To Be or Not To Be Gluten-Free?
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To Be or Not To Be Gluten-Free?

Gluten is often blamed for weight gain, bloating and stomach struggles, but is it really all that bad? Read on to see if you need to eliminate it from your diet before hopping on the bread-banning bandwagon.

Should You Be G-Free?

What do celebs like Zooey Deschanel, Emmy Rossum, Elisabeth Hasselbeck and Chelsea Clinton have in common? They all follow gluten-free diets, thanks to severe wheat allergies that, if left untreated, can result in bloating, diarrhea, fatigue, malnourishment and even infertility and osteoporosis.

"Going g-free" has been trendy for a few years now, with proponents claiming that ditching wheat can melt away pounds, elevate sports performance and evaporate mental fogginess. The industry has exploded, mushrooming 27 percent since 2009 and surpassing $6 billion in sales in 2011, according to Mintel research. "Gluten-free is the new low-carb," says Wendy Bazilian, DrPH, RD, author of The SuperFoodsRx Diet (Rodale) ?and a nutrition advisor at Golden Door Fitness Resort and Spa in San Marcos, Calif. But unless you are one of the 1 percent of Americans who truly suffer from actual Celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder where the body attacks itself in the presence of gluten - a protein component found in wheat, rye and barley - or the 5 to 8 percent who are gluten-intolerant, eradicating gluten from your diet will not help you lose weight or boost energy. In fact, "many gluten-free products are packed with sugar and fat," Bazilian warns.

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The Goods on Gluten

Gluten is part of a protein found in three grains -- wheat, rye and barley -- which lends elasticity and chew to products like bread and pizza dough. In healthy individuals, these foods pose no problem. But in those with wheat sensitivities or allergies, gluten damages parts of the small intestine called villi, finger-like projections lining the gut that absorb nutrients. "Imagine your gut is lined with a shag rug," Bazilian suggests. "Those are the villi. Over time, Celiac disease flattens the rug, making it smooth like linoleum, so they can't hang on to nutrients."

Unfortunately, wheat is such a prominent part of the American diet that it can be extremely difficult to eradicate. Besides obvious culprits, like wheat bread, gluten hides out in soy sauce, malt vinegar, couscous, beer and wine, licorice, certain broths and energy bars, even communion wafers. Cousins of wheat, including spelt, kamut, farrow, durum, semolina and triticale, will also trigger allergies. Oats don't contain gluten but may be contaminated during processing.

If you're gluten intolerant, you'll know it, experiencing nasty GI symptoms almost immediately after ingesting wheat, barley or rye. Celiac disease, on the other hand, may or may not result in bloating, gassiness, constipation or diarrhea. Instead, you may be irritable or depressed, or experience joint pain, a skin rash, anemia, mouth sores or weight loss. A gastroenterologist or internist can diagnose gluten allergies through an intestinal biopsy and blood work. The next step is to meet with a dietitian who can help you chart out a meal plan.

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How to Eat Gluten-Free

The good news: "When you eat a whole foods diet and have control over ingredients, the world is your oyster when it comes to eating gluten-free," Bazilian promises. (Just don't eat oyster crackers -- they contain wheat!) The trick is to shop the perimeter of your grocery store, where you'll find fruits and veggies, chicken, fish and lean meat, low-fat milk and yogurt -- all naturally devoid of gluten. "Plus, the trendy ancient grains that are all the rage right now, like quinoa, black rice and amaranth, are gluten-free." Corn, beans, potatoes, millet, gluten-free oats, buckwheat (even though it has the word "wheat" in it) and all kinds of rice are all still on the table, too.

Dining out or consuming packaged products gets far trickier. While it's relatively easy to scan a label for wheat, barley or rye, gluten can masquerade as other common ingredients, such as enriched bleached flour, semolina and Brewer's yeast. Luckily, most supermarkets now offer special gluten-free sections and their web sites will provide safe shopping lists. Still, "cooking from scratch is the safest," says Bazilian. "When you're eating out -- sauces and condiments are especially tricky -- or buying products with labels, all bets are off."

If you truly do suffer from a gluten allergy, eliminating it from your diet will offer welcomed relief from symptoms, including more energy and fewer GI complaints. "But," Bazilian warns, "if you don't have an actual allergy or intolerance, it won't make you lose weight and it won't enhance sports performance. If it does, it's probably because you're eating more quality foods, like quinoa instead of white rice."

Now some important notes: People often mistake going gluten-free for eating grain-free, which can result in inadequate intake of iron, fiber and B vitamins, important for cellular functioning and metabolism. Packaged gluten-free products are also high in fat, trans fat and sugar, and can actually lead to weight gain. As with all processed foods, pick a natural source over the packaged stuff.

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Gluten-Free Recipes: Breakfast

SuperFoodsRx Granola
Gluten alternative: Gluten-free oats

Makes: 8 servings
Prep: 10 minutes
Cook: 20 minutes

1/2 cup gluten-free oats
1/2 teaspoons canola oil
1/2 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons chopped walnuts
1/8 cup dried blueberries
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1. Preheat oven to 300 degrees. In a bowl, mix together ingredients in the order listed, thoroughly combining after each addition.
2. Spread mixture on a jelly roll pan sprayed for 2 seconds with cooking spray and bake for 20 minutes, stirring every 5 minutes. Bake until oats are a golden brown.
3. Cool and store in an airtight container or resealable plastic bags. Enjoy with low-fat yogurt or skim mill.

Variation: Substitute sliced almonds for walnuts and dried cranberries for blueberries.

Hint: Heating the honey in the microwave oven for 8?10 seconds before adding makes it easier to incorporate when blending the ingredients.

Reprinted with permission from The SuperFoodsRx Diet by Wendy Bazilian, DrPH, RD (Rodale, Inc.)

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Gluten-Free Recipes: Lunch

Quinoa Tabbbouleh
Gluten alternative: Quinoa

Makes: 6 servings
Prep: 10 minutes
Cook: 20 minutes

1 cup quinoa
1 medium ripe, red tomato, seeded and diced (1 cup)
1 1/4 cup finely chopped fresh parsley leaves
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh mint leaves
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice (from 2 lemons)
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1. Prepare the tabbouleh: Thoroughly rinse quinoa and combine with 1 1/4 cups of water in a medium-sized pot. Bring to a boil; reduce heat and simmer, covered, for 15 minutes. Remove pan from the heat and let stand, covered, for 5 minutes to steam and finish cooking. Transfer quinoa to a large bowl and cool to room temperature.
2. Add the tomato to the cooled quinoa. Add the parsley, mint, lemon juice, olive oil, garlic, salt, and pepper, and stir gently until well combined. Cover and set aside in the refrigerator. (Will keep for 2 to 3 days in the refrigerator.) Serve with hummus, veggies and gluten-free crackers.

Reprinted with permission from The Golden Door Cooks at Home by Chef Dean Rucker (Clarkson Potter Publishers)

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Gluten-Free Recipes: Dinner

Red Lentil Veggie Burger
Gluten alternative: Lentils

Makes: 8 servings
Prep: 20 minutes
Cook: 95 minutes

1/2 cup brown rice
1 cup red lentils, picked over and rinsed
Canola oil spray
1/2 medium onion, finely diced (1/2 cup)
1 teaspoon minced garlic
5 ounces broccoli, florets and peeled stems finely chopped (1 1/2 cups)
2 medium carrots, finely chopped (1 cup)
2 medium potatoes, peeled and grated (1 cup), squeezed to remove excess liquid
3 ounces shiitake mushrooms, stemmed and finely chopped (1 cup)
2 ounces fresh or defrosted frozen shelled edamamae beans, finely chopped (1/2 cup)
1 1/2 teaspoons yellow curry powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1. Prepare rice according to package instructions. Set aside until cool.
2. Meanwhile, place lentils in a medium saucepan and add 2 cups water. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Reduce the heat to low and simmer gently, covered, until the lentils are slightly mushy, like a thick paste with a few whole lentils, 18-20 minutes, stirring once or twice during cooking. Set lentils aside until cool.
3. Spray a large nonstick skillet with canola oil and heat over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and cook, stirring, until slightly translucent but not at all brown, about 3 minutes. Add the broccoli, carrots, potatoes, mushrooms and edamamae and cook, stirring, until fragrant but still crunchy, 2 minutes. Add curry powder and cook, stirring, for 30 seconds. Remove pan from heat; add salt and pepper. Let cool slightly. Transfer the rice, lentils, and vegetables to a large bowl and combine.
4. Scoop out 1/2 cup of the mixture and with wet hands, pack it firmly into a tight ball as if forming a meatball. Form the ball into a 3-inch patty about 1 inch thick. Place patties on a baking sheet; chill for 30 minutes to 1 hour.
5. Prepare a nonstick baking sheet or baking sheet lined with parchment paper sprayed with oil. Spread cornmeal on a plate. Dredge each patty in cornmeal. Spray a large skillet with canola oil and heat over medium-high heat until hot but not smoking. Place the burgers in the pan without crowding (work in batches if necessary) and sear until they are light golden on both sides, 2 to 3 minutes per side. Transfer the burgers to the prepared baking sheet and bake for 12 minutes to warm through completely.
6. Serve in a lettuce wrap, topped with sliced red onion, tomato and pickles.

Reprinted with permission from The Golden Door Cooks at Home by Chef Dean Rucker (Clarkson Potter Publishers)

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Gluten-Free Recipes: Dessert

Warm Flourless Chocolate Cake
Gluten alternative: Cornstarch

Makes: 8 servings
Prep: 25-30 minutes
Cook: 8-10 minutes

For the cakes:
8 ounces good quality dark chocolate (60-70% cacoa), chopped
1 large egg
2 very ripe bananas, sliced (1 1/4 cups)
1/2 cup mashed yam or canned pumpkin
1/4 cup honey
1 tablespoon grated orange zest
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3 large egg whites
Pinch of kosher salt
1 orange, peeled and separated into segments

For the sauce:
1 cup fresh orange juice
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1 tablespoon half-and-half
1 tablespoon Grand Marnier

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray eight 4-ounce ramekins with cooking spray and place on a baking sheet.
2. Prepare sauce: Pour all but 1 tablespoon of the orange juice into a small saucepan and place over low heat. In a small bowl, stir cornstarch into reserved orange juice until smooth. When the juice comes to a simmer, whisk in the cornstarch and juice slurry; continue whisking for 30 seconds until thickened. Remove from heat and let cool 15 minutes. Whisk in the half-and-half and Grand Marnier. Set aside. (Sauce can be served warm, at room temp or chilled.)
3. Make the cakes: Place a bowl over a saucepan filled with a few inches of simmering water (water should not touch bowl.) Place chocolate in the bowl and let stand until chocolate us shiny and soft, about 10 minutes. Stir with a rubber spatula until smooth and remove from heat.
4. Combine egg, bananas, yam, honey, orange zest and vanilla in a blender; process until very smooth. Combine banana mixture with chocolate and set aside.
5. In another bowl, use an electric mixer to whip egg whites and salt until they form soft peaks, about three minutes. Fold egg whites into chocolate mixture until just incorporated.
6. Spoon mixture into ramekins to about 1/4 inch from top. Bake until the tops are set, 8 to 10 minutes. Drizzle each cake with sauce and garnish with orange segments.

Reprinted with permission from The Golden Door Cooks at Home by Chef Dean Rucker (Clarkson Potter Publishers)

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