Just a few years ago, very few Americans knew what gluten was. Today, according to one survey, almost one third of Americans are trying to avoid the element found in grain. In growing numbers, the world’s biggest food makers and restaurant chains are changing recipes and labels to capitalize on the trend, creating a multibillion-dollar business out of gluten-free products. But are they really better for you? First, let’s answer some important questions.
What is Gluten? Gluten is a protein found in wheat that gives elasticity to dough, helping it to rise and keep its shape. Gluten is a combination of gliadin and glutenin, which is joined with starch in various grains. Gliadin is what enables bread to rise properly while glutenin is the major protein in wheat flour, making up 47% of the total protein content.
What Is Celiac Disease? When people with celiac disease eat foods or use products containing gluten, their immune system responds by damaging the small intestine. The tiny, fingerlike protrusions lining the small intestine are damaged or destroyed. Called villi, they normally allow nutrients from food to be absorbed into the bloodstream. Without healthy villi, a person becomes malnourished, regardless of the quantity or quality of food eaten.
What is Gluten Intolerance And Gluten Sensitivity? Some people suffer from gluten intolerance, which is different from celiac in that it is not an immune mediated response. The symptoms of gluten intolerance appear after eating wheat or other foods containing gluten, which can cause abdominal cramping, bloating, diarrhea, and flatulence. Researchers are still investigating whether gluten intolerance over a long period causes permanent intestinal damage.
More commonplace is gluten sensitivity, which affects approximately 18 million people in the United States and is essentially a less severe form of gluten intolerance. The gastrointestinal symptoms are similar to those that affect individuals with celiac disease, but gluten sensitivity does not cause damage to the intestinal lining.
Is Gluten-Free Healthy? Gluten-free lovers of the world may be in for a surprise. Many health experts now say there is no proven benefit to going gluten-free unless you have one of the above-mentioned issues. Indeed, according to nutritional food labels, many gluten-free foods contain fewer vitamins, less fiber and more sugar – something some food makers don’t dispute, saying they are simply responding to consumer demand without making health claims.
Where there is a disease, there is a marketing opportunity. As celiac disease has gained notoriety, an increasing number of people have begun self-diagnosing as gluten sensitive, and consequently have adopted gluten-free lifestyles. It’s also been touted as a new-age cure-all for a number of maladies including migraines and fibromyalgia, though there is little scientific data to support such claims.
But despite trumpeting the products, most food industry executives concede that a gluten-free diet is best followed by those who have an actual medical need. As Mark DeMeo, M.D., director of gastroenterology and nutrition at the Adult Celiac Disease Program at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago told Women’s Health, “There’s nothing magical about a gluten-free diet that’s going to help you lose weight.”
In fact, doing so can have the opposite effect. Without gluten to hold baked goods together, food manufacturers will often use fats and sugar instead. That means going gluten-free can potentially increase your risk of developing a micronutrient deficiency, especially if you rely on hyper-processed and fat or sugar-packed, packaged foods rather than the nutritionally stable and vitamin-packed fresh fruits, vegetables, and gluten-free grains (like quinoa) you should be eating anyway.
Instead, switch your focus from avoiding gluten to sticking with whole grains. You can have whole wheat, you can have products made of barley and rye, and you can have the naturally gluten-free grains – quinoa, amaranth, and millet, which are very healthy. If going gluten-free helps to guide you to a healthier diet – full of fruits, vegetables, and gluten-free whole grains – then it’s a rule to follow, whether or not you’re gluten-sensitive. But if your idea of gluten free is a bucket of hot wings, French fries, a diet coke, and a rice-flour cupcake – you aren’t doing yourself any favors. Consider other, healthier, dietary changes.