10 Things You Should Know About Gluten
If you have been in a supermarket in the past couple of years, then you’ve noticed how gluten has become a modern day food obsession. Or rather, the need to cut it out of our diets has. Gluten free products can be found in almost every store. There are gluten free granola bars, gluten free mac n’ cheese, gluten free pizza, even gluten free cupcakes. There is virtually no end to the list of gluten free alternatives and substitutions.
Much like the low carb, sugar free, and paleo diets that have come before it, the gluten free movement has gained so much attention that is become a national health discussion. Unlike these diets however, the gluten free movement is unique in that many people, including those following the diet, don’t understand much about gluten.
It’s tempting to jump into the next health faze, especially in the age of social media. There is no absence of food and fitness blogs promoting gluten free recipes and lists of foods to avoid. This can be a great tool for changing your eating habits and finding a community to support your new lifestyle. However, there is a danger in drastically changing your eating habits without fully understanding what you are giving up, or the effects a large scale change may have on your body.
So if you’re like most people and want to unpack the mystery of what gluten is, its benefits, and its dangers, here is a list of the 10 things you should know about gluten.
10Gluten is an Umbrella Term for Many Proteins Found In Wheat
First off, it’s imperative to demystify gluten. Gluten is a broad term that includes all of the proteins found in grains. Examples of these grains include durum, semolina, farina, rye, barley, and triticale. These grains can be found in foods such as breads, pastas, and most baked goods.
Gluten forms as a result of glutenin and gliadin, two molecules, binding. Gluten proteins allow bread to stick together, such as when flour and water are mixed. In fact, the name gluten comes from the glue like quality of these proteins in allowing dough to mold together, stretch, and eventually to rise up as bread. It also contributes to the chewy consistency of bread. Gluten is not the toxic chemical it has become branded as. Instead, it’s a naturally occurring protein that is found in all products using wheat in some form or another.
Furthermore, it is generally an integral part of daily food intake. Wheat is a staple of most people’s diets, composing 20% of the world’s total calorie consumption. And much like the bread we bake it into, it’s been steadily on the rise. For about 30 years, the US has slowly been shifting its consumption from meat to wheat. Much of this shift has led to a number of health related concerns, and a recent backlash against wheat, first in the form of low carb diets, and now involving the roll of gluten.
9For Some People, Being Gluten Free Isn’t a Choice
Most people have no problems eating gluten. However, some people are born with gluten or wheat intolerance. Severe gluten intolerance is known as celiac or coeliac disease, an autoimmune response in some people that can lead to severe gastrointestinal inflammation and small intestine damage. It is a hereditary disease, estimated to effect 1 in 100 people worldwide. The Celiac Disease Foundation publishes a symptom checker list on their website, though they encourage people to consult a medical professional if they think they may have the disease. A blood test or biopsies of the small intestine performed by a doctor are the only ways to know for sure if you have celiac disease.
Many people have reported sensitivity to gluten, even if they do not have a severe intolerance for it. There is no uniform medical definition of gluten sensitivity, and gastroenterologists are currently trying to separate people with genuine sensitivity to gluten from the vast majority of non-celiac people who simply don’t like eating gluten. However, people have complained of symptoms after consuming gluten such as stomach pain, fatigue, bloating, depression, and diarrhea. If you experience any of these symptoms, it’s always safest to consult a doctor. People with irritable bowel syndrome or wheat allergies are also encouraged to avoid gluten.
In these cases, living gluten free isn’t a fad, but a stark reality many must live with everyday. For people who cannot eat gluten, it’s necessary to find ways to cope with it, while also ensuring they obtain all the nutrients of a full balanced diet.
8Gluten is Unlikely to Cause You Harm
If you’re not one of the people with Celiac Disease, you’re not likely to be harmed by eating gluten. And the likelihood is you don’t have it. Only about 1% of the population of the United States has Celiac Disease. Even so, a recent study conducted has noted that more than 30% of Americans are trying to actively cut down or avoid gluten.
Proponents of gluten free dieting will argue that the wheat that is being consumed today is characteristically different than that of decades past, due to all of the genetic modifications. However, this is also likely to be a marketing strategy. Wheat does not significantly differ in genetics to how it was 50 years ago. However, wheat processed today is much more often turned into white flour, which can be lacking in nutrients. It also has a number of complex carbohydrates which can lead to various stomach ailments, a possible reason for many people’s sensitivities.
Despite all of this, there is little research to support the claim that gluten is actively hurting people who don’t have an intolerance for it. And yet still, 80% of the people on gluten free diets don’t actually have a gluten intolerance. This may be a testament to the strength of marketing fads, but you can rest easy if you did not want to give up some of those gluten laden foods just yet. The research is on your side, and gluten itself will not likely harm your health.
7There Can Be Benefits To Limiting Your Gluten Intake
It would be misleading to say that cutting down on gluten will not yield any sort of benefit to your body. Similar to the low carbohydrate diet, avoiding an excess of breads, flours, and farinas can have a positive effect on weight loss, as well as help people cut down overall sugar intake. There is a benefit to moderating the consumption of these types of food.
Simple carbohydrates, such as those found in cookies and breads, can lead us to eat more and gain weight faster. They contain many more calories and fewer healthy fats, fiber, and proteins than other foods. However, gluten is not the primary cause of most of these problems in simple carbohydrates. There are a variety of gluten products that can be consumed that contain enough fiber and are low on calories. Additionally, gluten free diets have been linked to increased energy and in some instances, lowering cholesterol.
It’s similar to the benefit achieved by going on a low carbohydrate diet or avoiding processed foods. The link to weight loss may have more to do with cutting calories than the caloric power of gluten. Cutting out gluten is just an extreme way of yielding the same benefits. Think of it as using a giant hammer to attach a small nail: sure, it’ll get the job done, but there were other less excessive ways of going about it.
6But There Can Also be Harm in Cutting Gluten Out Completely
Cutting anything out of your diet too quickly can come with risks, but gluten is an especially concerning phenomenon, just because of the sheer variety of foods with some sort of gluten contained inside them. Often, the moderation of grains and wheat can also be done in a way that is far too excessive.
Given the broad category of products containing gluten, cutting it out completely can be far too limiting, too fast for many people. There is a danger when cutting out so many foods that this can have the effect of taking out necessary proteins and fibers out of your diet. Additionally, there is also a risk of replacing them with added sugar and sodium, in order to preserve the taste and texture of many typical gluten dishes. Increased sugar and sodium intake have been linked with diseases such as diabetes, high cholesterol, and heart disease.
In addition there are many benefits being forsaken. Barley, rye, and wheat can often promote health, providing probiotics and good bacteria. Many breads and cereals contain vitamin B, a necessary vitamin for many, but especially for women that are pregnant or trying to be. The best course of action for anyone trying to go completely gluten free would be to consult a doctor and try and work out a plan that supplements the vitamins you may be missing. Long-term nutritional deficiency can lead to serious health problems down the line.
5Keep in Mind, There Are a Lot of Foods that Are Naturally Gluten Free
With all of the alternatives on the shelves, it’s easy to forget that there are foods that exist without gluten in them to begin with. In fact, this is probably one of the healthiest ways to avoid gluten. Foods such as meat, vegetables, dairy, fruits, and legumes generally don’t contain gluten. And what’s more, they can often be less expensive to buy and more filling than some of the gluten free substitutes on the shelves. In the long run, increasing intake of these foods can be an easier and more fulfilling way of cutting down gluten.
If you’re looking to avoid gluten altogether, be sure to avoid variations of these foods (such as breaded chicken) that may contain other products with gluten. When it comes to pre-prepared food, a good rule of them is to check the box for ingredients used in its preparation. However, the easiest way to monitor for gluten is to purchase fresh meats, vegetables, and fruits.
Leaning more heavily on these food groups will limit your daily gluten intake, for sure. But if you’re still craving a heavier grain or starch, try reaching for rice, potatoes, tapioca, yucca, or quinoa. These are just a couple of many grains that don’t contain any gluten. There is no shortage to the amount of gluten free recipes available online, allowing you to experiment with different tastes and styles, while accommodating your gluten free preference.
4Watch out for Foods with Hidden Gluten
However, if you do want to explore the world of gluten substitutes, try and avoid foods such as gluten free pasta, breads, or baked pastries and treats, especially if you want to cut out gluten entirely. Because these products are usually made with gluten, it can be hard to rid them of gluten entirely, and manufacturers have clever ways of disguising this fact. For example, “wheat free” is a popular way of tricking consumers into thinking a product has no gluten in it, but given how broad of a category gluten is, there are a number of other proteins that can be used to give it the same effect.
Most cereals are wheat based, but even ones that claim not to be can pose their own risks. For instance, cereals can contain hidden gluten in the form of malt extract or flavoring, which has gluten in it. Soups and sauces can use wheat as a thickener. Oats and other products can be made in the same facilities as wheat, which can lead to cross contamination in many cases. Most alcohol is gluten free, but beers and ales must specify that they are gluten free since they are generally made with wheat or grain products.
The safest way to avoid gluten altogether is to stick with the naturally gluten free food groups, but if you do want to explore gluten substitutes, make sure to read the label carefully and do your research before going to shop.
3Limiting Gluten is No Substitute for A Healthy Lifestyle
The main problem with the gluten free diet doesn’t come from the diet itself, but rather from its other effects. While there may be benefits to avoiding gluten for some people, that does not take away the other risks certain foods can have.
The fact that baked goods and mac n’ cheese are gluten free doesn’t mean they are not baked goods and mac n’ cheese. It doesn’t take away the issues they would pose with sugar or cholesterol content. In fact, given what companies may have had to change in order to get them to taste similar, the sugar and cholesterol issue may be worse.
It’s easy to get so caught up in strictly adhering to a dietary restriction that you fail to see the long-term trajectory of your actions. But, it’s important not to let your focus on gluten content cloud your judgment for other health considerations when picking out your food. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you need be obsessive about other aspects of your daily food selection. However, gathering all of the information you can about the food you buy will help you make a much more informed decision in the long run.
Keep in mind that a gluten free diet has not been linked to causing weight loss, while eating whole grains has been linked to bringing down Type 2 diabetes as well as providing antioxidants. Be sure to seek out calcium, zinc, magnesium, and iron if you are pursuing a gluten free diet, as many of these can fall by the wayside as a result of limiting so many grains.
2Gluten-Free is an Industry Built Out on Health Consciousness
Before you purge all gluten out of your diet, keep in mind that gluten free is an industry that has been built upon a marketing fad. In the past couple of years, gluten free-labeled products have increased their gross annual sale from $11.5 billion to $23 billion. Like most food fads, the gluten free movement must be taken with a grain of salt, especially given the enormous profit manufacturers are able to make off of it.
Until recently, most Americans had not even heard of gluten, let alone its potential health effects. It wasn’t until medical professionals like William Davis, who authored the book “Wheat Belly” in 2011 began to strike into the American consciousness and pushed the idea that grains, even those that were whole wheat, could be poisonous. His book was a full-scale attack on gluten, which had repercussions years after the fact. In it, he made claims linking gluten to schizophrenia, MS, and arthritis, to name a few diseases.
It should be reiterated that while the science on gluten sensitivity is still underway, the majority of medical professionals agree that gluten poses no threat to non-celiac people. However, gluten definitely has a PR problem, with sales of gluten free products doubling in only the past four years and gluten consumption coming down. Companies have seized on the health scare around gluten, pushing forward the narrative that gluten free products are the way to a completely healthy lifestyle, while making billions.
1You Have To Trust Your Gut
Despite all of this, there are still many people that will insist that limiting gluten intake has significantly improved their quality of life. And for these people, it is not about the medical reasoning, but the feeling (both physical and mental) that cutting out gluten has given them. If you fall into that category, there is nothing wrong with limiting or taking it out, so long as you ensure you are doing it in a matter that is safe and consistent with your doctor’s medical advice.
The debate about gluten free products is a contentious one. For many suffering from Celiac Disease or many other food allergies, the commercialization and trending of a diet they are forced to be on can be frustrating. It is not an uncommon scene to find someone at a coffee shop or restaurant looking for a gluten free substitute, only to have whoever they’re seeking help from roll their eyes. Because of its recent popularity, gluten free eating has become both a source of inspiration and something that has been trivialized. As more information about gluten comes to light, people will better understand what gluten is and why certain people need or wish to cut it out of their diets.
As with every food trend, the complexity of the wheat we consume leaves us with questions as to how it may affect us in the long run. The only sure thing you can do is to eat whatever makes you feel your best.
In the end, the choice of whether or not to cut gluten is up to you. However, you should go into the decision with all of the facts you can gather at your disposal. In an age where information is disseminated quickly and with little filtering, it is easy to get lost. The gluten free fad has its economic benefits for those who can make a profit off of it, and its important not to let pseudo-science dissuade you from a protein that human beings have been consuming for thousands of years.
That being said, there are physical benefits from reducing simple carbohydrates that can be similarly gained from increasing your intake of foods that do not naturally contain gluten. Indeed the healthiest method of cutting gluten may be to compose a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, meats, and legumes, in order to ensure you get all of your necessary proteins and fibers.
Gluten is not the first food fad in which an unknown component of food has been vilified based on preliminary research. We have seen similar instances with MSG and fat in previous decades. But for many who cannot process gluten, this movement provides them with many more food options than they previously have had. However, if you’re just looking to lower your gluten intake, you are in luck. Equipped with the information in this list, as well as a huge number of products to choose from, it will be easy to find restaurants and stores that cater to your personal gluten preferences.