To Your Health: Going gluten-free for the holidays
By Leia Kedem/University of Illinois Extension
What would the holidays be without dinner rolls, stuffing, Christmas cookies or pie? Besides being traditional holiday dishes, they all have one common denominator: gluten.
In the past few years, going gluten-free has become a bona fide craze. But what is the scoop on the gluten-free fad? Is a gluten poison your body would do better without? Will cutting out gluten magically make you feel more energetic, help you lose weight or cure your arthritis and skin conditions?
Here's the lowdown: Gluten is a protein found in some grains, such as wheat, spelt, rye, barley and sometimes oats. It has some pretty incredible properties that give shape and satisfying texture to many of our favorite foods.
For example, gluten is responsible for making bread dough elastic and allowing it to rise and hold its shape. It also contributes to the chewy goodness of baked goods and products like pasta.
The idea of going gluten-free would certainly be daunting for those of us who love bread, pasta, pastries and more. Yet according to consumer research firm NPD group, nearly 30 percent of American adults are trying to cut back on gluten.
Why is that? Well, eliminating gluten has become another magic bullet: a cure-all that we're eager to embrace as the solution to all of our health woes. Unfortunately, claims that going gluten-free clears up skin conditions, increases energy and more are not supported by well-designed, scientific studies.
Yes, getting rid of gluten can lead to weight loss, but it's not because of the gluten. It's the fact that you're cutting out calories from carbohydrate-rich foods. Plus, you feel fuller and eat less when you put more emphasis on foods from the protein group.
Now don't get me wrong. Going gluten-free can be helpful — indeed, necessary — for some. In the vast majority of people, the body treats gluten like any other protein; it digests and absorbs it without incidence. But for 1 percent of the population, however, the gluten story ends dramatically differently.
These people have celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that makes them gluten intolerant. Although symptoms vary, individuals with celiac disease often experience abdominal pain, diarrhea, cramping and bloating caused by eating gluten.
The gluten triggers an autoimmune response, which destroys intestinal cells and damages the body's ability to absorb essential nutrients. This can lead to a whole host of conditions — among them skin rashes, hair loss, infertility and even cancer. The sole treatment is a diet completely free of gluten. While this may sound simple, it's more challenging than you think.
Truly, celiac disease is serious business. And now, it is also big business — not because of increased awareness of the disease, but because of our enthusiasm for the latest diet fad. Gluten-free products have exploded onto grocery shelves, making it easier to enjoy favorite foods without the health consequences.
Which brings me back to the holidays: Being gluten-free doesn't have to mean going without favorite seasonal treats. If you're the one with celiac disease and attending a holiday gathering, prepare and bring a gluten-free dish to enjoy and share.
If you are hosting a loved one with celiac disease, there are a few things to keep in mind. Certain dishes are pretty obviously off-limits (e.g., dinner rolls, pasta), but remember that gravies, salad dressings and even soy sauce can have gluten. Be careful when reading ingredient lists and plan accordingly.
You also have to be vigilant during preparation: Even tiny traces of gluten can cause cross-contamination. Prepare gluten-free food in a separate area of the kitchen with utensils and equipment straight out of the dishwasher.
If you're not feeling creative, there are plenty of frozen meals, baking mixes and ready-to-eat gluten-free goodies available at your local supermarket. Up for the challenge? There are plenty of tasty recipes online and in gluten-free cookbooks to try. Try this one for Banana Nut Bread from the Utah State University Extension — it's a treat that everyone is sure to enjoy, whether they have celiac disease or not.
Banana Nut Bread
2-1/2 cups brown rice flour
1/2 tsp salt
3 tsp baking powder
1/2 cup butter
1-1/2 cups ripe bananas, mashed
2/3 cup honey
1/2 cup nuts, chopped
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9x5-inch bread pan generously.
In a bowl, sift flour, salt and baking powder together. Cream butter and honey in a separate bowl, then add eggs. Beat thoroughly. Add bananas and dry ingredients. Mix well. Stir in nuts.
Pour into pan. Bake for 1 hour or until done.
Leia Kedem is a nutrition and wellness educator with the University of Illinois Extension, serving Champaign, Ford, Iroquois and Vermilion counties. Contact her at 333-7672 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.