What About Gluten Free?

Growing up in Boulder, Colorado, I was exposed to much that has gone through the world of “health food” in the past 35 years.  From the days of the small local co-op (the smell of comingled bulk grains, greens, and patchouli still feels like home to me), through the advent of larger stores such as Wild Oats and Alfalfa’s (where the milk is dairy free!), and into the more recent years of much larger, corporate, sparkly beautiful and expensive stores where you can find just about anything under the sun, there has clearly been a revolution in how we view and value natural foods in this country.

One of the most beautiful aspects of this revolution is that those foods that used to be an adventure to locate are now coming home to my local conventional grocery store.  When I started naturopathic medical school in 1999, gluten free grains such as quinoa, millet, and buckwheat were relegated to the bulk bin at the co-op, and gf bread was usually a sort of dense brick-like affair that required many condiments to choke down and crumbled into dust within a few hours of purchase.  I had several celiac patients who flat out refused to change their diet because they just couldn’t live with the thought of eating that way for the rest of their lives, regardless of how bad they felt.  Today, there are so many good tasting gluten free alternatives, ranging from pastas to breads to pizzas, cookies and more, most of which are easily located at my local supermarket (I’m in Golden, CO now, but this is true in much of the country).

So if you’ve been told you need to eat gluten free, there is the good news for you.  Any type of gluten containing food you’ve been consuming up to now is probably available readily to you in a gf version that’s often pretty darn yummy.  But what are we missing here?  We need to remind ourselves that gf or not, a treat is still a treat.  A delicious, gf, organic, evaporated cane juice sweetened, fair trade cocoa oreo is still an oreo.  It will lack the hydrogenated fats, which is a bonus, but otherwise, we’re still talking about a processed food lacking in nutrient density.  Even gf breads tend to be very high in processed starches such as white or sweet rice flour, potato starch and tapioca starch.  These will spike the blood sugar just as any other refined flour would.

Gluten free is very popular right now, and for many people is a wonderful option for improving their health, but when we choose gluten free we need to remember to the basics of healthy eating:  eat real, whole, local, seasonal food.  This means we need to rethink gluten free: rather than strategizing how to substitute gluten free products for the breads and cakes we are used to, we can eat delicious foods that are naturally free of gluten containing grains.  If you visit one of my favorite gluten-free websites, gluten free girl, you will notice that many of her recipes don’t involve baking at all.  This is because she is enjoying all the delicious foods that mother nature has to offer.

One way to do this is to think about how we assemble a meal.  Using the plate model of eating, we have ½ of our plate dedicated to vegetables, ¼ protein, and ¼ starch.  This means that if you’re eating gluten free, ¾ of your plate does not have to change.  For that remaining quarter, consider high-carbohydrate vegetables such as winter squash (spaghetti squash makes great noodles!), sweet potatoes, white potatoes, or corn on the cob.  Otherwise, think of using whole grains that happen to be gluten free: brown rice, quinoa, millet, and polenta are all good choices for this.

If you are just starting to eat gluten free, have fun on  your adventure; there are many fun foods to discover at your local market! If you have been gluten free for awhile, remember to keep eating fresh, whole foods.  This is the foundation of a healthy diet no matter what you choose to eat.

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