You’d have to be living under a rock not to notice the attention given recently to the gluten in our diets. “Fad” or “craze” hardly seem potent enough words to describe it. Even playdough has gone gluten-free.
The touted benefits of a gluten-free diet range from reducing inflammation and digestive pain, to helping you lose weight.
But many people, including those who have converted to a gluten-free diet, don’t fully understand the effect of gluten on the body, and more importantly, the effect on their health when they remove gluten from their diets.
- What is Gluten? According to Wikipedia, gluten is a protein composite found in foods processed from wheat and related grain species, including barley and rye. It was discovered in the 7th century by Buddhist monks looking for a substitute for meat.
- What foods have gluten? This is where the problems start for those who want to go gluten-free. Gluten is in far more foods than we realize. Anything made with wheat, from breads to beer, can contain gluten. But those are the obvious ones. Gluten is also used to give texture and elasticity to a wide-range of foods and other products, including soy sauce, vegetarian meat substitutes, toothpaste, pickles, licorice, ice cream and salad dressing. Many gluten-free dieters are surprised to learn of how many foods they need to avoid to remain strictly gluten-free.
- Is gluten bad for you? It definitely is if you suffer from Celiac Disease, wheat allergy or non-celiac gluten sensitivity. If you do, even small amounts of gluten can inflame and damage your small intestine, causing a number of symptoms including abdominal pain, gas, bloating, diarrhea and constipation.
However, both Celiac Disease and wheat allergies affect less than 1% of the population. Reliable data on non-celiac gluten sensitivity is difficult to find because it is a relatively recently diagnosed condition whose sufferers have similar symptoms as Celiac Disease and wheat allergy but have tested negative for them.
- Why is there so much information about the negative effects of gluten? First, as baby-boomers age, there is a larger percentage of the population who are increasingly concerned about their health and are looking for answers. The views on what constitutes a healthy diet are changing as we realize we really are what we eat. Gluten-free diets have been touted by celebrities and sports stars as having helped improve their performance. In addition, the best-selling book Wheat Belly has received widespread media attention since being published in 2011 and has been the introduction for millions of people to the issues surrounding gluten.
- Can I lose weight with a gluten-free diet? Like any diet phenomenon, gluten-free is heralded by many, including the Wheat Belly devotees, as a fast way to lose weight. But a growing number of medical professionals caution against going gluten-free without fully understanding the implications for maintaining proper nutrition. Many gluten-free food manufacturers either fail to replace the nutrients lost when gluten is eliminated, or they try to replace it by adding fat.
As reported in Maclean’s, a soon-to-be released study of the nutritional content of gluten-free foods by Dalhousie University professor Mohsin Rashid shows that many of those foods might be higher in fats and lower in protein than the gluten-containing foods they replace.
- What should I do? It’s always best not to jump into any change in diet without first consulting medical and/or nutritional professionals. They will help you understand the implications of the diet changes and help you maintain proper health and nutrition.