The Harvard Food Pyramid

Diabetic, Gluten and Dairy Intolerant on a Budget!

The Harvard Food Pyramid

The Harvard Food Pyramid

Q. How can I follow a balanced diet as inexpensively as possible, when I seem to be intolerant/sensitive to gluten, wheat and lactose and prone to diabetic hypos too ?

[Gluten is the protein part of wheat, and is also found in some other grains, including rye, barley, spelt and a few other closely related cereals. Lactose is the sugar found in milk and most other dairy products.]

A. A difficult diet, but not impossible. It’s not too surprising that you have both diabetes and multiple food intolerances, because all of these seem to have strong links to an auto-immune condition. However, I understand your confusion as to what to eat. A balanced diet is important for everyone, but even more so for diabetics.

A properly balanced diet has to contain some of each of the 3 main food groups: carbohydrate, protein and fat. There are important nutrients that cannot be obtained if you omit fats from your diet, many of them actually called “essential fatty acids”, but there are also fat-soluble vitamins. So it’s probably easiest first to just look at possible sources of each of these groups, and then see where we can go from there.

Carbohydrate

Although the Western diet tends to include mainly wheat-based carbs, there are other sources which aren’t that foreign to our palates. These include sugar and molasses (these are probably off-limits to you, except in very small quantities), fruit of all kinds (which contain sugar in combination with fiber, though some are not usually recommended for diabetics, eg. bananas), potatoes, rice, corn and legumes (vegetables that grow in pods, like peas, beans and lentils). You can also eat gluten free flour, pasta and breads. Carbohydrate is a fast energy source, which is why athletes generally eat a lot of it.

Protein

Protein is mainly for building and maintaining muscles. This means that a protein-rich diet is most important for children, people who work in occupations that involve a lot of exertion or possible injury, and those recovering from serious illness. However, we all need some protein every day to cope with general wear and tear. It’s said that for an average adult in a sedentary job, the minimum requirement of protein is only 25g – less than an ounce, but in my opinion, around 4-6 ounces a day is a reasonable amount. You can obtain protein from meat and fish of all kinds, legumes, nuts, grains and other seeds and products made from these, like tofu. However, don’t overdo soy products as large quantities can have estrogenic effects which are injurious to health in the long term.

Fat

If you can’t use dairy products, most of the fat in your diet is likely to come along with whatever meat you eat. Regular butter contains only trace amounts of lactose, so can be included in your diet in small quantities, if you don’t like the substitute spreads. Clarified butter (ghee) contains no lactose at all, so makes a good cooking fat – and unlike most other options it does not turn into trans fats when heated.

Supplements

As many of the dairy and wheat-based products in our diet are fortified with vitamins and minerals for historic reasons, it’s quite likely that by cutting these out you will experience a loss of essential nutrients in your diet. To avoid bad effects, I advise everybody to take a good one-a-day multivitamin and mineral tablet (look for one that contains selenium, as this is an indication that it is fairly complete) and a high dose fish oil capsule every day. This is especially important for anyone on a restricted diet.

The fish oils will provide omega 3. Don’t be tempted to substitute vegetable-based omega 3 capsules, as recent research has shown that this is not easily absorbed by the body, in contrast with the fish-derived omega 3. However, if you are vegetarian, I’ve heard good reports about algae-derived supplements.

Putting it all together

If you cook for yourself, you will find that by some judicious substitution, you can eat pretty much what you’ve always eaten, apart from pies (as gluten free pastry doesn’t hold together very well and is best avoided).

Traditional meals from the past – when most people ate meat or fish, potatoes and a couple of veg. at every meal – are easy enough, though gravy has to be thickened with a gluten free product such as cornstarch (UK: cornflour).

Singapore rice noodles are one of my favourite foods.

Singapore rice noodles are one of my favourite foods. Photo by AlekhyaDas.

Meals with rice, like Chinese, Indian and other Asian cuisines are usually almost the same, though you need to ensure that if you use soy sauce you make sure it’s a gluten free type (most is made with wheat). Many Far East cultures also make noodles from gluten free grains like rice, buckwheat and so on, which is helpful. Singapore-style rice noodles are absolutely yummy if you like spicy food.

The breads served with Indian food are rarely available gluten free, but poppadoms should be fine – they are made from lentil flour. Pakora is made with gram flour (besan/chickpea flour), but check with the restaurant, as some low quality pakoras may be made with wheat flour.

There are some very good gluten free pastas and noodles, in particular I recommend Orgran brand, but there are others which are ok – and some which are not nice at all!

You can also get gluten free pizza bases and tortillas. Tortillas? Yes, because although these were originally always made from pure corn, most of the ones you find on sale nowadays also contain at least some wheat flour (some contain no corn at all), so look out for genuine, pure corn tortillas if you like them, or buy from gluten free producers.

I offer a wide range of gluten and dairy free food products in my online store. Although not all will be suitable for diabetics, I’m sure a good proportion of them will be.