Celiac Disease Awareness Month just wrapped up, which means we’re taking a closer look at what it means to be gluten-free – specifically, how to healthily enjoy a gluten-free diet. But first, a little refresher, what is Celiac Disease and could you have it? Celiac Disease is a genetic autoimmune disorder where ingestion of gluten leads to serious damage in the small intestine. Symptoms include fatigue, migraines, bloating, anemia and more. Roughly 1 in 100 people have Celiac Disease, and it’s something that your doctor can test for.
Many folks, however, test negative for Celiac Disease, but still notice that their bodies feel better when they don’t eat gluten. These people are gluten intolerant or gluten sensitive and after eating gluten may experience symptoms such as fatigue, bloating, mental fogginess and more. Sometimes symptoms occur several days after eating gluten, making it hard to pinpoint the cause. Unfortunately, gluten intolerance is not something that can be tested for. If you suspect an intolerance, the best thing to do is eliminate gluten for two to four weeks and see how you feel.
If you don’t experience these symptoms, there’s no reason to cut gluten out of your diet. Gluten is not simply bad for you. We repeat, gluten is not the root of all evils. Many people cut gluten because they think it’s healthier or, even worse, believe it will help them lose weight. In fact, many people actually gain weight when they adopt a gluten-free diet. Yikes!
The truth is, many gluten-free packaged foods are heavily processed, nutrient deficient, and rely on unhealthy starchy replacement flours like tapioca starch and rice starch.
According to Dr. William Davis, author of Wheat Belly:
“These powdered starches are among the few foods that increase blood sugar higher than even whole wheat. It means these foods trigger weight gain in the abdomen (“gluten-free belly”), increased blood sugars, insulin resistance and diabetes, cataracts, and arthritis. They are not healthy replacements for wheat.”
Gluten-Free Ingredients to Watch Out For:
Tapioca Starch – This all-star on gluten-free ingredient labels offers a lot of perks to manufacturers – it’s relatively cheap, tastes good and gives structure to baked goods. Unfortunately, it’s also long on drawbacks for you. While being high in carbohydrates, tapioca starch is relatively void of fiber, fat, protein, vitamins or minerals. This means that though it helps foods pass for its gluten-laden counterparts, it’s not doing your body any favors, and in fact, significantly spikes blood sugar.
Eat Instead: Eat foods containing tapioca starch as special treats rather than relying on them as diet staples. Do you own baking at home using flours that also deliver nutrients such as coconut flour and almond meal.
Rice Starch, Rice Flour – Given that rice is one of the first foods we introduce to babies and what we often reach for after a bout of sickness, many people associate rice as a gentle food. That is true, until it’s processed. According to a study released by Consumer Reports, many rice products are tainted with significant levels of arsenic. The study of more than 200 products included rice cereals, rice cakes, rice crackers, rice pasta, rice flours, and brown rice syrup. This is bad news for the gluten-free crowd since many GF products rely on rice flour.
Eat Instead: Unless you like eating arsenic, avoid foods with rice starch, rice flour and brown rice syrup – even organic!
Corn & Soy – Unless it’s certified organic, it’s likely that any corn and soy ingredients are genetically modified. While the verdict is out on exactly how GMO crops impact health, there’s plenty of evidence suggesting it’s best to avoid these foods. Heads up, this includes xantham gum, which is often added to baked goods for texture. It’s not particularly bad to eat, but it is often made from corn.
Eat Instead: Buy organic. Instead of tortillas, consider wrapping tacos and burritos in collard leaves.
Sugar – Oh sugar, how we love thee – too much. It should come as no surprise that many gluten-free foods contain excess sugar since it’s a foolproof way for making foods that please American palates. But, as you know, access sugar is bad for mind, body and waistline.
Eat Instead: Because it’s nearly impossible to find gluten-free products that don’t contain sugar, limit your consumption of these foods and look for products where sugar is not in the first 5 ingredients.
Dirty Oils – Canola, soy and cottonseed oils are not only highly processed they’re also genetically modified. Gross! In particular, watch out for soybean oil, which is ubiquitous in GF goods and high in omega-6 fats, which are shown to increase inflammation.
Eat Instead: Buy organic and look for products that use healthy oils like coconut oil, olive oil.
The bottom line? Really, the cleanest way to go gluten-free is to avoid reading ingredient labels entirely. Instead, save that time in the grocery store for the kitchen and make your meals at home using whole foods and organic ingredients.