A few days ago I was talking to a young woman in her mid-twenties. I asked her if she or any of her friends were following a gluten-free diet. She said yes, and added they all felt better after making the dietary change.
I wasn’t at all surprised—going gluten-free is the diet du jour, and people swear that not eating wheat has changed their lives.
But is gluten inherently evil and ruining our health? Should everyone avoid it? Not necessarily. Here are some basic facts about gluten and also some of the tall tales:
Fact: Gluten is a naturally occurring part of wheat.
Fact: Celiac disease is a real illness marked by severe gluten intolerance that can be diagnosed through a blood test and GI biopsy. About three million people in the U.S. have celiac disease, or about one in 100, according to the National Institutes of Health. Common symptoms include acute abdominal pain, diarrhea and bloating, but can also include mouth sores and joint pain.
Fact: Sensitivity to gluten, a protein found in grains such as wheat, rye and barley, is also real and runs along a spectrum. But having a gluten sensitivity is different from celiac disease and harder to diagnose because there are no tests.
Fiction: Everyone should be gluten-free because gluten is bad for you.
Fiction: Eliminating gluten from your diet will help you lose weight and give you more energy.
Fiction: A gluten-free diet is easy to follow—just don’t eat white breads or pasta.
There’s an odd gluten dichotomy going on in the U.S. now.
A recent study in the American Journal of Gastroenterology found that among 7,800 people who were tested for celiac disease, 35 tested positive—but 29 of them didn’t even know they had it and weren’t following a gluten-free diet. At the same time, about a quarter of the U.S. population is currently trying to reduce or eliminate gluten from their diets.
When I was a dietetic student in the 1970s, I learned that celiac disease was a serious but very rare condition. Now, in 2012, it is almost chic. A Web site called Glutenista lists celebrities and athletes with either celiac or a gluten sensitivity. Gluten-free foods used to be impossible to find, and now grocery stores have shelf upon shelf of everything from gluten-free cookies to wheat-free pasta.
In our culture, we love to label foods “good” or “bad” because that makes it easier to embrace or refuse them. Gluten has now become one of those “bad” foods, joining trans fats, high-fructose corn syrup, red meat and dairy as an ingredient to avoid.
Identifying a food as “bad” and making a conscious effort to avoid it is a major principle of many fad diets. Since gluten really does make some people very sick, it’s become the newest fad diet poster child.
But a gluten-free diet is not easy to follow. Why? Gluten is found in small amounts in many commonly eaten foods and beverages such as beer, soy sauce, processed meats and flavorings. So if you’re truly committed to eating this way, reading the teeny-tiny fine print on every single packaged food label is essential.
If you adopt the breads, pastas and baking mixes made from alternative flours such as arrowroot and potato, what you’ll eat will probably be low in fiber and high in calories. Long story short: If you don’t have problems digesting the stuff, avoiding it won’t necessarily make you healthier.
Going gluten-free can also drain your wallet. For example, a 14-oz. loaf of gluten-free bread is about $6.50, while a 1-lb., 8-oz. loaf of whole wheat bread is about $3.60. A 6-oz. box of gluten-free macaroni and cheese is about $4.50, but the same-size box of mac and cheese made with wheat pasta is about $1.50.
Why do people claim to feel better when they eliminate gluten from their diets? It could simply be that when they gave up gluten their diets were laden with mostly refined white flour foods, and eating more fruits and vegetables made them feel better. Or, it could be the placebo effect, since believing you’re doing something healthy can have a profound effect on your mental and physical state.
If you truly think you have a problem with gluten, see your doctor before changing your diet. Don’t cut out gluten before getting tested, since the test needs to detect gluten in your system. Both celiac disease and gluten sensitivity present a wide array of symptoms, so discuss them with your doctor to make sure you aren’t suffering from something else.
For the minority of people who do have gluten issues, it’s a blessing to have a huge array of products to choose from as well as online support resources. They make managing the illness so much easier.
For those following the gluten-free fad, I think it’s time to look at other ways to improve your diet. Grains such as whole wheat, oats and barley provide nutrition essentials such as fiber, B vitamins and vitamin E. Taking away whole grains from your diet—if you don’t need to—does more harm than good. Throw away the donuts, but keep the whole wheat bread.
Do you eat a gluten-free diet because you like it, or because of a gluten sensitivity? Tell us about it in the comments, and share this story.
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Lisa Gibson is an Irvine, California-based registered dietitian with a master’s degree in clinical nutrition. She is a past president of the California Dietetic Association.