Going grocery shopping at Foodhall is like going prospecting: you can be lost to the world just in their massive organic-vegan-diabetic products section. This month they have fresh zucchini muffins, flaxseed bread and a black bean burger on offer for those who are attempting the gluten-free life. Till recently, buckwheat pizzas and quinoa biryani were considered exotic fare, attempted only by those with a sports person’s commitment to fitness. Like Roman sandals and fake eyelashes, diets tend to go in and out of style, but when did the gluten-free existence become so sexy?
It started with Serve to Win: The 14-Day Gluten-Free Plan for Physical and Mental Excellence that tells the story of how tennis player Novak Djokovic’s game transformed when he gave up gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. Gluten sensitivity is common and a leading cause of an autoimmune disorder, Celiac disease. Djokovic’s digestive issues vanished once he gave up sugar, wheat and caffeine, and within 18 months he had won 62 out of 64 matches played. It’s unlikely this miracle cure would apply to everyone but it’s brought into scrutiny the value of certain foods we rely on in everyday life. Celebrities like Miley Cyrus and Gwyneth Paltrow are big supporters of the gluten-free life, and claim improvements in skin and physical health after giving it up.
It’s easy to read the sudden popularity of gluten-free foods as yet another diet fad, like Atkins or the South Beach diet that demonised carbohydrates 10 years ago. In a society of restricted eaters, everyone’s tinkering and adjusting food habits hoping that eventually, by trial and error, they’ll stumble on a plan that will allow them to enjoy food, improve health and magically shed kilograms. It’s not uncommon to go out for dinner and discover somebody’s vegan or off carbs, somebody else is experimenting with no dairy or a low sodium diet. We can now add no wheat to the list and the case against it is strong indeed. Wheat entered the human diet only 10,000 years ago with the advent of agriculture but man had evolved perfectly without it for 200,000 years before that. Now in modern living, it seems no meal is complete without a glut of gluten. Imagine a life without bread, beer, biscuits, cake or even soya sauce? Even though most dieters watch their intake of these items, going gluten free means giving up fundamental cereals, like roti as well.
I spend a lot of time, money and energy trying to tweak my food plan in a way that it doesn’t spoil my social life and enhances my fitness. If you want to eat nutritiously, enjoy your meal and actually stick to the plan, you have to be painstakingly creative. Even if not drastically, I know that just changing things around a little bit can make a world of difference. On a whim, I bought packets of flaxseed and white sesame, planning to sprinkle them on salad. I also bought an absurdly expensive packet of blueberries, supposedly a rich source of antioxidants. So far they all remain unopened in my cupboard but at some point they will make it to the table. I’ve also decided to accept my sweet tooth and have a little chocolate everyday but I avoid sugar in tea and coffee otherwise. However, my experiment of going wheat free lasted less than 72 hours; I have to say I felt much more energetic and lighter, but the craving for bread eventually was impossible to resist. Habits take a while to break. The common sense guidelines of eating natural, unprocessed food with lots of fruit and vegetables comes pretty close to a gluten free diet: it makes it easier to accept the occasional indulgence of chocolate or chips. Or roti.