One of the newest trends in food production and cooking is “gluten free” although many people are not sure what exactly gluten is and why some are avoiding it.  Even so, the trend has expanded to the point that nearly every food retailer currently provides one section or more of gluten free food options, and often at much higher prices than their traditional counterparts.  Like most diet trends, however, many people can quickly find themselves misinformed, misguided or misunderstood when unraveling fact from fiction.  So what exactly is gluten?

Gluten is a protein found in grains such as wheat, barley and rye. It contains no essential nutrients and has been linked to inflammation and digestive issues. Those who suffer from celiac disease are intolerant to gluten and the majority of followers today are concerned with improving their health.

It seems everyone is jumping on the gluten free bandwagon these days!  You’re definitely not alone if you’ve ever considered limiting your consumption of gluten. But is it really worth it?  Will it vastly improve your health and make you feel better. . . or is it just some new health myth?  Let’s take a closer look.

Gluten, Digging Deeper

Gluten is a general name for the family of proteins found in wheat, rye, barley, and triticale (a cross between wheat and rye).  It is also found in rice, corn and quinoa.  Gluten doesn’t provide any essential vitamins or nutrients on its own.  Instead, it helps foods maintain their shape by acting as a “glue” to hold them together.

Gluten is most common in foods such as bread, pasta, pizza and cereal.  However, it is also found in many types of foods and products that expand well beyond the grain food group.  Therefore, to truly avoid gluten for a gluten free diet, you’ll have to give up more than just the traditional culprits.  Some other products that can contain gluten are:

  • Beer
  • Pasta
  • Sauces, including soy and those that come with frozen vegetables
  • Cookies, crackers and cake
  • Soup mixes
  • French fries
  • Imitation meat and seafood
  • Processed meats and hot dogs
  • Bouillon cubes
  • Malt
  • Medications
  • Supplements

As you can see, a purely gluten free diet is extremely challenging to follow.  It’s also quite a burden for those who legitimately cannot tolerate gluten.  For the vast majority, cutting it out completely can be overly time consuming, restrictive and expensive.

Why Are People Avoiding Gluten?

There are basically two groups of people avoiding gluten:

  1. Clinical need: those whose gastrointestinal make-up is drastically affected by these proteins
  2. Individual choice: those who are under the impression that avoiding gluten will improve their health or prevent disease

Clinical Need

Gluten is harmful to a small percentage of the population.  How small?  It’s estimated to be around 1% of the US population.  As mentioned above, people who suffer from celiac disease follow a strict gluten free diet in order to decrease inflammation and avoid doing damage to their body.  There are also people who are termed “gluten-sensitive” or “gluten-intolerant.”  These individuals do not test positive for celiac, yet they experience some of the negative symptoms such as bloating, diarrhea, or abdominal pain when consuming foods with gluten.  Those with an allergy to wheat usually avoid gluten as well.

Shockingly, the vast majority of people living with this disease are undiagnosed.  Therefore, it’s important for those who have symptoms relating to gluten sensitivity to consult a physician to address this potential clinical need for a gluten free diet.  Symptoms of celiac disease or gluten sensitivity may include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal pain
  • Weight loss or poor appetite
  • Bloating
  • Rash

Celiac disease can be diagnosed through blood tests, genetic tests, and intestinal biopsies.  Those with celiac are intolerant to even the smallest presence of gluten, and can also be affected by cross-contamination.  This condition interferes with absorbing food nutrients and may lead to additional problems such as osteoporosis, infertility, and nerve damage.

It’s important to note that if you think you may have celiac or gluten sensitivity, it’s best to consult a doctor before self-administering a gluten free diet.  If you avoid gluten for a significant amount of time, it will be difficult to determine whether your symptoms are a result of celiac disease, gluten sensitivity, or another cause altogether.  In addition, if you have no gastrointestinal symptoms, it could be best not to significantly alter your diet to gluten free.

The availability of gluten-free options in common supermarkets and many restaurants is advantageous for people who clinically cannot tolerate gluten. Prior to this heightened gluten awareness, gluten free foods were difficult to find and even more expensive. On a positive note, the recent community focus on gluten may help lead some to a correct diagnosis that may have otherwise been missed.

Individual Choice

There are many people who are convinced that a gluten free diet is “just healthier” and therefore make the individual choice to implement it without any clinical need.  This decision may be influenced by several factors, including:

  • Celebrity endorsements
  • Anecdotes or testimonials of others
  • Intense marketing campaigns
  • Group or “bandwagon” thinking

Note: There is no current scientific evidence that a gluten free diet for those without a clinical need will result in any health benefits or disease prevention.  Of course, future research could change this stance. . . but it has yet to be proven.

However, in the meantime, people who make the individual choice to go gluten free are often under the misconception that such a diet is more nutritious.  Interestingly, gluten free foods actually tend to provide less vitamins and minerals than traditional foods.  This is due to the fact that they are generally less fortified with folic acid, iron, and other nutrients than their conventional counterparts.  So check your labels!  Gluten free foods not only have less fiber, but can have increased amounts of salt, sugar and fat – which could result in weight gain rather than loss and throw other health benefits out the window.  Generally speaking, when you remove something it has to be replaced with something else.  So what are they replacing gluten with?  Do your due diligence.

As mentioned, many gluten free foods are not fortified or enriched with vitamins or minerals.  So they lack important nutrients that your body may need.  Following such a diet will undoubtedly change your overall nutrient intake.  So it’s important to track your levels and address any deficiencies.

Those following a gluten free diet may not be consuming adequate amounts of:

  • Vitamin B12
  • Vitamin D
  • Fiber
  • Iron
  • Folate
  • Magnesium
  • Zinc
  • Calcium

The Cost of Gluten (Final Thoughts)

There is definitely a nutritional cost to a gluten free diet, but there is an economic cost consideration as well that many tend to overlook. On the whole, gluten free foods tend to be much more expensive.  People are often willing to pay these higher prices because they believe they are making a health conscious choice that will result in better health, more energy, weight loss and disease prevention.  It’s hard to believe that a little protein like gluten could be such a driving force in the health of your body.  Does removing it increase longevity, remove wrinkles, improve stamina and heighten your IQ as well?  You can make the final call.  Most likely, due to the lack of scientific evidence, you’re paying for hype.  If it works for you, that’s fine, but there are easier ways to improve your health and body function.  We are believers in a low carb lifestyle and understand the importance of avoiding some gluten containing foods, but going gluten free for anyone without a clinical need is just not necessary.

People are consistently looking for the healthiest diet in order to feel physically and mentally fit and prevent health issues.  We don’t blame you, but there are no shortcuts!  To make matters worse, most diet trends (including this one), often receive a great deal of media attention without any scientific evidence to substantiate the claims being made about the diet and its benefits.  The most sound advice for anyone searching to improve their health and food choices is to consult a medical professional.  Any significant change in diet should be approved by a physician familiar with your current health status and medical history before being implemented as an individual choice.

Now where did I put my bowl of gluten?

– Have Fun In The Kitchen