Gluten is a protein found in wheat and the following foods: barley, bulgur, cereal binding, couscous, durum, einkorn, emmer, farro, graham flour, kamut, malt, malt extract, malt flavoring, malt syrup, rye, semolina, spelt, triticale, wheat, wheat bran, wheat germ, and wheat starch. It is known to cause inflammation in the intestines of people with celiac disease. People with celiac disease need to be on a gluten-free diet; for this group, eating foods with gluten damages the lining of the small intestine.
A little background: In healthy people, the inside of the small intestine is lined with finger-like projections called villi. The main function of these villi is to increase the surface area of the small intestine so that the body can better absorb the nutrients in food.
When a person with celiac disease eats gluten, their body mounts an immune response that attacks the small intestine. This damages the villi, causing nutrients to pass directly through the digestive tract and be excreted with the body’s waste, often causing this person to suffer from malnutrition.
So who needs to go gluten free? This is a major argument in today’s society. Some say that no one should eat wheat. There is research that claims that humans do not fully digest wheat and that the undigested portions ferment and create gas in our systems. Many claim that wheat is considered a pro-inflammatory agent. When consumed, it is quickly converted into sugar, causing a rise in the body’s insulin levels, which leads to inflammation at the cellular level. Wheat is also believed to cause leaky gut syndrome, where toxins, undigested food, and waste leak from your gut into your blood stream. Another consideration is that refined wheat, which is what many of us tend to eat, has little to no nutritional value, anyway, because processing has stripped it of most of its nutrients.
These sound like valid reasons for most of society to go gluten-free; however, there is also an argument that following a gluten-free diet can lower levels of certain vitamins and nutrients that are commonly found in grains. You’ll be surprised by just how many essential vitamins and nutrients you could be missing: B vitamins, D vitamins, omega-3, iron, calcium, fiber, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and folate. Lower levels of these nutrition essentials can lead to risk factors for heart attacks, vascular disease, and strokes. A person is also more likely to have constipation on a gluten-free diet because many of the gluten-free grains are stripped of fiber. Also, if a person on a gluten-free diet is not careful and is eating processed gluten-free goods instead of whole foods, they may be adding more fat to their diet, in addition to other fillers which companies add to replace the gluten textures, calories, and nutrients.
How do you know if you should go gluten-free? Many people have gluten sensitivity or celiac disease. Approximately 1 in 100 people have celiac disease, and many are unaware that they do. No one knows how many people have gluten sensitivity, but estimates are that this may be found in as much as 50% – 70% percent of the population. Many people with sensitivity to gluten who have had great results from going gluten-free said they did so because they had been tired, headachy, and felt like their digestive system was always off. Other people complain of rashes or unusual skin ailments, depression, anxiety, irritability, brain fog, or trouble paying attention.
How do you go gluten-free? The first thing I suggest is to focus on food that is naturally gluten-free. There are many good ones: potatoes, rice, lentils, avocados, leafy greens, eggs, apples, bananas, mangos, grapes, pine nuts, walnuts, almonds; there is an endless list of amazing gluten-free foods. Figure out what gluten is and where it hides — in A LOT of processed, packaged foods, sauces, dressings, et cetera. One thing I can say is you are less likely to have to worry about hidden gluten if you cook your own food and eat as naturally as possible.
Here are two of my favorite gluten-free recipes. You can find all of these ingredients in your local grocery stores. Both recipes are easy to make and delicious.
If you are not vegetarian, you can add animal protein to these recipes. I add ground turkey to the spaghetti squash all the time, or sliced chicken breast to the acorn squash.
Spaghetti Squash with roasted Brussels sprouts, chickpeas, and onions
1 spaghetti squash
1 pound Brussel sprouts
1 medium onion, halved and thinly sliced
3 cloves garlic, pressed
1/2 cup vegetable broth
15 ounces chickpeas, rinsed and drained
2 teaspoons dried basil
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes (or to taste)
salt and black pepper, to taste
sliced almonds or avocado, optional
NOTE: this is a healthy recipe and while it is not difficult, it takes a little over an hour to put together. You can store it in a sealed container and take it with you to work with you after some advanced preparation.
- Preheat oven to 400F. Pierce a spaghetti squash a few times with a knife (pierce deeply through flesh into center). Place on a baking sheet or foil on center rack of your oven. Bake for 30 minutes and then turn it over. Bake another 30 minutes or until outside has browned in places and shell feels soft. Remove from oven and set aside until it is cool enough to handle. Once it’s cool, cut it in half and remove and discard the seeds and scrape the strands of squash out with a fork. Put the squash into a bowl and set aside.
- While the squash is cooking, prepare the Brussels sprouts. Trim and discard the ends and cut the sprouts in half. Place on a baking sheet and douse with olive oil. (This prevents burning; if you don’t want to use the oil, cover loosely with a sheet of aluminum foil.) When the squash has almost finished cooking, put the sprouts into the oven and bake for about 15 minutes. Remove them when they are just beginning to get brown (they will finish cooking in the skillet in the next step).
- In a large, deep, non-stick skillet, spray it down with cooking spray and cook the onions on medium-high heat until they become golden, about four to five minutes. Add the Brussels sprouts, garlic, and vegetable broth and cover the skillet with a lid. Cook for 3-5 minutes, adding more broth or water if skillet becomes dry. Add the chickpeas, basil, and red pepper flakes. Stir in the spaghetti squash, and toss gently to mix. Cook until heated through. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve topped with crushed or sliced almonds, if desired.
Lentil and Quinoa Stuffed Acorn Squash
1 acorn squash, chopped in half
1 cup quinoa
1/2 cup lentils, red or green
1 red bell pepper, chopped
4-5 cloves garlic, chopped
2 tablespoons of coconut oil
1/4 tablespoon cumin
1/4 tablespoon turmeric
sea salt and pepper to taste
Set oven to 350F. Cut squash in half and place in a baking dish filled with 1/2 an inch of water. Place flesh side down and bake for 30 minutes.
In the meantime, cook 1 cup quinoa and 1/2 cup lentils together in a pot of water (about two cups of water) for 10-12 minutes or until fully cooked. In another pan, sauté the garlic and red pepper in the coconut oil. When the red pepper and garlic are soft, combine them with the lentils and quinoa. Then add the turmeric, cumin, salt and pepper. Drizzle a little more coconut oil if necessary.
When the squash is done, take it out and let it cool for about five minutes. Drain the water from the pan and place a baking sheet in the pan. Put the squash back in the pan and pour the quinoa and lentil mix into each squash half. Bake at 350F for about 15 minutes. Take them out and enjoy!
Here is a gluten-free dessert I enjoy making. It is super healthy, and high in antioxidants, but also delicious, rich, and creamy.
Chocolate Avocado Mousse
1 large avocado
1/4 cup coconut milk
4-5 tablespoons of cacao powder
1-2 tablespoons of Manuka honey, or whatever honey you desire
1 teaspoon of vanilla extract
Blend, scoop into a bowl and enjoy. Add fresh berries or other garnishes as desired.
Carrie Gabriel MS, RD earned her masters degree at UCLA and is committed to helping people achieve greater health and wellness. Read more of her recipes online at: steps2nutrition.com.