A gluten-free diet is hard! Or is it?

So, you’ve been told or have decided to avoid gluten. (For reasons why anyone would be following a gluten-free diet click here and here.) Now what? It seems impossible, doesn’t it? Gluten appears to be in everything! Bread is just the most obvious, followed by pasta, cereals, cereal bars, cakes, biscuits, muffins, croissants and in fact anything baked – unless labelled ‘gluten-free’. But there’s more: soya sauce, dry-roasted peanuts, even lipstick. There is no end, how can anyone do it? What’s left are the gluten-free grains: rice and wild rice, buckwheat, quinoa, amaranth, and corn/maize. (Technically, some of these are seeds rather than grains, but let’s not dwell on that now.) The gluten-free products you see on the shelf now are made from those. Most gluten-free breads, however, are a bit of a disappointment for bread lovers. Gluten-free pasta is fine and you can hardly tell the difference, but it doesn’t taste all that good when eaten cold (pasta salad) or reheated. Gluten-free biscuits can be a real success. Just don’t make the mistake to think that anything labelled ‘gluten-free’ is automatically healthy. It’s not. It’s still processed food and still potentially high-glycaemic, i. e. it raises blood sugar and thus insulin.

So, yes, I agree, it’s hard. But that’s only because we in the West have been brought up on gluten-containing foods. They are staples of our diets. If we take a step back and look at it from another perspective, it can be really, really easy! It all depends how you look at it.

Paleo, SCD, GAPS, grain-free, gluten-free, diabetes, insulin resistance, heart disease, depression, IBS, IBD, SIBO, Crohn's, ulcerative colitis, ketogenic, Whole30

Over the last few years, the Paleo (or Stone Age) Diet has had a lot of press. The idea is that our genes haven’t quite kept up with economic development: For millions of years, humans subsisted on meat, fish, eggs, nuts and seeds, fruit, roots, and leaves. Then, about 10,000 years ago, people settled down, started to work the land and raise domesticated animals. This caused a profound change in our diets as grains, pulses and dairy were introduced. 10,000 years sounds like a long time, but in the scheme of things it isn’t. If you squeezed the history of humanity into 24 hours, we’ve only eaten grains and dairy for a few minutes. Have our genes had time to adapt?  Many think that they haven’t, and indeed grains (particularly wheat), gluten and dairy (all kinds: cow’s, goat’s and sheep’s milk) top the list of most common food intolerances. Closely followed, it has to be said, by eggs. There is a lot of good research on Paleo-type diets (we cannot eat exactly like our ancestors as their food doesn’t exist anymore), particularly in connection with auto-immune diseases. A lot of people now follow the Paleo diet and you can tell by looking around the shops: suddenly you can buy Paleo granola, biscuits, and cereal bars. The food industry won’t miss out on this.

Another diet (note: when I say ‘diet’, I mean ‘way of eating’, not a time-restricted diet that has an end!) that has recently gained popularity is the ketogenic diet. It is very closely related to the Atkins diet – only without the junk –, a diet high in fat and low in carbs with moderate protein. There is some excellent research out there for the ketogenic diet in the management of obesity, insulin resistance, diabetes, heart disease and even cancer. In a nutshell, the idea is to keep carbohydrates so low that the body switches to burning ketone bodies (derived from fat) rather than glucose (derived from carbs) for energy. Unlike the Paleo diet, the ketogenic diet is not dairy-free as such, but it is gluten-free by default.

Lastly, as nutritional therapists, we now recommend a grain-free diet to more and more people, particularly those who are suffering from gut problems, such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis), small-intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), but also for mental health issues and mood disorders, including depression and anxiety. The recommended diets may be the Specific Carbohydrate Diet (SCD) or the low-FODMAP diet. Grains (and pulses) are FODMAPs: Fermentable Oligo-,Di- and Monosaccharides and Polyols. This is a group of carbohydrates that can cause problems in sensitive people (usually SIBO and IBS). We use a low-FODMAP diet for a limited time before reintroducing the carbs in question one by one to establish which ones the client can tolerate.

Either way: All three of these healing diets are grain-free, which means they are of course gluten-free by definition.

It is because of the increasing popularity of these diets that we see more and more recipes and creative ideas on how to replace those apparently indispensable staple foods we are so accustomed to. You may have seen courgetti (or ‘zoodles’ as they are called in the US), butternut squash noodles, and cauliflower rice. Most supermarkets sell those now, even though they are easy to make and better fresh. Then there are recipes for cauliflower mash (alternatively celeriac or swede) and cauliflower pizza bases, grain-free protein breads, ideas to replace burger buns or wraps by Portobello mushrooms, lettuce or cabbage leaves or cucumber boats. People are getting really creative.

You may also have heard of the Whole30 – a programme developed to help people find out whether they have any intolerances and if so, which. It’s only designed to last for 30 days, but it’s popular, which means that there are a lot of Whole30 recipes available.

You may be surprised how easy it can be to be gluten-free, once you embark on this different way of eating. A lot of people no longer eat grains for a variety of reasons, feel better for it and don’t even miss them much anymore. If you need to eat gluten-free, have a look around Paleo, Ketogenic, LCHF, and Whole30 websites to see what you can find. You may discover a whole new world of food without missing a thing! It's just a matter of changing your mindset.