Gluten… Friend or Foe?
Food seems to have fads that come and go, just like fashion. Trans-fat horrors are the one-strap jean overalls of the 90’s as we shift our focus to a new foe—GLUTEN.
These trends tend to come in innocuous blips, revealing itself slowly as we are indoctrinated into uninformed agreement. We see gluten-free marketed in a perfect circle on a box of cookies, then we hear a customer request gluten-free food options at a restaurant. Soon, we receive an email or see a pop-up ad touting gluten-free options as superior, and most of us just assume, gluten must be bad. Right?
Well, is it? Or is there some conspiracy to take down the wheat protein?
Buckle-up your brain, we’re about to take a bumpy ride down science lane.
What is Gluten?
Gluten is a category of proteins found in grains. Wheat is the biggest gluten-hoarder, although others like rye, barley and some oats contain it. Gluten is named from its ‘gluey’ texture. It’s what helps keep some foods together, like dough.
If you wanted to know what dishes you might eat that contain it, the top consumed gluten foods are:
- Dark Bread
- White Bread
- Cold Cereal
Other easy-to-identify foods with gluten include pasta, beer, and bakery goods like cookies, cakes and pastries. BUT….some not so easily identified foods with gluten include: frozen vegetables that are in sauces, some foods made with “natural flavorings,” soy sauce, vitamin and mineral supplements, some medications, and even toothpaste. (Whaaat?)
That’s a lot of some people’s favorite foods, yeah? Even more foods and products you didn’t know that had gluten lurking within them….like brushing your teeth with gluten. Weird.
But still, a lot of people are going gluten-free. According to survey by the NPD group in 2013, more than 30% of Americans are eliminating gluten from their diet. So what has this grain protein getting a bad rap?
Well, it can be harmful to those with certain conditions like Celiac disease or wheat allergies, but for those who are cutting it out in an effort to be ‘healthier’ may actually be causing more harm to their health.
First, let’s chat about the major cause to avoid gluten: Celiac disease.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder and affects around one percent of the population.
The most serious form of gluten intolerance, Celiac disease makes the immune system attack gluten and causes intestinal damage. This can result in nutrient deficiencies, digestive issues and a lowered immune system.
Celiac can be diagnosed by a blood test for the presence of antibodies against a protein called tissue transglutaminase. A biopsy of the small intestine is usually ordered to confirm the diagnosis.
For one percent of the population, the tiniest amount of gluten can lead to pain, discomfort, and even nerve damage and seizures.
So, how did it gain such popularity? We’re going with The Internet. Some people in the medical community have speculated, but mostly people on social media touting gluten-free as an option to lose weight or improve autism share the blame (autism claims were debunked here.) Many claim gluten contributes to inflammation in the body which is linked to other diseases. But there are no long-term studies to support any of the claims that gluten is bad for those who don’t suffer from Celiac disease or wheat allergies. Zip. Zero. Zilch.
But, because of the viral nature of internet “facts” now you see it lining up grocery aisles on packages with pretty lil’ seals screaming “GLUTEN-FREE!”
And the industry is definitely banking on you to buy into gluten-free life. Gluten-free goods are expected to be worth $7.6 billion in 2020 worldwide, more than doubling their value over 6 years.
If you are considering going voluntarily gluten-free, what will it be like?
As laid out above, going gluten-free involves more than removing pizza and beer from your diet. It can be difficult to be gluten free. It can be expensive. It can also have adverse effects on your health if you don’t have Celiac disease, a gluten sensitivity or a wheat allergy. Here’s why.
Fortified breads and cereals have become a major source of B vitamins in the United States. Gluten-free breads and products are usually not fortified with vitamins. According to Harvard, while this can be an issue for anyone, “It’s especially worrisome for women who are pregnant or may become pregnant. They need vitamin B9, more commonly known as folate or folic acid, to prevent birth defects.”
Harvard also points out that whole wheat is a major source of dietary fiber. As such, they recommend speaking with your doctor before going gluten-free because once you’ve abstained from gluten for a while, it can be difficult to diagnose whether a disease or allergy to gluten exists.
Gluten-Free Diets Do NOT Improve Risk for Heart Disease
Aside from missing out on major vitamins and nutrients, a new study published May 3, 2017 by the British Medical Journal found that long term gluten-free diets dont’ improve your risk for heart disease at all.
This wasn’t just a few week study, either. It took place over 26 years and evaluated over 110,000 diets. It started in 1986, and was updated every 4 years through 2010. During nearly 3 decades, 6,529 people developed coronary heart disease on gluten-free diets. Compare that to those consuming gluten who had a heart disease incidence rate of 75 fewer people per 100,000. Therefore, the study debunked that gluten is bad for your heart’s health. It’s bad for people with Celiac disease and wheat allergies, but it is not bad for others.
“The avoidance of gluten may result in reduced consumption of beneficial whole grains, which may affect cardiovascular risk. The promotion of gluten-free diets among people without celiac disease should not be encouraged,” researchers from the British Medical Journal stated in their findings.
So there you have it. The truth about Gluten. It can be a friend to most, and a foe to the one percent of the population with Celiac or wheat allergies. Does this mean that those who are changing up their diets seeking improved health are dummies? Not at all. Your diet impacts more than just your weight. It shows that those trying new things are health-conscious and trying to improve their quality of life. That being said, it’s equally as important to ensure during your quest for improved health, you first seek the truth. There are a ton of fads out there that can have lasting (and detrimental) effects on your health. Ask your Doctor, seek scholarly references, and then you can make informed decisions.
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