The Gluten-Free Vegan Diet: Easier than it Sounds
by Laura Brun
Recent studies suggest that 1 in 250 people are living with celiac disease, a lifelong, dangerous intolerance to gluten-containing foods such as wheat, rye, kamut, spelt, barley and oats. An even larger percentage of the population suffers allergy, sensitivity, or food intolerance to glutens, without having full-blown celiac disease. For those following a strict vegan diet, imposing a gluten restriction considerably reduces already reduced menu options. But while a gluten-free vegan diet requires extra creativity and vigilance, it can be maintained–deliciously. After years of experimentation, I decided to share what I have learned.
If you’ve been diagnosed with or suspect celiac disease or a wheat allergy, the severity of your symptoms will determine how much you change your diet. For celiacs, ingestion of proteins (glutens) found in cereal grains damage the small intestines and can result in abdominal cramping, anemia, low bone density and body weight, lupus, fatigue, depression, and a host of other ills. The only known treatment for celiac disease is a lifelong avoidance of all glutens. On the other hand, people who suffer wheat or gluten sensitivity usually feel better on a gluten-free diet, but they may grow to tolerate some forms of “forbidden grains.” For example, eating durum or semolina pasta gives me an excruciating migraine headache, yet I have no problem eating sprouted Ezekiel bread.
Glutens can affect our health in surprising ways. Particularly if you have unsuccessfully “tried everything” to treat a health issue, you might want to try a gluten-elimination diet. When you reintroduce glutens, observe your reactions. Acne, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, fibromyalgia, headaches, constipation, and asthma are some of the many problems occasionally relieved by avoiding gluten.
Unfortunately, wheat and its gluten-containing cousins appear in more foods than you might expect. Reading labels only helps if you can recognize the ingredients. Some hidden forms of gluten include:
- modified food starch
- textured vegetable protein
- hydrolyzed plant protein
- extenders and binders
- hydrolyzed vegetable protein
Most restaurant and canned soups contain flour, pasta or barley, and commercial enchilada sauces and “Spanish rice” mixes usually contain some form of wheat. At this point, all packaged veggie burgers and sausages contain wheat; however, a gluten-free veggie burger will supposedly be released by mid-2004. Always check the ingredient list, even on products like Rice Chex, which uses malt as a sweetener. Kashi cereal, which contains kashi, or buckwheat (a non-gluten grain), also contains wheat.
Due to the growing demand for gluten-free processed foods, a number of companies have begun to offer nut and rice crackers to replace more traditional snacks, and many health food stores carry at least one gluten-free cereal. Mochi, a Japanese rice treat, contains no gluten and can often be found in the refrigerated section of natural food stores. The cinnamon raisin version with a little “vegan butter” usually satisfies my craving for cinnamon buns. Arrowhead Mills also offers a wide variety of flours and gluten-free products, available in most health food stores and online. Following a whole foods, organic diet will not necessarily remove all the hidden glutens from your plate. If you prefer home baked goods, then Bette Hagmann’s The Gluten-Free Gourmet belongs in your kitchen. She includes recipes for two flour mixtures that exchange cup for cup with all-purpose flour. Hagmann also offers recipes for biscuits, potpies, stews, and other tasty, normally wheat-laden treats. Unfortunately, few of her recipes are vegan, and Hagmann does not address typical vegan alternatives. Because glutens can comprise so much of a vegan diet, I list suggested substitutions alongside the offending foods:
|Semolina or durum (wheat) pasta||Rice, corn or quinoa pasta|
|Udon noodles||Rice or (sometimes) soba noodles|
|Soy sauce||Wheat-free tamari|
|Worcestershire sauce||Bragg’s Liquid Aminos|
|Seitan (“wheat meat”)||Tempeh or baked tofu|
|Bulgur (in tabouleh, salads and some chilis)||Quinoa|
|Couscous||Quinoa or millet|
|Flour tortillas (also the base for most “wraps”)||Corn tortillas|
|Regular cornbread||Use quinoa meal instead of flour|
|Flour for frying||Rice flour or corn meal|
|Thickening for soups||Arrowroot, potato starch, corn starch|
In some cases, people seem to tolerate certain types of glutens, while experiencing symptoms from others. Those allergic to wheat might be able to eat spelt, kamut or rye, for example, (although most “rye bread” contains a lot of wheat). Sprouting grains increases the availability of enzymes that support digestion, and combining a variety of grains lessens the impact of any one allergen. For this reason, moderate allergy sufferers can sometimes enjoy tortillas and breads made from a mixture of sprouted grains. If so, you’re in for a treat, because Ezekiel products-the most popular brand of sprouted breads-taste delicious. They also more closely resemble the texture and density of bread, when compared to the totally gluten-free frozen loaves.
Eating out in restaurants poses special challenges for the gluten-free vegan. As if eating out as a vegan weren’t challenging enough! A little planning can make the difference between eating only a salad-no croutons!-or enjoying a meal with everybody else. Ethnic restaurants tend to provide the most options.
In particular, Thai food usually relies on rice noodles or rice, rather than the typical wheat pasta of Italian fare. (Ask for curries without fish sauce.) Indian food offers another relatively safe haven, so long as you order non-fried entrees and abstain from the enticing array of breads. (Watch out for ghee, or clarified butter.) Inquire ahead of time if the teff-based Ethiopian Injera contains wheat flour. If not, you can sop up the vegetarian platter just like all the other diners. Chinese food unfortunately contains a lot of wheat, unless you opt for plain steamed vegetables or some garlic sauces. Anything with soy sauce is probably out, unless the cook uses wheat-free tamari. At Mexican restaurants, you can order vegetarian entrees with corn tortillas and no cheese. Watch out for sides of rice, though. Unless the restaurant offers fresh brown rice, then their mix probably uses modified food starch or flour. (Also ask if they put lard in their refried beans.) If all else fails, you can probably create your own “entrée” by ordering several sides of vegetables without butter.
What happens if someone invites you over for dinner? I personally dread this one, especially if the host is neither a vegan nor a celiac. It’s one thing to scour a menu for options and play it off casually-quite another to seem like an ungracious guest or picky eater. Close friends know and accept my peculiar diet, but acquaintances rarely understand its guidelines. I usually explain that I’m vegan and then offer to bring something substantial. If they assure me that’s not necessary, then I mention the wheat allergy and extend a second offer to bring food.
If they still want to serve the entire meal, it helps to give menu suggestions rather than a list of things you cannot or will not eat. For example, “I can eat any kind of rice pasta, any vegetables, or any bean dish as long as you use wheat-free soy sauce.” After a few more details, people often hit upon “the perfect menu idea! How does this sound?” If it sounds good, I recommend you go with it. If it really will not work, then it helps to be clear about potential modifications. The easier you make your diet seem, the less of an imposition it becomes to you or anyone else.
Over the years, I have personally struggled with more than a gluten allergy. To varying degrees, I also react to soy, corn and most tree nuts. Nonetheless, I eat an incredibly wide array of vegetables and grains. Once you familiarize yourself with ingredients, it becomes easier to focus on delicious meals you can eat. When you discover just how well you feel without all those allergens, you are bound to experience new levels of dining pleasure!