Gluten is a term we hear everywhere we go. Most people associate this protein with bread, pasta, cake, cookies, and basically all of your delicious, carb-filled favorite foods. For those who don’t have Celiac Disease, gluten intolerances, or gluten sensitivities, a gluten-free diet seems almost unimaginable. How can people diagnosed with Celiac Disease, a condition in which consuming gluten triggers an immune response that damages the lining of the small intestine, make this drastic transition in their diet from gluten-full to gluten-free?
Fortunately, with the rise of these diagnoses, the gluten-free market has become a $6.3 billion industry. Growing brands such as Glutino, Udis Gluten-free Foods, and Bob’s Red Mill replace wheat with alternatives such as rice, corn, sorghum, and tapioca flours. Other companies have also begun adding food labels that indicate which products of theirs are gluten-free, meaning that they contain only 20 parts per million of gluten. Celiac Disease is an inherited condition that affects an estimated 1 in 141 people in this nation’s population and consuming a diet that eliminates gluten provides them relief from symptoms and long-term complications.
But is gluten-free synonymous with “healthy?” People are starting to realize that successful gluten-free food companies are actually selling palatable foods and not the cardboard-tasting products some expected. Anyone can grab a gluten-free snack, but dieticians don’t recommend cutting out gluten from a diet unnecessarily. When most flours, breads, pasta, and breakfast cereals are rejected, so are important sources of B vitamins, iron, and fiber. In addition, remember that when you’re about to eat a gluten-free food, check the label: gluten-free does not mean “low calorie” or “low carb” either.
On the other hand, there are several advocates for the gluten-free diet. Although it is not entirely clear what causes fatigue in Celiac Disease and gluten sensitivity, many people claim that after eating gluten-free food they feel much more energetic. Even Novak Djokovic, a well-known tennis player who in 2011 revealed that he had a gluten allergy, altered his diet and still posted a 64-2 winning record. Surprisingly, no studies have found that eliminating gluten leads to increased energy levels. For many individuals, cutting out gluten means increasing their total intake of fruits and vegetables instead of processed foods, and eating a well-balanced diet benefits everyone, gluten-free or not. The same logic applies with people who have lost weight as a result of the switch. Attempting to be gluten-free forces people to plan their diets more carefully and may improve the nutrient density of their food intake, as well.
All in all, fads don’t always apply to everyone. Celiac Disease and other related conditions are extremely serious, hence the prevalence of “cross-contamination” warning signs and strict health codes, another term you should become familiar with. Going forward, be sensitive to those who need special eating arrangements and assess the pros and cons of a new diet before giving up your current one cold turkey.
By Allison Milch