Unless you've been living under a rock lately, you probably know someone who is "going gluten-free". Maybe you've heard that it can help you lose weight, clear up your skin, cure migraines, or offer a host of other health benefits. And so you're probably wondering if you should try a gluten-free diet - is it just a fad, or is it a worthwhile way of eating?
First, what is gluten?
Gluten is formed by the proteins in wheat, barley and rye. Going on a gluten-free diet means that you have to avoid all foods made with these grains, or their derivatives. It's not just your typical breads, pastas, and baked goods that are on the list. Some things you wouldn't think about include beer, soy sauce, gravy, and malted milkshakes. This list from the American Diabetes Association is a good quick reference.
What started the gluten-free craze?
For individuals with Celiac disease, following a gluten-free diet is therapeutic and a medical necessity. Celiac is an autoimmune disease affecting about 1% of the population. In the presence of gluten, the body's immune system attacks the intestines. Physically, this causes damage to the lining and nutrients can't be absorbed. It also causes lactose intolerance. Individuals might experience diarrhea, cramping, weight loss, fatigue, and anemia.
Additionally, some people have a gluten-sensitivity. Individuals may experience symptoms similar to Celiac disease, but there is no immune system response to the presence of gluten. It is unclear exactly how many people suffer from this condition, but estimates range from 1-6% of the population. Individuals tend to fall along a spectrum in the severity of their symptoms, which makes it harder to understand and diagnose.
Some people with other autoimmune diseases (like rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and endometriosis) have found relief when they switch to a gluten-free diet. There isn't clear research showing the effectiveness of gluten-free diets on these conditions, so it is far from a prescription. But it is a worthwhile option to consider for many people. For another look at autoimmune diseases and diet, check out this article from Today's Dietitian.
But what about the average person?
I have heard many people claim to feel so much better when they cut gluten out of their diet. My guess? They're probably eating a LOT healthier. They probably just cut out many processed foods and added sugars, they are now reading labels to know what's in their food, and they probably are eating more fruits, vegetables, and lean meats. A natural prescription for better health!
When it comes to gluten-free as a weight loss diet, a few caveats. Some people have a false sense of "I can eat as much as I want, and it's ok because it's gluten-free." They will obviously not lose weight by cutting out gluten, since it may not change their caloric intake. Also, new products are popping up as gluten-free substitutes for common foods - breads, cakes, pasta, cookies. These substitutes are usually higher in sugar or fat, and can even have more calories than their traditional counterparts.
Some people will end up eating the same few things and reduce the variety of nutrients they are getting. It might be because they are cutting out all their usual foods, don't like to cook, aren't very adventurous, or are just plain overwhelmed with making the change. These individuals are more likely to be deficient in B vitamins, vitamin D, calcium, and iron.
Eating out and eating in social settings can be difficult. You may find yourself needing to be an ambassador, educating your friends on what you can and cannot eat. Or you may need to bring your own food when you go places. Many restaurants are accommodating gluten-free diets, but not everywhere is on board.
In summary, I'd say that while gluten-free is a medical necessity for some, it is a personal choice and preference for others. It is important to do your research and understand how to make gluten-free a healthy option for you and your family.
- National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, for support and information
- Elana's Pantry, for recipes
- GlutenFree.com, a Pinterest-like site for all things gluten-free
What other questions do you have about the gluten-free trend?