By Kel Fox
“Gluten free” is the subject of a lot of debate and discussion. Obviously if you’re coeliac, it’s pretty straightforward: avoid all gluten at all times. But what if you just feel better without gluten? Is it still healthy to go gluten free? Is it really about the gluten? What about those studies saying gluten free diets have been linked to increased risk of diabetes and other disease (1)? Is gluten sensitivity in non-coeliacs even a thing? Why are we upsetting the coeliacs?
I’ve been on what I call a ‘gluten avoidance’ diet for a number of years now. I tested negative for coeliac disease but I find that my sinuses and energy levels are better when I’m off gluten. Most people seem to find their symptoms are gut-related and dairy is more likely to affect sinuses, but it is all connected to immune response. Part of what makes things so complex is that each human being is individual, with different reactions and responses to the world. It’s also what makes the world so wonderful! With some serious study in nutrition to back me up, I tried eliminating many different suspects and found gluten to be the biggest contributor to my problem. I joined the growing community of people exploring voluntary gluten free diets and found myself faced with a number of tricky questions, including both negative and positive hype around this ‘fad diet’ of being gluten free. Here’s how I understand these questions:
Is Non-Coeliac Gluten Sensitivity a thing?
Research is ongoing, and at this stage the culprit could be gluten, or it could be a wheat issue (2), or hybridised wheat (3), or frucan (4), or FODMAPs (5). Listening to your body is a skill worth developing. Pay attention to how you feel when you eat certain things. If you really feel better off gluten, go off gluten. Just make sure you don’t simply swap one poor-quality food (refined white bread) for another (refined gluten free bread), or worse, exchange good quality wholewheat products for highly processed gluten free alternatives. Talk to a nutritionist or naturopath for dietary advice if you’re unsure about what your body needs.
Does a gluten free diet raise risk for type 2 diabetes?
A quick look at the increasing gluten free offerings at our major supermarkets reveals a pretty clear idea about this: most of these gluten free foods – almost always in the ‘health food’ aisle – are highly processed junk foods, full of refined or modified flours and starches, refined sugars, preservatives and additives. And even if they’re fairly clean in terms of additives, they are still not whole foods with all the natural fibre, minerals and vitamins of fresh and whole food. Many of these foods are marketed to appeal to people trying to make healthful changes to their diets, but filling a diet with these foods is not going to be better, and it might be worse depending on what you ate before. The key here is whole foods. I think everyone can agree that a plant-based diet high in fresh fruit and vegetables is important. We don’t need gluten to survive, but there are benefits to whole wheat (arguably, the non-hybridised ancient varieties) so if you’re not eating it, seek those benefits in other foods – benefits like fibre, B vitamins and minerals.
What are the good alternatives?
Quinoa, brown rice, sorghum, amaranth, millet, non-GMO corn, buckwheat, gluten free oats and teff are excellent sources of whole food nutrition and are useful in seed and flour forms. I’ve had success baking with chickpea flour, almond meal, hazelnut meal and coconut flour. In moderation, tapioca, arrowroot and potato flours can also be useful in baking. I think the key is to realise that there isn’t one do-all replacement for wheat, and it takes a bit of experimenting to figure out what works for you: I love buckwheat for crepes and teff flour for American pancakes. Almond meal is amazing in chocolate (cacao) cakes. Chickpea or besan flour works well for nut butter biscuits. I’m yet to get a great result for a pizza base, although I do love the cauliflower versions that are out there – a tasty way to go for extra veggies!
Once you start working on your diet, your gut lining, which is typically damaged by gluten in those who are intolerant, will start to repair itself. It’s a slow process, but you can help it along with natural probiotics like kombucha and kefir, and certain herbs. Valley Tea has a herbal blend specifically designed to help those with gluten intolerance to repair their gut lining. It’s called Tummy Restore, and you can purchase it in the Café or online here.
I’m all for experimenting with diet and lifestyle to find out what makes your body sing in tune with the world, assuming you have the knowledge and/or professional support to do so safely. So what’s the issue with coeliacs, and why is the gluten free movement not always great for them? I suppose it muddies the public understanding of what coeliac disease is. It’s not a mild intolerance. It’s a severe reaction that can be triggered by microscopic amounts of gluten, and it can cause serious damage (6). I, on the other hand, might have a bit of trouble sleeping that night if I eat a sandwich. But if restaurants and cafés assume that everyone is like me and a stray breadcrumb doesn’t matter, that’s a problem. If you are a non-coeliac gluten avoider, next time you order the gluten free option and the waitperson asks if you’re coeliac, thank them for asking before you assure them you’re not. And in case you didn’t know, Swan Valley Café is entirely coeliac-friendly 🙂
What is your experience with gluten, or removing gluten? We’d love to hear about your journey, especially any kitchen successes or mishaps while experimenting! If you’d like to know more about any of the alternative foods listed (like buckwheat or tapioca), let us know in the comments and we’ll do a post on it. Thanks for reading!
Disclaimer: None of the information on this page is intended as medical advice. If you have concerns about your health, please consult your health professional.
- Brown, James. 2017. “Why gluten-free food is not the healthy option and could increase your risk of diabetes.” The Conversation.
- Kesser, Chris. 2016. “Still think gluten sensitivity isn’t real?” chriskesser.com
- O’Meara, Cyndi. “Why have we become so wheat and gluten sensitive?” changinghabits.com.au
- Anderson, David and Jessica Orwig. 2017. “The science is in – why gluten sensitivity is probably fake.” The Independent.
- Biesiekierski, J., S. Peters, E. Newnham, O. Rosella, J. Muir and P. Gibson. 2013. “No effects of gluten in patients with self-reported non-celiac gluten sensitivity after dietary reduction of fermentable, poorly absorbed, short-chain carbohydrates.” Gastroenterology (NCBI).
- Coeliac Australia. “Cross Contamination.” coeliac.org.au