Glamorous and Gluten Free
They’re enviably talented, beautiful, powerful and successful, sure, but what else do Rachel Weisz, Julia Roberts, Zooey Deschanel and Victoria Beckham have in common? Ever wondered what their secret to glowing skin and healthy locks is? Surprisingly, the answer isn’t that they share a Hollywood dermatologist or started using anti-wrinkle cream when they were thirteen. Rather, they all abide by one simple, two word mantra. Gluten free.
In recent years, while many diets and cleanses have come and gone, the craze for cutting wheat has continued to gather momentum, with many high profile stars waxing lyrical about the advantages of eliminating processed bread, cakes and wheat flour. And it seems, unlike the cayenne pepper and maple syrup craze, this time they may be onto something.
As gluten free advocates are keen to point out, our digestive systems haven’t evolved since the days when we were all wearing loin cloths, while our diets have changed quite dramatically. Those cavemen may have gone hunting and gathering for bison, but it’s unlikely they then turned it into burgers and slapped it in a bread bun. The argument, therefore, is that by removing unnaturally processed and refined white flour based goods and getting back to basics, our bodies respond in a more positive way.
The Science Bit
So what is gluten? While it may have a carb-tastic reputation, it is in fact a protein, found in wheat, rye, barley or spelt and used to hold bread together and help it rise. More than a little common in our day to day carb intake, gluten is also found in breakfast cereals, pastas, ice cream and cakes, as well as many pre-prepared and packaged foods.
As its usage has increased, so too have diagnoses of coeliac disease, a disorder which leaves sufferers unable to digest gluten and which, in extreme cases, can prove life threatening. However, dieticians report a significant rise in non-coeliacs looking to remove wheat from their diet for a huge variety of reasons, with research suggesting elimination can hold benefits for dozens of different conditions such as auto-immune disorders, gynecological problems and even skin complaints like eczema.
Lily Mueller-Valkenberg, nutritionist and therapist at The Dubai Herbal and Treatment Centre, says patients come to her with a variety of complaints including constipation, gas, bloating, lack of energy, headaches and different body aches and pains, which can often be attributed to food intolerances.
“With an allergy, you notice immediately,” she says. “You get watery eyes, a rash or you start sneezing. Intolerances are different. You might not feel the effects until the next day. You might feel bloated or have sinus problems, but it might not be straight after you’ve eaten the food.”
Let’s be honest. Unless necessary to cure a debilitating illness, for many of us, the thought of sacrificing bread and cakes forever more is something just short of a disaster – not to mention the fact that the typical Middle Eastern diet, with its pitta, cracked wheat packed tabbouleh and baklawa, does not exactly shout gluten free friendly. However, while it may seem like an impossible task, help is now at hand locally for those determined to make double crust pizzas a thing of the past.
The recent rise in awareness has had a profound effect on supermarkets across the UAE, with more and more companies now stocking specialist wheat free breads, pastas and even alcohol and gluten free beers. “Awareness of coeliac disease has spurred the growth of gluten free food products,” says Dr Sanjida Ahmed, director of research at Eastern Biotech & Life Sciences. “Restaurants and bakeries in the UAE are fulfilling demand for gluten free goods by revamping cooking and baking procedures and using only the cleanest wheat alternatives.” The upshot of this increased availability is that it’s never been easier to cut wheat from your diet while enjoying life in the UAE and, for many experts, the health benefits are unquestionable.
According to Dr Ahmed, “By eliminating products from the diet that contain gluten, you may find yourself instead consuming more fresh, whole and organic foods. This in itself will be greatly beneficial to your overall health as it will mean that your chances of consuming processed foods will be virtually eliminated”. In addition, foods such as buckwheat, millet, quinoa and rice are good satisfying alternatives to cous cous and pasta. And while many ‘gluten free’ foods do not meet the recommended levels of iron, fibre or thiamine or are low in folate, alternatives such as spinach, asparagus, broccoli and lentils will make up the folate shortfall while chick peas, beans and red meat can boost iron levels.
So, how safe is it to eliminate certain foods from your diet altogether? According to Dr Valkenberg, “You should never eliminate whole food groups. Half of your food intake should be fruit and vegetables, half should be carbohydrates and some healthy, chemical free protein. The key is good variation and rotation in your diet”.
As well as helping your system on the inside, many people have reported benefits to their skin after adopting this healthier lifestyle. In his new book, Wheat Belly: Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight, and Find Your Path Back to Health, Dr William Davis argues that the world’s most popular grain is also its most destructive dietary ingredient. “I have a patient who has a flushed, red face with big puffy bags under her eyes. She goes wheat free and within one to two weeks that flushed redness has receded, the puffiness has disappeared and the bags have improved dramatically. There’s no study on this, but I’ve seen it happen over and over and over again”.
In addition, by eating a diet full of fruit and vegetables but low in processed carbohydrates, many women have experienced significant weight loss – indeed, supermodel Heidi Klum credited a gluten free diet for her dramatic post baby weight loss.
Shop, don’t sacrifice
So, the health benefits may be great, but in reality, it would be fair to question the ease of following such a strict regime, particularly when you add long working hours, canapé receptions and the UAE’s reliance on takeout to the equation. But while it might seem daunting, founder of Gluten Free UAE, Linda Forster, may just have the answer.
Since her daughter was diagnosed with coeliac disease, Linda has been spreading the gluten free mantra, campaigning for better local awareness and understanding of the condition and attracting a wide online following. She says that following a wheat free regime here has become far easier in the last couple of years. “The first shopping trip after my daughter was diagnosed took me two hours and I had eight things in my basket! I remember bursting into tears. But part of that was that there was no support and information – I had no help. Now, there are people who can meet you for coffee, take you shopping or even come over to the house to sort out your kitchen cupboards. The help is there.”
As if highlighting the change in local provision, one Dubai-based company is now ensuring that going gluten free needn’t even mean giving up your beloved Thursday afternoon cupcake. Starting from a small kitchen in 2005, the UAE’s first gluten free bakery specialist, Sweet Connection, began a delivery service last year and has been keeping coeliacs in the city happy ever since.
Set up after her sister was diagnosed with coeliac disease, founder Areej Jomaa knows the difficulty many face being able stick to their regime and still enjoy the occasional treat. As such, her range of products is a far cry from your average ‘gluten free poor excuse for something tasty muffin’. From gluten, dairy and egg free double chocolate mocha biscottis to ginger cookies with apricot jam, it’s one of a number of outlets making sure that these days, ladies, you really can have your (gluten free) cake and eat it.
Want to go gluten free but need a bit of a helping hand? We’ve rounded up the resources here in the UAE that can help make it easy…
• Find reassurance among friends with support group Gluten Free UAE www.glutenfreeuae.com
• The Dubai Herbal and Treatment Centre provides allergy and intolerance testing www.dubaihtc.com
• Organic Foods & Café stocks the largest range of gluten free products in the region. Or if you’ve no time to shop, order from the first 100% gluten free online store www.organicfoodsandcafe.com & www.glutenfree-supermarket.ae
• Sweet Connection is your first stop for cakes, cupcakes and biscuits www.sweetconnectiondubai.com
• Eating in? 800 Pizza’s gluten free range ensures you needn’t ditch pizza and pasta www.800pizza.ae
• Eating out? Carluccios, P.F Chang’s and Balance Café all have gluten free menus available upon request.