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Have Your Cake And Eat It, Too: Gluten-Free Holidays

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With the holiday season right around the corner, you’re probably already planning your gatherings with family and friends. But if you or anyone in your circle is on a gluten-free diet, you also may be wondering what your food options are going to be for this time of year.

Gluten sensitivity is a significant health issue with serious consequences for those who need to avoid gluten and don’t.

The consequences of eating a food contain gluten are immediately apparent for many: Bloating, cramping and other digestive discomforts that appear shortly after consuming gluten.

For others, symptoms may be minimal or non-existent at first; but inside the body, the immune system is reacting by producing inflammation in the digestive tract and elsewhere. Long-term consequences include increased risk of chronic diseases with have their roots in inflammation. These include brain and neurological diseases, osteoporosis, periodontal issues, autoimmune diseases and even cancer.

Gluten sensitivity can be tested in a number of different ways, including a cheek swab genetic test. Since there is a strong genetic component to this increasingly common problem, having this knowledge can be very important for children and other family members. Catching gluten issues early and making the necessary dietary changes can make a huge difference later in life. Check with your healthcare provider for the latest gluten sensitivity tests.

Treatment of gluten sensitivity has one basic component: complete avoidance of gluten, period. In addition, since eating gluten triggers inflammation in the gut, the digestive system needs support and repair. Most people who are gluten-sensitive have varying degrees of digestive dysfunction and compromise from decades of eating gluten.

Repair And Restore

The next steps after eliminating gluten are to repair the sensitive absorptive lining of the gut, support the production of enzymes, balance and support healthy immune function, and restore probiotic bacterial colonies. In my practice, along with gut-healing foods like bone broth and fermented foods, I recommend specific herbs and nutrients such as cinnamon, galangal, ginger, cardamom, pomegranate, L-glutamine, black pepper, zinc, chromium polynicotinate and digestive enzymes as well as medicinal mushrooms, which have a long history of supporting immune and digestive function. A good-quality probiotic along with fermented cultured foods such as yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchee and kefir helps restore healthy bacterial populations.

Have Your Gluten-Free Cake

Sauerkraut and bone broth can be lifesavers for your digestive system, but they certainly don’t make the most festive holiday foods.

So what do we do this time of year?

Well, thanks to the growing gluten-free movement, the news is good. Essentially, you can have your cake (pie, pastries, cookies, etc.) and eat it, too. The health food industry has responded to the demand for gluten-free foods and baking products in all categories, from main dishes to rich desserts, fluffy breads and cakes, etc. It’s important to scrutinize labels and look for the “gluten-free” designation. “Wheat-free” or “made from spelt” doesn’t count (they probably contain gluten).

Flour Power

If you want to do your own baking, there are a number of gluten-free flours available either as single ingredients or in combination. You can also purchase pre-made mixes.

Many of these varieties are quite rich and make excellent pastries and desserts. Flour types include chestnut, quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat (not related to wheat or gluten), rice, coconut and almond.

If you are new to gluten-free baking, though, start out by following a specifically gluten-free recipe. Many recipes are easily available online, and a number of gluten-free baking books have hit the market recently. Following your favorite recipe and just substituting gluten-free flour is risky for taste and texture. There are other adjustments that need to be made in order to make the perfect bakery item with gluten-free flours.

It’s a bit easier to make pie. Gluten-free pie crusts are available at your local health food store or you can make your own. Be sure to use a thickener such as cornstarch or tapioca.

Stuffing substitutes include bread crumbs made from gluten free breads or from corn bread. I suggest you buy pre-packaged gluten free crumbs since making your own can be risky. Some of the gluten-free breads are made with ingredients that won’t hold together well when absorbing the moisture of your turkey but gluten-free cooking experts have worked out these kinks. Another alternative is to use a rice-based stuffing, incorporating precooked rice along with the usual ingredients.

There are many delicious gluten-free snack items to serve as well. Nuts and dried fruit, hummus and chips, or crackers made from rice, quinoa or beans are always a hit. Vegetables of all kinds are gluten-free and provide a welcome healthy alternative to grain-based snacks.

The Gluten-Free Life

There are a number of online sites for those with gluten sensitivity that list foods and food products that are gluten-free. They also warn about foods that contain gluten, which can often be a hidden, unlabeled additive in a number of different packaged foods for thickening, etc.

In addition, the publication Gluten-Free Living is an excellent resource with menu ideas, ingredient information, events and more: Read it here.

Enjoy your holidays, stay healthy and have fun with the adventure of creating gluten-free delights, or head to your local natural foods store and do some taste testing.

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