Gluten has been a hot topic of discussion for a while now. It seems everyone — from the medical community, to television personalities to bloggers — is throwing around words like “Celiac disease” and “gluten intolerant” and talking about the negative impact gluten can have on your health.

But what exactly is gluten? Simply put, it’s a protein that’s found in grains such as wheat, barley and rye. For some people, ingesting foods with this seemingly innocuous protein can trigger an immune response that causes a multitude of symptoms such as bloating, gas, constipation, abdominal pain, headaches, diarrhea, weight loss, anemia, fatigue, vitamin and mineral deficiencies and even canker sores.

For those who don’t have Celiac disease, being gluten sensitive or gluten intolerant can still be debilitating. Marlese Ramirez-Carroll, a holistic nutritionist who leads nutritional education classes for Bay Area parents with offices in both Berkeley and San Carlos, says people’s level of gluten intolerance varies. While gluten intolerance and full blown Celiac disease are two different things, both can be difficult to diagnose through conventional testing. There are labs that conduct more definitive testing; however, simply eliminating gluten from your diet can be a surefire way to find out if it’s the culprit behind these kinds of health issues. Still, maintaining a focused and healthy diet is one of the best ways to treat gluten sensitivity.

Shandy Torain, a registered dietitian in Union City, California, developed Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) after the birth of her son and through a process of elimination, determined that wheat, among other things, was wreaking havoc on her digestive system.  As a result, she keeps her diet simple and reads food labels religiously. Torain urges people with IBS or other forms of wheat and gluten sensitivity to focus on fruits, vegetables and lean proteins. “I try to keep processed foods out of my diet and cook most of my meals from scratch,” she says.

Whether it’s you or your child or someone you know that’s gluten sensitive, here are some basic tips to help make living with gluten intolerance more manageable (not to mention, delicious!):

  • Familiarize yourself with foods that typically contain gluten. Here’s a handy list that you can bring with you when you and your child go grocery shopping. Get accustomed to reading food labels carefully because most foods you would think don’t contain gluten often do, such as hot dogs, salad dressings, ice cream, malt vinegar, brown rice syrup (often made from barley) and soy sauce.

    Some safe grains and starches include: amaranth, arrowroot, beans, buckwheat (but not many packaged zaru soba noodles as they contain wheat flour), corn, flax, garfava, millet, nut flours, potatoes, quinoa, rice, sorghum, soy, tapioca, and tef. There’s still some controversy over oatmeal, which some say can be susceptible to cross contamination. So if you do opt for oats or oatmeal, make sure the oats are either labeled "Gluten Free" or alternatively, that the product wasn't processed in a facility that also processes wheat.

  • Load up on real foods. When Ramirez-Carroll first walks into a new client’s home and inspects the cupboards and the freezer, she typically finds it chock full of processed, packaged foods. "A lot of people are addicted to sweets and starches,” she says. Replacing those foods with gluten free versions shouldn’t be a priority. Rather, the goal should be to stock up on fresh fruits, vegetables and protein. Kids often don’t consume an adequate amount of protein (gluten intolerant or not) and they need zinc for growth and healing. Dark turkey meat, red meat, and oysters are all good sources of both protein and zinc. Ramirez-Carroll’s Gluten Free Chicken "McReal" Nuggets are a big hit with her clients’ children and are a great way to get some zinc and some lean protein into your kids' diet.
  • Eat good fats. Depending on who you talk to, there are different opinions about which fats are actually “good” for you, but everyone agrees on the benefits of olive oil. Torain suggests sticking to monounsaturated fats, which lower total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol (bad cholesterol), while increasing HDL (good cholesterol). These fats include olive oil, canola oil, peanut oil, avocados, nuts, and seeds. Also acceptable are polyunsaturated fats such as safflower oil, sunflower oil, soybean oil, corn oil, salmon, cottonseed oil, flax oil, walnuts and fish oil (from fish rich in Omega-3 fatty acids like salmon, mackerel and herring). Ramirez-Carroll’s favorites are coconut oil, olive oil and even duck fat. She says they have healing properties that are especially beneficial for the lungs. Also, organic butter is good for families who can tolerate dairy, and ghee is a good lactose free option. 
  • Incorporate foods that aid digestion. One of the first and simplest things you can do to help out your digestive system is chew your food thoroughly! This is an essential first step in breaking down the food you eat so that your stomach and digestive tract can continue the process smoothly. In addition, there are a number of foods that can help. Julie Spero, a Certified Nutrition Consultant based in Oakland who also works with a physician at a private practice in Palo Alto, recommends these foods for a healthy gut and healthy gut flora:

    • Spicy foods such as ginger, garlic, chilies and curries
    • Bitter foods such as arugula, dandelion and mustard greens
    • Fermented foods and dairy products such as kefir, yogurt with live cultures, sauerkraut, and kimchi

    Other beneficial foods include: parsley, turmeric, radishes, artichokes, cilantro, lemons and green foods. For upset stomachs, Spero suggests sipping on 1 teaspoon of apple cider vinegar in 4 ounces of water. Apple cider vinegar aids the initial stages of the digestive process. Chamomile, ginger and mint teas are great tummy tamers as well.

    Ramirez-Carroll says that bone broth and gelatin also soothe the stomach and help with digestion. She suggests simmering leftover meat or poultry bones with onions, carrots and potatoes to make a base for soups. Gelatin can also be added to soups to help aid digestion and used to make Fruity Gelatin Treats for a healthy and delicious snack with the tummy in mind. 

  • Consider the impact of dairy in your diet. Ramirez-Carroll says that many people who are sensitive to gluten are also lactose intolerant. She explains that the two enzymes that digest gluten and lactose sit on the villi (finger-like projections in the lining of the small intestine), and when those villi are disturbed, a person is unable to digest gluten and lactose. People with a history of long-term, frequent use of medications such as antibiotics, asthma treatments, and ibuprofen can lead to such a disturbance and impair the digestive system. So if a person is symptomatic, he or she may find relief by removing not only gluten but also dairy from their diet. Ramirez-Carroll’s recipe for Banana Pancakes is not only gluten and dairy free, but also contains a healthy combination of fresh fruit, healthy fat and protein.
  • Take probiotics. These over-the-counter pills or powders can aid a disturbed digestive system by providing good bacteria for your system.  When dairy can be tolerated, yogurt is a good source of these good bacteria as well. Torain suggests taking a daily probiotic in addition to small doses of organic plain yogurt throughout the day.
  • Restock the pantry. Gluten free foods are increasingly easy to find, from gluten free pizza dough, bagels, bread, and pasta, to gluten free desserts. Bob’s Red Mill, Grindstone Bakery, Kinnikinnick Foods, Mariposa Baking Company, Mary’s Gone Crackers and Udi’s Handcrafted Foods are just a few brands that sell delicious, great quality gluten free products. Many grocery stores these days, such as Whole Foods, not only carry a variety of gluten free foods and ingredients, but also often have an entire section of the store devoted specifically to gluten free products.
  • Have fun experimenting. Being sensitive to gluten doesn’t mean a life sentence of eating bland, boring food. On the contrary! With a little planning and creativity in the kitchen, it’s easy to develop delicious and satisfying gluten free meals that the entire family will enjoy. Ramirez-Carroll shows families how to recreate their favorite restaurant dishes at home using fresh ingredients that are full of flavor and naturally gluten free. Try making this Quick Tikka Masala served with Coconut Rice. Torain likes to make her family mini pizzas on whole-wheat pita bread and substitutes corn or brown rice tortillas for herself.

Any way the cookie crumbles, living gluten free can prove to be a delicious and satisfying experience.

Note: Please consult with your physician before making any changes to your diet or prescription medications.