Sunday rigatoni, Friday pizza, any day croissants.
What do all these foods have in common aside from being regulars in my diet for decades? They’re packed with the “evil” g-word: gluten.
But I am here to tell you—with another g-word (gasp!)—that these foods are actually not that bad for you, and that gluten is not necessarily either.
Bread, and its main ingredient, wheat, have been staples in the human diet for thousands of years, gracing everything from opulent royal tables to dingy jail cells. And I have never read of a Pilgrim passing up the bread at Thanksgiving or a Medici Florentine skipping the pasta. And yet today it seems like everybody and their mother are all anti-gluten zealots. People proudly declare themselves “gluten-free”—off pasta and bread and their often delicious and nutritious byproducts—and claim to “feel so much better.”
What perplexes me is not so much the gluten-free types who automatically default to an almost robotic feeling of “better,” rather than one tacitly felt in their bodies. Nor is it the soy sauce (with extremely high gluten content) often used on their food, the seitan steamed on their salads (pure gluten, made in a factory) or the craft wheat beer they sip (fermented gluten). Instead, what gets me is that a central element in our homo sapien diet is now suddenly the health devil.
In fact, wheat as wheat is not the problem. We have been eating it for ever and ever and ever. The problem is separate and twofold:
There are natural forms of gluten and processed forms of gluten; fresh forms of food and packaged forms of food. Natural gluten is what our ancestors ate in fresh food. Processed gluten is what we have been eating in processed foods.
Various kinds of processed gluten have been used as additives in a gamut of packaged foods for many years. They have been quietly slipped in to help maintain texture, consistency, taste, shelf life and maybe even to cut production costs. This has led to an almost systematic overconsumption of gluten throughout the years, without many of us even realizing it. Add to this the wheat everything trend of a decade or so ago (wheat pasta, tortillas, cookies, wraps etc.) and it’s no wonder that our intake has skyrocketed.
Many of us have been obliviously over consuming gluten since we were young, so it is not at all surprising that allergies have emerged. Our bodies cannot handle too much of anything, let alone a substance that’s foreign to its system.
As I mentioned, I love bread, pasta and associated products, and eat them daily. But my system simply cannot handle processed gluten. A drop of soy sauce, a crumb of seitan, a bite of real tabouli, and I am done—ill in more ways than one. Does that mean I am allergic to gluten and should urgently eliminate it from my diet, so I can “feel so much better”? Not at all. What it does mean is that I have to pay attention to where and how I am eating it, and I encourage you to do the same.
Before you automatically swear off a food group or substance, do some personal exploration to try and decipher the exact problem. I experimented for many months before I realized gluten itself was not the problem so much as processed gluten. So, now I simply avoid soy sauce in asian food, eat nothing in a package with gluten in it, avoid lunches at elaborate vegan restaurants and relish my slices of pizza.
You see, gluten is not necessarily the issue. That is an automatic default the gluten-free industry wants you to believe (and you better believe it is a mega, growing industry). It is important to check in with your body when you feel it react though. So, here are three steps to help figure out if you have an allergy without enduring an expensive doctor’s tests:
- Take a week and eat only all natural, cooked foods, without grains. Base your diet on sauteed and steamed vegetables, soups, meaty fish (not shellfish), organic beef and occasional berries. Avoid cheese, milk and all other dairy. Hearty and pure.
- Record what you eat in an iPhone note or notebook. Also, record how your tummy and digestion feel.
- After a week, try some processed gluten: soy sauce on sushi, seitan, you name it. Record how you feel. Next, add dairy back in. Then add in other forms of natural gluten until you stumble across something that gives you pain and digestive issues (note: many vegetables such as broccoli and kale can cause similar reactions, so focus on these for this exercise). When you find the issue, you will know. It may not be what you thought.
So, make peace with gluten and go explore the real mechanics of you. You may be pleasantly surprised, physically relieved or finally discover that you do, in fact, have an allergy and what it is. Whatever the outcome, your tangible body will thank you for figuring it out and making peace with the inner and outer you.