If you haven’t heard the term “gluten-free” by now then you are quite possibly living under a rock. No offense. It’s just that when I look at Pinterest or any cooking blogs these days, every recipe seems to be labeled as “gluten-free” as if this automatically means “healthy”.
Walking down the aisles of my grocery store, I see gluten-free cookies, gluten-free pancake batter, gluten-free hamburger buns, gluten-free paper towels (kidding). So I’m sure many of you have wondered, is this just a new trend and money-making industry, or something I should actually be concerned about?
What is Gluten and Why Would Anyone Avoid It?
Gluten is a protein found in wheat (including kamut and spelt), barley, rye, malts and triticale . It can also be found in many processed foods under the label “dextrin”, which is used as a thickening agent or for flavoring.
Part of the reason you hear more and more about gluten-free diets is the increase in diagnosis of celiac disease, an auto-immune disorder where gluten actually damages the intestines. This increase is due to an improvement in diagnostic procedures in the last 5 years.
An estimated 1 in every 100 Americans have this condition and must adhere to a gluten-free lifestyle. Another 6% of Americans are estimated to have a gluten sensitivity, which may cause similar symptoms to celiac disease but without the intestinal damage.
Symptoms of celiac and gluten intolerance include abdominal cramping, joint pain, chronic diarrhea, and fatigue. For persons with celiac disease, the damage to their intestines can cause malnutrition since they are unable to absorb vital nutrients during the digestive process.
If you have any of these symptoms and suspect you may have a gluten intolerance or celiac disease, check with your doctor for tests to screen for these disorders (don’t cut out gluten before your doctor appointment or the tests will be inaccurate).
Why Would Going Gluten-Free Help Me Lose Weight?
Although there is some real merit to going gluten-free if you have abdominal issues, doing this is not necessarily going to help you lose weight. In fact, if you DO have celiac disease, you may actually GAIN weight as you begin to absorb nutrients and become nourished (usually in those who are underweight).
You could also gain weight if you begin relying on the gluten-free processed foods available, which substitute high amounts of sugar and fat in place of the gluten for texture and taste, and also lack fiber.
However, if by cutting gluten out of your diet you are in turn cutting out processed foods (because processed foods contain dextrin, remember?) and begin relying on whole foods like fresh produce, lean meats, healthy fats and other whole grains instead, chances are you’re going to lose weight.
Is this because you are gluten-free? No. It’s because you’re now following a healthy diet. Probably not the answer most people who want a quick fix want to hear, but it’s the truth.
Just like how not all vegetarians are healthy and thin simply because they omit meat, rather than following a plant-based diet, being gluten-free does not automatically equal health or weight loss.
Living Without Gluten
A few years ago I was having some major stomach issues. Someone suggested a possible allergy or intolerance to gluten, which rang a bell for me because I have always been plagued by allergies and intolerances to food.
I decided to go gluten-free, even though I wasn’t totally sure what that meant besides no more bread, pasta or grains. My mysterious gut pain and fatigue disappeared and has never returned. Although I was never diagnosed by a doctor, I highly recommend being tested to rule out celiac disease or other food intolerances before you do what I did.
For someone who needs to cut out gluten from their diets, especially those who are not familiar with nutritious foods to begin with, the convenience products offered at supermarkets that are labeled “gluten-free” can seem tempting and easy.
Instead of giving in to these high-calorie low-nutrition quick fixes, do a little research on gluten-free cooking and foods. It’s simple really; eat fruits and veggies, lean meats and seafood (avoid processed deli meats), nuts and other healthy fats, dairy, beans and legumes, potatoes, and naturally gluten-free whole grains like quinoa and millet.
When you do have the occasional craving for bread, pasta, or sweets, you can bake with coconut flour, almond flour, even rice flour. Avoid the obvious wheat foods (most wheat or white breads and pastas) and the not-so obvious (soy sauce, beer) and of course, fast food, processed and packaged foods like cereal. In addition, order very carefully at restaurants (sauces, glazes, breading may be hidden sources of gluten).