Over the last several years, “gluten-free” has become a ubiquitous term and a rapidly expanding specialty food category. Yet, there is always some new health fad sweeping the nation, which can make it hard to evaluate the validity of the trend. Perhaps more than any other recent dietary trend, the gluten-free issue demonstrates just how complicated and personal it can be to attempt to separate fact from hype.
“Gluten” is actually a popular term for a family of proteins, the glutenins, found in cereal grains, including wheat (and subspecies such as spelt), barley, and rye. For millennia, humans have relied on these grains as a dietary staple. They were some of the very first foods that were farmed over 9,000 years ago. In mainstream nutrition, they are attributed with providing needed nutrients and protein. According to Ayurveda, they help to increase strength and endurance and build healthy muscle and bone.
It is only in the last 50 – 60 years that difficulties with these products have been on the rise, which is hardly a blink of an eye in relation to the amount of time that these foods have been nourishing and supporting us.
It has taken even less time for gluten to rise to villain food status, bolstered by the double whammy of gluten sensitivities being incredibly hard to diagnose and the risk they pose if left unaddressed. Only about 1% of the population has celiac disease (CD), a serious autoimmune response to the glutenin proteins that, if untreated, can lead to serious health problems including cancer, neurological illnesses, and death. Most people fall somewhere on the murky spectrum of gluten sensitivity. Some of these people have a hard time digesting glutinous grains, but their reaction isn’t an autoimmune response, and symptoms are often resolved when gluten is eliminated from the diet. (For more on the physiology of gluten reactions and why they are hard to diagnose, read this.) Symptoms attributed to gluten sensitivity include gastrointestinal distress, rashes, fatigue, irritability, headaches, and even psychological effects. While many people attribute digestive issues to gluten sensitivity, it is possible to have a variety of other symptoms and no digestive distress.
So, we have an illness that presents a wide range of undefined symptoms, is hard to diagnose, and can cause painful and dangerous secondary illnesses. It does sound scary! Which brings us to the personal nature of the dilemma. If you suspect you may have gluten sensitivity, you may want to see a doctor. If you are interested in having a blood test to eliminate CD, these are most accurate while you are currently eating foods containing gluten.
Currently, the most widely recommended way to determine if you are sensitive to these proteins is an elimination diet. Eliminate all grains (don’t start buying prepackaged gluten-free products yet!) for at least a month. See how you feel. Many people report feeling better after just a few days of eliminating problem foods, but abstaining for an entire month is recommended. If you feel better, add gluten containing foods back in to your diet wisely. Choose whole foods first. (If you go right for the store bought cookies, you’ll never know if it was the heavily processed flour, the sugar, or the preservatives that gave you that belly-ache!)
Ayurveda teaches to eat vital foods, full of prana, and that our personal constitution (dosha) affects what foods best help us maintain balance and which are unsettling for our system. While most grains are tridoshic (balancing for all constitutions), some are better suited for particular doshas, so choose grains that support your constitution, and make sure you are cooking them properly. Considering that the science of Ayurveda is thousands of years old, its perspective of and approach to eating grains is based on ancient, unadulterated varieties. One theory on the rise in gluten sensitivity points to our modern industrial farming and food processing techniques. Modern wheat has been hybridized to contain more protein, but then, in processing, it is stripped of essential, naturally occurring, nutrients and laboratory-derived replicas are added back in. Some people have found balance by choosing heirloom grain varieties over modern ones. Research has also shown that the fertilizers used in conventional farming may alter the protein structure in grains, so choosing organic when possible may be helpful as well.
Ultimately, we are each the best equipped person to determine which foods help us feel more vital, energetic, and clear, and which foods make us feel foggy, sluggish or otherwise uncomfortable. Jumping on the latest health kick/food bandwagon without understanding why is never a good idea, but neither is ignoring health conditions. Finding balance in your diet, as in all things, is an ongoing practice.