Gluten has been making a lot of headlines over the past several years. Depending on your source, you may hear that gluten is an absolutely benign substance, or that it will contribute to the untimely demise of just about everyone. Going gluten-free has swept the nation. But is it just a trendy fad or a real health concern?
For answers, first we should ask: What is gluten?
Gluten is a protein in wheat, rye and barley. It acts like a glue in baked goods, giving them a light, spongey texture without falling apart. This is great news for bakers and pastry chefs.
What is the problem with gluten?
On the extreme end of the gluten-sensitive spectrum are those with Celiac disease. Individuals with this condition must live gluten-free or they suffer debilitating digestive issues. Celiacs also experience nutrient deficiencies when damage to the small intestine prevents nutrient absorption.
The most controversial new field regarding gluten is the concept of gluten-sensitivity.
Some health experts will claim that everyone has as least a little gluten-sensitivity, while others will state the idea is a fantastical marketing ploy. Some of the claims about the symptoms of gluten-sensitivity include attributing digestive problems – such as cramping, diarrhea, constipation – as well as fatigue, brain fog, mood disorders and various autoimmune conditions to gluten sensitivity.
How do I know if I’m sensitive?
The best way to really find out how gluten affects you as a unique individual is to go on an elimination diet. It’s quite simple, but not easy.
For two to three weeks, consume absolutely no gluten. This means no breads, rolls or baked goods. It also means no packaged snacks such as crackers and cookies, as well as no beer. It also means reading labels to make sure there no unexpected wheat, rye or barley is included in the ingredients.
Buying gluten-free bread, crackers, beer, etc. can definitely get expensive. I recommend shifting toward whole-food replacements. Instead of your dinner roll, have an extra side of veggies. Instead of your sandwich, chop your meat and cheese and toss in a salad. Luckily, because gluten-free dining is gaining such mainstream attention, the internet is absolutely flooded with ideas, recipes and menus.
There are many people who make it through their two to three weeks without gluten just to find they feel so much better that they now have no interest in getting gluten-containing foods back in their lives.
Others decide to move on to the next step, which is the reintroduction phase. Reintroduction involves one gluten-filled day. Toast with breakfast, a sandwich for lunch, cheese and crackers for a snack and a dinner roll or two is recommended. Then, it’s back off gluten for two full days. How do you feel? Did anything happen to your digestion? To your sleep? To your mood? Did you have any symptoms that subsided while on the elimination weeks but then returned? How you feel during these two days will give you a very good idea about whether or not gluten is a problem for you.
Action Plan if you are Sensitive
If you do determine that you are sensitive to gluten – but cannot imagine a life without wheat – don’t despair. You do have a few options to try. Sensitivity to wheat products indicates compromised function in the small intestine. Boosting health in this area can relieve some gluten-related symptoms. Reducing processed foods overall and increasing gut-soothing elements such as bone broths and teas made from marshmallow root, licorice root and slippery elm bark can allow occasional wheat consumption without incident. Check out the book, “Eat Wheat,” by John Douillard for more information.
Several things are for certain:
- There is no such thing as a gluten deficiency. Eliminating gluten from your diet will not cause any decline in health, depending on the foods you choose as replacements. If you replace your hamburger bun or flour tortilla with a lettuce wrap, you’ll probably come out ahead health-wise. If you replace it with a corn or rice based alternative, you will probably break about even.
- The gluten-free label on foods does not mean that product is healthy for you. If you are eyeing a bag of gluten-free cookies on the shelf, be aware that they may be loaded with hydrogenated oils and processed sugars, which are definitely more dangerous for a greater portion of the population (specifically, everyone!).
- The gluten-free label on a specific product does not mean there is a version of that product containing gluten. Remember, gluten only comes from wheat, rye, barley, and their hybrids. A bag of apples labeled gluten-free is not any different than a bag without the label.
In conclusion, gluten may or may not be problematic for your overall health, but it is important to take a few steps to find out. While the gluten issue may seem like a fad, when it comes to individual nutrition, knowledge is power. The power to make the best decisions about your personal health is greater than any hype, trend and fad.
Editor’s Note: Sara Kennedy is a certified nutritional therapy consultant. She is the owner of Renegade Wellness found on Facebook at www.facebook.com/paleoalaska. Reach her online at www.thriveak.com.