When I tell people that I’m studying nutrition, some of the first few questions I’m asked is “what is gluten?” and “should I be on a gluten-free diet?”. It’s difficult to provide an accurate answer to their second question, because people react differently to certain foods. Food intolerances and allergies are real and one should consult a Gastroenterologist, Registered Dietitian, and/or Allergy Specialist when making any changes to one’s diet. However, gluten has become the latest food to be harshly criticized and many people think that eliminating gluten from their diet will be the panacea for any and all physical problems.
So, what is gluten?
Scientifically speaking, gluten is a protein composed of gliadin and glutenin. Gluten gives food products like bread that chewy, doughy texture and familiar mouth-feel that’s difficult to replicate (try making a bread using non-wheat flour!). Gluten is found in all wheat products and in several other grains such as barley, rye, and spelt to name a few. Wheat (and therefore, gluten) is found in the majority of processed foods. Soy sauce and dressings, snack foods, cereals, protein bars, etc. usually contain wheat derived ingredients and pose a threat to those with real, diagnosed gluten/wheat sensitivity issues (such as Celiac Disease). Symptoms of Celiac Disease and gluten/wheat sensitivity include failure to thrive (in children), low BMI, gastrointestinal issues, fat and other nutrient malabsorption, and skin rashes.
Gluten has become the vilified ingredient as of late due to several reasons. One reason is the fact that more people are legitimately being diagnosed with Celiac Disease because of increased awareness and better testing methods. If you do have any of the above symptoms, or if autoimmune diseases run in your family, I encourage you to voice your concerns to your doctor. However, if the thought of going gluten free appeals to you because you’re looking for a way to lose weight then you should carefully examine your diet. Most likely, you’re consuming too many calories.
It’s very easy for calories to add up if you’re eating a lot of processed foods. Some people find when they do eliminate gluten from their diet, they shed a few pounds. But, most likely, this weight loss is resulting from a decrease in total calories mainly because fresh, whole foods are less calorically dense than pre-packaged, processed foods. For example, someone eating a Pop-Tart (which happens to have gluten in it) for breakfast (and let’s be honest, they’re going to eat two because there’s two in a package) will consume around 400 calories in the form of simple sugars and fat for that meal. Let’s say that person decides to eliminate gluten from their diet and so they replace the Pop-Tart calorie bomb with a gluten-free meal of two eggs and a small fruit salad (around 300 calories total). That person has now lowered their calorie intake for that meal by one hundred, while getting more protein and fiber (resulting in a lasting fullness sensation) than in the Pop-Tart. Instead of coming to the conclusion that whole foods=probable decrease in total calories, people are quick to point at gluten being the enemy.
Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide whether eliminating gluten from your diet can help you. If you have gastrointestinal issues, it may help alleviate symptoms. If you’re consuming a lot of processed foods, it might help you get in touch with a more whole foods-diet. One thing to keep in mind is that food manufacturers are coming up with so many different gluten-free items that are often higher in sugar and fat than their gluten-containing counterparts. This is because eliminating gluten from a baked or processed food product requires ingredients to replace the desirable taste and texture of gluten. Fat and sugar do just that. A gluten-free cookie is no better than a wheat-containing one. It’s still a processed food and should be consumed in moderation.
On the topic of gluten-free and whole foods, I’ve decided to share with you my experimental lunch recipe from yesterday. I had a spaghetti squash in the fridge that I wanted to eat. Sometimes I prepare spaghetti squash and use it as I would regular spaghetti (with tomato sauce, some form of protein, and a vegetable) and sometimes I eat spaghetti squash with a light maple syrup and raisins, almost like a dessert. Yesterday, I went with the former.
Spaghetti Squash with Seafood & Vegetable Sauce
1 spaghetti squash (should be firm, yellow in color, free of bruises)
1-2 cups chopped kale
½ cup chopped onion
Thinly sliced garlic, or 1 tbsp. minced garlic
1-2 tbsp. olive oil
½ cup dry white wine
½ cup tomato paste
1 cup diced tomatoes (if using fresh, remove skin)
4 ounces clams, scallops, oysters, or any seafood of your choice (I came up with this recipe as I was going, and all I had were canned clams from Trader Joe’s)
Oregano (to taste)
Basil (to taste)
Salt and pepper (to taste)
- To prepare the spaghetti squash, cut lengthwise into two halves. I cooked mine in the microwave to save time. Using a large fork or piercing device, pierce both halves several times. This allows air to ventilate the squash.
- Place both halves with the exposed sides facing up. Sprinkle a few drops of water on top of both halves and on the bottom of your microwave safe dish or bowl.
- Heat for 10-12 minutes. Be careful, the squash shouldn’t be handled immediately. While the squash is cooking, you can start on the sauce.
- In a pan, add olive oil, chopped kale, onion, and garlic. Cook under medium heat for a few minutes.
- Next add the white wine, tomato paste, and diced tomatoes. Stir well. Add the oregano, basil, and salt and pepper. Cook until the white wine has evaporated (the sauce will be less liquid-y)
- Now add the clams and/or other seafood. Cover the pan and cook for a few minutes (about 5-8 minutes). (Note- I didn’t add the clams until I cooked the sauce, but based on the taste, I would have combined the clams with the sauce).
- To remove the spaghetti like strings of the squash, you first take a fork or spoon and dispose of the seeds that will be easily removable with a little scooping. Next, take your fork (use a fork, now) and start scraping the inside halves of the squash. The pieces should be easily removable and appear like strings of spaghetti. After removing the squash “innards”, set aside.
- Combine the spaghetti squash and contents of the sauce/veggie/clam mix.
- Serve hot and enjoy!