A quick check of social media will reveal that “going gluten-free” is a popular topic. People are opting to remove all traces of gluten from their diets. Their reasons for doing this? For many, weight loss is the ultimate goal. Others go gluten-free in an effort to boost energy, generally feel healthier or even as a treatment for autism.
What Is Gluten?
Gluten is a general term for a group of proteins found naturally in wheat, barley and rye. It is also found in crossbreeds of these grains. Its primary purpose is to hold together the components of our foods – sort of a natural super glue. It is also a common ingredient in processed foods like breads and pastas.
The main purpose of starting a gluten-free diet is for the treatment of celiac disease. Estimates are that this autoimmune disorder affects 1 in 100 people worldwide. Untreated, this disease leads to damage in the small intestine.
Why All the Hype?
Gluten-free diets have gained popularity mainly because those who follow them, for whatever reason, usually lose some weight. That isn’t necessarily because of the elimination of gluten so much as it is eating alternative foods as substitutes for gluten-containing ones.
Most people also feel better when they’ve lost a few pounds, which adds to the glowing recommendations singing the praises of gluten-free eating.
Good Idea or Not?
If you are not diagnosed with celiac disease, or you don’t have a diagnosed sensitivity to gluten, is eliminating it from your diet completely a good idea?
If you don’t have an intolerance to gluten, there’s no compelling reason to eliminate it from your diet. The only accurate way to determine if you have a gluten intolerance is evaluation by a gastroenterologist. If you’re found to be truly intolerant of the gluten protein, your doctor will guide you in the best course of action for you.
If you choose to go gluten-free for any other reason, you need to be aware that a truly gluten-free diet can lead to deficiencies in some nutrients. In the U.S., breads and cereals fortified with B vitamins are the norm. A lack of this important vitamin can be a problem, especially for women who are or may become pregnant. Vitamin B₉, or folic acid, prevents birth defects.
Removal of whole wheat as part of a gluten-free diet eliminates a major source of dietary fiber, a common deficiency in the average American diet. A diet low in fiber can result in bowel irregularities.
Because so many of the gluten-free products on the market today use refined, unenriched grains and starches, they provide empty calories that offer few vitamins and minerals. Studies have found gluten-free diets can be seriously deficient in the following: fiber, iron, niacin, thiamine, folate, calcium, B vitamins, riboflavin, zinc and phosphorus.
Getting the Benefits Without the Deprivation
If you are looking for the benefits gained by a gluten-free diet, you’re probably experiencing most or all of the following:
- Heartburn or gastric reflux
- Bowel irregularity (frequent episodes of diarrhea and/or constipation)
- Tired, “low energy” feeling
- Intestinal gas and bloating
- Weight gain
The good news is that it’s possible to reverse most of these symptoms without giving up on gluten completely. You can choose the following, most of which are minimally processed foods that are naturally low in gluten or gluten-free:
- Nutritious, high-fiber whole grains like oats, brown or wild rice, buckwheat, millet and quinoa
- Flours made from nuts
- Beans, chickpeas, lentils
- Load your diet up with fruits and vegetables
These changes to your diet can lead to a healthier weight and feeling better in general. The point is that you don’t have to deprive yourself of nutritious, tasty foods to accomplish your health goals.
Instead of going gluten-free, enjoy the diversity of a natural, healthy diet!