Many more people are gluten insensitive than is commonly believed. Shonali Muthalaly on the case for giving up wheat

“I had no sense of well being till I went gluten free.” “I don't use my inhaler anymore.” “My skin rashes disappeared.” The testimonials are startlingly earnest. Although food fads come and go with wearying regularity, perhaps it's time we investigated wheat. Why are a small but steadily increasing number of people going gluten-free, and saying it's changed their lives.

Perceived as a ‘Western disease,' gluten sensitivity has never really been taken seriously in India. Its most extreme form is Celiac disease, caused by acute allergy to gluten, present in wheat and related grains such as barley and rye. A lack of awareness has meant it remains highly under-diagnosed. Last year Dr. B.S. Ramakrishna, Professor and Head, Department of Gastroenterology, CMC Vellore, wrote an editorial in the Indian Journal of Medical Research calling Celiac disease an “impending epidemic,” and stating that “what we see clinically is the tip of an iceberg that threatens to grow bigger”.

Meanwhile, fitness professionals and nutritionists are noticing that many people have non-celiac gluten sensitivity. Unlike traditional allergies, which cause immediate reactions, gluten sensitivity is harder to pin down since it's gradual and comes in various forms: headaches, stomach cramps, bloating, anxiety, depression… This is why Chennai-based NCCA-accredited fitness trainers Raj Ganpath and Arvind Ashok, who run The Quad, advise all their clients to go completely gluten-free for six weeks as an experiment, to understand their allergies and heal their guts.

“Hippocrates said ‘all disease begins in the gut,' and gluten can gradually erode the villi in your small intestine, prohibiting your body from absorbing nutrients from food,” says Arvind, adding that almost “everyone suffers from some gluten sensitivity”. Yet, he adds, people resist giving up their chappatis, bread, pizza and pasta. ‘Our grandparents ate this' doesn't hold good any more since we're now consuming new strains of wheat. Dr. B.S. Ramakrishna concurs, stating that unlike ancient diploid wheat varieties, “modern hexaploid wheat has highly antigenic glutens, more capable of inducing celiac disease”.

Raj and Arvind don't stop with restrictions on wheat — they recommend drastically cutting down on grains, replacing them with ‘Real Food,' that is, organic fruits and vegetables, lean meats, wild caught seafood, country eggs, milk and milk products. Raj says he gave up wheat when he discovered it triggered his asthma. Now he advises clients to do the same. Before you cry into your aloo-parathas, here's the kicker. “The key is to heal your gut. To make it stronger.” Once you do that, even if you are gluten sensitive, you can eat pasta occasionally. You'll be fine, as long as wheat doesn't go back to being a diet staple.

Unless of course you're a Celiac. Jeeva George-Abraham was forced to completely give up gluten when diagnosed with Celiac a few years ago. “I've always had a sensitive stomach. Then in 2009, I had a spate of infections, swollen ankles, rashes...” She was consistently misdiagnosed, a result of a lack of awareness of the condition. Next came depression and anxiety so debilitating, she found herself unable to work. “I finally decided to quit my job and find out what was wrong.” She was eventually tested for wheat allergy. “It changed my life.”

Going gluten-free means more than giving up bread and chappatis. “Soya sauce has wheat. Sambar has asafoetida. Cornflakes have malt extract. There was so little information available, so I figured out a lot of things on my own,” says Jeeva. Today, she runs the Facebook page ‘Gluten Free Living in India,' offering advice and recipes. Like others, she says that the Indian diet, particularly the rice-dependent South Indian one, offers more options for a diet low in gluten.

Meanwhile, gluten-free businesses are slowly germinating. In Bangalore Shwetha Muthanna runs the Gluten Free Bread Boutique using a range of approved ingredients to make bread, bagels, pizza dough and cookies: sorghum, rice, millet, tapioca, corn flour, guar gum, flaxmeal, honey and fruit pulp.

Dr. Ramakrisha says more Indians are being diagnosed with celiac disease. He cautions that since “wheat has higher protein content than other cereals we should not restrict it in someone who does not have a problem with it.” While millets are substitutes, he says they do not contain as much protein as wheat.

If you suspect you are gluten sensitive but giving it up for ever seems too hard, try Raj and Arvind's six-week experiment. “Try it honestly. In the end, at the very worst, you've not eaten chappatis for six weeks,” says Raj, adding, “If you want to go somewhere you have never been, you have to do something you have never done.”

WHAT’S OUT

Cakes, biscuits, doughnuts

Chapatis/ wheat bread

Asafoetida

Beer

Some health drinks

WHAT’S IN

Rice and rice-based items such

as dosa, idly, pongal, appam etc.

Ragi, bajra and jowar

Curd, lassi, milk and cream

Fruits and vegetables

Ice cream and kulfi

Recipes you could try

Executive Chef of Sheraton Park Hotel and Towers, Praveen Anand and his team created a gluten-free caseinfree menu for the V-Excel Educational Trust, an NGO working for children with mental and developmental disabilities. With the help of a dietician, they came up with about 50 recipes for the school and children’s parents. “Fortunately in India we have different kinds of grains to choose from: jowar, bajra, ragi,” says Chef Praveen. His bank of recipes is now also used for hotel guests with allergies.

Pohe ki tikki

Ingredients

Thin poha: 11/2 cup

Potato, boiled and mashed: 1

Garam masala:1tsp

Crushed pepper powder: a pinch

Coriander finely chopped

Amchur powder: to taste (optional)

Some peas (optional)

Method

Mix all the ingredients with the potato, taste and adjust any seasonings.

Take a small portion and make a ball by rolling it in between your palms, then press it a bit to flatten.

Heat a non-stick pan, add a tbsp of oil and place a few tikki making sure not to overcrowd the pan.

After a few minutes, gently flip the tikki to cook on the other side. Cook until golden brown.

Sannas with Spinach and Broccoli

Ingredients

For grinding

Rice: 500 gm

Salt: to taste

For the filling

Broccoli: 50 gm

Spinach: 50 gm

Garlic, chopped: 10 gm

Salt: to taste

Pepper: a pinch

Juice of 1 lemon

Olive oil: 10 ml

Method (For the filling)

Take oil in a pan.

Add the garlic and sauté till it turns golden brown.

Add the broccoli and toss well.

Then add the spinach. Once the spinach is done season with salt and pepper.

Before removing it from the heat, add little lime juice.

Method

Soak and clean the rice. Grind it to a fine paste, with little salt.

Once the batter is removed from the grinder, let it ferment overnight.

After the batter is fermented, take a mould, and add the batter to it.

Steam the sannas for 10 minutes and demould the sannas. Cut the sannas into half. Pour the filling on the top and serve hot.

It can be served with mint chutney or coriander chutney.

Some Bestsellers

The Internet and book stores are bristling with books on the subject.

Wheat Belly: Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight, and Find Your Path Back to Health by William Davis got people talking about gluten last year in America. A cardiologist, Davis believes eliminating wheat prevents fat storage and reverses myriad health problems. The book blurb says that after “witnessing over 2,000 patients regain their health after giving up wheat, Davis reached the disturbing conclusion that wheat is the single largest contributor to the nationwide obesity epidemic — and its elimination is key to dramatic weight loss and optimal health.”

Popular cookbook author Barbara Kafka, who’s got a reputation for being at the helm on every major food trend, has just been nominated for the James Beard book award under the ‘Health’ category for her latest book The Intolerant Gourmet: Glorious Food without Gluten & Lactose. She discovered she was gluten and lactose intolerant about five years ago, and rose to the challenge with this collection of 300 recipes created for glutensensitive foodies who are tired of making compromises on taste.