I’m going to take this opportunity to dispel the misconception that “gluten-free” translates to “healthy.”
Let’s start from square one. What is gluten anyway?
Gluten is a protein commonly found in foods containing wheat, rye, and barley. It provides many starch products with shape, texture, and elasticity. So, there you have it. Gluten is not some people-eating-cancer-causing bacterium that’s destroying humanity one bagel at a time. It’s just a protein, and it’s been the foundation of the Western diet since the start of civilization.
So why does gluten get such a bad rep?
Celiac disease (CD), widely known as a gluten allergy, is an autoimmune condition that occurs in response to gluten consumption and can ultimately destroy the small intestine if not properly handled. This is a very real condition and should be taken seriously – by those who test positively for the allergy. A blood test is used to screen for CD and an intestinal biopsy will ultimately diagnose CD. The only treatment is strict, lifelong adherence to a gluten-free diet. For some people, the allergy is so severe that using a utensil that had previously come in contact with gluten can cause painful GI symptoms for days.
In the early 1990’s CD was under-diagnosed. Now, the National Institutes of Health estimates that 1% of the population suffer from CD. This is largely why gluten has made headline news so often in the last decade.
Non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) seems to be the condition that has people most confused. People with NCGS test negative for CD; however, they experience painful GI symptoms when they eat gluten-containing foods, similar to those of people who have CD. Furthermore, many people find that their symptoms subside when gluten is removed from their diets.
Where do you fall into the mix?
If you have been diagnosed with CD, you know where you stand: GF4L (gluten-free for life). No two ways about it!
If you fall into the “I feel my best self without gluten” category, you’re also going to try your best to avoid all products wheat, rye, and barley. Don’t be afraid to be a label detective. Ask how foods are prepared when you order at restaurants. Ask about additives in medications. Ask, ask, ask!
Whether you have CD, sensitivity, or want to try out the gluten-free diet for kicks, you should still understand that gluten-free does not mean healthy. In fact, it can mean quite the opposite. Gluten-free food alternatives must often compensate for taste and texture with increased amounts of other ingredients, so it’s not uncommon to see lots of sugar or fat in these foods. Furthermore, they’re often lower in various vitamins, minerals, and fiber.