While most of us had hardly heard of gluten a few years ago, going gluten-free has become a trend these days with increasing numbers of celebs crediting their toned bodies and vibrant smiles to ditching gluten-containing carbs.
And while this diet may add the glam factor to some, in reality, there is nothing sexy about a gluten allergy or intolerance.
Kloof nutritional counsellor Lucille Cholerton should know.
She has become an expert on the subject – through personal experience and 20 years of research, and has written a 600-page book Spotlight on Gluten (Strategic Publishing), that has received praise from several local doctors, as well as those with an interest in the subject.
Cholerton believes that gluten, a rubbery protein found in wheat, rye, barley and, to a lesser extent, oats, could be at the root of many health problems, from minor irritations such as runny noses to devastating conditions such as multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis.
Her first encounter with gluten and its effects occurred 20 years ago when her mother was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease, an auto-immune inflammatory bowel disorder.
“She was told to avoid seeds and nuts, which she ate very rarely, and I felt it had to be something she was eating on a regular basis that was causing this digestive problem,” says Lucille.
With no internet to surf in those days, it meant library research, which is where Cholerton found a possible link to gluten.
“I learnt that gluten could be the cause of many symptoms – all of which my family had, ranging from “glue ear” in babies to colic, nasal problems, asthma, anaemia, tingling and numbness in fingers or toes, a speech stammer, depression, constipation, hyperactivity, lactose intolerance, rheumatoid arthritis, irritability, headaches, migraines and behavioural problems, among others.”
Cholerton also noticed that when she ate bread, she suffered extreme indigestion. She consulted a dietitian who suggested eliminating gluten for two weeks and then, over the next two or three days, eating as much gluten as she could.
“The experiment changed my life for ever!”
Firstly, her sinuses dried up. After living with a drippy nose for 40 years and being treated with sprays, drying-up meds and sinus scrapes, it was a huge relief, she said.
Her headaches and migraines disappeared. After following a gluten-free diet for several months, she managed to avoid another sinus scrape, a hip replacement and eliminate her symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis.
It was also the start of healing of her three children’s health issues, including glue ear, stammering, vitiligo, allergies, anaemia, colic and more. By following a gluten-free diet, the family progressed towards glowing health. It also set Cholerton on a path of investigation into gluten sensitivity, a hereditary condition.
In those days, eating gluten-free was not as easy as it is today, with supermarkets, pharmacies, health stores and some bakeries now carrying yummy alternatives. But Cholerton was determined to provide gluten-free foods for her family (though her husband does not have gluten sensitivity) and to spread the word about what she believes is a simple solution to some of the biggest health problems facing the world today.
She established the Gluten Intolerance and Coeliac Support Group in 1995 and became a resource for people in South Africa and abroad. She trained as a nutrition counsellor and her journey and knowledge is condensed into her comprehensive book.
“The disorder should really be diagnosed in childhood but if it is missed, people can suffer for many years from unexplained symptoms when something they are eating every day could be the cause of their ill health.”
She stresses however that there are many people who can eat gluten with no ill effects and a gluten-free diet should only be followed after a professional diagnosis of gluten allergy or intolerance. Gluten sensitivity leads to many symptoms – mild in some, severe in others.
You should continue to eat gluten-containing foods before a blood sample is taken for the test, otherwise results will be inconclusive, she says.
One of the most dramatic finds for Cholerton was the suspected link between auto-immune diseases and gluten.
An auto-immune disease occurs when the antibodies or T-cells produced by the body attack its own tissues in error. They can affect connective tissue, both red and white blood cells, glands and major organs.
More than 20 auto-immune disorders are thought to be linked to gluten sensitivity, according to researchers, including Addison’s Disease, type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, Graves’ Disease (thyroid), multiple sclerosis, lupus and many more.
“I believe that anyone diagnosed with an auto-immune disease should be screened automatically for gluten antibodies,” says Cholerton.
The book covers in detail the effects of gluten in sensitive people on bowel complaints, digestive system disorders, digestive cancers and lymphoma, endocrine abnormalities, gynaecological disorders, migraine and headaches, metabolic disorders, neurological symptoms and psychological disorders.
“Could there be a link to Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, epilepsy, stroke and macular degeneration?” asks Cholerton. Many researchers in Europe and the US believe this to be true.
She has also seen dramatic improvements in children with autism. The landscape is huge.
Of course, there are those who are concerned about eliminating mainstream foods such as bread from the diet, but Cholerton says there are so many alternatives to gluten-containing foods – instead of bread and pasta, think rice and potatoes.
At parties, children can have sweets, ice-cream, jelly and chips but not the cakes and biscuits.
She recommends that at the first sign of sensitivity to any of the four grains, people should ask their doctors to test them with the specific screening tests for gluten antibodies as well as tests for wheat allergy. After that, they should try the elimination diet.
Durban general practitioner, Dr Garth Brink, says in a foreword in the book: “While this book is not armchair reading, it is a useful resource for those who wish to learn more on this subject, whether a sufferer or not.”
That it is.
Here’s a great gluten-free recipe to try out
Walnut mocha chocolate dessert cake
100g dark chocolate – melted with 1 Tbs hot water and 2tsp instant coffee granules (15 seconds in microwave 1200 watts)
6 eggs, separated
125g butter – melted
1 tsp vanilla essence
1/3 cup tapioca flour
1/3 cup potato flour
½ tsp baking powder
1/3 tsp salt
1 tsp Xanthan gum
½ cup plain yoghurt
150g ground walnuts (save 50g whole walnuts for decoration – or about 8)
1½ cups sifted icing sugar
125g softened butter
½ tsp vanilla essence
2 tsp coffee granules dissolved in 1 Tbs hot water
Glacé cherries to decorate
Grated chocolate to decorate
Walnuts to decorate
Toasted flaked almonds to decorate sides of cake
Melt chocolate and allow to cool.
Beat sugar and egg yolks together well.
Add melted butter, chocolate/coffee mix and vanilla and beat well.
Fold in flours, baking powder, salt and Xanthan gum that have been sifted together. Add yoghurt to the batter and stir well.
Fold in ground walnuts and stiffly beaten egg whites.
Divide cake batter into three and pour into three lined cake pans
Bake at 180ºC for 20 to 25 minutes (test with a skewer)
When cool, ice layers together, cover with butter icing and decorate.
Icing: Beat all ingredients together very well – you may need more butter and icing sugar since the whole cake needs to be covered with the icing.