By Janine Koutsky, MS
If you haven’t noticed, the popularity of a gluten-free lifestyle is starting to pop up everywhere. In the media, you may hear how celebrities are cutting out gluten for weight loss. Or perhaps you’ve heard of the Paleo diet. Ironically, next month (May) is Celiac Awareness Month, so this article lends itself to this hot topic.
Not so long ago, the only individuals to eat a gluten-free diet were those who were prescribed to do so because of a medical diagnosis of Celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. So why now the increase of gluten-free menu items, specialty stores, and gluten-free diets? Is it possible that there is an increase in gluten sensitivity and Celiac disease within our population? Or is it just those celebrities have that much influence on what we eat?
Before I continue, let me give you a brief definition of gluten. Gluten is a protein found in grains, such as wheat, barley, and rye. The big one here is wheat. Wheat is found in many carbohydrates, such as wheat bran, wheat starch, wheat germ, and cracked wheat. These are just a few examples. We also can’t forget all the flours that contain wheat, such as white flour, enriched flour, durum flour, and semolina; just to name a few. So basically, most cereals, pastas, and breads contain some form of gluten. But, let’s not forget the hidden gluten found in several processed foods, such as salad dressing and frozen or boxed meals. Bottom line –a gluten-free diet is not easy to achieve, unless you do your homework.
Let’s take a step back and look at Celiac disease and gluten sensitivity. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder where the body’s response to consumption of gluten is to attack the gastrointestinal track. Consuming gluten for these folks not only causes gastrointestinal distress and the potential malabsorption of certain nutrients, but also intestinal damage. Gluten sensitivity is when a person experiences the same symptoms as someone with Celiac disease, without the intestinal damage. If you know of someone who suffers or you suffer from either of these, then you know that Celiac disease and gluten sensitivity can cause substantial physical and emotional distress.
Grains that do not contain gluten are corn, quinoa, millet, rice, sorghum, amaranth, and teff. Not sure how to cook millet or quinoa? Of course there are several cookbooks dedicated to gluten-free living. Check out the gluten-free isle at your grocery store or a specialty store to find the alternatives to products like cereal, pastas, muffins, cookies, and breads. Do the research, because avoiding gluten cross-contamination can be tricky, which doesn’t end with the food manufacturers. Some individuals are so sensitive to gluten that merely cooking with the same utensils, pots, pans, or even a toaster can cause a reaction. Those folks looking to eliminate gluten without a medical diagnosis would not have the same concern for gluten-contamination.
Does gluten deserve the bad publicity? Let’s look at what we do know.
We know that eating a plethora of refined carbohydrates – pasta, bread, cereal, pastries, cookies, etc -is not the healthiest way to eat. We also know that most of those refined foods do contain gluten. What maybe you didn’t know is that foods like soy sauce, hot dogs, ketchup, beer, and deli meats also contain gluten. Shocker? Maybe. But this just means that when eliminating gluten you need to consider the less obvious foods.
We do know some of the reasons you may read or hear for people eliminating gluten, outside of a medical diagnosis, is because of these popular claims:
- Not digested properly
- Causes weight gain
- Causes joint pain
- Our ancestors didn’t eat grains or the modified grains we currently eat, so why should we?” (a’ la Wheat Belly)
- “Brain Fog”
If you are experiencing those listed from 1-4, you may want to speak to your doctor about testing for a gluten sensitivity or Celiac disease.
We also know that there is no scientific evidence that says gluten is bad and that we should eliminate it, outside of a true gluten sensitivity or Celiac disease. The common “junk” foods that are over processed should be eliminated anyways. Keep in mind that just because it says “gluten-free” on the box, doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Gluten-free cookies can be high in sugar too!
If you are convinced that you might have a gluten sensitivity, even speaking to your doctor, focus on foods of quality that are naturally occurring gluten-free grains with higher amounts of fiber and loaded with great nutrients like buckwheat, nut flours, coconut flour, and quinoa. Look for the Certified Gluten-Free Trade Mark. Finally, speak to a Registered Dietitian for the best suggestions when eliminating gluten from the diet.