As a culture we are becoming more aware of the impacts of consumption of gluten containing cereal grains (wheat, barley, rye, spelt, kamut) on human health. Yet we know very little of why this commonly occurring protein has become such a problem. In researching the roles of grains in human history, it turns out that our overdependence on them for nutrition is fairly recent and it appears that our bodies have not developed the ability to process gluten well. The gluten protein that occurs in these grains can, depending on your genetic makeup, result in either a gluten intolerance (Celiac’s diease) or a gluten sensitivity. For those with a true intolerance, the person’s immune system mistakenly recognizes one of the subproteins of gluten (broken down in digestion) as an invader and mounts an immune response, producing Immunoglobluin E (IgE) which attacks the person’s own tissue.
For those with a sensitivity, it appears that the immune system is also over-responding, targeting the villi that line the surface of the small intestine where nutrition absorption occurs, although there is no immunoglobulin response. Instead, the walls of the intestine become inflamed and protein molecules begin to leak through into the bloodstream where they begin to cause havoc throughout the body and not just in the digestive system. This, over time, results in a general decline in assimilated nutrition, a weakened immune system, fatigue, and a host of other health related issues and diseases. [For more in-depth coverage of gluten, its history, and impacts on our lives see: http://doctorauer.com/history-of-gluten-grain-based-diets/]
As part of our own dietary journey, we transitioned from being simply vegetarian (for over 30 years each!) to being vegan, gluten free, refined sure free, and caffeine free a few years ago. Though at first glance that may sound limiting, it’s actually quite freeing. We feel as though our more informed choices are based on knowledge and awareness (inner and outer) and not just on what we’ve been “fed” by the food conglomerates.
Here are the primary things we’ve chosen to move off of our plates when we went gluten free a few years ago (and how we replaced some of them!):
- Bread-like products:
- Sourdough bread accompanying many meals – mostly replaced with greens in the form of romaine lettuce or chard roll ups
- English muffins (topped with almond butter and homemade jam or as mini pizzas)
- Bread-like products:
- Baked goods like scones & Aunt Audrey’s brownies (family recipe!) — We’ve replaced these with gluten free biscotti and one bite raw brownies. Not the old traditional recipes, but we’ve discovered some great new ones that are fast becoming beloved with our family and friends. People love it when we bring gluten free, refined sugar free, vegan (and often raw) desserts to a pot luck these days!
- Pre-made veggie burgers, or other soy “meat substitute” products – replaced with
homemade vegan burgers or boulettes (taste like falafel but are raw!)
- Pasta was the easy meal when we just seemed to run out of time. Put a pot on to boil and open a jar of organic tomato sauce and voila! Nowadays we struggle a bit more for the quick dinners. One is rice tortillas and beans with cilantro sprinkled inside and on top and our homemade salsa.
- Tamari was an important element in many meals – stir fries, roasted Portobello mushrooms, tempeh and tofu seasoning. We at first shifted to gluten free, and more recently to coconut aminos.
- Using wheat flour as a thickener for sauces and gravies. We love mushroom gravy! – replaced with the use of rice flour to thicken.
Interestingly, we experimented with adding foods containing gluten back into our diet for the three week long Camino de Santiago trek we did in May. It seemed that we might be spending more time searching for meals that fit our diet rather than really participating in the experience and culture we were going to be immersed in. A couple of weeks before we left, we added sourdough breads and goat milk cheeses back into our diet so that our bodies would have time to readjust to these foods. We seemed to make a good transition with these, although in truth we didn’t load up on them. We had heard that the wheat in Europe was not the same in terms of gluten effects so hoped that this would prove true for us. Nicky still noticed that she felt energetically heavy – leaden – with the inclusion of bread with most meals, but did not experience the extra mucous production as generally happens for her here in North America. She felt she could feel her digestion literally slowing down, but we were both healthy throughout our trip and were able to maintain nutritious-enough meals for this short period of time. That said, we really missed our whole grains, fresh fruit, and vegetable laden meals and were overjoyed to return to our morning smoothies instead of the pastries – and have been transitioning to an ever increasing raw diet.