Walk into any supermarket these days and you will likely come across a ‘free from’ section, crammed with products geared towards people with food intolerances or allergies. From dairy-free chocolate to gluten-free brownies, the idea is – a ‘restricted’ diet should not be restrictive, and indeed, why should it be?
Food exists, not only for fuel, but for enjoyment. For mouth-feel. For companionship and togetherness. For indulgence. Perspectives of diets that eliminate certain food groups frequently contain ideas about food that is joyless, dull, a pain to prepare. Those with dietary requirements often feel the need to defend their choices, or to apologise for being an ‘annoying’ guest.
I’m not a coeliac, but around 15 years ago, I realised that products containing gluten weren’t agreeing with me. I felt tired and sluggish all the time (the same words could be used to describe my digestive system). It was only after having my second child – 16 months after my first – and the crippling exhaustion I felt that I thought to look at my diet and see how I could – very necessarily – boost my energy levels.
Eliminating gluten from my diet was like the sun coming out from behind a cloud: the low-level fatigue that I’d brushed off as a side-effect of a busy life started to dissipate. I’m surprised, now, to realise that I’d not considered gluten to be an issue before: a long-time sufferer of psoriasis, I had once cut out wheat, with impressive results. Only the fact that I was going travelling and suspected a wheat-free diet would be tricky on a backpacker budget, made me re-introduce it to meals.
On both occasions – cutting out wheat to manage my psoriasis and, more broadly, banishing gluten to boost my energy levels – I was more than able to eat food that was satisfying, tasty and nutritious. Products specifically made for those following a gluten-free diet scarcely existed but it didn’t matter, since there is such an abundance of foods from which gluten is naturally absent.
Granted, I initially missed the taste and convenience of certain foods I’d been used to. Hot buttered toast. Flaky croissants. A rushed-lunch sandwich. Biscuits dunked in tea. The ease and convenience of a weeknight bowl of pasta. A cold beer on a sunny day.
These cravings, such as they were, soon passed and the extra thought that I had to put into my meals quickly became second nature. Rice, sweet potatoes, lentils and chickpeas became my go-to carbs. Moreover, having to consider my meal options, rather than just grabbing what was readily available, meant that I started to make healthier choices overall, filling my plate with a nutritionally balanced and colourful range of foods. Although weight loss had not been my primary concern, a few stubborn pounds melted away. The discomfort I frequently felt after eating disappeared. Bloating became a thing of the past, and, as mentioned above, my energy levels saw a welcome upturn.
Not only was there no sense of deprivation in terms of satiety, but also in terms of nutrition, since gluten serves no nutritional purpose: its function is simply to ‘bind’ foods in a way that enhances texture and mouth-feel. This means that, unlike a dairy intolerance, where you need to ensure that you’re accessing adequate calcium from other sources, there’s no need to supplement a gluten free diet.
Additionally, not only do my early forays into a gluten free diet demonstrate that you don’t need to eat products marketed as ‘free from’: there are also several compelling reasons why you should avoid them. Cost is one: specially formulated gluten-free products tend to have a higher price point than their glutinous counterparts, not only in the supermarket but also in restaurants or cafes, where having a gluten-free pizza base or bread usually attracts a surcharge.
Then there’s the list of ingredients when you examine labels. Because of the role that gluten plays in texture, you’ll probably see the likes of humectant, Hydroxypropyl Methylcellulose, , Xanthan Gum and Calcium Propionate in, for instance, bread, which don’t tend to be present in conventional bread products.
Jamie Oliver may have popularised the idea of making meals with just five ingredients, but there is something to be said for taking this into account when buying packaged foods too. Three rules I try to adhere to are: does it contain more than five ingredients? Would my grandmother recognise what these ingredients were? And finally – if food comes unpackaged – as so many naturally gluten free items do – then you need not worry about labelling, ingredients or, additionally, the scourge of plastic pollution.
That’s not to say that you should miss out on comforting favorites, especially in social situations, where a slice of gluten free cake would be the perfect accompaniment to your coffee, or where swerving the gluten free option on a pizza night with friends might otherwise see you munching a salad. The existence of these options makes them even more of a treat when you have them, especially when your day-to-day gluten free diet is largely unprocessed, unpackaged, and crafted from a small and recognizable group of ingredients.