Going “gluten-free” seems to be trendy these days. Restaurants cater to gluten-free menu options, while grocery stores continue to expand their gluten-free isles. But who really needs to be off gluten, and why?
Gluten is a protein found in wheat endosperm. It is what makes bread chewy (and delicious) when baked. Gluten is found in foods like bread, beer, french fries, pasta, salad dressing (yes, salad dressing!), and soy sauce.
While gluten in and of itself isn’t necessarily an evil thing. However, some people have natural-born reactions to it, which can cause discomfort. “Some bodies produce an abnormal immune response when it breaks down gluten from wheat and related grains during digestion.” (source)
The most severe reaction to gluten, called Celiac disease, only affects 1% of the US population. Celiac disease causes an immune response that damages the intestines, and this prevents sufferers of the disease from being able to absorb nutrients they need. True celiac is rarer than you might believe.
But on the other hand estimates are that over 10% of the US population has gluten sensitivities. (Note that gluten allergies affect only 0.1% of the US population.)
The problem is that these sensitivities are often under diagnosed or, in some cases, misdiagnosed since the symptoms aren’t easy to read and can be confused. People with reactions to gluten suffer from diarrhea, headaches, fatigue, stomachaches, and gas.
If you are sensitive to gluten, getting rid of it from your diet can be vitally important. Working with a dietitian to determine healthy alternatives within a well-rounded meal plan can yield great results for your overall health.
The problem is getting off of gluten if you don’t have sensitivity to it doesn’t do much for you. In fact, it can do some big dietary damage.
As CNN.com writes:
“Even though celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and Gwyneth Paltrow have reportedly cut out gluten to "detox," there's nothing inherently healthier about a gluten-free diet.
"It can be very healthy, or it can be junk food," says Dee Sandquist, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.
Some of the many gluten-free products on the market can be unhealthy, Fasano says, because manufacturers add extra sugar and fat to simulate the texture and satisfying fluffiness that gluten imparts.
Another potential pitfall is that gluten-free products are less routinely fortified with iron and vitamins B and D than regular bread products, Sandquist says.” (source)
Don’t be fooled: just because a food is advertised as “gluten-free” does NOT mean it is inherently healthier for you.
If you suspect you may be celiac or have gluten sensitivities, do not self-diagnose. Work with a medical and dietary professional to make sure you are assessing your reactions correctly. From there, approach ridding your diet of gluten intelligently and holistically.
Otherwise, like always, eating a healthy and balanced diet is your best bet and the recommended ailment for whatever bothers you. Don’t jump on the gluten-free wagon thinking it’s a diet plan. Instead, listen to your body and eat smart.
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