If I could have a dollar for every time someone tries to justify eating junk food with “but it’s gluten-free,” I’d be one lucky lady. These days it seems like “gluten-free” is the universal get-out-of-jail-free card. You simply attach “gluten-free” to a food label or a recipe and instantly all other elements are abandoned (hello! remember calories and sugar!?) and it’s the most instagrammable “health” food. Well guys, I hate to break it to you but double chocolate fudge caramel gluten-free cookies are still double chocolate fudge caramel cookies! They just don’t contain gluten. That’s it. Nothing more. Nothing less. Now that’s good news if you’re allergic to gluten and you’re craving a cookie. But if you’re not…?
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.
If you’re going gluten-free in hopes to lose a few pounds, I recommend you reconsider your plan. Sorry. And sorry for not sugar coating it either. Again, gluten-free just means sans gluten. It does not mean “good for you.” To put things in perspective, let’s look at some other gluten free foods:
- Cape cod potato chips
- Doritos toasted corn tortilla chips
- Ruffles original potato chips
Would you eat any of the above foods if you’re watching your waistline? Probably not! So, when you’re indulging in those gluten-free chocolate fudge ice cream sandwiches, enjoy every last bite, but understand that you’re INDULGING, and not eating a healthy snack. “Gluten-free” is not justification for eating dessert! Eat dessert because you’re human and you’re allowed to treat yourself. 100 percent of the time I prefer when a client admits “I was craving a cookie, so I had one!” versus “It was gluten-free so I had one.” See the difference!?
To wrap things up, here are my takeaways:
- If you have CD, you’re always gluten-free.
- If you have NCGS, be gluten-free as much as you can.
- If you’re none of the above, don’t use gluten-free as an excuse to eat unhealthy. It’s not. And now you know better.
- Treat yourselves to dessert sometimes, gluten-free or not! You’re all hard working employees, employers, moms, dads, husbands, wives, girlfriends or boyfriends, or whatever you are – and you deserve it!