By Vesanto Melina, MS, Registered Dietitian, co-author of the very new Becoming Vegan: Comprehensive Edition–The Complete Reference to Plant Based Nutrition (2014) and of Becoming Vegan: Express Edition (2013), and of the Food Allergy Survival Guide, all published by Book Publishing Company.
Has the staff of life become a pain in the gut? It seems so, for a growing number who have difficulty with the protein complex that is present in wheat, spelt, kamut, rye, barley, and triticale. About 1% of the population has celiac disease, an extreme autoimmune reaction, with gastrointestinal (GI) damage, requiring gluten’s complete elimination. No microscopic bread crumb can be left on a cutting board. Commercial rice milks, sweetened with maltase’s action, must be avoided because the enzyme’s origin is barley.
Others, often children, have true allergic reactions, generally in the lungs, throat, or GI tract, to one or other of the specific proteins in wheat. A greater number have the less severe non-celiac gluten intolerance; some do best by completely avoiding gluten; other tolerate small amounts. In both the celiac and non-celiac intolerance conditions, symptoms typically affect the GI system, causing abdominal pain, cramping, bloating, diarrhea, and constipation. Reactions can include depression, foggy mind, sleepiness, ADHD-like behavior, autism, joint pain, muscle disturbances, osteoporosis, leg numbness, migraines, and sinus problems.
Due to poor nutrient absorption, iron deficiency anemia (with fatigue, weakness, and lack of concentration) can result. These symptoms can have many causes and the average time between onset of symptoms and diagnosis of celiac disease in North America is 10 to 12 years! Though humans have eaten gluten-containing grains for centuries, celiac disease incidence quadrupled in the past 40 years. The change seems to have occurred because most wheat today has been bred and engineered for greater yields and more gluten (which gives dough elasticity). We are changing the strains of wheat faster than our bodies can adapt.
If you think you may be sensitive to gluten, it is wise to rule out celiac disease and wheat allergy first; there are lab tests for these (though not for non-celiac gluten intolerance). If these tests are negative, you can go on a gluten-free (GF) diet for 2 to 4 weeks and see if your symptoms improve. If they do, it is a good indication of gluten intolerance. To double check, you might feast on gluten-containing products for a day and see if symptoms return. Some with intolerance find sprouted grains or grain products acceptable. Oats may or may not be problematic; in North America many are processed on machinery that also handles gluten-containing grains and become contaminated, whereas in Europe, oats processed in GF facilities are more readily available.
In the obesity-ridden developed countries, various “low-carb” advocates urge consumers to shun carbohydrates in favor of meat-centered diets, claiming that carbohydrates are at the root of all health evils. In fact, carbohydrates should be viewed from two perspectives. It’s wise for anyone to avoid refined starches and sugars and to opt for the carb-containing whole grains and legumes (beans, peas, lentils) that help stabilize your blood sugar levels. Even if gluten is not an issue, it makes sense to vary the whole grains you select. Each differs in nutrients, phytochemicals, and fibre, so variety provides a good balance of protective factors. There’s no need to rely on super-expensive, highly refined GF products. Include quinoa, amaranth and buckwheat in the mix of whole grains that you rely on; all are GF. There are excellent gluten-free products, including those by Nature’s Path, as well as fine local baked goods in many locations.
Vesanto Melina is a Registered Dietitian and co-author of Becoming Vegan: Comprehensive Edition (2014) and of Becoming Vegan: Express Edition, both with Brenda Davis. The Food Allergy Survival Guide by Melina, Stepaniak, and Aronson provides outstanding nutrition information and recipes, free of all top 8 allergens. For consults: 604-882-6782; firstname.lastname@example.org.