Let’s talk about gluten. Why are people afraid of gluten? What is this infamous substance that is all the buzz in supermarkets? All of a sudden, being “gluten-free” is equivalent to quitting smoking. It’s like you wear a badge that says “I’m 90 days gluten-free, I’m officially clean”. How did this philosophy come about? And is it best if we all switch to gluten-free forever?
First things first, let’s discuss what gluten is as an ingredient. It is a protein found in many grain products made of glutenin and gliadin. It helps provide structure to grain products by giving the grain elasticity. That’s why gluten-free breads are typically harder, denser products than breads baked with gluten in them.
Gluten is found in 3-4 main products in the U.S. Being the nutrition-nerd that I am, I always remembered these by the acronym BROW: Barley, Rye, Oats (sometimes) and Wheat. Here’s the clincher: these products are bi-products in a LOT of products on the market. Not kidding you right now- it’s very hard to find anything packaged, processed, etc. that does not contain barley, rye, oats, or wheat.
So why are people avoiding gluten? Gluten-free products originally hit the market for those who have Celiac disease. Celiac disease is when your body physically cannot digest gluten, causing bloating, discomfort, and permanent damage to your intestine. People with Celiac disease should definitely avoid gluten – and don’t get me wrong, I think it is FABULOUS that gluten-free products have become more readily available for this population. On a similar note, I give these people MAJOR kudos – avoiding gluten is HARD. Can you imagine a day without bread, pasta, cookies, beer, or baked goods? Maybe you can. What about a week without it? Month? Year? LIFETIME? You get my point. Hats off to the Celiac warriors – it is no easy feat.
Celiac is a rare disease. So what about everyone else in the general population eating gluten-free? It’s not necessary! Unless you have Celiac disease or some other form of gluten intolerance, there is no need to cut it out of your diet completely. Gluten is not an evil additive to be avoided. It serves a purpose just like other proteins. Most people use gluten-free diets as a means to weight-loss or a more holistic, natural lifestyle. But the truth is, the reason people lose weight when they eat gluten-free may be attributed to other overall factors. First, they avoid all grain-based products (similar to carbohydrate-free diets, such as Atkins). Yes, this works for weight loss because your body begins to break down fat stores as energy. However, this is a temporary fix and unfortunately, the weight will likely come right back when you begin to ingest carbohydrates again. The second reason people lose weight on gluten-free diets, is because they begin to eat healthier in general. They start to read labels to search for gluten-products, which typically triggers the “what the heck are all of these other ingredients doing in my food” question. They avoid packaged and proceeded foods which, as we already discussed, are major sources of gluten. But here’s the thing: you can do this part anyway! You can cut back on packaged, processed foods and start eating more wholesome ingredients like fresh fruits and vegetables without swearing off gluten for eternity! Pro tip #405: Walk the outskirts of the grocery store for 80% of your shopping. Stock up on fresh fruits, vegetables, dairy, and fresh meats from the deli. Then hit the aisles for the remaining 20% you still need, trying to avoid those packaged, processed foods as much as possible.
My solution to this is – have the gluten and eat it, too! Every ingredient has its place and gluten is no exception. By all means, read your labels. Stay informed and be aware of what you are putting in your body. But there is no reason to unnecessarily restrict yourself. Gluten, like most things, can be part of a healthy, balanced lifestyle. The broke 20-something in me would also like to remind you that gluten-free products are EXPENSIVE! By putting a gluten-free label on something, it can jack up the price a dollar or more. Marketing companies know this, and sometimes even put gluten-free labels on things that are NATURALLY gluten-free. Pro-tip #406: If you see an apple with a gluten-free label on it, drop it and walk. away. now. Apples are naturally gluten-free, and frankly, you don’t need that kind of sorcery in your life.
In Summary: Read your labels, stay informed, nourish your body, but treat yoself to the finer things in life every once in a while, like freshly baked bagels. Your body, and your wallet, will thank you later.
Read up on even more from the gluten-free goldmine here.