An in-depth self examination of our eating habits, which many vegans may go through, will undoubtedly bring new issues to light that we might otherwise not have considered. While gluten intolerance is a topic concerning vegans and non-vegans alike, look around and I bet you will find at least one person you know has adopted a “gluten-free diet” out of choice.
What is behind this growing trend? What is gluten and why are so many people keeping away from it? Do YOU need to go gluten-free too?
What is gluten?
- Gluten is a protein found in some grains, especially wheat.
- Aside from wheat, gluten is found in barley, bulgur, rye, spelt, oats, kamut, triticale, semolina (pasta), and pumpernickel.
- Gluten is NOT found in rice, buckwheat, teff, amaranth, quinoa, millet, corn, or hominy.
- Gluten is what adds elasticity to dough; chewy bagels, fluffy bread and flexible pasta owe their delicious and desirable texture to gluten.
- Many vegan “meat” products contain seitan, which is wheat gluten.
Who is affected?
Presently, gluten intolerance is the most common food sensitivity of the intestine. It affects about 15% of the US population, although since many people are undiagnosed, it may be even higher. Consuming gluten triggers an immune response in gluten-intolerant people. When we swallow a food antigen (like gluten) the body goes to work fighting it. White cells recognize the antigens and destroy them. When the white cells are overwhelmed, this results in inflammation.
What are the symptoms?
The most common symptoms of gluten intolerance are intestinal gas, bloating, diarrhea, heart burn, fatigue, dark under eye circles, and sometimes constipation. For people with celiac disease, who are unable to tolerate gluten even in the smallest amount, serious complications can result, such as scarring of the intestinal tract, dangerous malnutrition, poor growth in children, and developmental delays. Gluten is even being linked to psychiatric diseases such as schizophrenia, and depression. Some parents of autistic children have found good results by removing gluten from their children’s diets.
Should we all be gluten-free, then?
Reading all that, it sounds certain that gluten is bad and we should all work to minimize how much of it we eat. However, as a health coach, I am trained to look outside of the box. When so many people seem to suddenly be having trouble digesting gluten, it does make me wonder what is wrong! Is there something wrong with the international wheat crop? Could there be something in our environment that is suddenly triggering mass gluten intolerance? Is it just that greater awareness of this problem has caused more people to investigate for themselves? Or could it be that our digestive tracts are so stressed by modern life and our low-quality food supply as to render the digestion of things like gluten difficult and inefficient? Personally, I believe it is a combination of all those things, but lean most towards the last.
Getting to the root of the problem
I know what people eat because I see their food logs as part of my job, and I can tell you that most of us are eating an awful lot of non-food, junk food, fast food, and processed food products. We also, on the whole, eat in excess of our daily calorie needs AND we eat a tremendous amount of gluten-containing grains: a pastry or oat-based cereal for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch, another bread-based product at snack time and pizza or pasta for dinner. It is not at all surprising then that over-stressed digestive tracts are becoming more and more inflammatory and problematic. So before jumping to the conclusion that gluten is the root of all of your problems, take a look at your diet and lifestyle over all. Are you over-eating or over-stressed? Are you relying on processed foods or restaurant foods? How much of your daily intake is just simply fruits and vegetables? How many gluten-containing items are you eating each day? Do you tend to over-eat them? Work on addressing those issues first, and then, if your symptoms don’t improve, turn your eye to gluten.
Going gluten-free for one month
If you do want to experiment with a gluten-free diet, I recommend doing a 30-day gluten-free elimination. For 30 days, eat no foods containing gluten and see if your symptoms improve. You can still eat starches like potatoes, peas, lima beans, corn, sweet potatoes and squashes, and the non-gluten containing grains above like rice, quinoa, amaranth and millet. You can try rice noodles, soba noodles, and even gluten-free flours and baking mixes, but I recommend you stick to as whole-food and unprocessed a diet as you can in order to really get a clear picture of your body and health.
When the 30 day period is over, evaluate how you feel. Are your symptoms better or did you not experience any improvement? Then, try a meal containing gluten – just one meal – and immediately take it back out of your diet again for a day or two. If gluten is problematic for you, you will probably know right away by bloating, heartburn, gas or fatigue, but some symptoms might take a day or two to develop.
If you feel fine after consuming the gluten again, go right ahead and bring gluten back into your diet. Keep in mind however, that over-consumption of gluten is implicated in the previously mentioned health concerns as well as weight gain, hypothyroidism and Candida, just to name a few! Now that you have explored a gluten-free world for 30 days hopefully you have learned some new recipes to bring greater variety into your diet. Remember: variety = healthy nutrition.
Eating gluten again: how much and how often?
Those of you who do get symptoms from the gluten reintroduction test, will need to decide if you will eat gluten at all, and if yes, how much and how often. I suggest you see your doctor and ask to be tested for celiac disease. You may also want to see a gastroenterologist for a full work-up as there are many other problems of the digestive system that can mimic the symptoms of gluten intolerance.
If the idea of being a gluten-free vegan seems depressing and limiting to you, please know that there is a growing number of vegan and gluten free cookbooks, websites and resources aimed directly at helping this small but growing segment of the population.
Here are some ideas of gluten-free recipe books to get you started:
Allyson Kramer’s Great Gluten-Free Vegan Eats
Allyson Kramer’s Great Gluten-Free Vegan Eats From Around the World
Susan O’Brien’s The Gluten-Free Vegan
Susan O’Brien’s Gluten-Free Vegan Comfort Food
And here are some websites that are all about gluten-free vegan food:
These days you can even find many gluten free recipes at regular vegan food blogs. There is an abundance of delicious gluten-free foods that you can cook up for yourself that most omnivores would never even dream of eating. Your increased awareness to the food you eat will open doors for you that remain closed for others. Don’t be afraid to experient – just explore and see what a gluten-free diet does for you.