I often hear people speaking about going gluten-free or eating gluten-free foods. It’s a hot topic these days. We here about it everywhere, whether it’s a celebrity that just went gluten free, the latest gluten-free diet plan or cookbook, or a new gluten-free food product. So should you do it? To answer this question, I think there are two more important questions to consider first:
- Do you NEED to go gluten-free?
- What healthy foods should you be eating or are you eating that are naturally gluten-free?
When you walk into any store or market, you are sure to see a slew of packaged products with the words “gluten-free” on them. Although going gluten-free can be beneficial — and for some people absolutely detrimental for their health and survival — unfortunately it is also used as a marketing tactic to sell product. Be wary of that.
Why is this the case? Well, people associate gluten-free with being healthy or losing weight, and as a result feel less guilty when they consume a product that is gluten-free. If a packaged product, healthy or unhealthy, has the words, gluten-free slapped across it, more often than not a consumer will purchase that item. Herein lies the problem. People are making purchasing decisions based on words, rather than the true meaning and implications of those words.
In some cases gluten-free is healthy, but often it’s because those foods were naturally gluten-free to begin with. Vegetables, fruits, nuts/seeds, beans, fish, poultry, meat, herbs, etc. did not suddenly transform and become gluten-free, they always have been! These naturally gluten-free foods are very good for you, but many of the packaged products are not. There has been an explosion of gluten-free junk foods. Junk food, with or without gluten, should always be eaten in moderation. In fact, the gluten-free junk food may actually have fewer nutrients than the gluten-full kind.
There continues to be new research and learning around gluten, and I am no expert, but here are a few things worth your while to know.
Know what gluten is. Gluten is a storage protein found in wheat, barley, rye, and most oats. Pure oatmeal does not contain oatmeal, however most oatmeal brands on the market today are cross-contaminated with gluten proteins in processing facilities. For example, Quaker Oats states on its website that it cannot guarantee its oatmeal is gluten-free.
Know the difference between celiac and gluten sensitivity. Gluten is problematic for people with celiac disease or with a gluten sensitivity. Celiac is when the person is completely intolerant of gluten. Gluten sensitivity is when someone tests negative for celiac disease, but shows some improvement when gluten is taken out of the diet.
Know how common gluten allergies are. Before you panic about the long list of diseases connected to gluten sensitivity, know a few important stats and facts. Celiac is estimated to affect 1% people in the U.S., while gluten sensitivity is estimated to affect 6-10% of the U.S. population. This means that gluten is safe for 90% of the population! Remember that number please. Gluten gets a bad rap, and for many it is a sensitivity that should be monitored, BUT 90% of people are good to go.
Alright, now that we’ve got that squared away, here are some of the diseases linked to gluten sensitivity: osteoporosis, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease, anemia, cancer, fatigue, canker sores, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis, and almost all other autoimmune diseases. Gluten is also linked to many psychiatric and neurological diseases, including anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, dementia, migraines, epilepsy, and neuropathy, and autism.
Determine whether you have a gluten allergy. Before you jump on the gluten-free bandwagon determine whether you truly need to. Why? Although it can be worth it, it isn’t an easy diet to follow, and requires lifelong commitment. You must be strict and regimented with what you eat, as the health effects can be quite damaging if you consume the wrong food. Also, you have to be extra careful about balancing nutrients that are lost from gluten-free foods. This is especially important for growing children and young adults, as they need a balanced diet and certain nutrients that adults do not (e.g., dairy). Studies have shown that some children are producing weaker and thinner bones as result of minimizing or removing gluten from the diet.
To add to the difficulty, gluten isn’t necessarily called out on the label. Wheat has labeling laws that require the words “wheat” to be written on the label, but barley does not. You have to look for barley as an ingredient as well as malt, malt flavoring, malt vinegar, beer, or brewers yeast. Oh and you know how some packages have the words “This was produced in a factory that produces wheat”? Turns out this is not regulated; it is up to the manufacturer to decide whether or not to include this information. That means you don’t truly know if traces of gluten (or the amount) are present.
So how do you actually test for this? You can determine whether you have celiac disease through a blood test (it is about 95% accurate), and then a biopsy to confirm. However, remember that you MUST BE EATING GLUTEN for the test to be accurate! Once you’ve tested for celiac and received a negative result, THEN test for gluten sensitivity. Unfortunately, this is not so easy, and at the moment the diagnostic tests aren’t the greatest. Trying out a gluten-free diet for 2-3 months, and journaling about your foods and reactions to them, is probably the best bet.
I leave you with this…
The benefit of all this gluten-free talk. On the plus side, this whole gluten-craze has resulted in people paying greater attention to what and how they eat. Even if people have no gluten issues, this topic has inspired individuals to think about their eating, choose healthier options, and read nutrition labels. These are favorable behaviors that help get people moving in a positive direction when it comes to healthier eating habits.