It seems every week there’s a new focus or fad in the world of health and eating. In recent years, one trend in particular has been coming more and more to forefront of people’s awareness: gluten. With more gluten-free foods available today than before, there are more and more people actively trying to avoid this ubiquitous and common ingredient, with many of them touting it as the healthiest way to eat. But what’s the truth about gluten? Is it something everyone should avoid?
What is gluten?
Let’s start by defining what gluten is, and where it’s found. Gluten is a protein contained in all forms of wheat, barley, malt, and rye. It’s the part of flour that makes breads and cakes rise, hold together, and generally taste delicious. Because so much of the Western diet contains wheat in some form or another, traces of gluten can be found in the most unexpected places, making it a very challenging ingredient to avoid entirely. This means common foods and beverages like crackers, bread, beer, soy sauce, and imitation crab (to name a few) are off-limits to someone on a gluten-free diet. Even if a food item doesn’t necessarily contain gluten in and of itself, foods are often contaminated by being prepared and packaged in areas shared with foods containing gluten.
Why should a person eat gluten-free?
There are two main reasons a person chooses to follow a gluten-free diet: Celiac disease and gluten sensitivity (also called gluten intolerance). Even a wheat allergy doesn’t necessarily mean you have to eat gluten-free; it just means you can’t eat any wheat ingredients, but other things (like rye, spelt, and kammut) won’t trigger a reaction.
- Celiac disease is a serious condition where a person’s immune system attacks the small intestine1 when gluten is eaten. The small intestine becomes inflamed, ultimately preventing a person from being able to absorb nutrients. Roughly 1 in 33 Americans have Celiac, and yet only 10% are diagnosed. A person who has been diagnosed with this disease needs to strictly adhere to a gluten-free diet to avoid long-term damage to the small intestine.
- Gluten sensitivity shares similar symptoms with Celiac disease, but their small intestine isn’t being damaged. The challenging thing with gluten sensitivity is the lack of definition. There’s a big scale of sensitivity that overlaps with many other gastrointestinal issues such as IBS and Chron’s disease. Some people have very mild symptoms, while others with a gluten sensitivity have reactions bad enough to resemble Celiac disease.
Should you eat gluten-free?
With eating gluten-free rising in popularity – one survey2 implies a third of Americans are attempting to follow a gluten-free diet – it can be confusing to determine whether it’s necessary or not. The main message we receive is an association between eating gluten-free and eating healthy. Popular diet regimens (Paleo being a good example) also purport eating entirely gluten- and even grain-free.
For people with an obvious reason such a Celiac or gluten sensitivity, following a gluten-free diet is a no-brainer. This group of people begins to see a dramatic improvement to their health after a relatively short time once gluten is eliminated.
For people who are simply curious to try a gluten-free diet, the benefits are less clear. In fact, the potential drawbacks of a gluten-free diet – which for someone with Celiac or a sensitivity are outweighed by the benefits – make a compelling argument against eating gluten-free. A few of those reasons are:
- Weight gain. Gluten-free products are not necessarily healthy. In fact, in an attempt to make gluten-free foods taste similar to the “real” thing, many of these foods are high in fat and contain lots of sugar3.
- Lack of nutrients. Gluten alone doesn’t have much nutritional value, but the foods containing it do. Cutting them out of your diet means you’ll have to be intentional about replacing those foods with equally nutritious alternatives. A gluten-free diet can make you especially susceptible to a deficiency in fiber, potassium, calcium, Vitamin B-12, and Vitamin D4.
- Cost. Eating gluten-free is expensive. In fact, one survey found pre-packaged gluten-free were priced at twice what their regular counterparts cost.
- It’s challenging. Gluten is found in just about everything. Cutting it out is exhausting and can be frustrating – two emotions that in the dieting world often result in a person giving up completely.
It’s not all bad news, though. There are other benefits to eating gluten-free you may find worthwhile. By avoiding gluten, you do eliminate a huge portion of highly-processed foods from your diet. Additionally, the grain alternatives someone on a gluten-free diet can eat are nutrition-packed powerhouses like quinoa, millet, and amaranth.
At the end of the day, only you can decide whether following a gluten-free diet will be beneficial for your health. If you think you may have Celiac disease or a measurable gluten sensitivity, talk to your doctor and get tested. For everyone else, it seems wise to do your research before jumping on the trendy, gluten-free bandwagon. Evaluate your reasons, and know why you’re choosing that lifestyle.