significant increase in the consumption of highly processed foods, containing additives, preservatives and lab-developed foodstuffs to bulk up and extend the shelf life of products. In generations past, most households ate in season and grew at least some of their own food, or knew someone who did. People took time to cook and prepare their food in traditional ways to enable it’s proper digestion (soaking and fermenting grains to make bread for example) or as a way of preserving seasonal produce;
Image source: Pexels
  • the use of chemicals and toxins – conventionally grown grains in particular are heavily exposed to pesticides and herbicides during both the growing and storage cycles to increase yield and extend shelf life. Selective breeding or hybridisation has led to varieties of wheat that are much higher in gluten than more traditional grains and the introduction of genetically modified foods has allowed crops to withstand and absorb greater levels of pesticide and herbicide use.

On top of what’s going on with our food, the stress of living in the fast-paced, modern world is also impacting on our health. We are constantly worrying about debt, the pressure to succeed and being bombarded with news of death and despair. We are switched on and accessible 24/7.

All of these things impact on the delicate microbiome of our guts and in turn our health overall.

The top 3 mistakes I made when I went gluten free and how to avoid them

MISTAKE 1: Assuming that products labelled gluten free are good for you. Substituting gluten for highly processed, sugary foods.

When I first went gluten free I bought just about all the products I could in the “gluten free” section of my local supermarket. If it had GF on the label it must be ok, right? How wrong I was. So many of the products I was buying, I would hardly or never buy otherwise. I got caught up in finding things I could eat that I didn’t stop to read the labels or to consider what I was currently eating that was already naturally gluten free (meat, fruit, veggies and rice for example). It wasn’t really until my naturopath recommended I also cut out dairy and added sugars that I started reading labels and realising how much sugar, additives and preservatives most GF supermarket food contained.

SOLUTION: Opt for wholefoods. Just eat real food. 

Hit up your local farmers’ market for local, fresh and in season produce. Stick to the outside aisles of the supermarket where the real food is kept. Read labels, look out for and avoid high levels of sugar, additives and preservatives. Research gluten free versions of your favourite meals and recipes and make your own.

Opt for wholefoods – eat the rainbow

MISTAKE 2: Not eating, or eating junk.

In my quest to adopt a strictly gluten free diet I developed a terrible habit of simply not eating if I couldn’t find anything gluten free or instead grabbing a bag of chips from the office vending machine. I would obsess over what I could and couldn’t eat and feel guilty about not sticking to the diet if I ate gluten. This in part was a result of not being prepared or not knowing where to find things I could eat. Skipping meals or replacing them with unhealthy snacks is never a good idea and I feel strongly that this, along with the stress I was causing myself, had a significant negative impact on my health.

SOLUTION: Do your research and plan ahead.

One of keys to surviving is to be prepared. Especially in the early days when you haven’t explored suitable eating places near the office, for example, I highly recommend bringing your own food, especially to those office morning teas. Weekly meal planning and prepping is a great way to get a head start. If friends suggested meeting for dinner check out the menu online before you go or suggest a place.

One of my favourite tricks when I worked full time was to cook the dinner for the following night. That way when I got home from work (starving), all I had to do was reheat my dinner and then I could take my time to prepare and cook for the next night, afterwards, along with my snacks and food for the next day. 

Planning and preparation is the key to success

SOLUTION: Go easy on yourself when you’re starting out.

If you get caught out and need to eat, do it. My advice is to choose the healthiest option available, perhaps something with less gluten. Don’t beat yourself up about it. I believe that not eating can be worse for you, particularly if you are healing from adrenal fatigue, than eating some gluten. This of course only applies if you have a non-coeliac gluten sensitivity or have cut out gluten by choice. Take baby steps and keep working towards removing gluten containing foods gradually. Perhaps you can substitute a few things at a time and go from there.

MISTAKE 3: Focusing on what you’re “missing” out on.

Because I adopted a cold turkey approach to going gluten free, I found it really hard! All I could think about was what I couldn’t eat, even if it was something I hadn’t eaten for years and years. As I more consciously scrutinised the food I was eating, I realised how much “junk” I would have otherwise mindlessly eaten if I wasn’t gluten free. Office morning teas were a classic example, cakes, fried and baked foods and highly processed snacks. In truth, going gluten free became a blessing in disguise.

SOLUTION: Adopt an abundance mindset. Healthy means more. Variety is the key.

Rather than focusing on all of the things you can’t have, make a list of all of the things you can eat. You’ll soon find that there are loads of things you can have and were probably already eating without realising they don’t contain gluten. 

Don’t over complicate things for yourself. Start out with a few go to meals and expand from there. Many of your favourite recipes are likely easily adapted to be gluten free, using arrowroot, instead of wheat flour as a thickener in sauces and gravies, for example, or swap zucchini noodles for wheat pasta. I enjoy the challenge of adapting recipes in to gluten free versions. Check out the Recipe archive for some inspiration.

Keep it simple

Going gluten free doesn’t need to be difficult. Keep it simple for yourself and enjoy expanding your foodie horizons! Have you recently adopted a gluten free diet? What was your biggest mistake in making the transition? Share your tips and experience in the comments below.