By now you’ve probably heard something about a gluten-free diet. But what the heck does that even mean?
Contrary to popular belief, gluten doesn’t exist in nature. Huh? Let me explain. Gluten is made up of 2 proteins: gliadins and glutenins. These 2 proteins are found in wheat, rye, and barley. When they come together with water, gluten forms. Gluten doesn’t exist in oats, but due to cross-contamination with other grains in North America, oats here may contain gluten. Except for Cheerios because they got on that gluten-free bandwagon real fast.
Gluten isn’t the devil (except when it comes to Celiac Disease, we will get to that), like you may have heard. In fact, it’s one of the best things because it gives dough elasticity and that doughy-feel. I am a proud supporter of bread.
However, gluten is actually a dangerous thing for people with Celiac Disease. Consuming gluten-containing products causes the body to “attack” itself leading to damage of the small intestine. This is bad news since the small intestine is the primary site of nutrient absorption. Damaged small intestine = poor nutrient absorption = nutrient deficiencies (i.e. iron deficiency anemia, osteoporosis, etc.), among other serious health effects. Currently, the treatment for Celiac Disease is to avoid gluten.
Only a very small percentage of Americans have been diagnosed with Celiac Disease, so what’s the deal with everyone hating on gluten? It all began when a study was published in 2011 suggesting non-celiac gluten intolerance is a thing, but the precise mechanisms/biomarkers for diagnosis are unknown.
This sparked the gluten-free market explosion. Companies started re-formulating their goods to be gluten-free, making gluten-free versions of already existing products, or plastering that “gluten-free” label on products that never contained gluten in the first place, like nuts. It was heyday for people with Celiac Disease, since previously there were very few gluten-free products and of that many tasted like cardboard/were probably cardboard.
Why the sudden interest in avoiding gluten? Well, many Americans consume what’s known as a “Western Diet.” This means red meat galore, dinners out of a box, and laughing in the face of vegetables. The Western Diet is linked to a long range of health complications. Plus, all that saturated fat, salt, and lack of fiber doesn’t make you feel very good. Hello, feeling sluggish and tummy aches. With this news of non-celiac gluten intolerance, many felt they could attribute these symptoms to gluten.
Since there used to be barely any gluten-free products on the market, people with Celiac Disease couldn’t eat most things that came in a box. Instead, they had to rely on foods that naturally have no gluten, like fruits, veggies, nuts, turkey, salmon, tuna, etc. All the good stuff. People noticed this type of diet and lifestyle led to people looking more trim than the average American. They wanted in. Hence, the gluten-free diet industry explosion.
However, in 2013 the same research group released another study saying they couldn’t find evidence to support their initial finding of non-celiac gluten intolerance. Although there currently are no ways to diagnose/define this gluten-sensitivity, there still are people who anecdotally feel better on a gluten-free diet. I’m sure we will see more research to come in this area.
Until then, here’s the takeaway (for those without Celiac Disease, since you should listen to your doctor and not me):
- Eat your fruits and veggies! Seriously, they are super awesome for providing your body with essential nutrients and giving your body the fuel it needs. Plus they have fiber, which keeps you regular (a.k.a. smooth sailing in the bathroom).
- Save your money: Gluten-free products are more expensive and many are not fortified with required nutrients, like B-vitamins and iron. Gluten-free does not mean whole-grain, so many don’t have much fiber and we all know how good fiber is for us.
- Center meals around veggies and lean protein. Make a tofu-veggie stir fry, bake salmon with a range of vegetables, look up different vegetarian recipes to get creative. The Moosewood Cookbook is great inspiration.
Do you follow a gluten-free diet? What are your reasons for doing so?
What are your thoughts on “gluten sensitivity?”