As a person who has unfortunately dealt with stomach issues galore, one dietary suggestion I received from an eastern doctor was to avoid, among a variety of other foods, gluten. Tears welled up in my eyes as I pictured a life sans pizza and bagels and cupcakes. Although those have never been staples of my diet, the ability to indulge in a grilled cheese sandwich was nothing short of a blessing. I left the office confused. What the heck is gluten anyway? Why is it that so many people these days are eliminating gluten from their diet? Is it a healthier lifestyle or a fad built on misconception? I got on my computer when I got home and did some serious research. Here is everything that I have gathered from my research and my personal experience of going gluten free.
What Is gluten?
Although Seth Rogen might disagree, the word gluten does not signify all food that is bad for you. And contrary to popular belief, gluten doesn’t directly translate to bread or wheat either. Rather, gluten is a protein that is found in certain grains including wheat, rye and barley. Appropriately named for its glue like function, gluten is the stuff that keeps grain products from completely crumbling.
Why is it that so many people today are removing gluten from their diet?
While it may seem as if everyone is going gluten-free just to say they are gluten-free, there are a variety of legitimate negative reactions to gluten that doctors say have increased in prevalence. These include upset stomach, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, congestion, fatigue and a variety of other gastrointestinal and autoimmune issues. The most severe is Celiac disease, a genetic autoimmune disorder for which a gluten-free diet is essential to protect the small intestines. According to the Mayo Clinic, Celiac disease is four times more prevalent than 60 years ago.
Why has gluten intolerance increased so drastically? There are a variety of theories addressing this issue, but the two that come up the most are the earlier introduction of gluten into our diets, and as the increased prevalence and production methods of processed food.
Is gluten free a healthier lifestyle?
For those diagnosed gluten intolerance: yes. For others, it depends on how it is you go about eliminating gluten from your diet. A gluten-free diet that relies on lean meat, fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, and the occasional dairy product is certainly healthier than a diet of white bread and donuts. However, not all gluten-free diets are made equal. The most common misconception is that all food that is labeled gluten-free is healthier for you. This is false. While most foods that are naturally gluten free (like the foods listed above) are healthier, many of the foods that are artificially gluten-free such as gluten-free bread, bagels, cupcakes, etc. are actually higher in fat and sugar than the gluten-laden versions of these products. This is to make up for the less desirable taste, and to allow the product to stick together as well as gluten-containing products do. However, some naturally gluten-free grains, such as quinoa, flax, amaranth, and buckwheat are healthier for you due to their super-food qualities.
So should YOU go gluten free?
Doctors do not recommend cutting gluten out of your diet without a consultation. The reason: if you cut gluten out of your diet and ever want to reintroduce it, it may cause stomach issues. This is not to say you should not start cutting out processed carbs on your own. Replacing your traditional wheat flour pasta with quinoa noodles is an easy way to get flavonoids and other cancer-fighting nutrients. Eating a breadless sandwich every once and a while means far fewer calories.
With all of this info, you can make smart decisions about which grains you want to incorporate into your diet. As a bonus, you can feel confident knowing that if you were to be interviewed by Jimmy Kimmel, you would know far more about gluten than these people!