Today you can’t go into any store without casting your eyes on some “gluten-free” branded product.
Magazine pages and Instagram feeds are dotted with celebrities and influencers speaking about their gluten-free, dairy-free diets. Maybe you’ve heard people talking about “Grain Brain” at a party, or telling the bystanders about their paleo diet.
What actually is gluten? And should you eliminate it from your diet?
It’s a controversial topic because some people will claim that unless you have celiac disease, gluten is harmless. Others say that it might actually be problematic for most of the population. The way to navigate this issue is to think about it critically, and be open to complexity rather than oversimplification.
I know a lot of people who avoid gluten simply because they’ve “heard” they should, but don’t actually know what it is. A common misconception is that gluten is somehow a carb, but this is not exactly accurate. While it happens to be found in a lot of carbohydrate-rich products, such as wheat, rye, barley or oats, ‘gluten’ is actually a compound protein. Who knew?
What we know of as “gluten” is a composition of proteins, the primary of these being glutenen and gliadin. The former is responsible for the elasticity, while the latter enables bread to rise during baking. Gliadin is more associated with the harmful effects people attribute to gluten. Gluten works as a binder, or a kind of ‘glue-like’ substance, which you might already know if you’ve made bread. Kneading raw dough activates the gluten, increasing its elasticity and making for a chewier loaf that is able to rise well.
The Issue of Celiac Disease and Gluten-Free Diets
Celiac disease is a severe allergy to gluten-containing products. It’s an autoimmune disorder that affects less than 1% of the population. The body attacks the gluten as though it were a virus or alien object. As a result the lining of the gut becomes damaged, causing digestive issues, intestinal tissue damage, anemia, nutrient deficiencies, constipation, diarrhea, fatigue, weight loss or general discomfort, to name a few. Non-celiac people should not expect to experience these intense symptoms, however.
While celiac (or coeliac) disease is often the most commonly referenced gluten-related disorder, a few others do exist such as gluten ataxia, dermatitis herpetiformis (DH) and wheat-based allergies. Some people are also simply gluten-sensitive — and will feel uncomfortable after eating foods that are high-gluten — but do not experience the full range of symptoms that celiac individuals can expect.
Fortunately there are alternatives such as the following grains that do not contain any gluten:
According to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, gluten sensitivity affects 18 million Americans. Irritable Bowel Syndrome [IBS] is a more common disorder than celiac that can be aggravated by gluten consumption. It affects 7-20% of the U.S. adult population. Many people who eliminate gluten from their diets report improved digestion and less bloating. However, these benefits could have resulted from a number of factors, perhaps not attributed to gluten alone.
There are those who consider the benefits of a gluten-free diet to be a placebo for most individuals. According to the Mayo Clinic, many people following such diets are not diagnosed with celiac disease. Another study tested individuals who believed they were intolerant to gluten, and found that 86% of them were not. What we can glean from these studies is that gluten intolerance is not actually the epidemic the media and Instagram hashtags may have you thinking it is.
The Problem With Eliminating Bread or Trying a Low-Carb Diet
Bread, typically the first glutenous product to be eliminated, may be a highly processed form of gluten. The flour used in the recipe for standard white loaves may have been bleached, processed and genetically modified over many decades, resulting in a final product that resembles nothing of its original state.
Wheat is one of the most consumed food products in the standard American diet, and it is almost always in the form of highly-processed and sugary cereals, industrial bread or sweet snacks such as cookies or cakes. Avoiding gluten may shield you from the effects of eating these processed foods. In this case, the benefits of the gluten-free diet arise from the avoidance of highly processed products, rather than the avoidance of gluten itself.
However, you may not need to completely eliminate bread from your diet. Choosing whole grain, spelt, rye or sourdough is a much healthier alternative than processed wheat, such as white bread. Minimally processed wheat products are healthy and inexpensive sources of protein, B vitamins, bioactive components and minerals. If you’re looking to incorporate these items into your diets, consider Mediterranean grains like farro or bulgur, and use them to make hearty salads along with chopped dried fruit, herbs, roasted veggies and lentils.
In sourdough the fermentation process essentially ‘predigests’ the gluten in the bread, taking the stress off the digestive system to do so. Glutinous wheat is also the principle ingredient in ‘seitan,’ an ancient Tibetan meat-replacement product that contains very high levels of protein and almost no fat.
Because gluten is typically found in carbohydrate-rich diets, advocacy for gluten-free diets may be misconstrued as advocacy for low-carb diets. These diets can actually be damaging to the brain and body. Believing that carbs inevitably lead to obesity, some individuals might seek to disguise an extreme low-carb diet with gluten sensitivity.
Carbohydrates are essential to our thriving as individuals. Our digestive systems are almost identical to that of herbivorous primates, except that we have starch-digesting enzymes that assist us in metabolising cooked carbohydrates. If not replaced by other whole, plant-based carbohydrate sources such as grains, starches or fruit, eliminating gluten could result in impaired cognitive or metabolic function because the body is starved of much-needed glucose.
In one study, mice on a low carbohydrate, high-protein diet were found to have developed more aortic atherosclerosis and had an impaired ability to generate new vessels in response to tissue ischemia.The LCHP diet substantially reduced the number of bone marrow and peripheral blood endothelial progenitor cells (EPCs), a marker of vascular regenerative capacity.
Gluten-Free Doesn’t Mean Healthy
Many “gluten-free” products on the market actually contain more sugars, sodium and fat — and are more highly processed — than their gluten-containing counterparts. Brands make this production choice because more fats and flavouring are required to compensate for the lack of gluten.
This kind of popular branding is harmful because it enables corporations to instil an aura of healthfulness around products that might actually be quite unhealthy. Cookies, cakes and chips that are made with refined sugars and poor-quality fats are still unhealthy, despite being gluten-free. It’s a better idea to eliminate processed foods, including processed bread, than to remove gluten altogether.
The following are some examples of healthy gluten-containing grains:
- freekah (cracked wheat)
So, with that, I think I’ll sign off to go make a bowl of hearty, delicious oatmeal. As long as you are getting variety in your diet, with lots of colorful fruit, vegetables and greens, you should have no problem. It’s better to include these things sustainably than to try and cut them out altogether, provided you have no health condition that prevents you from doing so.
What do you think? Have you ever tried a gluten-free diet? Did you feel any different? Do you have any favorite gluten-free foods other people should know about? Leave your thoughts in the comments below, and let’s start a conversation.
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