Vegetarianism I understand. No meat – simple. I wrapped my head around Veganism – no animal products, which is different from vegetarianism because it eliminates eggs and dairy. I even came to understand pescatarians as those who eat no meat except for fish. Lately, however, I’ve been noticing a bunch of hubbub about gluten-free products and gluten-free menus at restaurants. I’m not even sure I know what gluten is. Is this a trend or a fad diet or is gluten bad for us all of a sudden?
What is Gluten?
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, rye and triticale (a cross between wheat and rye). It is present in any foods that contain wheat, barley or rye such as breads, pasta, beer, cereals, cookies, crackers, soups, salad dressings and soy sauce. You might be wondering: if gluten is extracted from products such as bread to make them gluten-free, what do they substitute it with? Most gluten-free bread or pasta is made with ground flours from almonds, rice, corn or sorghum.
Why is it Bad?
Well, it’s not bad for most people. However, if you suffer from celiac disease, eating gluten can inflame the small intestine, wreaking havoc on your system and preventing nutrients from being absorbed – which can lead to severe consequences. According to a study conducted by the Mayo Clinic and the National Institutes of Health, approximately 1 in 141 people in the U.S. suffer from celiac disease. There are also many folks who have non-celiac gluten sensitivity and can experience similar, less severe symptoms of celiac disease after eating gluten.
Gluten-free as a Diet Choice?
It does seem that going gluten-free has become a bit of a diet fad. It might be due to the large number of people who have reported feeling better after cutting gluten out of their diet for a week or two. Going gluten-free doesn’t mean you are necessarily eating healthier. Many of the packaged products have added sugars and fats to make up for the lack of flavor or binding gluten would normally provide. Furthermore, you should keep in mind that, unlike traditional breads and cereals, gluten-free products are not fortified or enriched with folate, iron and fiber. Therefore, some folks on a gluten-free diet lack the sufficient amount of iron, calcium, fiber, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin and folate they need. Taking supplements or finding these nutrients elsewhere is important.
If you suffer from gastrointestinal problems such as gas, bloating, stomachaches, diarrhea or irritable bowel syndrome, it is possible that you have some form of gluten sensitivity. Consider keeping a food diary to identify foods that cause these symptoms and if they contain gluten. Consult with your doctor if you think you might be gluten sensitive and want to try a gluten-free diet.