The Gluten-Free Diet
Over the last decade, the gluten-free trend has gained traction and positioned itself as a full-fledged movement. This way of eating is often viewed as superior. But is it really?
There are some strong proponents of gluten-free living and rightfully so. For some, this eating pattern saves lives. But, before you grab the gluten-free pasta for spaghetti night, OR the gluten-free cookies to pack in your kids’ lunch, OR that $6 loaf of gluten-free bread in the freezer case, it’s important to know what the science says and why you may want to rethink your decision.
Let’s begin with some of the basics…
What is gluten?
Gluten is a naturally occurring group of proteins found in several different types of grains, including wheat, barley, rye, farro, and triticale. It actually contributes properties like elasticity and helps hold dough together. If you have ever had regular bread (with gluten) and gluten-free bread, the traditionally made bread is squishy and has stretch, but gluten-free bread tends to be crumbly. Gluten is found in the whole and refined form of these grains, which means that if you are eating whole grains, sprouted grains, or refined grains, you are consuming gluten.
Remember, gluten is a naturally occurring protein in some plants (specifically grains). It is NOT man-made.
Is gluten harmful?
For more than 80-90% of individuals, gluten is not harmful. In fact, whole grains (yes, even those including gluten) have been linked to an abundance of benefits for the body including cardiovascular health, GI health, weight management, reduced risk of cancers, blood sugar control and more.
These grains contain a variety of vitamins and minerals involved in metabolism, which helps you take food and turn it into a usable form of energy. And, because grains are plants, they also contain phytochemicals and antioxidants that help ward off disease and many types of cancer. It’s important to note that the benefits are from whole or sprouted grains, NOT grains that have been refined and processed.
However, for a small population of individuals, gluten is harmful. According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, about 1-2% of individuals have Celiac Disease, a condition where the body attacks itself when the individual ingests gluten, even trace amounts.
Other individuals that need to avoid gluten are those with a wheat allergy and people with non-celiac gluten sensitivity.
Gluten is not harmful in and of itself. It is your body’s response to gluten that determines whether it is a nutrient that is right for you to consume.
Who needs to avoid gluten?
Counter to what several trending diets promote, a gluten-free diet is not a superior way of eating and is not necessary for all individuals. The science just doesn’t support that message. However, there are people that do need to avoid gluten:
1. Individuals with Celiac Disease
The presence of gluten in the small intestine signals the body to attack and in doing so damages the villi, the small finger-like projections that help your body absorb nutrients. This autoimmune response contributes to over 200 known symptoms that include,
- Gastrointestinal pain and bloating
- Weight loss
- Itchy skin rash
- Joint pain
- Damage to dental enamel
Because the body isn’t absorbing nutrients well, it can lead to a host of long-term health concerns including vitamin and mineral deficiencies, infertility, early onset osteoporosis, neurological issues and much more. To be clear, it is essential that those with Celiac Disease give great attention to removing ALL gluten from their diet.
2. Individuals with Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS)
These people often have similar symptoms to those with Celiac, but they test negative for Celiac Disease. The gluten does not damage the small intestine or create the same immune-mediated response. This condition is considered to be less severe than Celiac but they too feel better on a gluten-free diet.
Researchers and healthcare practitioners are still trying to learn more about this condition and how to effectively identify and diagnose it. It’s reported that about 6% of Americans have NCGS but there may be many more. Increased funding is necessary to better understand this complex condition.
3. Individuals with a Wheat Allergy
Affecting less than 1% of the population, individuals with wheat allergy can experience symptoms – including hives, stuffy/running nose, sneezing, headaches, asthma, gastrointestinal symptoms or anaphylaxis – after consuming wheat.
Their body is responding to a group of proteins found in wheat (including gluten). This specific IG-E mediated reaction is diagnosed using a skin prick test or blood test. They do not require a gluten-free diet, but do need to eliminate all wheat and wheat products from their eating plan.
What should I do if I suspect that I have Celiac Disease or an allergy or intolerance to gluten?
While many people may complain of frequent fatigue as well as the occasional gas, bloating and constipation, that does not indicate that you have Celiac or NCGS or a wheat allergy. In fact, there are a variety of reasons why someone may suffer from constipation, gas or bloating. And, if you are a parent, especially of young kids, then tired is a part of life.
However, if you suspect that you might have any of these conditions, your best plan of action is to contact your healthcare provider and a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist for an assessment. These individuals are trained to inquire about your nutrition and medical history and assess signs and symptoms in order to help you find answers. They will also refer you to a specialist if required.
Removing gluten from your diet without the assistance of a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist can be frustrating, costly, and unnecessarily restrict your diet. It’s also important to note that removing gluten before testing can produce inaccurate results.
Which foods are gluten-free?
Eating a gluten-free diet does not require you to purchase food from a special aisle in the grocery store. Many foods are completely free of gluten, particularly whole foods. Some of these naturally gluten-free foods include:
Legumes, beans, lentils, peas
Meat, poultry, fish, pork
Nuts and seeds
Gluten-free whole grains include millet, buckwheat, amaranth, brown/wild rice, and oats. Quinoa is a common gluten-free grain substitute, but it is actually a seed. While oatmeal does not contain gluten, it is commonly processed in plants along with gluten-containing grains leading to cross contamination. Packaged gluten-free oatmeal is available for those requiring strict elimination of gluten.
Will eliminating foods with gluten make me healthier?
Some of the healthiest, well-researched eating plans out there, including the Mediterranean Diet and DASH Diet promote a variety of whole foods, with a particular emphasis on produce, beans, healthy oils & fats, nuts, and seeds. These are anti-inflammatory foods that promote wellness, reduce inflammation (a trigger for many diseases) and fuel the body well. All of these foods are not only included on a gluten-free diet, but can be eaten liberally.
As a society, Americans tend to overconsume grains, therefore the reduction or elimination of them may help promote the consumption of more produce (plants!) at meals. However, when individuals simply swap in gluten-free products for the traditional ones, it may actually reduce their nutrient consumption.
For example, many brands of gluten-free pasta are lower in fiber, protein and overall nutrients compared to the whole grain version. But bean pasta is actually higher in nutrition. If we assume we are purchasing a superior product just because it has gluten-free labeling, that may not be true.
The box of gluten-free cookies will still raise your blood sugar and insulin levels. The gluten-free brownie mix isn’t a healthier treat. The gluten-free pasta sauce is just a marketing ploy for a food that shouldn’t have gluten in the first place.
If you are pursuing a gluten-free diet for medical, health, or personal reasons, it’s important to create your eating plan from whole foods. A gluten-free diet can be a very healthy way to eat, but not when relying on a variety of packaged gluten-free convenience foods. Similarly, a diet containing a variety of whole grains, including those that do and do not contain gluten, is not harmful for many.
Most individuals generally do not need to eliminate an entire food group in order to be healthy, energetic, reduce the risk for disease, and improve their quality of life. But, for a small group, removing gluten dramatically improves their health and well-being.
A gluten-free diet can be an exceptionally healthy diet when it is rich in whole foods including beans, vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, healthy oils and fats, and quality protein. Individuals that ‘feel’ better following a gluten-free diet or those who suspect a medical issue with gluten would benefit from an assessment with a health professional to ensure their body is absorbing nutrients properly, and that their eating plan is rich in the nutrients they need.
Gluten-free cookies, pasta, and other packaged foods often carry the same calories as the traditional counterpart and may or may not have a superior nutritional value. Don’t assume that gluten-free labeling means it’s healthier. That is a false assumption. In fact, if it has a nutrition label, it’s worth comparing to a whole grain version to identify which one is more nutrient dense.
Because this gluten-free movement has continued to gain momentum, there are more individuals discovering undiagnosed issues and empowering themselves with knowledge.
So, what’s the play call?
You don’t have to get swept up in fads and clever marketing. You are the steward of your temple. Ask the Holy Spirit for discernment about how to care for, nourish, and pay attention to your body. Seek out a healthcare professional if necessary.
Lastly, eat more plants. He said they are good.
So God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the surface of the entire earth, and every tree which has fruit yielding seed; it shall be food for you. Genesis 1:29, AMP