Gluten Free Grains 101: What can you eat?

Gluten Free

I eliminated gluten from my diet in August of 2008. At that time, most people had never heard of gluten, gluten allergies, gluten intolerance, or Celiac Disease. When I told my officemates at them time, my friend Lisa said: “What’s a gluten?” They were seriously confused. Fortunately, in the 3 years that I’ve been gluten free, more and more information about the intolerance is becoming part of mainstream knowledge.

My new dietary restrictions were confusing to me at first, too. I knew that it was the protein in wheat and other grains. I knew that I couldn’t eat bread or drink beer anymore, but that’s about the extent of my knowledge. Now I know that there are many grains that don’t contain gluten or contain a small enough amount that it might not bother people with intolerances. People with severe allergies and/or Celiac Disease will need to be more cautious and consult their doctor if they are unsure about what grains they can consume.

Here are some grains that are generally safe for people with gluten intolerances –

  • Rice – This one grain opens up tons of possibilities for cooking and baking. Being able to eat rice means that rice flour is acceptable, too. Rice flour is the base for a lot of gluten free baking mixes. I’ve even made my own rice flour with organic brown rice and a coffee bean grinder. If you don’t have gluten free pasta handy, rice is a great alternative.
  • Quinoa (pronounced keen-wah) – This is one of my all-time favorite grains and one I had no idea existed until I went gluten free. Quinoa originates from South American and was believed by the Incans to be the “Mother of all Grains”. It is also a great source of amino acids and a complete vegan protein (source). Quinoa cooks quickly, which makes it an easy option for weeknight dinners. I cook it in my rice cooker and it takes all of 15 minutes. Make sure you rinse your quinoa thoroughly first in a fine sieve. I use quinoa like I would use rice, in vegetable salads, and in baked casseroles.
  • Corn – Thank goodness for corn and corn meal. Corn allows us gluten intolerant folk to eat Mexican food (corn tortillas) and Thanksgiving dinner (cornbread dressing), with just a few minor adjustments to cooking ingredients or corn flour. I make quesadillas with corn tortillas and my mom has been making cornbread dressing at Thanksgiving for several years with 100% cornmeal. I need to get that recipe. Also check into polenta, if you’ve never had it. It’s a great substitution in Italian cooking and a versatile ingredient that most people have never tried.
  • Oats – Oats can be tricky to gluten intolerant people. Oats themselves are gluten-free, but the cross contamination is so likely that is makes eating them risky. Also, some varieties of oats can trigger symptoms in celiac patients and not in people with simple intolerances. To be on the safe side, gluten-free oats are available in most health food stores. These have been kept from cross contamination. I grind oats in my food processor or coffee grinder to make oat flour. I then make muffins, pancakes, or quick bread with the flour like these Cinnamon Raisin Muffins.
  • Buckwheat – I know it has a confusing name, but buckwheat is a plant that has no relation to actual wheat. Buckwheat is closer in relation to sunflower seeds. The flour from buckwheat is usually added to gluten-free baking mixes and buckwheat noodles (soba) are a staple in Japanese food. It’s also used in the making of gluten free beer.

This list isn’t exhaustive, but needless to say there are lots of options for gluten intolerant folks. Kids are more receptive to trying new things that you might initially think. Make it a goal to try one new gluten free grain a week or month. It will be a while before you get bored. Good luck!

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My Gluten Free Journey

gluten-free

In January of 2007, I was diagnosed with Graves Disease (Autoimmune Hyper-Thyroidism). The doctors gave me 2 options for treatment –

  1. Use radioactive iodine to obliterate my thyroid and be on thyroid hormones for the rest of my life.
  2. Take a round of anti-thyroid drugs for 18 months and see if, by chance, the disease goes into remission.

I know it sounds like #2 is the obvious choice, but most doctors in the U.S. recommend option #1. The only reason my doctor let me go with option #2 was because I was breastfeeding my son. Only one anti-thyroid drug is safe for breastfeeding mothers, so if it didn’t work I’d be forced to take the radioactive iodine.

Luckily a few months in, my symptoms subsided. The meds were working. I was also taking beta blockers during this time, because my resting pulse was around 140 (:-O). As my treatment progressed, I could tell that the disease wasn’t going into remission. If I forgot to take my meds (either one), my pulse would race and I’d get hand tremors again. I was devastated to know that at the end of the 18 months I would probably have to have my thyroid obliterated.

So in a last ditch effort, I started scouring the internet and reading about correlations between diet and Graves Disease. One thing that kept coming up in searches, was the link between hyperthyroidism and gluten intolerance. I only had a few months left on my meds, so I didn’t have anything to lose. I made a simple grocery list that cut out all bread, cookies, crackers, and grains and went gluten-free. The first day was tough. When you’re accustomed to eating sandwiches and pizza and breads, cutting it out cold-turkey feels strange. On the second day, I noticed increased energy. I had been falling asleep in my afternoon meetings for months and now all of the sudden I was WIDE awake. By day three, I was convinced. I didn’t need a doctor or a blood test to tell me that this was good for my body. Most of the time, our bodies will tell us what it needs. We just aren’t conditioned to listen to it.

So I was now gluten-free. I had increased energy. My digestion was regular. My skin cleared up. It was amazing.

A few months later when it was time to stop taking the anti-thyroid drugs, I did so cautiously. I was terrified at the prospect of taking drugs forever. Fortunately,  I stopped taking my meds and my symptoms DIDN’T return. I’m not a doctor (duh). I can’t tell you if it was finishing the round of drugs or the elimination of gluten that made my disease go into remission. But I do know that 2.5 years later my thyroid levels are “spot on” normal (just had them tested last month). And being gluten-free has had all kinds of wonderful positive side effects – like weight loss, clearer skin, more energy.

DISCLAIMER – I acknowledge my gluten intolerance and eat as gluten-free as possible. But I admit to not being a purist. Sometimes I go eat sushi and use regular soy sauce. I know that there is wheat in soy sauce. Sometimes it upsets my stomach sometimes it doesn’t. I don’t always worry about trace amounts. So please don’t eat what I eat and feel that it’s 100% gluten free. If you have Celiac or a more serious gluten allergy, use your own judgment.

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