Gluten-Free-For-All?

Gluten-free diets are becoming the latest trend, and chances are you know somebody who's jumped on the bandwagon. They started out as a health benefit for those with Celiac disease, but could it be true that EVERYONE could benefit from going gluten-free?

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Chances are, 10 years ago you didn’t really know what gluten was. (Raise your hand if you’re still not totally sure what gluten is!) But you’ve probably heard of it. Gluten-free product sales have more than doubled since 2011, and 30% of polled Americans report wanting to cut back on the gluten in their diets. Celebrities left and right are touting its benefits. Books are being written about the dangers of consuming toxic gluten-containing grains, wheat being the absolute worst.

Are we really being poisoned by are whole wheat sandwiches? Let’s take a closer look.

WHAT IS GLUTEN? Answer: a protein. I know, I know, it’s found in breads, grains, and similar “carbohydrates.” These foods are classified as carbohydrates because that is what they are mostly made of, but they also contain vitamins, minerals, fats, and, yes, protein. Gluten is one of those proteins, and it is responsible for giving structure to our favorite carbohydrate-containing foods.

OK, SO…WHY THE FUSS, IF IT’S JUST PROTEIN? For most people, there’s no reason to fuss. Only about 1% of the population has Celiac Disease, an autoimmune condition in which the body mistakes gluten for something dangerous, and it launches a full-fledged immune attack. This causes inflammation and a whole host of very serious conditions. The only treatment for Celiac Disease is to completely avoid gluten-containing food, medications, and even hygiene/beauty products. Some research suggests that another 6% or so of the population may be gluten intolerant, so they don’t have Celiac Disease but they do seem to do better on a low-gluten diet. For the remaining 93% of us, gluten isn’t a problem at all.

WHY SHOULDN’T I JUST AVOID GLUTEN ANYWAY? YOU KNOW, JUST IN CASE. I MIGHT FEEL BETTER.

Unfortunately, there are some serious downsides to going gluten-free:

It’s really, really hard to get certain nutrients when you cut out foods containing gluten. This includes many of the B vitamins, which are linked to everything from energy to decreased risk of certain birth defects. (Side note: if you’re thinking you’ll just go gluten-free and pop a few supplements, think again. Many medications and supplements use gluten-containing ingredients.)

It can be socially isolating. True gluten avoidance makes social gatherings very challenging due to how many foods contain gluten, and how easy it is to contaminate gluten-free foods simply by preparing them in the vicinity of gluten-containing foods.

It has never been easier, and at the same time, so difficult to go gluten-free. Nowadays, you can find a gluten-free version of just about any gluten-full food, from cakes and candies, to pizza and pasta. However, these processed gluten-free convenience foods are often lower in fiber, vitamins, and minerals (see above); and higher in sugar, preservatives, and fillers than the gluten-containing foods they were created to replace. Additionally, they often rely on rice-based ingredients, which could potentially lead to an overconsumption of arsenic if you aren’t careful. Yikes.

It’s expensive! One recent study, in fact, found that gluten-free products were, on average, 242% more expensive than their gluten-containing counterparts.

Why does anyone bother with a diet that is expensive, socially binding, nutritionally restrictive and inclusive of some very processed, unhealthy foods?

SHALL WE CONSIDER SOME OF THE POTENTIAL BENEFITS?

A lot of perfectly nutritious foods are naturally gluten-free, such as beans, fruits, vegetables, quinoa, nuts, seeds, extra-virgin olive oil, and more. By going gluten-free you might start incorporating more of them into your diet by default.

A lot of not-so-very-nutritious foods do contain gluten: cakes, pizza, pies, cookies, and so on. Who couldn’t stand to adopt a lifestyle that relied a little less heavily on these sugary, processed treats?

If done well (as in, to maximize nutrition and decrease risk of cross-contamination), it will require a lot more cooking at home. Restaurant meals, take-out, and convenience foods are often sky-high in sodium, trans fats, unsavory oils, and lots of ingredients only a chemist could decipher. Less of that, and more home-cooked meals, can be a big step toward improving your health.

BOTTOM LINE: FIT OR FLOP?

As a registered dietitian, I have to say, this one is a flop. Unless you have Celiac Disease, there is absolutely no credible evidence at this time that avoiding gluten has any benefits. However, replacing sweets and refined grains with fruits, vegetables, beans, and other wholesome foods is never a bad idea! So when you see something labeled “gluten free,” take a closer look: it could be marketing hype, or it could be a cool new food to try.

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