Gluten-free food seems to be everywhere right now. I’m seeing it on grocery store shelves, marked on restaurant menus, and in the diets of many of my friends and family. But what does all this really mean? Why are so many people avoiding gluten now? Is gluten bad for you? Should we all avoid it?
First of all, what is gluten? Gluten is part of a protein in wheat that helps make bread chewy and delicious. It is also in rye and barley and though it is not naturally in oats, they are often contaminated during processing.
There are three major medical reasons why people avoid gluten: celiac disease, wheat allergies, and gluten intolerance/sensitivity.
- Celiac disease is when someone has an immune reaction to gluten, which causes their small intestine to become inflamed. When they eat foods with gluten, they can experience abdominal pain, bloating, gas, diarrhea, and constipation.
- Wheat allergies are when someone has an allergic reaction to wheat. Food allergies are immune responses, like we talked about the other day, so both wheat allergies and Celiac disease involve an immune response but the response and triggers are different. Celiac disease is specific to gluten and is characterized by inflammation of the small intestine, while a wheat allergy is to wheat and causes a more typical allergic response (hives, itching, difficulty breathing, etc.).
- Gluten intolerance/sensitivity is when someone has similar symptoms to Celiac disease but do not test positive for Celiac. Generally, it is less severe and lacks the characteristic intestinal inflammation that accompanies Celiac.
So should you eat gluten-free? That depends.
If you have a medical reason and your doctor has told you to avoid gluten, then YES, you definitely should eat gluten-free.
If you don’t have a medical reason to eliminate gluten, there is no reason to do so – there is nothing inherently “bad” or unhealthy about gluten as long as your body can tolerate it.
However, if you find that cutting out gluten makes you feel better, for whatever reason, I’m certainly not going to tell you to eat it.
I do want to caution against avoiding gluten just because it is trendy (Miley Cyrus and Gwyneth Paltrow have both advocated a gluten free diet). Gluten is just a protein – unless you have a medical reason to do so, eating gluten-free will not make you any healthier, and may even have negative effects.
One reason many people feel better eating a gluten-free diet is that they cut down on many of the refined carbohydrates that contain gluten (cookies, cake, white bread, etc.) and add more whole grains, fruit, and vegetables to their diet to compensate. The benefits aren’t from eliminating gluten but from eating a healthier diet in general.
Another thing to consider about eating gluten-free is that many gluten-free breads, cakes, and cookies are highly processed, low in nutrients, and extremely expensive. Again, if you have a medical necessity to eat a gluten free diet, this is money well spent.
However, if you can tolerate gluten, it is a lot of money to spend on something that isn’t necessary and won’t do you any good (especially on a college budget). If you’re trying to eat a healthier diet and do fine with gluten, I would suggest focusing on whole grains (including wheat) instead of gluten-free products.
- Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity
- Wheat Allergies
- A really awesome article from Jezebel on gluten-free becoming trendy