By this point, you have probably heard of the gluten free diet. The gluten free diet has swept across the nation, and marketers have responded by making gluten free options more readily available (for a price, of course) in supermarkets & restaurants everywhere. But what exactly are the benefits of a gluten free diet? Or, more accurately, are there health benefits the gluten free diet at all?
Gluten Free Diet 101:
- “Gluten” refers to protein found in the grains wheat, rye and barley.
- Most people have no issue digesting gluten.
- However, approximately 1% of American suffer from a serious digestive disease called Celiac disease.
“People with Celiac have one or two genetic mutations that somehow, when pieces of gliadin [the primary protein in wheat gluten] course through the gut, cause the immune system to attack the walls of the intestine in a case of mistaken identity. That, in turn, causes…the intestines [to] become leaky, wreaking havoc. Symptoms, which vary widely among people with the disease, can include vomiting, chronic diarrhea or constipation and diminished growth rates in children.” (NY Times)
Or, in a nutshell, Celiac disease is a very serious, lifelong digestive illness that is very painful if not treated. The only treatment, however, is a gluten-free diet. Hence, the origins of the gluten-free diet.
Why are people who don’t suffer from Celiac disease going gluten free?
…We’re not quite sure.
According to research published by an Arizona State University professor in the September 2012 issue of the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, “There is no benefit for the average healthy adult to follow a gluten-free diet.”
Anecdotal evidence of people “feeling better” after going on a gluten free diet may be caused by a few different reasons. About one percent of Americans have Celiac disease and another six percent suffer from gluten sensitivity (source). It is not uncommon for Celiac disease or gluten sensitivity to go undiagnosed in many of the sufferers. If someone has chronic digestive problems, yet cannot figure out why, gluten might be the culprit.
One can speculate that a gluten free diet appeals to many people because of the foods on the no-no list: Foods that contain grains. When you think about the most common foods with gluten, the list includes bread, beer, cereal, cakes, pies, cookies, crackers, processed foods, pre-seasoned packaged foods, any sauces, anything with food additives… the list can go on. By and large, foods with gluten are coincidentally also some of the unhealthiest foods around. So when people go gluten-free, they are essentially cutting a large variety of unhealthy food out of their diet.
This is not a bad idea. In fact, I think it’s a very good idea.
The conundrum arrives with the advent of a large, gluten-free substitute product market. So now, rather than cutting out pies, cakes, and processed foods to go gluten free, people are simply buying the more expensive, specially manufactured (read: highly processed in a factory) gluten free foods.
Gluten free products are not lower in calories, fats or sugars. In fact, quite often there are more fats and sugars. Additionally, while “regular” wheat products are often fortified with vitamins and nutrients such as iron & calcium, gluten free products are not.
It is also ironic that people are jumping on the gluten free diet bandwagon in hopes of losing weight, when the successful implementation of a gluten free diet for sufferers of Celiac disease often results in weight gain, since the sufferer is finally able to eat food without painful digestive complaints.
The only reason a non-Celiac would experience weight loss from a gluten free diet is because s/he is no longer eating the unhealthy foods that wheat is commonly found in, or eating less of it because gluten free products taste kind of funky, and are much more expensive.
Similar but Alternative Diets to Gluten-Free:
So you want to diet and be healthier?
Don’t go gluten free. Chances are, a gluten free diet appeals to you because it elimiates the majority of processed, fatty foods from your diet. Surprisingly, the Paleo diet or a Vegan diet are very similar to Gluten-Free, more healthy, less fad-y, and more affordable. All of three of these diets – Gluten-Free, Paleo, and Vegan- eliminate processed foods, fast food, and most junk foods from your plate. While people assume Paleos and Vegans are natural enemies, I think they should at least be frenemies. Both Paleo and vegan diets have an emphasis on eating natural, fresh, whole foods from the earth rather than the factory.
Let’s compare what foods you can and cant eat on Gluten-Free, Paleo, and Vegan diets. You will notice that they have many similarities.
Gluten-Free, Paleo, and Vegan: A comparison
|The Do's & Don't of:||Gluten-Free||Paleo||Vegan|
|Foods not allowed|| -Barley
-Crackers & Cookies & cake
-Anything with sauces and food additives
-Anything processed or pre-seasoned (like seasoned rice mixes & potato chips
-Candy & sweets
-Dairy (eggs eggscluded)
| -All meat
-Processed foods containing animal byproducts
-Anything with gelatin
-Anything with lard
-Any meat-based soups & broths
-Plant based oils
| -All grains