Ten years ago, those who were diagnosed with Celiac disease or experienced reactions related to gluten sensitivity would be hard-pressed to find gluten-free breads, grains, and cereals. Today, supermarkets are brimming with gluten-free foods in every aisle, giving those who are allergic to gluten new and improved options. For those who truly cannot have gluten, these foods are the perfect replacement for the breads and pastas they’ve always known and loved, but for those who do not experience uncomfortable symptoms related to gluten consumption, there’s really no need to avoid the common protein. It’s easy to get caught up in the craze when every grocery store, pizza shop, and health magazine is praising the benefits of a gluten-free lifestyle, but for most of us who can digest gluten without an issue, avoiding gluten altogether may cause more harm than good.
Before you decide to take the plunge and kick gluten out of your diet for good, it’s vital to know the facts on what exactly gluten is. Prevention explains that gluten is a protein that’s found in wheat, barley, rye, and in many whole-grain foods related to wheat. The gluten itself helps dough rise and have elasticity while also keeping its shape. For those who have Celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, their immune system attacks their small intestine every time gluten is consumed. The villi, which are tiny and thin projections on the small intestine, are responsible for taking in nutrients from and absorbing nutrients from food. For someone with Celiac, these villi are damaged by gluten and are then unable to take in as many nutrients from food, which can cause malnutrition no matter how healthy the person eats otherwise.
Inflammation and damage to the intestines can last a lifetime if not dealt with, and Celiac disease or gluten sensitivity in general can be very difficult to recognize and treat. Those who should not eat gluten often have symptoms that include gastrointestinal issues or skin rash, and there are a good number of people that have a very light sensitivity to gluten and thus do feel better after cutting gluten out of their diet, says Everyday Health. Though it’s possible to try cutting all foods containing gluten from your diet, if you’re experiencing uncomfortable gastrointestinal symptoms, this could take months of careful dietary monitoring before you feel any difference. The best way to know if you do have a gluten intolerance of any kind is to receive a blood test.
So, if you’re looking to better your health and you do not have symptoms of gluten intolerance, is it worth hopping on the gluten-free train anyway? Probably not — you actually could be missing out on the vital nutrients and dietary fiber that whole grains provide. UW Health discusses how many whole grains provide B vitamins, iron, thiamin, calcium, riboflavin, niacin, and folate, and decreasing your whole grain consumption could lead to a significant decrease in vitamins and minerals. Not only are you missing out on these nutrients, but grains and cereals also contain necessary dietary fiber that is beneficial for digestion. While those with Celiac may experience digestive problems because of gluten, those who can tolerate gluten may experience constipation if they avoid eating grains and cereals.
Whole grains have a host of other benefits other than fiber as well — Web MD describes how they’ve been shown to help lower risks of developing heart disease, type-2 diabetes, and an array of cancers. Though not all whole grains contain gluten (amaranth, millet, and quinoa are naturally gluten-free), grains containing gluten are much more common, and it would be difficult to reach your daily amount of fiber, vitamins, and minerals on just these three gluten-free grains alone. While there are many tasty gluten-free substitutes for breads and cereals on the market today, many of those do not contain the same amount of nutrients as their gluten-containing counterparts.
And, if you’re looking to go gluten-free for weight loss, then you may be doomed from the start. The Huffington Post shows how common gluten-free substitutes, like red or processed meats and potatoes, can ultimately lead to weight gain if eaten with fair frequency. And, many gluten-free pastries, breads, and cereals, are laden with refined carbohydrates and simple sugars, which convert directly to fat. Many gluten-free foods are made from potatoes, soy, and corn, which can cause blood sugar to spike and are ultimately less healthy than whole grains.
You’ll be paying extra for those gluten-free foods as well — that loaf of gluten-free bread or that small package of almond meal is likely to cost you twice as much as what you’d be paying for regular flour or bread.
With this being said, it’s important to note that while those who can eat gluten should eat gluten, research has linked over 150 diseases to minor gluten sensitivity. If you do experience bloating, diarrhea, abdominal pain, skin rash, or a burning sensation in the chest after gluten consumption, then it’s important to get tested to see if it is the gluten that is giving you trouble. Going gluten-free for those who can benefit from such a diet can provide higher energy levels and relief from symptoms, so ask your doctor for more details on how you can get tested.