You might have noticed that popular media is riddled with references to and jokes about people who refuse to eat gluten. Why can’t some people eat gluten? And why do those who can eat gluten choose to eliminate it from their diet? Should you be eating gluten?
Gluten is a type of protein that can be found in foods like pasta and beer. The protein comes from grains, including wheat, rye, spelt and barley.
Most people can probably eat these foods in moderation. But people who suffer from coeliac disease are not so lucky and will need to find gluten-free alternatives if they want to continue enjoying pasta.
What is coeliac disease?
According to Lila Bruk, registered dietician and spokesperson for the Association for Dietetics in South Africa (ADSA), coeliac disease is a condition in which the body has an immune reaction to gluten. When exposed to gluten, people with coeliac disease can experience an inflammatory response, which can damage the intestinal lining in the long term.
“It can also lead to malabsorption of certain nutrients and various symptoms such as fatigue, bloating, diarrhoea, cramps and joint pain,” Bruk warns.
Why do people without coeliac disease decide to go gluten-free?
“Many people without coeliac disease, but who suffer from digestive discomfort, try eliminating gluten to see if their symptoms resolve,” Bruk explains.
This is because there is a chance that symptoms may improve with the elimination of gluten in very refined forms (such as white bread), rather than the gluten itself being an issue.
“There is also non-coeliac gluten sensitivity, which is a true sensitivity to gluten, but is not diagnosable as coeliac disease itself.”
But is it necessary to stop eating gluten?
The good news is that if you don’t have coeliac disease, you can eat gluten without worrying about it. But if you suffer from coeliac disease, it is essential to cut gluten out of your diet.
According to Bruk, some people believe that eliminating gluten helps with weight loss. But that is not the case, she says. A calorie deficit needs to be created to allow for weight loss; not the elimination of gluten.
“It may be that cutting out the gluten-containing cakes and biscuits assists with weight loss,” Bruk says. “But this is then due to the calorie deficit created by cutting out these foods, rather than the elimination of gluten per se.”
Gluten-free recipes to try
Bruk directed Health For Mzansi to a delicious gluten-free recipe to try on her favourite recipe blog Skinny Taste:
Peanut-braised chicken breasts
• ½ small red cabbage, shredded (about 4½ cups)
• 1 cup shredded carrots
• 2 limes, halved
• 2 tsp olive oil
• 1½ tsp salt
• 4 small boneless, skinless chicken breasts, (about 170g each)
• Pepper, to taste
• 1½ cups water
• ¼ cup peanut butter, natural, no sugar added
• 1 tbsp Sriracha chili sauce, plus more for serving
• 1 tbsp grated ginger
• 1 large garlic clove, grated
• brown rice or veggie rice, optional for serving
• dhania, optional for garnish
- Mix the cabbage and carrots with the juice of 1 lime, 1 tsp olive oil and ¾ tsp salt. Taste and add the juice of up to another half lime if you like. Let it marinate while you make the chicken.
- Season the chicken with the remaining ¾ tsp salt and pepper.
- Heat a large non-stick skillet over medium-high heat until hot.
- Add the remaining 1 tsp oil and the chicken and cook until the chicken is golden on one side, about 5 minutes.
- Flip the chicken and add the water, peanut butter, Sriracha, ginger and garlic.
- Bring to a boil and use your spatula to help dissolve the peanut butter.
- Reduce the heat and simmer, flipping the chicken occasionally to baste it and stir the sauce around, until the chicken is cooked through, and the sauce has reduced, about 20 minutes, depending on the size of your chicken breasts.
- Let the chicken rest for 5 minutes then slice.
- Juice the last lime half into the peanut sauce and stir so the sauce smooths out again.
- Divide the vegetables among four plates, top each with sliced chicken, spoon the peanut sauce over and serve with rice on the side.
- Garnish with dhania.