By Jess Scott Wright, RDN
Fat free, sugar free and now gluten free: the list of food “freedoms” that have influenced consumer food philosophy continues to grow as more Americans join the anti-gluten movement, opting for a new gluten-free diet that may not actually be healthier.
Consumers struggle to understand fat and sugar. We’ve spent years believing fat-free and sugar-free products were the key to staying healthy and thin, but that isn’t true.
Historically, the “free” trends have done nothing to reverse the worsening nutritive state of our nation, so I cannot help but wonder how gluten freedom might be different.
Some people simply can not tolerate gluten due to a medical condition known as celiac disease, and while degrees of gluten sensitivity vary from person to person, many consumers are eliminating gluten from their diets without really knowing why.
My intention is not to sway you for or against gluten, but to guide you in making a checked and balanced decision.
Before reading on, ask yourself the following questions: What is gluten? What foods have gluten in them? Do I feel gluten-free is healthier? Why or why not?
If your answer is “I don’t know,” that’s OK!
What is gluten?
Gluten is a combination of proteins acting as the structural glue holding everything together in certain foods. The amount of gluten has an effect on the texture and consistency of a final product.
What foods have gluten in them?
Gluten is most commonly found in grains like wheat, barley and rye. However, there are some hidden sources of gluten in non-edible products like toothpaste.
Do I feel gluten-free is healthier? Why or why not?
Think about how you answered this question. Is your opinion based on what you have heard and read, or how you actually feel when you eat gluten or don’t eat gluten? I will come back to this later.
It’s important to understand a few basics when it comes to living gluten-free: Gluten-free is not the same as grain-free. Not all grains contain gluten and avoiding gluten doesn’t mean you don’t eat grains (although it might).
The role of grains in human nutrition is a controversial one I will discuss in a subsequent article, but they definitely play a role in a gluten-free lifestyle.
Gluten-free is always wheat-free, but wheat-free is not always gluten-free. In order to be gluten-free, you must be wheat-free, because gluten is a part of wheat. Wheat is the most familiar source of gluten, but it also has other sources, so avoiding wheat does not guarantee you have eliminated gluten entirely.
You can find countless gluten-free flour alternatives that make it possible to still have things like pizza, cakes, cookies, bread, crackers or any other food formerly made with gluten, but that doesn’t make them necessarily healthy for you.
The food industry is not
suffering from the gluten freak-out. It is just an opportunity to infiltrate the marketplace with costly specialty items, a new and greater line of profit compared to the cheaper wheat counterparts.
Each time I go to the store, the gluten-free selection grows and there’s no doubt in my mind it will become an aisle of its own. The idea of an entire market dedicated to gluten freedom doesn’t seem far-fetched.
Back my previous question: Is gluten free healthier?
Maybe it is. That really depends on your health goals. What are you trying to achieve by eliminating gluten?
Gluten is a main issue for celiac disease, however if your health focus is weight loss or eliminating diabetes, making gluten the enemy may not work out in your favor. Just because a food is gluten-free, it is not necessarily free from sugar, GMOs, questionable additives, etc. Just because a food is gluten-free does not mean it is a nutrient rich option.
How do you know if you’re gluten sensitive, grain sensitive or neither? The only one who can really figure that out is you, but it requires you to be both informed and in tune with your body.
Many people with gluten sensitivity will experience diarrhea, upset stomach, bloating or cramping, but signs and symptoms are not always clear. Additionally, gluten-rich foods have a lot more ingredients than just gluten. Therefore, to single out gluten is a bold assumption.
If you want to analyze your sensitivity to gluten, start by eliminating all grains and gluten. Keep your eyes open; you’ll find gluten in places you’d least expect. Eat proteins, vegetables and healthy fats. After a week, add a gluten-free grain back into your diet.
Next, try eating sprouted grain like Ezekiel bread. Some people with gluten sensitivity can tolerate sprouted grain. If you want to push your threshold to the max, eat your Wheaties – a few squares of shredded wheat will let you know if you are sensitive to gluten.
Finally, eat what’s good for you, not what other people say is good for them. Don’t follow a food trend without purpose or good information. Yes, you’re seeing more and more gluten-free products, but look beyond that. The food industry has one priority and it isn’t looking out for your health.
Choose freely and chew your food based on facts, not fear.