First of all, I’m not saying you’re a dummy. I’m just saying you might be a gluten dummy, and you might not even know it. (Plus, I’m a dummy when it comes to economics and transferring playlists to my iPod, so it’s okay. No judgment.) Even if you are a gluten dummy, you’ve probably noticed the invasion of gluten-free everything. Gluten-free selections are popping up everywhere from Starbucks to Stouffer’s, celebrities are crediting gluten-free regimens for their improved energy or weight loss (that and some occasional pill-popping), and as a sure sign of a nutrition trend, products that never contained the newly demonized ingredient are plastered in newly designed labels that proclaim “gluten-free.” The gluten-free trend is huge (1.5 billion dollars huge) and on the rise, but like too many trendy nutrition keywords, most people don’t really know what gluten is. They may think of it as bread or wheat, but that’s not the accurate answer.
Most people (inaccurately) assume that gluten refers to wheat or bread, but gluten is actually a group of proteins found in wheat, rye, and barley. Gluten is digested using something called villi (finger-like projections) in the intestinal tract. But for some, gluten consumption damages the villi, causing painful symptoms and predisposing them to malnutrition and certain cancers, a condition known as celiac disease that can be dangerous, even fatal, if left untreated. A gluten-free diet doesn’t only mean foregoing standard sandwiches and pasta, but entails careful attention to dietary and label details and skipping things from soy sauce to salad dressing — even beer.
The majority of those following gluten-free diets don’t have celiac disease (only 1% of the population has it) or wheat allergies (.1% of the population has those), but are what’s called gluten-sensitive. Gluten sensitivity is not an auto-immune or allergic condition, but is still linked to symptoms of fatigue, eczema or GI distress that are alleviated by a gluten-free diet.
There are also growing numbers of people who go gluten-free for weight loss. I don’t feel removing gluten affects weight in itself; for some, it is a way to consume a less-processed, sometimes lower-calorie diet. If you swap a Kaiser roll at lunch for a salad, or choose sweet potatoes instead of white pasta, the “gluten free” choices contain more fiber, less sugar, and my favorite unscientific term, “cleaner.” There are also people (likely the ones who devoured fat-free Snackwells in the 90’s and carb-free bacon during the following decade) who will allow themselves to overeat waffles, cookies, and potato chips because they’re gluten-free. Despite rumors of a Twinkie diet, gluten-free desserts will not lead to weight loss.
I don’t think everyone should give gluten-free a whirl. There’s simply no reason to scour labels for malt and shun Sam Adams just because a thin movie star is doing it. But I do think that many people feel better with less or no wheat in their diets. This isn’t because I’m anti-gluten, but simply because so much of our wheat is processed (think dumplings, pizza, and pretzels), and wheat can be hard to digest. The world of grains beyond wheat is filled with healthy varieties of rice, buckwheat, quinoa, and millet. Give them a try, eat less or better wheat, and leave 100% gluten-free for those who really need to be.
There, feel smarter?
Lauren Slayton, M.S. R.D., founder of New York City’s Foodtrainers, has more than a decade of experience as both a dietician and nutritional counselor. Offering one-on-one sessions on weight and nutrition management, Foodtrainers helps clients create, record, achieve, and maintain personal health goals. For those in need of grocery shopping guidance on a budget, Foodtrainers also offers an affordable program, Market Foodtraining. Check out Lauren’s Foodtrainers blog and follow Lauren on Twitter: @foodtrainers.