STONE: Gluten free … lifestyle, or necessity?

“Gluten free” is a phrase most everyone has heard of by now. From restaurants to grocery stores, more and more gluten-free options are becoming available for conscientious consumers looking to void this particular protein from their respective diets. Even though many have heard the term, several questions may still remain about going gluten free. One might ask, what the heck is gluten? … Why do people go gluten-free? … Is it a necessary? … and … Are there health benefits by eliminating gluten from our diets? In helping answer these questions, one can better understand whether “gluten-free” is merely a lifestyle choice versus an absolute necessity.

Gluten is a general term used for a family of proteins found in many common grains, particularly; wheat, rye, and barley. Helping foods maintain their shape, gluten acts similar to a glue in holding foods together. It’s responsible for giving dough its elasticity and for that wonderful chewy texture we love about a good pizza crust. But, while we often associate gluten in breads, pastas, pastries, and other baked goods, it can also be found in other less-suspecting places as well. Things like soy sauce, most beer, meat substitutes, malt vinegar, and a variety of certain sauces, dressings, and gravies also contain gluten. In fact, certain packaged seasonings include ingredients containing gluten, making it an inconspicuous entry into and onto otherwise “gluten-free” foods.

Going gluten-free may be a necessity for those suffering from conditions that require it be eliminated from their diet altogether. Among the most commonly known of these conditions is the auto-immune disorder Celiac Disease. In Celiac Disease, gluten triggers an immune response which causes damage to the small intestine. Over time, this can lead to additional complications such as malabsorption of nutrients, iron deficiency, osteoporosis, increased risk of gastrointestinal cancers, and an overall poor quality of life. Gluten ataxia is another auto-immune condition which, instead impacting the intestinal tract, affects nerve tissue and voluntary muscle control. Others may experience a “non-celiac gluten sensitivity” which can mimic symptoms of Celiac Disease, but without the intestinal damage. Or, some may simply have an allergy to wheat itself and by default, would refrain from gluten in that capacity.

Considering the medical conditions to which avoiding gluten is necessary, those reasons are very obvious and apparent. However, this impacts only a very small segment of the overall population. The vast majority of people eliminating gluten from their diet, do so on the premise of gaining health benefits and/or to avoid negative repercussions to their well-being. Building enough research to back these claims is ongoing, but whether the benefits are known or perceived, this sparks enough motivation for people to follow diets that are sans gluten. Ask anyone who is actually practicing a gluten free diet and they can tell you, it is no easy task.

Staying the gluten-free course isn’t always an easy task. It takes diligence and a high level of commitment, while also making very concerted efforts through meticulous planning and preparing far ahead of mealtimes. Cost can be a prohibitive factor as well, since many of the gluten substitute foods often come with a higher price tag than gluten-rich staples. In fact, some studies suggest that gluten-free diets are not only more costly, but less nutritious as well. Like so many other grocery store items that adorn grocery shelves, gluten-free foods can be overly processed and stripped of vital nutrients that are otherwise essential for maintaining a healthy diet. Regardless of any “diet” you’re on, the most important thing is making sure you aren’t neglecting overall nutritional needs by exclusively eliminating a single item among your food sources. For instance, many gluten-free products (such as corn, rice, potato, and tapioca starches) can lack B vitamins, iron, and fiber.

So what’s the verdict? Is there really any benefit by going gluten-free, or is it just another cyclical fad or diet craze? For the roughly 3 million American (about 1 in every 133 people) who are actually diagnosed with Celiac Disease or those with a definite wheat allergy or gluten sensitivity, yes … going gluten-free is not only a benefit, but a definitive must in adhering to. As for the rest of the population, there just isn’t enough research currently to substantiate the claims of being any healthier. Regardless if you go the gluten-free route, out of necessity or reasons you feel are best, never lose sight of the importance in reading food labels has in promoting the balance of consuming essential nutrients. We all have opportunities to make a greater investment in what we put into our bodies and that should always be the ultimate focus. If you’re still puzzled or need additional guidance on what diet works best for you. A Registered Dietician can help lead you in the right direction for developing plans specific to your overall needs.