GF: Can We Ditch The Gluten Free Stigma?

This is typical of an anti-gluten-free meme that is almost
more popular than the diet itself
Two of my goals here at GMM are to increase awareness and sensitivity to others so that we can all live together better and also to increase awareness of ourselves - our physical, mental, and spiritual health - since we need to care for ourselves before we can properly care for others. To me they go hand-in-hand, they are essentially two sides of the same coin, as so often happens, the other shoe drops and we can unknowingly end up personally, or through a family member or friend, connected to an issue.

In recent years my family has gone to a mostly grain-free diet, and as time passes I meet more and more people who have been recommended to do so as well, so I am going to start using this space, under the tag of GF for not just gluten- but also grain-free, to post my experiences and recipes with this type of diet. If you find yourself on this track, I hope it will be a place where you can find resources to help you stay on it. But first a few words about the stigma and satire of the gluten-free craze, fad, or whatever else you might consider it.

Before I get more into it, please understand this: trying to go grain-free can come from various avenues from gluten-free to another food allergy, or something like a paleo-diet. Yes, a gluten-free diet can come from more than just being a true Celiac with a gluten allergy, and yes, in many cases it can be flexible, not a dire health issue but a recommendation to follow as much as possible so people can fall off the wagon and it not be a cause for alarm or ridicule by others, only that person knows the effects they will deal with if they do. So it's really not nice or fair to have and voice an opinion on their commitment to said choice (unless maybe they asked you to help them stick to it.)

Awareness of bullying is increasing every day, and its great to see people stand up for people who are bullied because of their gender, gender-identity, race, religion, whatever, but there is one personal attribute I still see that gets quite a bit of bullying especially in social media: nutritional requirements or preferences. How many memes or videos of people's opinions (from 'friends' to servers) and the like have you seen on social media making of of "gluten-free" adherents.  But alas, there are other medical reasons for someone who is not going to react to gluten immediately to try to avoid it.

I put "gluten-free" in quotes above as the joke is often about questioning if someone is Celiac and doesn't 'have' to be gf (or even knows for sure since they might order one item that is questionably or assuredly not gluten-free like say ordering a beer with a hamburger with no bun) and assuming they are following a fad. I have caught myself in the past making fun of people for their diet choice, people who followed the fad of the season, though now being an active participant in a family dietary restriction I have seen what it is like to be the brunt of the joke. I recently heard of a friend, the home maker who does all the cooking for her husband and children, whose husband complains about having to eat the gluten-free bread such as buns for burgers. I am sorry but if you aren't even doing the cooking what say do you have in what is put in front of you? And if you are a true man, you would do whatever you can to support them, including joining them on their journey - as a family it can be strategically and financially difficult to try to do both gluten-free and regular options for meals.

So that you may begin to understand, let's explore the reasons someone may be or be trying to be gluten-free.

Gluten Free

Let's start with the most common, and most commonly derided, dietary restriction or choice: the gluten-free (or wheat-free) diet. First of all, of course there is an actual disease where people have to give up gluten or wheat called Celiac. By now most now of it and understand it as a real health issue, however there is also the opinion - right or wrong - that many people are arbitrarily going gluten-free as a new 'fad' diet. And while that may be true in some cases, in probably more cases than you might think, the recommendation to give up wheat can be a very valid medical diagnosis. The main reason for this is that wheat is infallibly a source of inflammation in the body and inflammation is a root of many, many health issues.

One of the first to come to anyone's mind should be arthritis, but it may surprise you to learn of some others. They are mostly autoinflammatory, but also related to autoimmune - a term that should arouse the appropriate level of concern as autoimmune diseases are all of the chronic and/or severe variety. Autoimmune and autoinflammatory diseases share common characteristics in that both groups of disorders result from the immune system attacking the body’s own tissues. In many of these health issues, a recommendation or even full-on prescription of removing wheat from the diet may be part of the person's diagnosis, for example here is a list of Three Reasons for people with an autoimmune to give up gluten. In recent years I have friends and family who have brought various diseases/health issues into my life that recommend or require giving up wheat/gluten (possibly all grains). Both spectrums of thyroid issues (hypo- and hyper-) can be improved by giving up gluten. Research has shown that MS gluten sensitivity are linked and giving up gluten can be part of a prescribed treatment of the disease. Crohn's Disease or other digestive issues like IBS/IBD may recommend being gluten-free as well due to possible irritation of the digestive system. And the list goes on.

Because people with these non-Celiac health issues do not have an immediate reaction to gluten, they can 'slip-up' on accident or on purpose to eat (or drink in the case of beer) something that knowingly has gluten in it, but in most cases they should try to eliminate it. So yes, you may be throwing a party, or serving someone in a restaurant, and they may ask for a gluten-free option, but their choice to have something that may not be gf does not invalidate their usual choices.

Paleo & Other Restrictive (Focused) Diets

Beyond a gf diet we also have other diets that may be seen from the outside as restrictive (forcing you to give up food) but I like to look at as focused - guiding you to specific foods and food groups and away from others. There have been many focused diets that come and go (low-carb, high-carb, cabbage, grapefruit, I could go on forever), some stick around (Vegetarianism, Mediterranean), but a fairly new and popular focused one is of course the Paleo Diet, which as part of it includes giving up not only wheat but pretty much (ok strictly - all) any grain. The idea behind Paleo is to eat food as close to being harvested - not processed - as possible, the name of the diet coming from Paleolithic as it is supposed to be what primitive man in that era would have eaten. It is actually fairly complex with a rigid set of foods that define what is considered processed or not, and I won't get into it all here as you can easily find resources on it such as the one linked above. But let's focus on the fact that it definitely calls for giving up wheat, since wheat has to be processed in various ways to be used for bread, pasta, and yes even beer and other alcohol.

With an increased awareness of where our food comes from, such as those who prefer organic foods, the Paleo diet seems to be more acceptable to the common person than most diet fads. So if someone claims they are Paleo and orders gluten-free (because grains including wheat are not 'paleo') they seem to get more of a free pass (other than if known to be Celiac), but the thing is other issues as those above defined for gluten-free aren't ones that someone would be open about. If you are having a party, or serving someone at a restaurant, they likely won't ask for gluten-free and add in why: "Can I have a burger with a gluten-free bun? Because I have Hashimoto's Thyroiditis." And if they order a beer with it, no they are not going to die, but yes they are likely making a choice to limit their intake and having both a regular bun and a beer could cause a short-term or long-term issue. But it's their choice.

Going Paleo could also be simply be to lose weight, and though I say simply it may not be so - losing weight is a true health issue for unfortunately too many Americans. Again, if the person is trying - something, anything - to lose the weight we should support not ridicule their choice.

Living (Mostly) Grain Free

Another issue to consider is that someone could be a partner of someone with a dietary restriction and they try to be supportive, and for practical reasons, and join their partner in said diet. It can be too hard for one person to follow and other family members in the same household not to follow. They may be more likely to fall off the wagon at a restaurant or friend's house where it's harder to follow, or simply be more flexible, but understand too that they may truly have a problem if they make said choice. It has been shown for example that if you give up wheat for a long time and then have some you can feel horrible later (have you ever tried changing a dog's food on them all of a sudden?) - I know this to be true from personal experience.

As I previously stated, I am living with a close-to-Paleo diet. I do not have (that I know of) any issue that requires it, but my wife has had two health issues that highly recommend being gluten- even fully grain-free if possible. She had knee surgery that recommended giving up wheat to reduce inflammation and her recovery went very well since we did. Then she was diagnosed with Hashimoto's - hypothyroidism - an autoinflammatory disease which also recommends not only giving up wheat (due to its inflammatory nature) but sometimes all grains. Her doctor did highly recommend going to an 80-90% grain free diet with just 2-3 meals a week including any type of grain.

So, how do I (we) do it? I happen to be the cook in the house and wanting support my wife (and also understanding the other possible health benefits to anyone) I follow the diet recommended to her and therefore I plan and cook meals at home to be as close to Paleo as possible. I rarely buy and serve anything with wheat (wheat actually never), rice, corn, and potatoes. Instead we do things like almond meal sweats, cauliflower rice, coconut and/or garbanzo flour, could bread, vegetable 'pastas' like spaghetti squash and zucchini noodles, and many more recipe alterations or options. If there is a Paleo recipe/option for it I will try it, if not I will search for or even make up recipes. I am not going to write a guide, a page to visit to read , as you can find enough of them out there already, rather that is what this new GF column will be for, for me to share recipes, ingredient alternative lists, or any other recommendation or advice I can share on how I make it work in our household. They will all be completely gluten-free, mostly grain-free, but not necessarily strictly Paleo. And of course they will be man-approved. You can check them out and if they work for you, I hope they help you succeed in your quest for well-being whether by diagnosis or by choice. And even if you aren't following a diet, check some out, you may be surprised at the tastiness of these alternatives.

Try to be more like this guy
not that guy above.
Finally, whether living with someone yourself or just in a situation where it comes up, try to be supportive of others. You never know if they ask for/order something gluten-free if it might actually be part of therapy for a health issue, Celiac or not, that you may just not know about. They likely have not chosen to, and thus are not entirely happy about the restriction. And yes, that may mean they go off the wagon, slip up, or purposefully eat something off their restriction list, but it doesn't discount their attempt to give up gluten or wheat or whatever as much as possible. Just as reducing smoking is better than continuing at their normal amount, though not as good as quitting outright, its still admirable and possibly necessary for them to do so and our support can help them achieve it. So please, try to support anyone with this endeavor, its not an easy one, and even less easy when ridiculed about it.


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