Gluten-free is all the rage these days: more and more restaurants are introducing gluten-free menu items, supermarkets have entire aisles dedicated to gluten-free foods, and increasingly, we hear that in order to lose weight, we need to cut all gluten from our diets. In 2015, the gluten-free market was a $11.6 billion industry and it’s only growing.
But what is gluten, anyway? And why are so many Americans jumping on the gluten-free bandwagon?
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye, which Americans eat an awful lot of in the form of bread, pasta, and other baked goods. About one percent of the population suffers from celiac disease, an illness characterized by an absolute intolerance to gluten. In those people, the ingestion of gluten causes an immediate immune response that damages the intestinal lining, leading to gastrointestinal distress, malabsorption and even malnutrition. The only cure? A lifelong commitment to eliminating gluten from the diet.
Recently, though, many of us have picked up on the notion that even though we do not suffer from celiac disease per se, we may have some form of “gluten sensitivity,” whereby eating wheat products causes GI distress but no permanent damage to your intestinal lining (more akin to an allergy). Interestingly enough, there is such a thing — research scientists estimate that 3 percent of Americans could be gluten-sensitive (while others promoting gluten-free diets like to speculate that these numbers are higher).
Unfortunately, there is no definitive diagnostic test to tell one way or the other, so many of us self-diagnose. We decide to eliminate all wheat products, many of which are not whole grain but instead are the refined, processed, and packaged stuff — rolls, bread, processed cereals, pasta, cookies, crackers — the list goes on. And guess what? When we stop eating all this junk, we feel better. And then we become convinced that it’s the gluten that is responsible for all of our health woes.
Here’s my two cents. I am pretty convinced that a good portion of those who have gone gluten-free and who say they are markedly better feel good simply because they have stopped eating a lot of processed white foods. They are also likely to be eating less, having cut out a major food category. Of course, sometimes those who go gluten-free simply substitute gluten-free bread and pasta for the regular version. That can backfire if the gluten-free products are full of refined sugar, which is no doubt worse for you than anything else.
At the end of the day, I applaud the labeling of gluten-free foods for those who have celiac disease or are truly gluten sensitive — it sure makes your life easier. For the rest of us, though, our lives have once again become more nutritionally complicated. Here is yet another confusing message to the American public about what is and is not healthy.
Whole grains are loaded with fiber, as well as the B vitamins, selenium, and magnesium so important to good health. Large epidemiological studies have demonstrated the health benefits of a diet that includes whole grains, including a reduced risk for type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. I eat whole grains, and I urge you to do the same, if you can.
Dr. Jennifer Sacheck is an Associate Professor of Nutrition at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University and also holds an appointment in the School of Medicine. She is both a nutrition scientist and exercise physiologist by training with over two decades of experience working with athletes and non-athletes alike on the benefits of physical activity and optimal nutrition both for health and performance. Her research has spanned laboratory studies on muscle damage, growth and recovery to studies in the greater public community where she translates the latest science on food and nutrients into real world applicability. Dr. Sacheck has served on multiple national committees, including the Institute of Medicine and the American College of Sports Medicine where she is also a fellow, and recently co-authored her first book with Chris Crowley on fitness and health, “Thinner This Year.” Dr. Sacheck received her PhD from Tufts University and completed her post-doctoral training at Harvard Medical School. Learn more about Dr. Sacheck here.