Coeliac disease is more common than we think. It affects about 1 in 100 people but only 10 – 15% receive the correct diagnosis. When your immune system launches a full-blown military assault against your breakfast toast, bloating, stomach cramps and nutrient deficiencies are just part of the price to pay for that slice of toast. The only way to achieve a permanent, peaceful resolution is complete abstinence from gluten-containing grains such as wheat, rye and barley. Besides bread, pasta and pastries, most processed foods are off the table as well because they, too, are laced with gluten (without stating the obvious). In truth, most of us would benefit from a diet without sticky, glutinous grains because they were never supposed to be on the human menu to start with.
For cave dwellers a mere 15 000 years ago, hot cross buns and crunchy baguettes were pretty hard to come by! We thrived on meat, fish, greens, berries, nuts, seeds and root vegetables and we did so without a bowl of porridge in sight to tempt us. While our lifestyle might have changed a little since then, our physiology is still the same. We have to pick, shell, mill, knead and bake the ‘golden goodness’ before we let it pass our lips, which is testimony to how ill equipped the digestive system is to process a simple grain. Besides being a notoriously hard shell to crack, wheat and its cousins irritate your gut wall, causing gaps and inflammation in the tight mesh of cells. IBS, low energy and headaches are just a few of the symptoms a carbohydrate junky has to endure.
Gluten free foods used to be cardboard-flavoured squares, only faintly resembling what you and I would call a slice of bread. But since celebrities and pop princesses turned a grain free lifestyle into a fashion statement, shelves are stacked with anything from supposedly guilt free cookies to flourless cakes. But don’t be fooled, gluten free does not equal healthy because such treats are still saturated with sugar and processed fats.
So before you put on your apron, roll up your sleeves and get creative in the kitchen, we have to cover some basics. A good multi vitamin and digestive enzyme should be a regular ritual for any coeliac disease sufferer. The condition often leads to nutrient deficiencies, specifically in iron, folic acid and B12, and malabsorption of other nutrients. Inflammation in the gut is also a common feature and calming supplements such as slippery elm, liquorice root and fish oil can greatly improve digestive complaints.
When deciding to go ‘sans gluten’ it is great to have the whole family on board and with a little skill, even the fussiest eaters won’t be able to tell the difference. Breakfast often presents the first challenge and an obvious option would be eggs of some sort. But what if your taste buds fancy a bit of sweetness on a Sunday morning? There is no need to mess around with gluten free pancake batters, just whisk up 3 eggs, 3 tbsp of gluten free oatmeal, 3 tbsp of ground almonds and a drizzle of honey. Fry in a little coconut oil, serve with chopped bananas and berries and I promise you it won’t take longer than 5 minutes! Substitute the almonds and honey for spring onions, grated cheese and a sprinkle of chilli and you have a fantastic snack that will fit in your lunchbox!
Now that breakfast is sorted, the eleven o’clock snack time is looming large. It’s best to stick to raw nuts, seeds, natural live yoghurt or homemade hummus with vegetable sticks. Pre-packed gluten free snack bars are not worth a second look, as they will deliver the same sugar hit as a Mars bar.
Gluten free flour is now widely available and a great ingredient for every cake, sponge and bread. Eating out represents the greater challenge because gluten is a popular ingredient, used as a binder in sauces, gravies and batters. Even roast potatoes can contain a gluten coating to give them their crunch. On such occasions, taking a gluten-digesting enzyme called gluten protease may avoid discomfort and could be a life saver. Even though this enzyme can turn a dreaded meal out into a feast worthy for a king, it is not to be regarded as a free ticket to fill up on daily bread.
Once you have embraced your gluten free lifestyle and have learned to ignore the mere existence of wheat and its relatives, the benefits felt will mean you’ll never look back. A smooth digestion, improved overall health and even weight loss will make your new eating habits even more enjoyable.