Let’s clarify a few things…
I never quite understood the gluten-free craze, but now that I’ve taken the time to research it I’d like to share what I found.
My gut has always told me something ain’t right with the way many have been treating gluten lately, but maybe I’ve been one-sided because I like to have bread on my sandwich, toast with my jam, and pasta in my… pasta.
Most of us healthy All-Americans grew up strong on Wheaties and PB&J’s… do we really need to switch to rice crackers and quinoa now?
Here’s what you should know:
What is gluten?
Gluten is a mixture of proteins naturally found in wheat and related grains like barley, rye, and oat.
Have you ever had a gluten free piece of bread? Compared to a traditional piece of bread, they’re pretty rigid, dense, and more crumbly.
That’s because gluten is what gives dough it’s elasticity, helps bread rise, keep it’s shape, and gives it a chewy texture.
About: Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder. When someone with celiac disease consumes gluten, it triggers their immune system which damages their small intestine. This can lead to permanent damage and long-term health complications.
To develop celiac disease, a person must inherit the genetic predisposition, be consuming gluten, and have the disease activated. Common activation triggers include stress, trauma (surgeries, etc.) and possibly viral infections.
Frequency: About 1% of the population.
About: A wheat allergy is different from celiac disease. While someone might experience similar symptoms, a wheat allergy is just that – an allergic reaction to wheat. Most people with wheat allergies can tolerate other grains.
Frequency: about .4%
Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity
About: Non-celiac gluten sensitivity is hard to diagnose and measure because it is largely subjective – unlike celiac disease or a food allergy there is no blood test that can detect it. People who fall into this category “have digestive, mood, and energy complaints that they believe are eliminated by a gluten-free diet”.
Needless to say, the jury is still out on whether or not this is a real condition.
Frequency: estimates range from .6 – 6% of Americans.
Common Misconceptions About Gluten
Going gluten-free has been #trending for a while now, but has no scientific basis for helping us lose weight or be healthier. A gluten-free diet is obviously healthier for those who have celiac disease (which makes up about 1% of the population), but there is no evidence that going gluten free is beneficial to those without this condition.
Since gluten is in breads, pastas, many baked goods, and processed foods it makes sense that cutting out those types of foods from your diet will have positive effects. Gluten or not, eating a lot of high-carb and processed foods is bad for you.
However, some resources like WebMD suggest that if you’re avoiding gluten you might inadvertently be shorting your body of nutrients. While gluten doesn’t hold much nutritional value, the whole grains that contain gluten do contain vitamins and minerals such as B vitamins, iron, and fiber.
While a surprising 1/3 of American adults say they are trying to eliminate gluten from their diet… less than 2% have an adverse reaction to it. A recent study found that 86% of people who believed they were gluten sensitive could tolerate it…
Gluten and the environment
Going gluten free isn’t an environmental trend. Wheat is relatively easy to grow, ship, and store and its substitutes like quinoa aren’t any more or less sustainable.
Why are some people waging war against gluten?
There are several arguments for a gluten-free diet, but I haven’t been able to find very many compelling ones. The most prevalent gluten-free argument is that humans haven’t been eating wheat long enough for our bodies to adapt to it. But, as this NY Times article explains, humans domesticated wheat about 11,000 years ago which is plenty of time for us to adapt to eating it.
I also came across a few pro gluten-free blogs that had some questionable reasons to go gluten-free, such as “gluten may be addictive” and “some celebrities are doing it”. Needless to say these statements aren’t adding much credibility to the movement.
Gluten is bad for the small portion of people who have Celiac Disease or a wheat allergy, but for the rest of us it’s okay to keep eating your PB&J’s… in moderation.
Of course eating breads, pastas, baked goods and other products that naturally contain gluten in excess is not healthy. People who cut them out or reduce them from their diet are likely to see health benefits, but gluten isn’t the culprit.
The nice thing about the gluten-free movement is that it’s spurred a lot of new gluten alternatives, which is great for those with Celiac Diesease and it has increased variety for consumers by popularizing wheat alternatives such as quinoa.
The millions of Americans who are going gluten-free for their own health reasons may not have science to back their claims, but they really aren’t hurting anyone. It seems that we always need something to blame because the problem can’t possibly be us – and for many right now the scapegoat is gluten.
More information on gluten
General info about gluten: gluten.org
The Myth of Big Bad Gluten – Great read about the science and evolution of gluten intolerance in humans.
I write about the environment and minimalism.
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