I’m the first to admit that I haven’t a clue when it comes to gluten.
So, Steph and I have turned to our friend Gabby from the Veggie Nook to answer all of our gluten-related questions. Gabby and I met in Marni Wasserman’s Food Studio and got along instantly. She’s a student at the Institute of Holistic Nutrition in Toronto and her blog is full of suggestions for healthy, vegan, and gluten-free recipes (and mega food porn!). Check out our interview below:
Okay first thing’s first: What is gluten, exactly, and what are some of the most surprising sources of it?
Gluten is simply a protein found in wheat and other grains. Any protein carries the risk of allergy and immune reactions, and gluten is a particularly problematic one. Gluten is found in many surprising places like soy sauce, salad dressing, processed luncheon meats, broths, breading and coating on things like fries as well as in other grains besides wheat, like barley and rye.
What’s the difference between a gluten intolerance, a gluten allergy, and celiac disease?
A gluten allergy is exactly what it sounds like: the person has a classic allergy just like a person with an allergy to peanuts. Allergies are the body’s reaction to a perceived foreign substance.
An intolerance is encompasses any negative reaction to the gluten protein. This isn’t a classic allergy, and is harder to determine since negative reactions can take varied forms and can be very subtle.
Celiac disease is different again: this is an autoimmune condition where the ingestion of gluten causes an inflammatory reaction that damages the lining of the small intestine.
If someone isn’t intolerant or allergic to gluten or wheat, is there still a reason to avoid those things?
Gluten is very hard to digest – it is the component of the grain that gives dough elasticity, helping it to rise. It is sticky and gummy in nature and is very tough to break down in the body. Not only that, but modern wheat has been bred to be higher in gluten, increasing the risk of digestive upset.
Most people eat gluten multiple times a day, and this increased exposure actually increases our risk of developing an intolerance or allergy to it. Plus, avoiding gluten tends to bring more variety into the diet by relying on other grains, which is always a good thing!
“Michael Pollan definitely had it right when he said “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”“
So what are some signs to look out for that you shouldn’t be eating gluten?
Honestly, the signs could be almost anything. Digestive upset, skin problems, brain fog, joint pain, headaches and fatigue are some of the most common. The best way to tell is to try cutting out gluten for just 2 weeks, then reintroduce it and watch for any bad feelings for up to 3 days later. Often it’s hard to notice gluten’s effects until you cut it out for a bit then bring it back. Sadly, we have gotten used to feeling crummy!
Gluten-free seems to be really trendy right now…And it seems to have a bad reputation.
I think some of the bad reputation is deserved, but some isn’t. It’s certainly true that more and more people are developing problems with gluten. Gluten has become so pervasive in our Western food system. When you eat too much of anything, you run the risk of developing an intolerance or allergy to it, and as I said before people often eat gluten with every meal!
Complete avoidance of gluten isn’t necessary, but reducing our consumption of it should be something everyone strives for.
You study at the Institute of Holistic Nutrition. How has that impacted your food choices?
It’s made me more aware of all the processing and manipulation our food undergoes: anything that comes in a box has been altered, making it harder for our body to recognize as food and digest. Even conventional produce has been sprayed with chemicals which are foreign to our bodies, and genetically modified foods introduce even more confusion.
Now I try to go as back-to-basics as possible. Michael Pollan definitely had it right when he said “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
“It’s all about expanding your food horizons beyond what you grew up with”
You’re vegan and gluten-free. Is that as hard as that sounds?
It has its challenging moments, but once you’ve been doing it for a while, it becomes second nature. It’s all about expanding your food horizons beyond what you grew up with (sandwiches, chicken fingers, etc.) and learning about appropriate substitutions. Eating out is probably the most challenging, but you learn where to go and how to order so soon even that’s not too bad.
People must get really skeptical that your food can taste good. What’s your favourite recipe to make for the skeptics?
Desserts. Always. Especially raw desserts. They are so easy to make gluten-free and vegan, are super simple and taste so decadent and rich. I make an amazing raw chocolate key lime pie and a delicious raw strawberry “cheesecake”. Wins people over every time!
Dining out must be hard! Any tips for making it easier?
It’s really not that bad, I promise. It’s all about dong your homework before you go out and knowing where to go. Scope out menus beforehand and call ahead if you have any questions. Many restaurants are getting better about offering gluten-free options these days. They often offer gluten-free pastas and breads and some sushi places will even carry gluten-free tamari (soy sauce).
Also, sticking to ethnic cuisines is usually easier – Thai restaurants often use rice noodles, Mexican restaurants often have corn tortillas and Japanese cuisine is all about the rice (just watch out for the soy sauce!). I find that it never hurts to be prepared.
If you think there isn’t going to be a lot for you to eat at a restaurant, bring some things along to supplement your meal! Nuts to sprinkle on salads and even bringing a piece of gluten-free bread from home can make all the difference.
Thank you so much to Gabby for sharing her knowledge with us! If you have any other questions for Gabby, let us know in the comments below or on Twitter @GreenGuineaPigs and we’ll try our best to get them all answered. Make sure to check out The Veggie Nook and thanks for reading!