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Developing Digestive Capacity with a Gluten Free Diet and Turmeric -- with Yummy Spaghetti Squash Recipe

By Siri Chand Kaur Khalsa, M.D.

In a healthy digestive system, the small bowel is filled with fine hair like projections called villi that are the sites where fats, carbohydrates, proteins and micronutrients are absorbed. Keeping the digestive tract functioning optimally is an important goal in Ayurveda for maintaining vitality, and many aspects of our daily habits create the foundation for this. Adding turmeric to your favorite dishes is a great practice as research is showing that turmeric (haridra) has many health benefits including improving digestion, fighting infection, improving blood sugar in diabetes and preserving cognitive function.

“We are trying to translate all of these ancient scriptures which have kept a woman healthy and living through all circumstances. The sutra has said “Oh woman, if you do not want it to be known that you are over 18 years old and you are eating a heavy diet, prepare this secret dish. You can put anything in a curry and nobody will know what is in it. Turmeric will cover up the whole dish; turmeric is the most healing root for the body and for purifying the blood. It keeps a person beautiful. ‘Oh woman, if you can just prepare this kind of food and just live on it, it will be a splendid idea, and nobody will know why you are so beautiful and great.’ That is the literal translation of the sutra.” ~Yogi Bhajan, The Ancient Art of Self-Healing, 1982.

The Gluten Story

Grains, fruits and vegetables form the basis of the carbohydrate group and are the main source of our daily calories. Wheat is the main grain in the American diet and contains a protein called “gluten.” Recently, a wave of “gluten-free” products has emerged and questions have come up regarding gluten sensitivity. When people with celiac disease (also known as gluten-sensitive enteropathy or nontropical sprue) eat foods containing gluten, they develop inflammation and destruction of villi in the small intestine due to an autoimmune reaction to the “gluten” protein.  Gluten is also found in barley, rye, and spelt. Oats can be processed in the same machinery as wheat; and while oats do not contain gluten, they may have gluten as a contaminant from the production and manufacturing process. Due to chronic destruction of the small bowel villi from the autoimmune process, essential nutrients are not absorbed. This malabsorption syndrome results in nutritional deficiencies no matter how “healthy” the diet is and this leads to many chronic health complaints.

Celiac Disease

Celiac disease can present at any age with chronic diarrhea, bloating, cramps, and abdominal pain, and if the nutritional deficiencies go on for longer periods of time more subtle symptoms can also include irritability, anemia, arthralgias (joint pains), muscle pain, nerve pain, skin rashes, osteoporosis (bone loss), weight loss, headaches, fatigue and hair loss.  

Celiac disease has a genetic component and tends to run in families. This means that if you have a relative who has been diagnosed with this disease, the odds are higher for you to have it. Exacerbations can come as a result of increased physical or emotional stress. Recent studies have indicated a high prevalence with almost 1 in 133 Americans having this disease and unfortunately some are not aware of it. There are reliable tests for this disease and if you suspect you have it, it is important to seek further evaluation with your health care provider. You may also be referred to a gastroenterologist for further evaluation and to rule out other serious autoimmune bowel diseases. 

Awareness surrounding this disorder is quite important as even small amounts of gluten can trigger a significant reaction. The primary treatment for celiac disease is a “gluten-free diet.” When cooking for those with gluten sensitivity, it is important to read labels, as the FDA has mandated that products can only be listed “gluten free” if no wheat, barley or rye is present. The FDA mandates that a product cannot be labeled gluten free if there is more than 20 ppm (parts per million) of gluten. Gluten can also show up in foods that would not initially be suspected. For example labels that say: malt, “natural flavors,” binders, starch and hydrolyzed plant protein (HPP) can all have gluten in them. If you have a question, products now have 800 toll free numbers for product inquiries and you can clarify if gluten is in the product. Alternatively, you may choose not to consume highly processed foods filled with colorants, preservatives, binders and fillers that may have trace amounts of gluten.

For people with celiac disease, good choices of grains are important. Grains that are gluten free include wild rice, basmati rice, buckwheat, millet, amaranth and brown rice. Quinoa, a seed, is also substituted. There are many wonderful recipes online or cookbooks that use these grains and expanding your pantry to include them is a good idea even if you do not have gluten sensitivity. Be aware of the gluten free pasta products on the market as many are highly processed and have a high glycemic index, which can lead to inflammation.

Spaghetti Squash with Turmeric

Currently in Phoenix we have many wonderful organic fruits and vegetables coming into season. Spaghetti squash (Cucurbita pepo) is one of my favorite “gluten free” pasta substitutes. The long fibrous, tendrils separate from the squash skin when cooked to give the appearance and texture of spaghetti and it pairs well with fresh herbs and olive oil. The yellow squashes are considered to be Sattvic foods and thus support yoga meditation practices. Turmeric (Curcuma longa) is a good addition to any dish and adds color and the bitter flavor, which is not a prominent flavor in the American diet. One cup of cooked squash is rich in vitamins and minerals and has only 42 calories. Pine nuts are a good source of vitamin E, protein and trace minerals, and complement the fresh herbs and oil to give a non-pureed vegan pesto.

Learn where to find your local farmer’s market and to eat with the seasons at www.localharvest.org.

Recipe: Spaghetti Squash with Turmeric

Ingredients

    • 1 small spaghetti squash, about 2 1/4 pounds
    • 2 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
    • 2 1/2 tablespoons finely chopped mixed herbs: good options include basil, chives, chervil, parsley, dill, marjoram and sage
    • 1/2 teaspoon salt
    • 1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
    • 1/4 cup pine nuts
    • 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
    • 1 clove garlic
    • 1 tablespoon lemon juice

Directions

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Using a sharp knife, cut the squash in half lengthwise and place, cut side down, in a baking dish. Add enough water to come 1/2-inch up the sides of the baking dish and cover. Bake for 45 minutes, until the squash is easily pierced with a paring knife. Turn the squash over and cover again and continue to cook for another 15 minutes, until the squash is very tender. Remove from the oven, uncover, and allow to cool slightly. Using a fork, gently pull the strands of squash away. Heat a cast iron pan and add olive oil, turmeric and garlic. Sautee for several minutes and add spaghetti squash. Remove from heat and add herbs, lemon juice, pine nuts, salt, and pepper. Mix gently to combine all the ingredients. Serve immediately or cover and keep warm until ready to serve.

Dr. Siri Chand Kaur Khalsa maintains a private medical practice in Phoenix, Arizona. From the wisdom given to us by Yogi Bhajan, she teaches the fundamental idea that food is in fact medicine that can sustain our physical, mental, and spiritual bodies as we move through our time on Earth. From the organic farms where we get our vegetables to sustainably preparing healthy food, to the ancient science of Ayurveda, her writings are created to offer ongoing critique of the often conflicting information available on these topics. www.luminousfoods.com