The gluten-free lifestyle has been an increasingly popular trend in the last few years, and it doesn’t look like the gluten-free fad is going anywhere anytime soon. Gluten-free restaurants are popping up across cities worldwide–I couldn’t believe the number of gluten-free options in Italy, of all places!–and we’re witnessing a surge in gluten-free foods, from baked goods to pasta in grocery stores, which confirms that there is definitely a significant demand for this.
The idea that gluten-free also means healthier has definitely stuck with a lot of consumers. Often, for example, when I mention to strangers that I’m plant-based and that there are proven health benefits to eating mostly plants, they straight away ask me how I feel about the claimed health benefits of a gluten-free diet. It looks like a lot of people believe that skipping gluten is automatically better for you.
Let’s have a closer look at the claim that eating gluten-free is healthier and let’s try to understand some of the hidden and real reasons why people go gluten-free.
1. People believe gluten-free means no carbs.
To elaborate on this assumption, they also believe that carbs are simply bad for you. I have written about this topic in the past–there is a good chance I was eating carbs while I wrote about 😉 and I will do it again. Simply put: carbohydrates are one of the three macronutrients (fat and protein being the other two), and, therefore, they are essential to our health in large quantities (I.e macro). Carbs have a bad rep because the high protein diets have managed to create a lot of confusion among people. Whole carbs such as grains, starchy veggies, and beans are amazing for you. Baked goods and white bread made with refined sugar–not so much. But they all kind of gut lumped into one. And then carbs and gluten suddenly became one and the same. They’re not, though–some carbs contain gluten, like bread and most baked goods, and some don’t, like rice, sweet potatoes, and oats. So even if you are avoiding gluten, don’t skip the good carbs.
2. Gluten might not be the problem.
One big candidate in the anti-gluten movement is bread. Bread is deeply controversial. I grew up eating lots of it and never felt bad. Bread is a fermented food with cultures that, especially when made out of whole grains, can be über healthy. Some of my friends who think they have a gluten intolerance feel like when they eat gluten in Europe, they are fine. This could indeed be linked to pesticides on grains and not so much to gluten itself. In Europe, agricultural practices are way more regulated, and pesticides are used in very limited quantities. So a lot of grains are just not contaminated with any pesticides. Not so much the case in the US, and some researchers assume that a growing number of people is experiencing allergies and intolerances to pesticides. Wheat is the main crop affected by this and that might explain why some people think they are gluten intolerant–but really they have a reaction to pesticides.
3. Some people actually have a gluten intolerance.
Gluten intolerance (celiac disease) is quite real and very serious. It’s an autoimmune condition in which the small intestines are damaged by gluten consumption. Not everyone who follows a gluten-free lifestyle has celiac disease, however. In fact, there’s a good chance that most of the people supporting the $7 billon-gluten-free industry do not have this autoimmune condition but simply believe that gluten-free is healthier or eating gluten-free makes them feel better (perhaps for reason #2).
Where does that leave us?
Gluten has a variety of actual health benefits. Unless you have celiac disease, which is an autoimmune disease that you shouldn’t be kidding with, avoiding gluten could create more harm than good. Research shows that gluten found in a lot of whole grains can protect against heart disease as well as a number of other diseases such as cancer and diabetes type 2 which really is caused by an over-consumption of animal protein and fat. In addition, gluten is high in iron and, of course, protein–it is actually a protein, after all! So you might be missing out on tons of nutrients if you go down the gluten-free route. If you’re concerned about conventionally farmed wheat that’s been exposed to pesticides, consider switching to organic, whole grain bread.
Have you ever gone gluten-free?
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