Sifting through conflicting theories of the expansive myriad of diets can be mentally exhausting. It begs the question, “what should I eat?” I want to shed some light on one trend in particular; the “gluten-free” diet. It is one that is wildly misconceived and greatly influences buying behavior.
Gluten is a protein found in wheat products that allow them to maintain their shape and texture. Throughout my day as a Wellness Consultant I witness people choosing foods solely based on the fact that they do not contain gluten. Consumers often equate gluten-free with healthy. This is not necessarily true with most products, most notably, packaged products such as: crackers, breads and cookies.
So why has this wheat protein been ostracized? Incidentally, wheat is not the same wheat that our ancestors were consuming a mere 50-60 years ago. In response to unpredictable climate patterns and bug and weed infestations, scientists have created a genetically-engineered version of wheat. This new modern-day wheat not only looks nothing like it’s not so distant ancestor, but it contains far more gluten. In fact, it contains about 10% more, according to Dr. Alessio Fasano, a member of the Medical Advisory Board for the Celiac Disease Foundation. The higher wheat content has proven to cause joint pain, inflammation, abdominal bloating or other undesirable side-effects in some people.
According to research from the University of Maryland Center for Celiac Research; statistically, about 1 in 133 Americans, or about 1% of the population, have celiac disease, a serious genetic autoimmune disease that damages the villi of the small intestine and interferes with absorption of nutrients (www.beyondceliac.org). Furthermore, an even smaller percentage, .01-.03%, of the population suffers from a wheat allergy, and an estimated 6% are considered “gluten sensitive”.
In response to the growing demand for gluten-free products, companies were eager to flood the market with such products ranging from baked goods to chewing gum. They even re-labeled naturally gluten-free foods to encourage consumers to buy them, and it is working. According to the Natural Marketing Institute, 51% of people said that they eat gluten-free foods for improved overall health, 38% said to feel better and 27% said to lose weight. However, only 6% said they eat gluten-free foods because they have celiac disease. There is a widespread misconception that eradicating the gluten protein, increases the nutrition profile of a food. Unfortunately, manufacturers often add more fat, sugar and other detrimental ingredients to these gluten-free products to maintain the taste and texture as their gluten-containing counterparts. It has become a lifestyle change, and for most, a futile one. A processed food is a processed food is a processed food. The more you process foods, the fewer nutrients present in the end product. A diet consisting of many packaged gluten-free foods will most certainly not improve your health.
To put things into perspective, think about a common kitchen appliance like a blender. If the blender is built with cheap defective parts, the resulting product will not be quality. The same rule applies with the foods we eat. If we eat foods with toxic deleterious ingredients, our bodies will not obtain the nutrients we need to flourish.
So what is the solution? For those who do experience adverse effects from eating gluten, steer clear. You can fulfill your nutrient needs without consuming any grains at all. As for the rest of us, avoiding foods with gluten may rob us of key nutrients that our bodies need, like fiber. Now before you head to the kitchen for a Wonder Bread PB&J and bag of pretzels, please take this advice. Read. Every. Food. Label. Try to avoid artificial ingredients, preservatives and hydrogenated oils (a deceptive term for trans-fat). If you cannot pronounce the ingredient on the list, then you probably should not eat it.
Regardless of a person’s dietary restrictions, it is most advantageous to incorporate nutrient-dense, calorie-sparse, un-processed foods with real ingredients; foods that our bodies were intended to easily digest and thrive on. Stick to a mostly plant-based diet consisting of colorful fruits and vegetables and meat and dairy products from healthy animals. If you do not experience adverse effects from eating gluten, eat a variety of fiber-rich whole grains like oats, quinoa, amaranth and sprouted grain bread. You absolutely must read food labels to determine the nutrient content of a food, period.