The other day I was walking through the grocery store in my neighbourhood and I was pleasantly surprised to see so many gluten-free food options. For people who need to be gluten-free, these food products appeared to be an incredible alternative. From bread and cereals to cookies, waffles, and wraps, the options were many. With so many new gluten-free products coming to market it makes you wonder, are more people requiring gluten-free foods, is this just a health fad, are these gluten-free foods healthier or are they healthy at all? Let’s strip away the confusion and undress this issue.
What the heck is gluten anyways?
First we need to understand what the heck gluten actually is. Gluten is a protein found in grains like wheat, rye, barley, kamut, spelt, and triticale. You can think of it like a glue. In fact, the word glūten is actually a Latin word, meaning glue. It is the gluten that allows your favourite bagel to have that chewy texture, for your loaf of bread to rise and hold together, and for your waffles to be delicate and fluffy.
So what’s the deal with this gluten stuff? Is it good or bad?
There are a number of reasons that gluten gets a bad rap. For one, it’s very hard to digest. Also, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association, it may increase your risk of heart disease and cancer. Furthermore, a review paper in The New England Journal of Medicine listed 55 symptoms/diseases that could be caused by the consumption of gluten. Yikes!! Some of these include, irritable bowel disease, fatigue, osteoporosis, rheumatoid arthritis, autoimmune diseases, etc. It also has a negative impact on our brain and new studies are starting to link gluten to schizophrenia.
Years ago we didn’t hear that much about gluten. It seems like it’s a new fad. However, part of the reason we are hearing so much more about it is because more and more people are being negatively affected by this protein. Celiac disease and gluten sensitivity are on the rise! It is believed that this increase in sensitivity is due to the increased consumption of highly processed gluten foods and the tinkering with the genetics of gluten grains (like wheat), using sophisticated hybridization techniques. Wheat for example, is often consumed in the Standard American Diet at every meal and in a processed form. For example, cereal for breakfast, a granola bar for snack, bread at lunch, crackers for a snack, and a burger (with bun), pizza, pasta, etc for dinner. Plus don’t forget the cake, cookies, and pastries for dessert! Food science has tinkered with these foods and food marketers have pushed their consumption on us for years. It seems like our bodies may be retaliating.
So… should everyone avoid gluten or just people with Celiac disease?
This is a tricky question. One that sparks much debate in the holistic community. Based on everything that I’ve read and learned on the subject, my opinion is as follows.
Gluten for people with Celiac disease
For people who have Celiac disease, it is 100% necessary to avoid all forms of gluten. Celiac disease is a medical condition where gluten actually damages the surface of the small intestine. This impairs the person’s ability to absorb the nutrients from their food. This is a very serious condition and therefore, no amount of gluten should be consumed by these individuals.
Gluten for people with gluten sensitivity
For people who have gluten sensitivity / gluten intolerance, they experience unwanted symptoms when consuming gluten and feel better on a gluten-free diet. The severity is not as pronounced as people with Celiac disease but it is still advisable to avoid all sources of gluten in this case as well.
Gluten for people who are not well but don’t have diagnosed Celiac disease/gluten sensitivity
If you are dealing with unwanted health conditions outside of Celiac disease and gluten sensitivity, you may want to try avoiding gluten. As I discussed above, gluten can cause or irritate many other health conditions. Removing it from the diet may help the body heal faster and help you feel better too.
Gluten for people who are healthy
If you are feeling like you are in tip top shape, and you don’t notice any difference in how you feel after you eat gluten, you may be able to consume gluten in moderation. However, keep in mind, gluten is not an essential nutrient for the body, like water is for example. Therefore, if you don’t consume gluten, your health will not be negatively impacted, and in fact it may actually be positively impacted. If you are going to consume some gluten, I would recommended that you stay away from processed grains like white flour and instead stick to whole foods. I would also recommend that where possible, you opt for eliminating wheat and instead choose other grains like rye. This is because rye has not been as heavily altered through hybridization.
How is it possible to go gluten free? What would I eat?
Since the Standard American Diet is so heavily focused on gluten grains like wheat, you may be puzzled at first as to what you would actually eat if you went gluten free. The biggest mistake I see people make is going to the store and simply swapping out the same foods they ate before, with gluten-free alternatives. For example, instead of buying the wheat waffles, they opt for the gluten-free variety. While it may be gluten-free it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s healthy. You still have to keep your label reading hat on and assess if the product is healthy or not.
Since so many people are in need of gluten-free foods, processors have started creating gluten-free options. Unfortunately, many of these products contain items (e.g. potato starch and tapioca starch) that can have a significant impact on blood sugar levels and are heavily processed. They may be a good option when used in moderation (especially if you have Celiac disease or gluten sensitivity) but going overboard on them is not advised.
So if we were to minimize or eliminate gluten products as well as the heavily processed gluten-free alternatives, what’s left? The good news is, lots!! Vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, animal products, and many grains (e.g. rice, quinoa, millet, buckwheat, corn, amaranth, and teff) are all gluten-free!!!
Therefore, if you stick to a whole foods diet made of the foods I just listed in the above paragraph, you will find that eating gluten-free is not that difficult.
Speaking from experience, I find it actually pretty easy to consume a gluten-free diet at home. The biggest hurdles are when we go out to eat. Sometimes it’s easy to avoid the obvious sources of gluten like bread and pasta, but the problem is that gluten is often used as an additive in many sauces, gravies, breadings, etc. If you are a Celiac this can be especially dangerous.
Luckily, restaurants are starting to take notice and make some awesome changes to be able to offer true gluten-free options.
An example of where I have seen this is at The Pickle Barrel restaurant. They just launched a new gluten-free menu at their Yonge and Eglinton location in Toronto. They have focused on trying to ensure the meals are not only healthy, but also gluten-free. The best part of all is that they have actually blocked off a whole separate portion of their kitchen, specifically to prepare these meals. This helps to ensure that there isn’t any cross contamination with the foods that contain gluten in the rest of the kitchen. I tried and really liked their Pistachio Crusted Basa (see image to the right). Plus it comes with a yummy arugula salad with oranges, tomatoes, and an olive oil with lemon dressing. Yum!
The burning question I always get is whether I eat gluten. So I figured in the name of transparency I would tell you what I do. At home I maintain a 95% or higher gluten-free kitchen. The 5% is made up of the occasional homemade spelt pizza, Dimpflmeier 100% rye bread with flax seed, or sprouted Essene bread. When I go out I often eat gluten-free but I’ll be honest, I’m not perfect and I try not to stress myself out about it too much 🙂
Therefore, in conclusion, if you are a Celiac or gluten sensitive, avoid it completely. If you are not feeling your best, try eliminating it to see if you feel better. If you want to eat some gluten foods and you are a health machine who is feeling fabulous, then having some gluten from whole food sources should be fine. This is a personal decision everyone makes for themselves.
Have you gone gluten-free and seen benefits? Do you have Celiac disease and know of some good restaurants serving gluten-free foods? Has this article enticed you to try going gluten-free to see if you notice any benefits? Keep me posted in the comments section below. I’d love to hear from you!