For a long while I suspected that I had a bit of a problem with wheat. If I’d had cereal for breakfast and then a sandwich for lunch I’d notice that my stomach would feel quite uncomfortable, bloated and made some low grumbling noises in the afternoon. It was obviously not happy!
It wasn’t until I had a bad flare up of endometriosis thought that I went to see a nutritionist and naturopath to find alternative ways to heal (other than surgery or pills) that I discovered just the role wheat can have in causing inflammation in the body.
Inflammation is the body’s way of protecting itself against harm or disease – viruses, bacteria and damaged cells. The immune system floods the body trying to get rid of a perceived threat. Some inflammation can therefore be a good thing to help us fight deadly infections but it is when it is chronic – ongoing and long-lasting – that it leads to our immune systems literally attacking our tissues. This can result in diseases we hear a lot about – such as fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, Hashimotos, MS, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, ulcerative colitis, Crohns disease and type 1 diabetes to name just a few.
So what is the story about wheat and why does it cause inflammation? Wheat is part of a group of proteins called gluten. This group also consists of other grains such as is the rye and barley spelt, bulgar wheat, einkorn and triticale). Gluten acts as a binding agent giving flour and baked goods its doughy, elastic structure. However many other foods (salad dressings, soups and sauces) also have gluten added to them as a thickening agent or flavour enhancer.
The issue with gluten is that it can promote the release of Zonulin, a protein in the gut, which is one of the immune response’s big guns, saved for launching attack usually in deadly viruses when it can be life saving.
For people with celiac disease (CD) thought to be around 1 percent of the population – every time gluten is consumed the immune system triggers an attack on the intestines, which causes the villi of the intestines to become damaged, (you may be familiar with the term Leaky Gut or Intestinal Permeability). Undigested particles of food get through into parts of the body they shouldn’t and the immune system amounts an attack causing a massive allergic reaction.
That is the most severe reaction. Others, like myself are intolerant or sensitive to wheat which means that we don’t have quite such a severe allergic reaction that causes antibodies to be made but we do get annoying and often debilitating symptoms. And if we continue to consume wheat it can lead to Leaky Gut, food getting into the blood stream where it is not recognised and is therefore attached leading to potentially further food sensitivities and malnourishment and an on-going cycle of inflammation and potentially immune dysfunction.
Some individuals may not even get GI (gastrointestinal symptoms) but may suffer from mental malaise, headaches, depression and brain fog, eczema to name a few, all which can disappear or be reduced once gluten in its many forms is removed from the diet. Leaky Gut symptoms are not just gut related and can show up elsewhere in the body.
So, for those that have an autoimmune issue, wheat and gluten in its wider forms are best completely eliminated. For more information on this Dr Alessio Fassano has done some amazing research on intestinal permeability (leaky gut) being a common factor in all autoimmune diseases. https://vimeo.com/73894914
Ok so what now you might ask if you are gluten or wheat intolerant how difficult it is to live with on a daily basis? And what are the alternatives out there? Well, today there are so many gluten free options available but a word of caution – many do contain wheat substitutes that are processed and can be bad for us – rice and tapioca starch for example. So my advice is to keep these as an occasional treat but by no means make these a staple of your diet.
Living in Hong Kong since 2011 and at the time of discovering wheat was not good for me has been at the same time both easier and harder. Easier in the fact that the Asian diet doesn’t revolve around bread and of course is largely based on rice dishes. Harder in the fact that gaining access to gluten free products is a) more difficult and b) so expensive. However, I do believe that relying on gluten free substitutes is not an answer. It’s fine from time to time but many of the ingredients including in gluten free products such as tapioca and rice starch are processed and full of artificial preservatives so beware!
It is fairly easy to stay away from bread but the real hidden danger is in the thickening and flavour enhancers in sauces and restaurants here and the culture here is all about eating out – a lot! Although getting better – the majority of restaurants here are not very good at understanding and offering gluten free choices.
So here are some of my gluten free staples:
My diet is based mainly on:
- Vegetables with occasion lean meats (I avoid red meat 95% of the time), poultry and fish and I stick to these when we eat out
- Nuts and seeds (I usually soak these and then drain before consumption to make them easier to digest)
- Rice (a main staple of Vietnamese, Thai and Japanese food that we eat so much of in Asia)
- Gluten-free whole grains – certified gluten-free oats, quinoa (actually a seed not a grain but behaves and cooks like one – see my post on Quinoa 101), amaranth, buckwheat, sorghum, millet, buckwheat, corn and teff for breakfast cereals. Try experimenting with one of these – you might be pleasantly surprised.
- Use quinoa or rice instead of couscous or barley as a base for salads
- Cauliflower as a substitute for mash or rice
- Wraps made out of lettuce or cabbage leaves in place of wheat or corn tortillas
- Almond and coconut flour for baking bread and other treats such as muffins and brownies so I don’t feel I miss out! Check out my apricot muffins and chocolate brownie recipes
I also tend to plan if I’m going out to eat and will either look up the menu in advance or check with the chef or manager what gluten free options are available and when I travel, well I tend to take snacks with me – but more about that another day!
If you feel you might have gluten sensitivity or intolerance or one of the symptoms mentioned above and especially if you already have been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease the best way is to eliminate all wheat products for a period of 30 days at least (6 weeks preferably) – you have to go cold turkey. No cheating! Then see how you feel when you add it back into your diet with at least 2 portions a day for 3 consecutive days. Note how and if it affects you. I can only say that I feel so much lighter and healthier without wheat and gluten in my diet and my stomach is flatter. It does take commitment but I believe the health benefits are worth it.
Do share some of your own favourite gluten and wheat substitutes.