Adapting to Life After Wheat: There Are More Gluten-Free Options Than You Think

Gluten-free has almost become the new “fad” diet of today, with various celebrities and fitness gurus touting its benefits. But for those of us who have a true dietary sensitivity, a gluten-free diet is more than a fad – it’s a necessity. According to the Canadian Celiac Association, approximately 1% of the population suffers from celiac disease, characterized by inflammation and damage to the intestinal wall. This can lead to a range of issues from poor nutrient absorption to unexplained neurological symptoms and even infertility. While the incidence of celiac disease is relatively low, it is estimated that yet another 10-15% of the population has some form of non-celiac gluten sensitivity. Since the symptoms of food sensitivities can be so varied and easily ignored, many people go years without a proper diagnosis and simply normalize or adapt to a life of sub-optimal health.

I was one such person. As a kid, I was – by conventional standards – very healthy. But despite squeaky clean physicals, I still endured recurring headaches, throat infections, stomach aches, and fatigue. I suffered just enough to be prescribed some mild painkillers or antibiotics, but not enough to warrant any further investigation by my family doctor.

Finally in 2001, with some luck and determination, I found a very open-minded G.P. who practiced integrative medicine. Since digestion is truly the foundation of one’s health, it wasn’t surprising that his first objective was to establish proper nutrition as a basis for further interventions. He put me on a six-week detoxification diet that forbade wheat, dairy, sugar, corn, soy, nightshades, all flours, all juices, all natural sweeteners (except stevia), beef, pork, shellfish, caffeine, and alcohol.

Those first six weeks were challenging to say the least, but the improvement I felt was undeniable. The fatigue that had me sneaking out of calculus class to nap was replaced with healthy energy. My daily headaches became a distant memory. And the throat and ear infections that had plagued me three to four times a year since I was a baby never came back. Once I realized how much healthier I could be, I made the decision to permanently eliminate wheat, dairy, and refined sugars from my diet. I eventually eliminated all remaining sources of gluten (kamut, spelt, rye, and barley) and pursued various complementary treatments such as osteopathy, psychotherapy, and NET (Neuro Emotional Technique) – all of which culminated in the superior state of health that I enjoy today. About three years ago, I finally decided to put my years of food research, experiments, failures, and successes to good use, and share my knowledge with others. This is how I came to establish my publishing and consulting business, GlutenFreeToronto.com.

Adapting my life to one that is gluten-, dairy-, and sugar-free has been a long journey. Over the past nine years, I’ve progressed through three distinct phases:

1. Sticking to whole foods – The simplest way to avoid gluten, dairy, and sugar is to eat safe whole foods. This includes all unprocessed fruits, vegetables, meats, and gluten-free grains such as quinoa, millet, rice, and buckwheat. Sticking to this diet can be very healthy and nutritious, but can at times feel restrictive.

2. Discovering specially prepared foods – Many mainstream grocery stores and health food stores carry gluten-free breads, cookies, muffins, soups, cereals, and more. But just because something is gluten-free doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Unfortunately, many of these foods tend to be corn or potato based (common allergens), highly refined, and/or high in sugar. And if you are avoiding more than one culprit food, you’ll quickly discover that prepared foods are often free of one thing, but not of another.

3. Learning to make substitutions – After years of research and kitchen experimentation, I eventually taught myself a few simple tricks to modify any recipe to meet my unique needs. If you truly want to be successful in the long run when it comes to dietary restrictions, learning how to make successful substitutions is the key to feeling satisfied and self-sufficient.

Some substitutions are very straightforward: rice milk for cow’s milk, honey for sugar, or millet for couscous. Where substitutions, especially for wheat/gluten, become tricky is in baking. Gluten is a protein that, when mixed with water, becomes sticky and is able to hold gas. In other words, it helps food stick together and rise. Gluten is the reason that wheat-based batters can turn into wonderful delights like fluffy angel food cake and spongy bread. It’s also the reason that straight substitutions for gluten-free flours can yield a rock-hard or crumbly mess!

While you can replace wheat flour with many combinations of gluten-free flours like millet, amaranth, teff, coconut, almond, and arrowroot flours, I often use one of the following two substitutions:

1 cup wheat flour = 3/4 cup brown rice flour + 1/4 cup tapioca starch; OR

1 cup wheat flour = 1/2 cup brown rice flour + 1/2 cup sweet rice flour.

The first substitution is best for crusts, cookies, and anything that is crunchy, while the second is best for delicate cakes and anything that is soft or spongy. In both of the combinations above, I’ve used brown rice flour as my “base” and added either tapioca starch or sweet rice flour as my “binder” to substitute for the sticky quality of gluten.

As a rule of thumb, I also like to add an additional 1/2 teaspoon of gluten-free baking powder per 1 cup of flour to help compensate for the extra rising or leavening qualities of gluten. I discuss in greater detail various other base flours, binders, and leaveners, along with their characteristics and substitution proportions in my book, Where Do I Start? Your Essential Gluten-Free, Dairy-Free and Sugar-Free Food Allergy Cookbook.

My principle goal in writing this book was to liberate readers from ever needing another specialty cookbook again by teaching them how to make simple and successful substitutions for gluten, dairy, and sugar. Of course, my book has many recipes as well, including the following which, when put together, make a great feast. I hope you enjoy these recipes, and remember – don’t be afraid to experiment with your food! Keep your eye on the prize of your best health, and your journey will follow.

This is an easy dish to make ahead of time and freeze for later. Since you are cooking the meat through before baking the entire lasagna, you can also assemble the dish one or two days ahead of time, and bake it just before you’re ready to serve.

Ingredients:

  • 1 package gluten-free lasagna noodles
  • 1 tsp grapeseed oil
  • 2 medium onions, finely diced
  • 1 lb ground turkey
  • 1 tsp oregano
  • 1 tsp garlic powder
  • 3 stems kale, finely chopped
  • 7-8 oyster mushrooms, sliced
  • 1 jar tomato pasta sauce
  • 2 cups goat mozzarella cheese, grated

1) Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add lasagna noodles and reduce heat to medium low. Cook noodles to soften them, but not enough to cook completely. Drain, add back a small amount of cold water, and set aside.

2) Heat oil in a large frying pan over medium heat. Add onions, stirring occasionally until transparent. Remove half of the cooked onions and set aside.

3) Add ground turkey and spices to frying pan with remaining onions, breaking meat apart with wooden spoon and stirring frequently to brown. Drain away excess liquid.

4) Heat a separate saucepan over medium heat and add reserved onions, kale, and mushrooms. Cover, stirring occasionally for 2-3 minutes until mushrooms are tender. Drain excess liquid and set aside.

5) Assemble the lasagna in layers: sauce, noodles, meat and cheese, sauce, noodles, vegetables, sauce, noodles, and sauce.

6) Bake lasagna in oven at 350ºF (175ºC) for 30 minutes. Remove, let stand 5 minutes, and serve.

This is a delicious, hearty, and thick soup that makes a great brunch dish on a lazy Sunday afternoon.

Ingredients:

  • 1 medium butternut squash
  • 3 cups water
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 2 stalks celery, diced
  • 1 medium onion, sliced thinly
  • 1 clove garlic, pressed

1) Rinse squash and carefully peel with a vegetable peeler. Chop into bite-sized chunks – the smaller the chunks, the faster it will cook. Remove and discard seeds and pulp. Place into a medium saucepan with water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium-low, cover, and let simmer 20-30 minutes, or until squash is very soft.

2) While squash is cooking, pour oil into a separate large frying pan over medium heat. Add garlic and onion, stirring 1 minute until aromas are released. Add celery and 1 Tbsp of water to pan. Cover to steam, stirring occasionally until celery and onions are tender (approximately 2-3 minutes).

3) When squash has finished cooking, pour contents of saucepan, including all water/juices, into a blender. Blend until smooth, adding water if the mixture is too thick.

4) Return squash to saucepan and stir in other cooked vegetables. Bring back to a boil if desired.

5) Add sea salt and pepper to taste. Garnish with sage or cranberry niblets. Serve immediately or refrigerate/freeze to enjoy later.

This spiced rice will develop a beautiful bright yellow colour and distinctive flavour. Tumeric is traditionally used in Pakistan as an anti-inflammatory. This is a wonderful spice, but be careful not to spill it on your clothes, as it will stain. Enjoy with chicken or fish. This recipe does not work well with brown rice.

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups white jasmine rice
  • 1/2 tsp saffron threads
  • 1/2 tsp tumeric
  • 3-1/2 cups water or broth of choice
  • 1 Tbsp fish sauce or 1/4 tsp sea salt
  • 1 tsp oil (optional)

1) Pour rice into rice cooker bowl (a special appliance for cooking rice). Rinse thoroughly and repeatedly, swishing with fingers, until the water runs clear.

2) Add all ingredients to rice cooker. Turn on rice cooker. When rice cooker switches off, allow rice to rest for 5 minutes. Fluff with a spatula or spoon before serving.

Crab cakes are a popular appetizer that you’ll find at most seafood restaurants. Here’s a wheat-free version that’s so tasty you might even enjoy it as a light meal on its own.

Ingredients:

  • 1 tsp grapeseed oil
  • 1 stalk celery, finely diced
  • 1 small onion, finely diced
  • 1 Tbsp fresh parsley, chopped
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup cooked brown rice
  • 1 tsp wheat-free tamari sauce
  • 1 tsp molasses
  • 1/2 tsp vinegar or lemon juice
  • 1 tsp dry mustard
  • 1/2 tsp sea salt
  • 12 oz flaked crabmeat, canned, rinsed, drained

1) In a large frying pan, heat oil over medium heat. Add celery, onion, and parsley, stirring 5 minutes until tender.

2) As vegetables are cooking, crack eggs into a medium mixing bowl. Beat until smooth. Mix in remaining ingredients. Add cooked vegetables to egg and rice mixture. Add crabmeat and mix well.

3) Heat a generously oiled large frying pan over medium heat.

4) Form crab mixture into patties by pressing into a 1/3 cup (185ml) measuring cup. Lightly squeeze out excess liquid, leaving patties moist. Tap patty out into frying pan, and press down gently to ensure good contact with the cooking surface. Repeat, leaving space between patties.

5) Fry patties 1-2 minutes per side until cooked through and browned. Serve alone, with mayonnaise, or with hummus to dip.

These moist cupcakes make a great substitute for a cake. Arrange them on tiered cake stands for an impressive display, or simply serve on a large plate. Serve plain or frosted, and for a special touch, top each with a fresh raspberry.

Ingredients:

  • 5 eggs
  • 1-1/4 cups grapeseed oil
  • 2 Tbsp vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup maple syrup
  • 1/4 tsp stevia powder
  • 1/2 cup lemon juice
  • 2 tsp baking soda
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 2-1/2 cups brown rice flour
  • 2 cups sweet rice flour
  • 1-1/2 cups rice milk or other substitute

1) Preheat oven to 350ºF (175ºC). Line cupcake tray with large paper liners.

2) Beat eggs with electric beater until thick and pale, approximately 5 minutes. Gradually mix in oil, vanilla, maple, stevia, and lemon juice.

3) In separate bowl, sift baking soda, baking powder, and flours.

4) Add flour mixture to wet ingredients alternately with spoonfuls of rice milk until all ingredients are well combined. Scoop batter into cupcake liners, filling 3/4 full.

5) Bake for approximately 20-25 minutes, or until skewer inserted into centre comes out clean.

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