By Megan Gallagher
I’m sure you’ve heard of one of the most recent popular topics in the nutrition world – going gluten-free. I have had multiple friends and family question me about this new diet craze, which makes me think that not everyone knows much about it. For those of you that have been wondering about whether or not you should consider eating gluten-free, take a look at these facts:
What is gluten?
Gluten is the protein found in most grain products. It is found in wheat, barley, rye, and triticale, which is a cross between wheat and rye. Some examples of foods that contain gluten are bread, cakes, cereal, cookies, pasta, seasoned rice mixes, beer, and snack foods such as potato or tortilla chips. Gluten can also turn up unexpectedly in medicines, toothpastes, makeup, chocolate, soy sauce, and deli meats. If you are avoiding gluten consumption, it is very important to read the ingredient lists and warning labels on all products before purchasing and consuming them.
Why do people avoid gluten?
The major reason that an individual does not eat gluten is because he or she has been diagnosed with celiac disease. Celiac disease is an immune system reaction in the small intestine caused by the consumption of gluten. The reaction causes inflammation within the lining of the small intestine and may even prevent the gut from absorbing certain nutrients. The inflammation can eventually cause unhealthy weight loss, malnutrition, bloating, cramps, and other gastrointestinal problems. There is no cure for celiac disease, except to avoid all foods and other products containing gluten. If you think you may have celiac disease you should consult with your physician right away.
Another common reason individuals avoid gluten is because they have a sensitivity to gluten. This means that the individual does not have celiac disease, but when he or she follows a gluten-free diet they feel much healthier and do not have gastrointestinal problems such as bloating or cramping.
Following a gluten-free diet is also a trend for individuals suffering from autism spectrum disorders (ASD). While there has not been much controlled scientific research completed on this topic, many care takers report anecdotally that eliminating gluten (and often casein as well) from the diet of the individual with ASD results in improvements in aspects of learning, attention, and tolerance for sensory stimuli. It is thought that individuals with autism have an allergy or high sensitivity to foods containing gluten, so having them follow a gluten-free diet will have a positive impact on their life.
Why shouldn’t everyone be on a gluten-free diet?
I’m sure most of you are wondering why we shouldn’t all just avoid gluten in our diet? Well for one, gluten is found in many nutritious foods. Gluten itself does not have many nutritional benefits but the common foods it is found in do. These foods usually have a high concentration of vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Also, think about your average meal- you probably have at least one or two sources of grains in there, right? This can include bread, pasta, cereal, wild rice mixtures, barley, and much more. It is extremely difficult to permanently cut all wheat, barley, rye, and triticale foods out of the diet. Gluten is also found in beer, a very popular drink among the 21+ year old population.
Well now you are probably thinking something along the lines of, “Well why we don’t just buy breads, beer, pastas, etc. labeled gluten-free?” Unless you have an unlimited supply of money for your grocery shopping, this idea will hurt your wallet. According to a study done by Dalhousie University Medical School, Division of Gastroenterology and Nutrition, Department of Pediatrics, the average unit cost of a gluten-free food is 242% more than regular, gluten-containing foods. This means that if you bought a unit of bread for $3.00, the gluten-free unit of bread could cost up to $7.26! Does it really seem worth it to eat gluten-free products if you don’t need to?
The main risk to going gluten-free when you don’t have a gluten intolerance, celiac disease, or autism is that you run the risk of becoming extremely malnourished. Foods that contain gluten on average also contain essential nutrients such as B vitamins, calcium, iron, magnesium, zinc, and fiber. You also must be extremely conscious of what you are eating because many foods contain small traces of gluten or are cross-contaminated with product containing gluten.
One common rumor I have heard is that a gluten-free diet helps you lose weight. This is not necessarily true. One may lose weight when avoiding gluten because they are eating less calories and nutrients than they were previously. Consuming a very low amount of calories and nutrients is not a healthy way to lose weight and may eventually result in malnutrition. Also, some gluten-free foods available at the grocery store are extremely high in saturated fat, cholesterol, sugar, and sodium, which may cause an increase in calorie intake and weight gain.
To sum up my point, if you do not need to avoid gluten, then don’t. It is not worth the risk of malnourishment or high costs of gluten-free foods. If you think you have a gluten intolerance or celiac disease, you should consult a physician. If you know someone who is autistic and think that a gluten-free diet may help them, you should conduct a more detailed research. Gluten is a very common protein found in most foods that Americans eat daily. Think about how much you enjoyed that pasta you had the other day for dinner, or that bowl of cereal you have every morning for breakfast- is it worth it to cut it out of your diet if you don’t need to? I don’t think so.