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Is Gluten the Monster Under the Bed?

Gluten is the newest villain in the food world. 


It isn’t uncommon to watch foods phase in and out of what is considered healthy. Save for nutritionists or dieticians, the average person depends on popular trends to inform themselves on what is considered healthy and, more specifically, what foods they should be avoiding, namely for weight loss. 


It wasn’t long ago when drinking full-fat milk was considered equivalent to a desire to be overweight. People were strongly encouraged to drink low-fat milk. Skim milk was considered the ideal choice for those who desired to shed a few pounds.


This health trend developed out of the false idea that a high-fat diet was positively correlated to obesity. Ironically enough, research now shows the exact opposite is true, and those who drink whole milk or have a higher-fat diet, in general, are less likely to be obese than those who don’t. 


It may surprise some that eggs were also once considered a dietary evil. Eggs were considered unhealthy because of their cholesterol, and people were encouraged to avoid them as much as possible. Eggs made a complete turnaround in public opinion and are now regarded as the preferred breakfast food for athletes and bodybuilders because of the amount of protein they offer despite being relatively low in calories. 


And now, gluten is having its moment in the hot seat. It seems like almost everyone has jumped on the gluten-free diet bandwagon, opting to reach for packed foods that are labeled “gluten-free” in the name of health. 


What is Gluten?


Gluten is a protein most commonly found in grains such as wheat, barley, and rye. Gluten behaves like a binding agent, allowing foods to hold their shape. It also creates a stretchy, almost elastic consistency, which traps gas as it stretches and allows the food to rise and lock in moisture. Gluten is a common additive in processed foods to improve their texture and moisture retention, which can make it difficult to know for sure which foods contain gluten. 


Gluten is found in grains such as; whole wheat, wheat bran, barley, rye, triticale, spelt, kamut, couscous, farro, semolina, bulgur, farina, einkorn, durum, wheat germ, cracked wheat, matzo, mir; processed grain-based products such as; crackers, bread, breadcrumbs, pasta, seitan, wheat-containing soba noodles, veggie burgers and other meat substitutes, cookies, pastries; and other foods and beverages such as; barley malt, malt vinegar, soy sauce, salad dressings, bouillon, flavored chips, beer, and some processed meats.  


Benefits of Going Gluten-Free


The notorious benefits of going gluten-free are vast and sweeping, said to be positively linked to weight loss, increased cognitive function, better digestion, increased energy levels, reduced inflammation, better mood, improved cholesterol levels, reduced risk for heart attack and diabetes, reduced chances of getting sick or contracting other autoimmune diseases and improved overall health. However, there is very little evidence or research to support these claims. Despite the lack of evidence, the gluten-free diet has only continued to rise in popularity because of media hype and celebrity endorsement. As a result, going gluten-free is seen as almost a miracle cure. 


In some cases, going gluten-free is recommended by doctors for those who have Celiac Disease, which is an autoimmune reaction to consuming gluten resulting in intestinal damage, which can lead to malabsorption, diarrhea, weight loss, fatigue, bloating, and anemia. Additionally, those considered gluten-sensitive, while testing negative for Celiac Disease, still experience symptoms like bloating, diarrhea, or crampy abdominal pain. 


According to an article published by The Nutrition Source, the gluten-free community grew 136% from 2013 to 2015. Surprisingly enough, the majority of people in the community do not have Celiac Disease. Their reasons for joining varied from “no reason” to claiming it is the “healthier option.” It is estimated that 20% to 30% of the population follows a gluten-free diet, currently or at one time.


Risks of Going Gluten-Free


There are always unforeseen side effects and long-term consequences to any drastic diet change, and the gluten-free craze is no different. Since the gluten-free trend is still relatively new, we still don’t know the extent of the potential long-term consequences of removing gluten from a balanced diet. What is understood in the short term is that since gluten is most commonly found in bread, those going gluten-free have the potential to be very low in carbohydrates, which are the body’s main fuel source. 


The consequences of low carbohydrates could result in having very low energy. Additionally, those who go gluten-free may have difficulty finding a healthy source of fiber, resulting in constipation. Ironically enough, both low energy and constipation are conditions said to be treated by going gluten-free, which raises questions about whether an attempt at a gluten-free life is the true culprit for those issues and whether those who think they are treating their issues are only making them more pervasive. 


The claim that going gluten-free helps people lose weight is also shaky, considering a 2019 review published in BMC Medicine that found that a gluten-free diet can lead to weight gain since many gluten-free foods tend to be much higher in vegetable fats. Weight gain could also result from eating too many gluten-free snacks, which tend to be higher in calories and lower in nutrition. 


Speaking of nutrition, those who are gluten-free have a higher chance of being deficient in key nutrients such as iron and B vitamins, which normally come from wheat flour products. Since most gluten-free food products are not fortified with these nutrients, it causes people to invest in daily vitamins, which could be a financial burden. Taking into account that gluten-free alternatives tend to be much more expensive than their traditional option, the financial consequences of going gluten-free cannot be overlooked.   


Final Thoughts


Weighing the potential risks and benefits of any fad diet is essential to making wise choices, regardless of popularity. While going gluten-free may seem like a miracle cure to unwanted pounds and a healthy gut, the truth may be less promising. Always check with your doctor before adopting any drastic diet changes.





Edited by: Sean Mulryan

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