The popular gluten-free diet: What was once a treatment for celiac disease, is now a widespread phenomenon. If you have been paying attention during the past few years, you have almost certainly encountered someone on this diet, if you are not already following it yourself. Celebrities like Victoria Beckham, Zooey Deschanel, Drew Brees, Jessica Alba, Miley Cirus, and many others have adopted the gluten free lifestyle, further catalyzing its attractiveness to the rest of the population. Why are the masses flocking to incorporate this diet into the mix of other popular food movements? What are the benefits and dangers of this restrictive trend? In this article I will outline some of the fundamental characteristics, merits, and controversies of a gluten-free diet.
A gluten-free diet is essentially a diet that excludes foods containing gluten. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, rye, malts, and triticales (a cross between wheat and rye). It is often used in foods as an additive to flavor, stabilize, and thicken products, and is frequently labeled as “dextrin”. There is a debate regarding whether or not oats are suitable for this diet. While oats do not generally contain gluten, they are almost always processed alongside other grains that do, leading to contamination. In addition, recent studies have shown that a protein found in oats similar to gluten causes symptoms in some celiac disease sufferers.
As mentioned previously, a gluten-free diet was first established as a treatment for celiac disease. For those suffering from this disease, gluten causes inflammation of the small intestine and does not allow for proper absorption of nutrients. This disease is often hereditary and can be diagnosed with a simple blood test. A gluten-free diet is also prescribed to help alleviate symptoms of Dermatitis Herpitiformis, a skin disease linked to celiac disease. Persons with a wheat allergy are also restricted from gluten consumption.
Now, you may be asking yourself, if this diet was designed specifically for those with these diseases or allergies, why is everyone else hopping on board? Thousands of people have sought out this diet as a hopeful treatment for common gastrointestinal problems or weight loss. People experiencing common bloating, indigestion, or other stomach issues choose to refrain from the consumption of gluten because they believe this will alleviate symptoms. However, experts agree that there is a lot of self diagnosis going on. It is estimated that as few as 1% of Americans have celiac disease, and not much more have a gluten sensitivity. The exact levels of gluten a person with gluten sensitivity can intake without symptoms is unclear. Many people that choose to restrict gluten from their diet do not actually have gluten sensitivity.
Unfortunately, limiting gluten from the diet has not been proven to help shed unwanted pounds. Products that do not contain gluten are frequently substituted with additives to make up for a lack of taste. Often times, these gluten-free options are high in calories, fats, and carbohydrates. As far as weight loss is concerned, villianizing one ingredient is simply not going to cut it. Doctors still stand by the old solution of lowering calories and increasing exercise for real results.
Aside from its ambiguous benefits for non-celiacs, a gluten-free diet does generate some health risks. Because many gluten-free products are not fortified with nutrients such as folate, iron, calcium, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and fiber, many gluten-free dieters are at risk for deficiencies in these vitamins. In addition, many gluten-free dieters do not consume the recommended number of grain servings per day because of a lack of availability of gluten-free products. Without these essential grains, people are at risk of anemia, low blood calcium levels, and poor bone health. For these reasons, it is advised to remain informed, consider taking a vitamin supplement, and seek guidance from a professional nutritionist before completely modifying your diet.
Because the FDA has classified gluten as a GRAS ingredient (Generally Recognized As Safe), it is not required to be labeled on food packaging. Any food product that is not labeled as “100% gluten-free” may contain gluten. Even labeled as such, contamination is somewhat common. Researchers continually find evidence of gluten contamination in products that are thought to be gluten-free.
Now that I have outlined gluten-free eating in general, it is time to list specific foods that are prohibited. The list is quite extensive. For starters, this diet excludes many ordinary breads, pastas, and convenience snacks. It also excludes most beers, cakes, pies, candies, cereals, cookies, crackers, croutons, french fries, gravies, imitation meats/seafoods, processed lunch meats, salad dressings, sauces, seasoned rice mixes, soups, self-basting poultry, and any medications or vitamins that use gluten as a binding agent. That certainly rules out a massive chunk of the typical American diet.
In terms of alcohol, beer is the main culprit for gluten. This year, gluten-free and low-gluten beers previously introduced in the market have become more accessible. Spirits made without grains such as wine, brandy, mead, cider, sherry, port, rum, tequila, and vermouth do not generally contain gluten. However, sometimes additives to the alcohol or drink mixers will contain it, so celiacs should proceed with caution before consuming such beverages. Though whiskey is made from grain, gluten is removed during the distillation process and is generally safe.
After discussing all of the foods that you can’t eat on this diet, let’s rejoice in the ones you can. If you find it necessary to go gluten-free, it may be frustrating at first, but in time you may find that there are scores of options out there for you. Many healthy and tasty foods that you likely already eat are allowed, such as fruits, vegetables, eggs, beans, seeds, unprocessed nuts, and most dairy products. You can also indulge in fresh meats, fish, and poultries as long as they are not breaded, coated in batter, or marinated. For more variety, try conducting an Internet search for “gluten-free recipes”; hundreds of results are waiting to inspire you at only a click away.
With the growing popularity of this diet, gluten-free products are increasingly in demand and supermarkets are taking notice. Gluten-free breads and cereals have stocked the shelves, made from flours found in ground almonds, rice, sorghum, corn, or legumes. Frito-Lay, crowned royalty in the realm of snacks, has recently announced that they will be introducing a collection of gluten-free products. Restaurants are also pursuing the trend, providing gluten-free options and even separate gluten-free menus for their guests.
Companies are turning to the Internet to provide consumers with gluten-free choices as well. For example, glutenfree.com is a popular website distributing a plethora of gluten-free products: baking mixes, breads, muffins, bagels and baguettes, cookies, snacks, crackers, pretzels, cereals, convenience and prepared meals, baking ingredients, condiments, cakes, pizzas, pastas and more. Whew, what a list! Even some churches have followed suit, offering Communion wafers that are free of the gluten protein. If that doesn’t speak to the diet’s popularity, I’m not sure what will.
The Gluten-free diet is a heavyweight contender in the ring of food trends, primarily because of its booming fame. Overall, it is a step towards a diet that embraces many unprocessed foods, but leaves room for deficiencies and is not necessarily “healthier”. People following a completely gluten-free diet are more likely to consume more fruits and vegetables, which experts agree is a positive outcome. But why not just try to incorporate them into your diet as is? Most people can consume gluten safely and do not need to exclude gluten from the diet. Unless you are suffering from celiac disease or a related condition, take some time to reflect on what incentive there is in avoiding foods that most celiacs can only dream of eating. Most of us have been safely consuming wheat, barley, and and rye products for thousands of years after all. As always, the most important key to overall wellness is to maintain a balanced diet that suits your individual needs. Cheers to your health!
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