e’re all looking for a way to be a little healthier. With all of the different sensationalized dieting trends that pop up in the media on a daily basis, it can be difficult to figure out which one might work best for your lifestyle. Especially when you’re trying to pick a diet based on health choices that are not life or death, but rather geared towards personal goals surrounding weight, energy, and just generally feeling good, the possible benefits and downsides can start to become convoluted. When it comes to a gluten-free diet, one of the most popular standing diets of the current age, then, we’re here to ask the big question: Is it worth it?
What is a gluten-free diet?
A gluten-free diet is, in the simplest of terms, a diet that cuts out any traces of the protein gluten, a general term for a number of grains with a gluey structure that serves to bind certain foods together.
Where is gluten found?
Gluten is found in grains such as wheat, barley, rye, triticale (a cross between wheat and rye), and on occasion, oats.
How do I know if something contains gluten?
If you’re ever unsure of whether something contains gluten, look for a label that tells you it’s gluten-free. If you don’t see any such stamp of approval, check the ingredients for wheat berries, durum, emmer, semolina, spelt, farina, farro, graham, KAMUT® khorasan wheat, or einkorn. These are the various proteins that make up the general gluten.
Is gluten bad?
Gluten is not inherently bad, but it can be a source of some major health concerns for a number of people around the world. A gluten-free diet may be able to help some people combat adverse symptoms such as severe pain if they have medical conditions like Celiac Disease, Gluten Ataxia, or wheat allergy.
Celiac Disease is a hereditary autoimmune disorder in which the immune system launches an attack against the small intestine when a person ingests gluten. The walls of the small intestine then become weakened until they are unable to absorb the nutrients a person should be able to get from the food they eat. This can eventually lead to long-term health conditions, such as iron-deficiency anemia, osteoporosis, gallbladder malfunction, and even intestinal cancer. Approximately one out of every one hundred people suffer from Celiac Disease.
Gluten Ataxia is another autoimmune disorder, but rather than attacking the digestive tract, the immune system targets the nervous system when a person ingests gluten. Some of its symptoms may include loss of motor function (difficulty using fingers, hands, arms, or legs), difficulty speaking, and poor coordination or balance.
Unlike the autoimmune disorders associated with gluten, a wheat allergy does not attack one specific part of the body. Rather, it recognizes gluten as a pathogen, much like the body would recognize a virus or bacterial infection, and launches an allergy attack just like any other. The immune system produces an antibody to fight off the “invader,” prompting a typical allergy response that closes the airways and/or induces congestion.
If you notice yourself developing any of these symptoms after eating foods with gluten in them, you may want to see your doctor to find out if any of these conditions affect you. In most cases, a gluten-free diet will be the perfect remedy to the unease any one of these conditions might cause, giving you a better quality of life.
Are there any benefits of going gluten-free?
Even if you don’t suffer from one of these conditions, even if you’re just looking to try out a new diet for your overall health, there may still be some benefits to a gluten-free diet. Some of the potential benefits that have been suggested in recent years are weight loss, improved gastrointestinal health, and improved athletic performance. Keep in mind that there have not been enough studies done to determine the validity of these claims. It’s best to consult your doctor before starting any diet to determine if it’s the right choice for you.
What about the downsides?
Just like with most things, the abstention from one thing in your life is bound to bring about some unintended consequences. If you abstain from driving, you lose some independence. In the same way, cutting gluten out of your diet means that you will be losing out on some of the other nutrients that are found in gluten-rich foods.
Many foods that are not gluten-free contain vitamins and nutrients that are vital for everyday health. Several kinds of wheat-based breads, for instance, are natural or enriched sources of iron, calcium, fiber, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and folate, each of which has a key function for the body.
Iron plays a key role in blood production and the transportation of oxygen from your lungs to other parts of your body. It is one of the main components of hemoglobin, which is the oxygen-transporter located in red blood cells and is used to deliver oxygen to other tissues in your body. Iron is essential for respiration and energy.
Calcium is responsible for building bones and keeping them healthy, as well as for enabling our blood to clot, our muscles to contract, and our heart to continue beating. Because our bodies are unable to produce their own calcium, it’s important that we make sure we’re getting some in our daily diets. When our calcium levels become too low, our bodies starts to borrow it from our bones, which, while okay on occasion, can eventually make them weak and brittle.
Fiber helps to regulate bowel movements, lower cholesterol levels, control blood sugar levels, and achieve a healthy weight, and it may also lower the risk of diabetes, heart disease, and some types of cancer. It is usually unable to be digested by the body, so it tends to move through the digestive tract in one mass.
Note: Fiber is found in some fruits and vegetables, so it is still possible to obtain it while on a gluten-free diet, but you will need to consume fruits and vegetables in much larger quantities to obtain your daily recommended.
Also known as Vitamin B1, thiamin is responsible for helping the body’s cells convert carbohydrates into energy. It also plays a role in muscle contraction and the conduction of nerve signals to the rest of the body.
Also known as Vitamin B2, riboflavin helps the body break down proteins, fats, and carbohydrates, and it plays a key role in maintaining the body’s energy supply. It also aids in hormone production, maintaining a healthy liver, and absorbing and activating iron, folic acid, and vitamins B1, B3, and B6. We need to eat foods with riboflavin in them every day because the body is only capable of storing small amounts; it needs to be replenished fairly frequently.
Also known as Vitamin B3, niacin, like the other B vitamins, helps the body to break down carbohydrates, proteins, and fats into energy. It also aids functions in the digestive system, skin, and nervous system, and helps to remove harmful chemicals from the liver.
Folate is necessary for the production of DNA and other genetic material. The body needs folate in order for the cells to divide.
What is the Cost of a Gluten Free Diet?
A gluten-free diet can be expensive to maintain. Gluten-free foods are expensive to make, which means that they can also be pretty expensive to buy. In many cases, gluten-free foods cost more than the foods they’re attempting to replace. The potential for substantial costs while on a gluten-free diet is highly likely, especially if your diet includes foods that aren’t naturally gluten-free.
Eating Out Gluten Free
Not all restaurants are going to have gluten-free options on their menu, so you may be limited in where you can go out to eat. You may want to search for menus online before going out to determine if they have something for you to eat. Most restaurants are willing to customize an order to fit your dietary needs, but you still might be limited to certain times of the day (i.e. slower times) if you want to ensure that your order is made correctly.
What does a gluten-free diet look like?
Naturally Gluten-Free Foods
- Fruits and vegetables
- Unprocessed beans, seeds, and nuts
- Lean, unprocessed meats, fish, and poultry
- Most low-fat dairy products
Grains, Starches, and Flours
- Corn and cornmeal
- Rice, soy, corn, potato, and bean flours
Any of these are allowed in a gluten-free diet, but keep in mind that you’ll have to avoid any food or drink that contains wheat, barley, rye, triticale, or oats.
Wait a minute… Does that mean no beer?
That means no beer. Or french fries. Or pasta. Or vegetables cooked in sauces. Or salad dressing. Or cake and pie. Or processed lunch meat. Or bread. Anything that tastes good, anything that you might find yourself craving on a fairly regular basis is out of the question, unless you see that it’s labeled as gluten-free or made with corn, rice, soy, or another gluten-free grain.
So is going gluten-free worth it?
We can’t really answer that for you. If you have one of the gluten-intolerant health conditions mentioned above, then it is absolutely worth it. If you don’t, you should take stock of why you’d like to try a gluten-free diet and determine whether you think the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.