Earlier this month, late night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel took to the streets to ask individuals who have adopted a gluten-free diet, a single, straightforward question: “What is gluten?”
Not a single one of the gluten-free individuals who were asked Kimmel’s “pedestrian question,” were able to answer, further supporting his suspicion that they have may have simply jumped on the gluten-free bandwagon.
“Some people can’t eat gluten for medical reasons, but a lot of people don’t eat gluten because someone in their yoga class told them not to,” Kimmel joked.
So what exactly is gluten?
The term “gluten” is a general name for the proteins found in wheat and can be thought of as the glue that helps hold food together. What are known as the “big three” gluten yielders are wheat, barley and rye. Wheat happens to be the one most widely referred to as it is found in everything from bread to salad dressings.
For those who fall under the “can’t eat gluten for medical reasons” category, more specifically, those living with celiac disease, gluten is far from a laughing matter. Kimmel’s exercise just so happened to take place within the nationally recognized Celiac Disease Awareness Month.
The Celiac Disease Foundation defines this particular disease as “an autoimmune disorder that can occur in genetically predisposed people where the ingestion of gluten leads to damage in the small intestine. It is estimated to affect 1 in 100 people worldwide. 2.5 million Americans are undiagnosed and are at risk for long-term health complications.” The University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center suggests only 10 percent of parties suffering from celiac disease have been diagnosed.
Although currently there is no cure for celiac disease, the way to avoid its effects is by expelling any and all gluten-containing food from one’s diet. This includes avoiding the smallest amounts, even those the size of mere crumbs.
Celiacs aside, there’s everyone else in the world who has decided to go gluten-free for one reason or another.
Constantly, we see back and forth over gluten “sensitivities” via the media. On the one hand, books like “Grain Brain” and “Wheat Belly” are urging individuals to stay away from “wheaty” gluten-filled foods for a laundry list of reasons. Then there are recent headlines stating things like “Gluten Sensitivity May Not Really Exist.”
So does everyone who gets the urge to go gluten-free and who feels good on account of doing so truly have a warranted reason? The IN spoke with a couple of local health-focused, food-driven individuals to gain their insights on the back and forth over gluten.
“I think that people who do not have a real allergy to gluten believe that if you don’t eat bread you will be ok,” explained Certified Raw Foods Chef/Educator and Certified Holistic Health Coach, Betsy LeGallais. “The truth is that wheat is in most products on the market from soy sauce to salad dressings and desserts. It’s the hidden places that one needs to watch for.”
LeGallais reaffirms that although the term gluten is most closely associated with wheat, wheat is not the only culprit.
“Gluten is actually comprised of two proteins, Glutelin and Gliadin that help the plant grow. It is also in other grains such as rye and barley, so it isn’t simply a wheat issue,” she said.
While the gluten-free movement may seem like a marketing ploy, the increase of gluten-free options appeal to those who are full-fledged celiac.
“I think it’s good that more people are making it easier for those with celiac disease to be a bit more mainstream with having dietary restrictions,” LeGallais said. “Restaurants are becoming more aware of the menu and are becoming more accommodating when patrons ask for special considerations.”
Still, LeGallais notes that some restaurants say they offer gluten-free options, but may not be trained to recognize ingredients that are hidden, putting celiacs at a real risk.
Outside of those suffering from celiac disease, LeGallais has encountered many others who have expelled gluten from their diets to feel better.
“I hear how good people feel when they cut back on it,” she said. “You can lose the after meal ‘crash,’ have better joint movement, and I even know a marathon runner who beat his personal best after giving up gluten for three weeks.”
Of course, there are other substantial health issues to consider, especially if you are an individual battling an autoimmune disease, such as LeGallais herself.
“There can be other things coming into play, especially sugars. Also, what most people don’t realize is that persons with celiac disease also share the same Human Leukocyte Antigen HLA-B27 that most all autoimmune diseases share,” she said.
“That translates into the fact that persons with any autoimmune disease should watch the amount of gluten they consume or eliminate it all together. I have Lupus and don’t consume any gluten if possible and can definitely tell when I have because I immediately feel it in my joints the next day.”
In addition to adjusting her own diet, LeGallais helps spread educational awareness on the power of food and its effects on your body, through cooking classes offered in the SoGourmet Kitchen, situated just above The Bodacious Olive. Several of these classes include gluten-free menus.
“We try and offer as many gluten-free classes as possible in the SoGourmet Kitchen, which makes it fun for persons with a sensitivity or allergy to feel safe when enjoying one of our classes,” LeGallais said. “We try to offer ‘clean,’ non-processed meals as well.
Elisabeth Soileau is another local resident who has elected to give up gluten all together for health concerns.
“I think a lot of people jumped on the gluten-free bandwagon because it’s the trendy thing right now without knowing what it is or how it affects the body,” she said.
“For me, it’s much more involved than just being gluten-free. It’s about changing your diet completely. You can’t just keep eating the same junk food but switch to gluten-free and expect to see results. This is especially true of people with celiac disease and ulcerative colitis.”
After becoming ill with campylobacter following the birth of her second child and battling this condition for a year, she consulted with a physician who focuses on Naturopathy and Nutritional Counseling.
On his recommendation, Soileau took things a step beyond giving up gluten, and eliminated all grains from her diet. She also cut out dairy and shifted toward an entirely Paleo diet, centered around eating whole foods.
“He recommended I quit eating grains, not just go gluten-free,” she said. “After a year I started adding rice and quinoa and other non-gluten grains like buckwheat, and I had no issues. I also learned how to properly prepare grains and legumes by soaking and sprouting them first. Modern grains are improperly prepared, and that is what most people have a problem with.”
For Soileau, these dietary changes have yielded her life-changing health effects and are not simply a fad, but here to stay.
“I know that I will never be able to eat regular bread or gluten-containing items again,” she said. ”Even if I eat properly prepared sourdough, it will give me a headache. I can’t eat it every day or I will get tired more easily and my joints will hurt. I can always tell when I’ve had gluten, even properly prepared.”
Soileau cautions that just because something is labeled “gluten-free,” doesn’t mean it’s good for you. In fact, if you are selecting a food that’s highly processed, gluten-free or not, it can cause your body just as much distress as the gluten itself.
“It’s important to note that most ‘gluten-free’ items you can buy in the grocery store are very processed and aren’t healthy at all, so I try to eat whole foods most of the time,” she said.
Determining Your Own Reactions
When it comes to deciphering your own body’s reaction (or lack thereof) to gluten, here are a couple of methods to consider.
Elimination Diet: First, see what happens when you eliminate an entire food group from your diet, such as dairy. Then try the same with grains. By eliminating foods one by one, then gradually adding them back in over time, you can see how your body truly reacts to consuming specific foods (or food groups), in comparison to how your body operates without them.
Get Screened: A simple blood test is available to detect a high level of specific antibodies in your blood. Genetic testing can also be used to rule out celiac disease when a patient is on a gluten-free diet or the test results are inconclusive.
If you’re looking for a little help cooking entirely gluten-free meals, Betsy LeGallais offers gluten-free cooking classes onsite in The Bodacious Olive’s SoGourmet Kitchen. The next gluten-free classes take place June 17 and 24. For more information visit sogourmetpensacola.com.