Go 'Back to Basics' for Healthy Eating - Patch.com

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Until recently, people suffering from gluten intolerance or celiac disease (an autoimmune condition) were pretty much left to live out their lives without the joy of pizza, pasta or waffles. (Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, rye, malts and triticale.)

Much the same was true for those with wheat allergies.

All that has changed. While supermarkets have yet to catch up, most nutrition and health food stores offer a staggering array of gluten-free products. (Wheat-free is not the same, since wheat-free items often contain gluten.)

At Whole Foods on Pacific Coast Highway, for example, choices range from the esoteric—sun-dried tomato and roasted garlic bread, as well as cranberry-orange sccones—to the mundane, includinghamburger buns, white sandwich bread and pizza dough.

But before you sentence yourself to a gluten-free diet, make sure you are eliminating foods containing gluten for the right reason.

According to Redondo Beach nutritionist Sumner Brooks, 29, anyone suspecting gluten as the major culprit in their diet should consult a physician.

"You need to get fully diagnosed," Brooks said. "The symptoms of celiac disease can mimic other conditions, like IBS [Irritable Bowel Syndrome] and lactose intolerance."

A registered dietitian with a certification in sports specialty nutrition, Brooks did her undergraduate work at San Diego State and earned her master's degree in public health from UCLA. She worked as a dietitian for the Comprehensive Weight Loss Program at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles (among others) before opening her "Not On a Diet" practice in the Riviera Village a year ago.

Brooks describes Celiac disease as a genetically programmed autoimmune disease that can destroy the lining of the small intestine. Although the symptoms (gas, abdominal pain, and diarrhea) are often the same as those associated with gluten intolerance or a wheat allergy, persons with the latter two conditions are not prone to severe intestinal damage.

The more serious celiac disease can result in life-threatening nutritional deficiencies, even intestinal lymphoma.

"When Celiacs eat gluten, it acts as if it's toxic to their intestine and destroys the lining or villi. The villi are like little fingers that help us absorb essential vitamins and minerals. In celiac disease the villi are damaged and flatten out," Brooks said.

The only known treatment for celiac disease is lifelong adherence to a gluten-free diet, which is way harder than it sounds.

Along with giving up wheat, such things as beer, salad dressing and ice cream are to be avoided, as are medications, lipsticks and toothpastes that use gluten as an emulsifier or binder.

Corn, potatoes, rice and tapioca are fine.

"I don't recommend a gluten-free diet unless you know for sure it's needed," the nutritionist said, especially since eliminating gluten might render a false negative blood test for celiac disease. Plus, whole grains are an essential part of a healthy diet for most.

Even if you feel improved when you reduce your intake of gluten, or have been influenced by someone like Novak Djokovic (the U.S. Open winner whose tennis game improved dramatically when he went gluten-free), a blood test is called for.

If a physician finds antibodies or markers of celiac disease, Brooks said, "a biopsy is performed on a small part of the small intestine to confirm the diagnosis."

"The takeaway is that gluten is not bad unless the body can't tolerate it," Brooks said, adding that gluten-free products tend to be more expensive and heavier in calories.

Working in weight management led Brooks to her no-dieting approach, which stems from the belief that eating healthy is a lifestyle.

"People are starting to appreciate more the value of healthy, steady weight loss versus the quick, 'drop 10 pounds in a week' fad diet," said Brooks, who is also a nutrition consultant for RockIt Body Pilates in Redondo and Manhattan beaches. "They know it doesn't work, that they will put the pounds right back on."

Brooks prefers to go back to basics and devise eating plans that are "realistic and sustainable," she said. "My favorite thing about being a dietitian is showing people how letting go of the next best diet can free up time and energy ... Nutrition is powerful stuff."

Along with her articles on issues ranging from Vitamin D deficiencies to intuitive eating, Brooks' website offers recipes for dishes like cilantro chile turkey burgers and a tomato and goat cheese tart with rosemary crust.

She works on anti-inflammatory diet principles with her clients, especially those suffering from allergies, diabetes or heart disease. That means a focus on berries, dark leafy greens, whole grains, beans, lentils and "healthy fats" such as olive oil, nuts seeds, avocados, walnuts and flax seeds, she said. 

The omega-3 fatty acids we find in fish and fish oil fall in line with the Mediterranean diet," she said. Around for centuries, "it's not surprising that this way of eating is the most healthful way to go."

Omega-3s seem to have a stabilizing effect on the heart, Brooks said. They can lower heart rate and reduce the risk of life-threatening arrhythmias or abnormal heart rhythms. Aside from fish, other common sources of omega-3s are broccoli and edamame (green soy beans that are often steamed and served in the pod).

Smaller fish, she said, including wild salmon, shrimp and canned light tuna, are less likely to contain mercury than larger fish, such as shark, swordfish (canned white albacore tuna), king mackerel and tilefish.

For those who enjoy beef, it is important to look for "grass fed" on the label, Brooks said. "'Grass fed' means the animal is eating dark, leafy greens [which result in] healthier fat, versus animals that are fed corn and soy."

Avoid processed foods when possible and look for "whole" in the ingredient list when shopping for bread. "When we remove that outer part from the grain, we remove a lot of vitamins, the healthy fatty acids and phytonutrients (anti-oxidant compounds)," she said.

When it comes to food, many people "are lost in sea of craziness and fad diets," Brooks said. "If you get back to the basics, creating wholesome meals that taste good is really very simple."

Reach Brooks via her website notonadiet.com or by phone at 800-675-3193.

About this column:

Katharine focuses her off-beat sights on a wide range of issues for Redondo Beach Patch. Her columns run Tuesdays.

20 Sep, 2011

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