In an effort to go gluten-free, many people are cutting bread and pasta from their diets with similar gusto reminiscent of the low-fat craze in the 80s and 90s. But most nutrition experts still agree that whole grains are an essential part of a healthy, balanced diet. So why has a protein found naturally in wheat, barley, and rye become such a bad word? And who really needs to give it the boot?
Very Few Actually NEED To Go Gluten Free
First, there are genuine medical reasons someone might need to avoid gluten. For people like tennis champion Novak Djokovic, who has celiac disease, an autoimmune condition that causes serious damage to the small intestine, gluten-free isn’t a choice—even a crumb can be dangerous. But despite increased awareness in the media, the reality is only 1 percent of the population actually suffers from celiac disease. It’s also possible, however, to have a wheat allergy, which is not the same as celiac disease. The allergy is more common in kids, and they typically outgrow it and are fine as adults.
Gluten Sensitivity Is Real, But Uncommon
If you’re among those who experience symptoms, but don’t test positive for celiac disease or a wheat allergy (roughly 6 percent of the population), gluten sensitivity may be the problem. Luckily, gluten won’t damage your gut, but you still likely suffer from similar unpleasant side effects. Diagnosis can be difficult, but generally follows a three-step process: testing negative for celiac disease, symptoms improving after gluten is eliminated, and symptoms returning once gluten is added back in. Recent research has also brought attention to fructans, a type of fiber also found in wheat, as well as onions, garlic, and artichokes. If you’re sensitive to those foods, you might discover that fructans are really at fault, not gluten, making your diet much less restrictive while still improving your symptoms.
Some people believe there’s been an increase in gluten sensitivity because manufacturers are adding more gluten to speed up commercial bread making. However, a recent study in the journal Digestion found that 86 percent of people who believed they were sensitive to gluten actually were not. So if only 7 percent (total) of people need to remove gluten for real medical reasons, why has a gluten-free diet become the standard “prescription” for everything from weight loss to depression?
Avoiding Gluten Could Help You Lose Weight…
Of course, if you’re avoiding cookies, white bread, and beer, you probably will lose a few pounds. By eating less of these foods, you’re essentially cutting carbs, which results in your body letting go of some retained water, too. Initially, you’ll feel less bloated, and athletes’ muscles will be more clearly defined, as the skin will appear less puffy. If ditching an overload of bread means you’re eating a wider variety of whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, that’s the best case scenario. But after a few days, the reality sets in—going totally gluten free is a highly restrictive and very expensive diet that requires diligence in order to maintain. And in many cases, a gluten-free diet can actually be less healthy.
…But Gluten Free Isn’t Healthier
A cookie doesn’t suddenly become a health food just because it’s gluten-free. Gluten-free cookies, cakes, breads, and crackers typically rely on highly refined, processed ingredients to create the same texture and feel. Rice flour and potato and tapioca starch are common substitutes, but they lack fiber, have a higher glycemic index (causing a sugar rush), and are missing essential nutrients like iron and folic acid that are naturally in many wheat products. Gluten-free products are also a little higher in fat and sugar which are added to improve the flavor, and ultimately add extra calories.
When a gluten-free diet isn’t followed with care, you could be missing out on gut-loving fiber and other essential vitamins and nutrients—sending you down a path towards deficiencies, weight gain, and constipation. Not sounding all that healthy anymore, is it?
If you suspect gluten may be affecting you, it’s important to get tested and properly diagnosed by a medical doctor, and to follow a structured elimination diet developed by a registered dietitian. Otherwise, just be selective when it comes to eating carbs. Cut down on the frequency you eat cookies, cakes, and crackers; and opt for old-school, slow-rising breads made without added gluten – and don’t go crazy on the portions! You may discover you feel better and can still eat the foods you love.