Is Eating Gluten Free Really Better For You?
Grocery stores proudly display signs pointing the way to gluten free food. Packages read "Gluten Free!" There are websites dedicated to the new fad, and magazine articles advocating it, new books seem to premier weekly. Health food stores host healthy eating classes devoted to the gluten free lifestyle. As we make our New Year's resolutions, the term 'gluten free' can't help but come to mind.
Most Americans who make New Years resolutions will include some form of healthy eating, whether their goal s to lose weight or simply improve their health. Many will consider going gluten free as part of their dietary plan. After all, if so many products proudly declare themselves to be gluten free, there must be something inherently wrong with gluten, right? Health food stores wouldn't advertise their gluten free sections so proudly if gluten free food weren't superior to gluten filled food. And, it is more expensive. In our society, premium food comes at a premium price. Gluten free, for some, is clearly a premium.
Some people seem to think that healthy eating is as simple as giving something up. They want it to be cut and dried, like food allergies. In the eighties, the trend was sugar. Then fat. Then grains, as people jumped on the Atkins bandwagon. Now, gluten is the danger du jour.
What On Earth is Gluten, and Why is it Bad For You?
Gluten, to put it simply, is the protein found in certain grains. Specifically, in wheat, rye and barley. It's in all varieties of the above grains, including semolina, spelt, and triticale. People on a gluten free diet also need to avoid oats.
Some people develop a specific autoimmune response to gluten grains. These individuals have Celiac Disease. Celiac Disease is thought to affect as many as 1 in 133 individuals. People who have Celiac Disease suffer from common, vague digestive discomforts ranging from gas and bloating to diarrhea. Some struggle with constipation. Others don't complain of symptoms, but slowly develop malnutrition and osteoporosis because their damaged digestive tract is unable to process the foods they eat and use the nutrients. Untreated Celiac Disease can even eventually lead to cancer.
There is no doubt that gluten is bad for people with Celiac Disease. They need to avoid it at any cost. As the diagnosis of Celiac Disease seems to be increasing, more and more individuals are fiding that although they don't test positive for Celiac Disease, they feel better on a gluten free diet (This condition is known as Gluten Intolerance). Some speculate that gluten grains are bad for everyone.
Gluten has been around for over a thousand years. (So has Celiac Disease, by the way. Symptoms were described way back in biblical times, with individuals who developed severe bloating and did not tolerate cereal grains well.) However, in the past 100 years, we've used selective techniques to improve the gluten content of grains in order to yield breads and baked goods with better mouth feel.
At the same time, our dietary habits have turned upside down. Rather than supplementing the easy-to-find (on a farm) fresh produce, eggs, nuts and meat with more labor intensive grain foods, the food industry has brought us ready made convenience foods like crackers, cereal and sliced bread. Most are shelf stable, and many people find it much easier to rip open a bag of crackers than it is to forage in the fridge for carrots or celery. What this means for the American diet is simply more grains. More crackers, more bread, more croutons and exponentially more exposure to gluten proteins. Which means, more chances to develop an intolerance of any sort.
I'm not a doctor. But it seems to me that the trouble isn't the gluten specifically, but overexposure to gluten grains to the exclusion of more nutritious foods like carrots, sweet potatoes, dried fruit and nuts. Of course, that part is just speculation.
Whether or not you think gluten itself is inherently bad is up to you. If you have Celiac Disease, you don't need New Years resolutions to give up the gluten. If you don;t..well, the choice is yours. But giving up gluten alone is not enough to improve your diet.
What? But Gluten Free is Health Food!
The words 'Gluten Free' on a label do not denote health food. Yes, I know. I hear the protesting. You may be so shocked you want to navigate away from this post. Hear me out.
The term 'gluten free' simply means that a food product does not contain the specific gluten free grains. Sugar is gluten free. Lard is gluten free. Chocolate is gluten free. (Wait, chocolate is a health food, isn't it? No? Well, it should be.) So are potato chips. And ice cream. And...well, you get the idea. Bacon is gluten free, too, and yet it isn't one of the top contenders in weight loss lists.
There are healthy gluten free diets. You can have a perfectly balanced gluten free diet. But just looking for labels that read 'gluten free' isn't enough. In fact, if you only buy prepackaged food that states 'gluten free' on the label, you'll probably end up gaining weight. That's because most whole foods (the stuff you should be eating) are naturally devoid of gluten.
That's right. Chicken breasts, salad, rice and beans...all gluten free. And the label rarely proclaims their gluten free status in big bold letters. That claim is reserved for the gluten alternative items, like crackers and bagels and cookies. People with Celiac Disease don't get to 'cheat' on their diets like those who want to lose weight can. Just a bite of gluten filled food can cause miserable cramping that really runs an evening, and will cause damage to the intestinal lining that takes a lot of time to repair. The gluten free alternative items have been developed to make the transition easier for them.
Many gluten free manufacturers know they have a niche audience, but they want to expand their appeal. They hook into the health conscious crowd by making sure that their products are also organic or all natural. That may make gluten free donuts a better option than certain multi-colored powdered sugar encrusted pastries, but it certainly does not make them health food. In fact, some gluten free alternative items are even higher in sugar than their counterparts! That's because gluten free goodies require blends of multiple flours and starches to get the same mouth appeal as their gluten filled counterparts. And for some reason, some people with Celiac Disease crave sweeter treats than those without. Some people think this has to do with the intestinal flora. Some think it's a coincidence. I think it might be psychological; the mindset of "I can't have cookies" makes you want more sugar. Maybe it's a combination. Whatever the reason, the fact is that you can never replace a mid morning snack with gluten free cookies and call it healthy.
Whether you're giving up gluten, or just trying to eat right, give yourself permission to indulge once in awhile. Choose a frequency, depending on your goal. After eating the boring, healthy salad type meals, allow yourself a small scoop of real ice cream (or whatever your fantasy food is, so long as it meets your allergy restrictions), and drizzle a bit of fudge on top. Sit down and savor it.
You wont need as much to satisfy you if actually indulge in the type of food you're craving. And if you wait until you're already mostly satiated from a nourishing meal, you won't need as much to fill you up.
But I Want to Eat Healthy!
Healthy eating is a lifestyle. It's not about avoiding specific 'bad' things. (although, if you want to start avoiding things, look at additives. Artificial colors and flavors aren't that great for you, and neither are preservatives. And they are generally found in products you're better off avoiding anyways, whether they're gluten free or not.) If you want to eat healthfully, you need to look at your options and choose the better one.
Confused? Let's say you go out to eat. You want a big slice of pizza. You know salad is the 'healthy' option. But, you really want pizza. Rather than sitting down to an unappetizing salad while your friends eat pizza, and then gorging on bread sticks to make up for it, have a side salad and split a slice of unhealthy pizza with a friend. The salad will fill you up and provide you with nourishing vitamins and minerals and lots of fiber (assuming you don't drown it in dressing). The pizza will offer comfort food and flavor. You'll walk away satisfied, and (hopefully) guilt free.
And if you do want to go gluten free? Then good for you! But don't limit yourself to buying gluten free convenience foods or you'll miss the health bandwagon completely. Look for healthy, nourishing, whole foods. Whip up a batch of brown rice. Sautee some frozen veggies to top your pasta or baked potato. Make an omelette. (They aren't as scary as they sound). Indulge in rich, dark chocolate...but only a little bit, and only once in awhile.
Going gluten free can be good for you. But there's more to healthy eating than what you don't eat. There's fruit, and veggies, too.