Going gluten free in an Indian household is not an easy task. Wheat, which contains large quantities of gluten, is a staple grain that is consumed in almost every meal, be it in the form of chapatis, parathas, theplas, puris or even everyone’s favourite halwa—especially in North India. Besides wheat, gluten is also found in barley, rye and possibly oats (gluten in oats is still under debate). Like every diet fad, the gluten-free life has found many takers among health-conscious Indian millennials.
But how feasible is it to go gluten free in India? Moreover, does everyone really need to go gluten free? Having done a fair bit of study in the nutrition space, here’s what I have learnt.
What is gluten?
Gluten is a naturally occurring protein that is found in many types of grains like wheat, barley and rye. Gluten and gliadin are the two proteins that give the dough its strength and elasticity as well as create pockets that trap air released from yeast.
Who really needs a gluten-free diet?
The people who really do need to give up gluten-rich foods are those who have been clinically diagnosed with an autoimmune condition called celiac disease, wherein the small intestine is attacked on consumption of gluten. The key word here is clinically diagnosed. People with celiac disease are allergic to the gluten protein blend, which causes a host of health issues like inflammation, diarrhoea, breathing problems, chronic fatigue and headache.
There is, however, such a thing as non-celiac gluten sensitivity, where the test results are negative for celiac disease but the person may still suffer some mild discomfort. However, apart from those who were clinically-diagnosed, many people who still decide to go gluten free notice an improvement in their overall health.
A gluten-free diet: The downside
We’ve always been told that whole grains are the best and most important part of a balanced diet. Yet, with increase in awareness about the harmful effects of gluten, they now have a bit of a bad reputation. The fact remains that irrespective of the gluten protein, whole grains are still a rich source of fibre and essential micronutrients like iron, calcium, thiamine and vitamin B12.
Gluten is best avoided by people with celiac disease, but for those who don’t have it, following a balanced diet is always better than excluding a food group from it completely. Moreover, wheat substitutes like rice, cornflour and potato are more starchy, which means they have a high glycemic index (which can cause your blood sugar to spike). Furthermore, certain substitutes like buckwheat and quinoa are much more expensive.
What all foods would you have to give up?
Sadly, a lot of your favourites would have to be tossed out of the kitchen if you do choose to follow a gluten-free diet. We’re talking breads, pasta, pizza, beer, cake, biscuits, cookies, tortillas, quesadillas, the humble chapati even!
It’s also important to remember that certain foods may have indirect forms of gluten such as malt flavouring or malt vinegar, which is usually derived from barley.
If you have to give up so much, what can you actually eat?
Luckily, food technology is quick and progressive, and we’re finding great ways to improve the taste, texture and quality of gluten-free products. It won’t be long before your favourite products come in gluten-free versions (if they aren’t already out there).
In the meanwhile there are some substitutes you can use in your gluten-free diet. For the Indian population, we have grains like rice, jowar, bajra, poha and rajgira. Besides these, one can also switch to millet, gram flour, quinoa, soya, tapioca or arrowroot.
Before committing to a gluten-free diet, it is important to know that it isn’t a magical solution that will cure all your health and lifestyle problems. Like most things diet and nutrition, you have to figure out what works best for you.
Image Credit: Nikhil Mudaliar