Going gluten free

For five years I wrote about food. I reviewed bars and restaurants for Time Out magazine, and then, when I was done there, set up a blog of my own that paired music and food. (Sadly no longer online thanks to a little kerfuffle with GoDaddy and me.) All that time I ate my way around Delhi, sampling every new bar, bistro, restaurant or man-with-cart that I could, and enjoyed every minute of it… until it made me super-ill.

I thought it might be Delhi’s insane weather, because eating out when it’s upward of 40 degrees is clearly an insane thing to do, but I felt just as rubbish in the winter. I considered the capital’s general questionable hygiene and food handling, but it felt like more than that. Eventually, through simple elimination, I discovered that, like an ill-fated love, while I have strong feelings for gluten, gluten just doesn’t feel the same way about me.

When I cut it out of my diet for a bit a whole host of digestive and skin issues that’ve plagued me since I was a child suddenly disappeared. When I reintroduced it (aka binge ate a pizza, three days running) a couple of months later all those annoying things returned, and worse this time. At this point if I eat too much of it in any form–bread, cake, paratha, whatever–I can expect screwed-up digestion, instant brain fog and energy crashes, and hives that slowly appear across my body. Painful, itchy hives (very sexy). Vanity will likely be the one thing that’ll help me beat out my doughy cravings.

I think the thing that’s made it hardest for me to commit to this way of eating is trying to sidestep a reputation for being a nitpicker, a difficult guest, or, the worst of all, being sanctimonious about food. It’s super hard to do without the support of the people you live with, but at the same time, it sucks for the people you live with to (even temporarily) give up their gluten-ey goods because, um, it doesn’t make them ill. In truth, the only reason it’s become easier for me to occasionally decline the breadbasket is that the uncomfortable fallout has meant that, like Pavlov’s dog, my body’s being conditioned to do it unbidden. Sometimes.

There are still those that regard it as a faddy food trend, and I get it. More and more people are cutting grain out of their diets: some doctor-recommended, some because they think it’ll help them drop some weight / grow wings / generally feel better. But more and more people are also finding that they feel much, much better without it.

For those who are sensitive to it, gluten intolerances have been linked to autoimmune disorders like Hashimoto's thyroiditis, rheumatoid arthritis, ulcerative colitis, lupus, and psoriasis. It also has proven links to hormone imbalances such as PMS, PCOS or unexplained infertility as well as to mood disorders like anxiety, depression, mood swings and ADD. It sort of sucks when your genuine food intolerances tie in with trendy eating trends because people are, quite often, apt to view your dietary limitations as being a faddy phase, or entirely down to personal vanity. It is vanity linked, I suppose, because I’m keen for my bones to not crumble due to vitamin d-linked osteopenia, which will likely make me shorter. The flipside of this is that it’s unlikely, however, that I would even know about my sensitivity were gluten not being talked about quite so much.

There’s just one thing about going gluten-free:
Anyone’s who’s had an amazing fresh-baked loaf of bread, or a really great flaky paratha, or one of those Nizam’s rolls with their stretchy elastic wrappings can testify to this fact.

To which someone, somewhere will say “oh there’s a gluten-free version”, but here’s the second thing: if you don’t eat gluten, you probably shouldn’t eat foods whose foundation is gluten. Sure you can get gluten free bread, but bread is about gluten, and most versions without, well they’re just not as good. There are exceptions, of course (good, properly fermented sourdough bread is usually tolerated by all but the most sensitive), but until sprouted breads are commonly available, I’ll stick with my besan chilla and rice. A word of caution regarding those gluten-free products you find on shop shelves; take a look at the back of those products and do a skim of the ingredients list. You'll likely see a the first four ingredients are a rundown of super-starchy flours like tapioca starch, white rice flour, potato starch... all super high glycemic (i.e. sugary ingredients that'll release into your bloodstream really violently). If you look at the back of a loaf of wholewheat bread, you'll find about...four. Whole wheat, yeast, water, and salt. It's simpler, easier to digest, will keep you full for longer, and has the protein and fibre from the gluten and the grain. If you're not gluten intolerant, just eat the damn gluten. Just make smarter choices. Pick brown rice, quinoa, chickpea flour (hello besan, my old friend).

A quick side note: When eating starchy food it's important that you pair it with a little fat of some sort, whether its butter, or olive oil, or a avocado oil, coconut oil, ghee, whatever. All starch reduces down to a simple sugar in the body, and the fat you add will slow the absorption of the sugar into your bloodstream because fats, fibre, and proteins all take longer to digest than starch. Meaning? Full for longer, no post-meal crashes, and forget that hangry 3pm insanity. 

Eating is about celebration, not substitution, and there’s so much gorgeous food out there that it really doesn’t need to feel like you’re missing out on anything, if you take the time to do some prep. And while you're here, have a skim around this site's Eat+Drink section for recipes that forego the sticky stuff.