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- Understanding Gluten and How to Digest It
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Gluten is NOT the Problem, Your Digestion Is.
Gluten-free diets have been growing in popularity for about 20 years now but in recent years, have really taken off. So much so that 10% of Australians now follow gluten free diets (1) and the sales of gluten-free foods have tripled since 2004 (2). But why are so many people giving up gluten? Why do they feel better when they do? And is it really necessary? In this article, I’ll attempt to answer these questions and will give the Ayurvedic perspective on the subject…
What is Gluten?
Gluten is a protein complex made up of gliadin, glutenin and starch. It is found in several grains including wheat and related grains including semolina, bulgar wheat, durum wheat, einkorn wheat and spelt as well as barley, malt, rye, kamut and triticale. It is the stuff that gives elasticity to dough, makes breads chewy and pasta stretchy.
Gluten is found in food products made from grains naturally containing it but is also used as a protein additive to many products low in protein and to products requiring its specific textural properties. For example, it is used in imitation meats, beer, soy sauce, dressings, gravy, ketchup, canned soup, stock cubes, frozen or canned vegetables in sauce and even ice cream! Extra gluten is also generally added to commercially produced bread as it makes the dough rise more easily and improves the uniformity, structure and texture of the bread (3). It is also found in a variety of cosmetics, hair and skin products.
What are Gluten-free Diets?
Strict gluten-free diets involve giving up all of the foods and products mentioned above, not just wheat-based foods. If super-strict, they may also involve giving up products processed on the same manufacturing equipment as gluten-containing products or grains grown in the same fields as wheat products (such as oats).
Why are People Giving up Gluten?
Gluten is particularly difficult to digest and requires a strong stomach acid to process it. If not enough of this acid is produced or excreted due to a weak digestive fire, the gluten passes through to the small intestine, undigested. If eaten in excess, it can irritate the intestinal villi on the gut wall and affect our digestion and absorption (5).
About one in 100 people give up gluten because they have Coeliacs disease. Coeliacs are allergic to gliadin, one of the proteins in gluten. Upon exposure to this protein, their bodies initiate an auto-immune response which severely damages the intestinal villi (inflammation, shortening and flattening of the villi). As a result, there is far less surface area available for absorption of nutrients leading to malabsorption, malnourishment, weight-loss and fatigue issues. It is believed that to develop Coeliacs, you must be born with a genetic predisposition for the disease and then environmental factors contribute to triggering it (6).
But….. most people give up gluten because they, their friends or their health practitioner make a connection between painful indigestion (bloating, gas, constipation or diarrohea) and eating wheat. So, rather than just canning wheat, they believe they may be gluten-sensitive or gluten-intolerant. When they go gluten-free they usually feel better which, they believe, confirms the diagnosis.
Is Gluten Really the Problem?
Human beings have been cultivating and consuming gluten-containing grains for about 12,000 years. Technically, most of us should be perfectly capable of digesting gluten. But there has been a 400% incidence in the rate of Coeliacs in just the last 40 years (8). What is going on? Is gluten really the problem…. or is it slightly more complicated than that? Here are the broader (and usually un-mentioned) issues, as I see it:
1) Modern Wheat. The wheat that is cultivated and grown today bears little resemblance to its ancestors… or even to wheat from the 1970s. Wheat has been manipulated to a huge extent in the last 40 years through cross-breeding techniques to create a super high-yielding crop. Modern wheat not only contains more gluten, the amino-acid chains within the glutenin and gliadin proteins have undergone significant changes with not so good consequences. For example, Gliadin has become a potent appetite stimulant. The amount of lectins in modern wheat have also increased significantly, including a very nasty little chemical called wheat germ agglutinin (WGA) – wheat’s inbuilt pesticide. Its job? To create mucosal injury and inflammation! It is also thought to be an immunotoxin, neurotoxin, cytotoxin, cardiotoxin and to interfere with gene expression, endocrine and gastric function, amongst other things (9). Research is beginning to reveal that modern wheat’s biological code is also wrecking havoc with the hormones related to obesity and diabetes (8). It seems that modern wheat is bad news for our health.
But this doesn’t mean we need to give up gluten. There are other glutinous grains, like Spelt, which have remained virtually untouched by science and agriculturalists for hundreds of years that are much, much easier to digest than modern wheat and much better for you…
2) Processed Food. So, we’re starting with a high-gluten modern wheat frankin-grain…. and then food processors add more gluten to it when making bread and pasta – so it is easier to produce and a better looking product. On top of that, ‘hidden’ gluten is added to a vast array of other food products, totally topping out our gluten load.
But this doesn’t mean we have to give up gluten. We simply need to stop using these highly processed products and start eating more real, homecooked meals again…
3) Compromised Digestion. The other reason we’re having difficulty digesting gluten is because our digestion is compromised. We’re not producing enough acid, or not secreting enough of the acid required to break down this protein complex. An inability to digest gluten is a sign of our digestion not working properly. If we’re not digesting gluten properly, we’re not digesting anything properly.
But this doesn’t mean we have to give up gluten. We simply need to learn how to eat and live in ways that promote strong, balanced digestion and the appropriate elimination of toxins…
4) Not Enough Diversity. People eating a ‘normal’ modern western diet eat way, way, way too much deranged-wheat-based products and, therefore, too much gluten! We eat bread, pasta, biscuits, cakes and pizza all the time. Bread is often found in every single meal of the day, all year round. We’ve lost all genuine diversity in our diets! We were not designed to eat this much gluten.
But this doesn’t necessarily make gluten the bad guy….rather, the bad guys are processed foods made from deranged modern wheat and processed foods with added gluten. We need to give THEM up…. or at the very least, only eat them very occasionally…
Pros of Gluten-free Diets
The main benefit of a gluten-free diet is means the giving up of modern wheat products and gluten-enhanced processed foods. It also often leads to people eating more fruits and veggies and less cakes and cookies. This is a wonderful thing that will have an immediate effect on many of their symptoms of indigestion.
And the benefits might not stop there… people on gluten-free diets may also enjoy more energy, fewer aches and pains, more stable moods, and may even lose weight (if they need to) or gain a little (if they’re depleted from malabsorption). But this all depends on what they choose to eat… and it isn’t necessarily from eradicating gluten.
Cons of Gluten-free Diets
The main problem with gluten-free diets is not many people actually want to change the way they eat. So they go gluten-free…. but still want to eat bread, pasta, cakes, biscuits, pizza etc (fair play). So they eat gluten-free versions of these things, thoughtfully devised and prepared by the same food manufacturers that got us into trouble in the first place! The problem is, many of these products are made from highly refined flours like potato and tapioca which are low in fibre, vitamins and minerals, have high GIs and are heavy and difficult to digest themselves. For this reason, it is actually just as likely for people to gain weight going gluten-free as it is for them to lose it (7). Gluten-free doesn’t necessarily equal healthy…. or slim.
The gluten-free diet is an elimination diet… and all elimination diets are stressful. Every time you go out to eat, every time you go to a friends place for dinner, every time you go shopping, you are faced with the difficulty of not eating gluten in a society obsessed with wheat and gluten-infused products. It’s not an easy path. Admittedly it is probably getting a lot easier… but it still isn’t easy.
It also isn’t easy because a lot of people who choose this path to avoid genuine discomfort are being labelled as ‘fad-diet followers’ or ‘annoyingly fussy’. If you read any forums on the subject, they are full of people feeling misunderstood and judged by others who know nothing of their discomfort. Not a nice feeling.
But… those are problems you find with many diets. So, as I see it, the main problem with the gluten-free diet is it is a diet based on poor digestion. If your digestion isn’t compromised in some way, you generally won’t be inclined to follow it (not for very long, anyway). Agreed? But the diet itself does nothing to actually FIX your compromised digestion. It removes the aggravating factor but it doesn’t heal the issue… so the diet becomes a life sentence. And your compromised digestion is still compromised. This is a problem. If you can’t digest gluten properly, there are many other foods you’re not going to be able to digest properly. And, perhaps more importantly, there are toxins you won’t be digesting well either. From an Ayurvedic perspective, compromised digestion is actually the root cause of ALL disease.
The Ayurvedic Perspective
Ayurveda is 5,000 years old science so when it talks about wheat, it is referring to its more ancient forms, not modern wheat.
When I was studying Ayurveda my teacher was very passionate about helping people eat wheat again. He would get on his soap box regularly, drilling into us that wheat and gluten are not necessarily the problem - the way we prepare them and imbalanced Agni are. He said of the thousands of people he’d consulted over the years claiming to have gluten-intolerances, he could count on two hands the number of people actually suffering from this condition. The rest just had compromised digestion.
Having said that, it should be pointed out that Ayurvedic diets are naturally very low in wheat and gluten anyway. For example, looking at our cookbooks, 75% of the recipes in WARMTH (a bridging cookbook helping people move from a Western diet to a more Ayurvedic diet) and 90% of the recipes in The Ayurvedic Kitchen (a more strictly Ayurvedic cookbook) are gluten-free or suggest gluten-free alternatives. When eating Ayurvedically, you tend to avoid leavened bread altogether, eat pasta only very occasionally and instead, eat a diverse selection of other flours and grains like rice, millet, buckwheat, quinoa, moong flour and chickpea flour. But when gluten does come along, you can digest it with greater ease due to what you’ve been eating in-between. Or at the very least, you know what to eat to help your digestion recover afterwards.
Ayurvedic diets are designed to balance the elements in your body, cleanse toxins, build immune strength, cultivate a peaceful mind and, importantly, to encourage strong, balanced digestion. If you see a practitioner, every diet prescribed will be slightly different based on the individual’s current state of health, digestive strength, time of life… even the climate they live in. Practitioners will always tell you to avoid processed foods and may also suggest you avoid wheat for a time, particularly in cases of compromised digestion – if not forever, then at least until your digestive strength has been restored. But they will rarely focus on gluten specifically (unless you’re a Coeliac, of course).
Ayurveda teaches that wheat is a heavy, sticky, unctuous grain and agrees that it is very difficult to digest. When it is combined with yeast (as it usually is when making breads), it becomes even heavier, stickier and more difficult to digest. And when it is eaten un-toasted and stale it becomes heavier again. In the West, we tend to eat our heavy wheat with other very heavy and difficult to digest foods like meat, eggs and cheese. The combining of ‘heavies’ makes things even more difficult for our Agni! No wonder so many people are having digestive issues…
But wheat is also considered a very strengthening and grounding grain that deeply nourishes the tissues. So eating it can be important, particularly for certain constitutions. To help ensure we can eat wheat if we need to, Ayurveda teaches simple methods of preparation to make it lighter and easier to digest.When it comes to bread it recommends only eating yeast-free breads or making your own chapattis…. and only eating them occasionally. Chapattis are made from kneading flour and water then roasting the bread on a dry flame until the bread puffs up like a balloon – introducing the qualities of dryness and lightness to this heavy, oily grain. When making semolina porridge or halva, the grains are thoroughly dry-roasted at the beginning of the cooking process to make them lighter and they’re cooked with digestive-enhancing spices like cinnamon and cardamom. When making pancakes or biscuits, wheat flour is often mixed with buckwheat flour (which is astringent) to create a more balanced flour.
Another important point to mention is that, in traditional times, wheat and other glutinous grains were harvested in the Autumn and consumed during Winter when our digestive fire is at its strongest. They were never designed to be eaten day in, day out, all year round. The well-known American Ayurvedic Physician Dr John Douillard recommends keeping our eating of these heavier, building, insulating foods to the Winter time, adopting a more seasonal approach to eating, as nature intended (3). I think this is very cool advice…
But the most important Ayurvedic advice is to take steps to learn about your digestive fire – your Agni. Learn what the states of imbalanced Agni are and how to feel them in your body. Then, learn about the simple choices you can make and practices you can follow on a daily basis to cultivate strong, balanced digestion… for your whole life. This knowledge will set you free…. and you can still eat a variety of glutinous grains as part of a varied, crazy-delicious diet.
If you are a Coeliac, Ayurveda also offers great hope in terms of repairing damaged gut walls and immune systems. It is unlikely you’ll eat gluten again but you can certainly enjoy better digestion, absorption and more robust health generally. As this is a serious condition, more in-depth treatments like Panchakarma, specific diets and herbal medicines over a long period of time are prescribed.
Rather than giving up ALL gluten straight off the bat (unless you have Coeliacs – then you have to), first try:
- Giving up products containing modern wheat (including durum wheat)
- Giving up processed products with gluten in them
- Seek out products made with spelt, kamut or einkorn wheat instead
- Try cooking with spelt flour instead of wheat (it is readily available) and
- Don’t eat glutinous grains all the time!
If the ancient wheat varieties still don’t sit well with you, by all means go gluten-free but when you do, don’t just replace your current diet of processed bread, pasta and cookies with a diet of processed gluten-free bread, pasta and cookies. It won’t do you any good in the long run!
Instead, use the opportunity to branch out! Learn how to cook with a variety of gluten-free grains and seeds including rice, buckwheat, millet, corn, amaranth, sorghum and quinoa. If you are going to eat gluten-free products, choose ones from small manufacturing companies who know their stuff and put real love into their creations. For example the ravioli guy at the Mullum Farmers Markets offers fresh gluten-free pastas and I’m pretty sure they’d be awesome because he is so, so passionate about his work!
Finally, think about seeing an Ayurvedic Practitioner to take steps to actually heal your digestion and consider adding our Ayurvedic cookbooks to your gluten-free range. If you cook the gluten-free dishes found within them, you’ll be strengthening your digestive fire at the same time….without even trying.