Staying Gluten-Free During The Festive

Managing gluten intolerance can be challenging during the festive season. If you are finding it hard to know what to eat and what to avoid, we’ve got some advice from celebrity nutritionist Ryan Fernando to help you out.

By URLife Team
21 Oct 2023

The festive season can be challenging for the best of us when it comes to food, especially if you’re on a specific diet or dealing with food allergies. When it comes to gluten, it can be particularly tough to decide what you can or cannot eat. To find out more about how an individual can navigate the festivities, we spoke to Ryan Fernando, a globally renowned nutritionist and health coach. His book Wh(eat) less: A Guide to a Gluten-Free Life is a comprehensive guide for anyone who wants to transform their diet.

There are many questions surrounding a gluten-free diet, and it can include foundational questions like, “how do I know if I’m intolerant to gluten?” Being intolerant to gluten can lead to many health issues such as inflammation and digestion problems. Keep reading to understand how you can celebrate this festive season with a gluten-free diet. 


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Q. What is a gluten allergy?

Ryan: Certain foods can cause an allergic reaction in people which affects their digestive system and other systems in the body and can cause inflammation inside the body.

Now the food we eat may contain either carbohydrates, fat or protein and any one of the three components can cause an allergy. For example, wheat, barley and rye (grains), have a protein molecule called gluten. Gluten is a protein that does not digest or break down into amino acids and it creates a gut inflammatory reaction, which affects the digestive system of people who are sensitive to gluten. 


Q. How do we determine a person's sensitivity to gluten? 

One simple way is to monitor if you have bloating or a gut distension whenever you eat wheat, barley or rye. You may also have loose motions or constipation. 

If somebody has a lot of digestive problems, a DNA testing or a blood test can be done to determine whether a person has a particular type of gut condition. A doctor can also do a scan and determine whether you are allergic to the gluten molecule.


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Q. What happens if you are gluten intolerant but don’t avoid gluten?

Obviously, if the digestive system is getting affected over a period of time, there are gut problems and over an extended period of time, this molecule gluten will cause inflammation inside the human body, which will make your immune system go into a permanent alert mode. So your immune system is supposed to battle foreign invaders, which is what we call as antigens. Now suddenly your immune system will respond like- ‘Oh! gluten is an allergen, so if everyday it is there in the diet, let me start causing inflammation in the body.’ 

In this way, your own immune system begins to attack itself, and this is a sign of having an autoimmune disorder. Hence, gluten can lead to autoimmune disorders like psoriasis, eczema, Hashimoto's, Graves, alopecia and areata. All of these autoimmune disorders including rheumatoid arthritis, pancreatitis, tend to come from many years of eating the wrong types of food. However, people don't realise that gluten may be the culprit, and it causes them to eat specific foods that can lead to autoimmune disorders. 


Q. Why is there a sudden spike in people being gluten resistant? Is there only a certain underlying condition or some lifetime changes also contribute to it?

It’s an unstated fact that our parents did not eat out as much as we eat out. Our parents ate out only one meal per week. Today’s generation eats out approximately 15 to 20 meals in a week. Food prepared by restaurants is usually unhygienic as the ingredients are not washed properly. Therefore, the insecticide and pesticide load is very high. All these factors affect the digestive system.

The world today has become faster and more stressful. So, obviously people's adrenal levels are much higher and therefore the ability to relax and lower cortisol hormone is lessened. 

Also, the need to increase farm yields over the years has led to hybridisation of crops. So, in the olden days when black wheat was there, it was very short in height. It was only about less than one foot or two feet and nowadays the wheat crop goes up to six feet. This is because it is being blended with grass which makes it give it a larger yield but the side effect of that is that the gluten levels are higher. Hence, the wheat we eat today may be having a higher gluten exposure and that results in a higher gluten load in the diet today compared to the diets of our grandparents. We also can’t forget to consider the probiotics in our food, which is the fermented food our grandparents ate. Without fridges, most food was freshly prepared or left to ferment. Today we eat foods that are either packaged or prepared at restaurants. 

For example, the curd in the olden days was fermented. Curd never used to come in packets. It was made at home. It had the live curd bacterias in it. Today, when we buy curd from the market it does not have live curd bacterias in it. It is pasteurised curd, which means that there are no probiotics. The presence of probiotics in fermented food protected our gut, but in most foods today, there are no probiotics. All of these factors contribute to becoming intolerant to gluten.

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Q. Why is a gluten-free diet challenging to adopt?

Simply put, most people still make food choices today that favour childish inclinations. They aren’t held accountable, which makes the problem even worse. You’re held accountable in your job, even at home, even with friends. There are certain expectations that have to be met in all aspects, but nobody polices you for eating unhealthy. The only time you get policed is when you begin suffering from lifestyle diseases like cholesterol, diabetes, or hypertension. That is the time your doctor polices you and tells you to eat correctly.


Q. How can we eat healthy during Diwali?

Practice moderation and try portion control if you have to eat a rasgulla or any other sweets. The human body requires only one teaspoon of sugar to raise diabetic levels per day but unfortunately the Indian population eats anywhere from 6 to 22 teaspoons of sugar per day. The problem increases especially during the festive season.

If you’ll have sweets, you also need to have enough subsequent physical activity, around 10 to 15,000 steps. My advice would be for people to go out dancing as a recreational activity. I would advise people to go out partying. I would advise people to go out and move. I would advise people to clean their houses so that they are burning enough calories to offset the sweets that they may be eating. 

I would advise you to share your sweets with your loved ones. Sharing isn’t just something done for social benefits; it can also prevent you from overeating unhealthy foods. Typically, a person should avoid sweets that have processed grains and refined flour. For example, I would choose a rasmalai over a rasgulla because of the refined flour. If I ate a jalebi, I would eat a jalebi that is gluten free, which is made not with wheat flour but maybe with coconut flour, almond flour and besan flour. 


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Q. What ingredients should I avoid when buying packaged foods? 

Under ingredients, you should be looking for the word wheat, wheat flour, barley, barley flour, rye and, rye flour. If these are present in the product then they definitely contain gluten. Many manufacturers will put a gluten-free tag on the product if they don’t put these ingredients in and the product is made in a gluten-free facility. If the labels do not say it is gluten-free, then the person needs to be a little bit cautious and look at the ingredients. For example,  couscous is a Moroccan product, which is basically used in a lot of Middle-Eastern dishes, but in India couscous is made from wheat. Couscous, which is originally from Morocco, it's from maize.  While it is a gluten-free product in Morocco, it is not gluten-free in India since it’s made with wheat. 

The gluten-free flours are tapioca, rice flour, amaranth flour, corn flour, jowar flour, and ragi flour. All oat-derived products have a gluten-like molecule called avenin and some people may not have an allergy to that molecule because gluten is made up of two proteins glutenin and gliadin. But sometimes people have a sensitivity. Manufacturers tend to classify oats as gluten-free or not gluten-free.


Q. What are some gluten-free snack ideas that people can prepare and enjoy during the festive season?

One gluten-free snack that anyone can enjoy is any fruit, or any Indian sweet that’s made from fruits. For example, a kaju katli or a dry fruit laddu or a motichoor laddu. These tend to be gluten-free. Most of your rasmalais and Indian-based milk sweets are free from gluten because they are not made with wheat flour or maida flour of wheat. If you wish to relish puri but can't eat puri, which is made from wheat, just change the puri to be made from rice flour, ragi flour and besan kafla. This way you can make your puri gluten-free. You are simply changing the ingredients which are fit for your body type. Also, instead of using maida flour to thicken gajar ka halwa, we can use a little bit more coconut flour. 


Related story: Healthy Diwali Desserts: Khajur Rolls With Nuts


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Regular health checks are essential for everyone, but they are particularly important for individuals who believe they may be suffering from gluten intolerance. Taking regular health checks can help detect gluten intolerance at an early stage when it is easier to manage and modify your lifestyle. With the UR.Life HRA, we help you to invest in your well-being through seamless interventions and targeted advice. Our holistic wellness approach caters to all aspects of your well-being. Our expert nutritionists can help you develop eating habits that will help keep your gluten intolerance in check. 


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