As I explained in Diets That Heal, there are very good reasons for going gluten free beyond the fact that gluten is very hard to digest:
Gluten and casein free diets are commonly used in the treatment of autism. Gluten is a protein that comes from wheat and several other grains. Casein is a protein that comes from dairy products. These proteins have become ubiquitous in the Standard American Diet, found in everything from chicken nuggets to salad dressing. We often hear that removing gluten and casein from the diet is an excellent start toward healing. But why is this important? Gluten and casein are difficult to digest. They are common food sensitivities. And when they are improperly digested, peptides remain called gliadorphin (or gluteomorphin) and casomorphin, which react with opiate receptors in the brain, mimicking the effects of heroin and morphine. They can affect speech, cognitive and auditory processing, and decrease the ability to feel pain. These peptides also become addictive. This can be an issue in autism, ADHD, celiac disease, schizophrenia, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, depression and more.
Many people do not realize that gluten intolerance does not always manifest as digestive symptoms. Symptoms may be cognitive or behavioral, and there are many other physical symptoms. Thyroid problems, migraines, neuropathy, infertility, fatigue, hyperactivity, rashes, mood disorders, anemia and bone disorders are just a few examples of health problems related to gluten intolerance.
I encourage the people I work with on dietary changes to test for celiac disease with their doctor first before eliminating gluten because that is the only way to accurately test for it. This is important for a couple of reasons. If you are a celiac, gluten exposure can really jeopardize your health and you will want to adhere to a strict gluten-free diet for life and be very cautious with cross-contamination. If this is not an issue for you, you can relax about that aspect. I also tend to think that a positive celiac test may have implications for treatment down the road, or perhaps health insurance coverage of alternative foods. Knowledge is power.
Once you do remove gluten, know that it can take months to get the peptides out of your system, so you may continue to see symptoms for a while.
With all gluten-free (GF) diets, celiac or not, it is important to be very strict or you can undermine the entire diet. If you do test positive for celiac disease, strict avoidance is crucial for health.
Here are some tips for avoiding contamination (particularly important for those with serious gluten allergies or celiac disease):
It is difficult with picky eaters to remove gluten (and casein) from the diet, particularly because of their addictive properties. If changing the diet dramatically overnight will not work for your family, a good approach is to first remove gluten (and casein if desired) foods from the diet, replacing the foods you like to eat with gluten free and casein free options, even if the food you are substituting with is not the nutritious fare you ideally want to eat. It is becoming quite easy to find gluten and casein free options. Most find that once the addictions to gluten and casein are broken it is much easier to transition toward a more nutrient-dense diet. You can learn more about how to do this in my post Is There a Picky Eater at Your Table?
You do not, however, want to fall into the habit of using GF convenience foods that are less than nutritious for the long term. I have heard several experts assert that gluten free processed food is even less nutritious than their gluten-containing equivalent. Your typical gluten-containing supermarket refined foods are enriched with vitamins and minerals to provide a safety net. GF replacements are often lower in fiber, vitamins, and minerals. They are also often loaded with sugar. GF processed foods can take “nutritionally empty” to a new low, so read those labels carefully. If you are eating real food and a balanced diet you are in good shape. You can transition into a real food diet at the pace your family is comfortable with.
You can find gluten-free pasta, cereal, bread, crackers, waffles, pancakes, brownies, cakes, cookies and more at most natural food stores, and many supermarkets.
Always, always, ALWAYS read labels. Gluten hides in the most unexpected packages. For example, spice blends may contain gluten. Some vanilla extracts and baking powders contain gluten. Some processed meats such as hot dogs and sausages contain gluten. Some potato chips and fries can be dusted with gluten. Many candies contain gluten. Many alcoholic beverages contain gluten. You must read all labels carefully. Even your vitamins and supplements and toothpaste can contain gluten. If something contains an ambiguous ingredient, such as “spices”, you will want to investigate. Gluten is EVERYWHERE.
Gluten Free Goddess – lots of great gluten free recipes!
Gluten-Free Homemaker – great resource for gluten free recipes. Her newer recipes are casein free and often soy free too.
Simply…Gluten Free – amazing recipes that are gluten free. Also great assortment of casein free and nut free recipes.
Elana’s Pantry – a great resource for many grain free, gluten free and often casein free recipes.
Ginger Lemon Girl – wonderful recipes are gluten free and often casein and soy free.
The Spunky Coconut – you can find really novel ideas for gluten free, casein free and refined sugar free recipes here.