We hear a lot about “gluten” these days and how (apparently) it is REALLY bad for your health and how it can even help you lose weight, with stars like Gwyneth Paltrow and Victoria Beckham endorsing it. Very often, we don’t even know what gluten is and yet go about being scared of it.
So, first things first – what exactly is gluten? It seems that this demonised component of food is actually a protein found in food items like barley, wheat, rye and triticale – a cross between rye and wheat. It helps give elasticity to the foods, helping it rise and keeping the shape of it as well as give it a chewy sort of a texture. It is also used in make up and hair products.
A fad seems to have sprung up in recent times which roots for gluten free for the health of your body – unfortunately, a lot of myths have also sprung up. So, what can be classified as a gluten free diet? And also, how do we separate myth from fact?
Gluten-free, as you might have already guessed, is when you have no gluten in the food you eat. Now, this is a pretty short definition but it stilol gives you an idea about what a gluten free diet really is. So, what are the foods or food groups which are a no-no for a gluten-free diet apart from wheat, rye, barley and triticale? Some foods to avoid are bulgur, durum flour, farina graham flour, kamut, semolina and spelt.
Most people have gluten free food because they suffer from a chronic disease called celiac disease and this disease is not a joke. What usually happens in people suffering from this disease is that their bodies think that even a morsel of gluten is harmful for the body and then an immune response is launched against it. The immune system destroys and damages the finger-like villi found in the linings of small intestines, which in turn, reduces the ability to absorb nutrients from food through the intestinal wall and into the bloodstream, which results in malnutrition, weight loss (the bad kind), headaches, depression, joint pain, skin problems, etc. People who have this disease can only reverse the damages if they completely avoid gluten in their diet as even the smallest amount can have unwelcome effects and even if they are not displayed in some cases, there is no doubt that gluten damages the health of those with celiac disease. The people who have celiac disease are only about one percent of the American population, but a far greater percentage of the population may be suffering from a condition called gluten intolerance or gluten sensitivity. This is not to be confused with celiac disease, which is way more serious. When people are gluten sensitive, gluten can induce bloating, fatigue, flue like feelings, discomfort, etc. However, this is a gray issue as there is no real test for gluten sensitivity (for now) and maybe caused by other issues as well as stress.
There are some common myths associated with a gluten free diet. The most popular one is perhaps the one where it claims to induce weight loss. No, gluten free doesn’t automatically mean weight loss. If anything, it can mean weight gain if you don’t watch what you eat closely enough. Gluten is not some demonic food component which makes you gain weight. Calories are calories, and gluten free foods often have a higher amount of calories than those with gluten in them. One of the primary reasons is that gluten helps in holding the food together. When there is no gluten in a food, manufacturers need the help of other things to hold them together – such as butter and eggs. Gluten free foods are often also higher in fat. The initial weight loss from a gluten free diet could come from eating more fresh fruit and vegetables, and cutting out refined and processed foods like white flour, which everybody should do for a healthy diet anyway. As time goes on, it becomes harder to stick to a gluten free diet when you don’t need to because gluten is not only found in wheat and wheat products – it is also used to thicken sauces and make eatables chewier and fluffier. This leads to health-conscious people eating gluten-free junk food (no healthier than “normal” junk food) and putting on weight. It also means that people following this diet have a huge chance of missing out on the needed nutrients, vitamins and minerals unless there is constant surveillance of your choices in food. On of the reasons for weight-loss after going gluten-free can also be that it severely limits your choices in food. Moreover, this is a diet which cannot be followed by those saving their pennies, since a gluten-free version of a food costs way more and has more calories as well! Another misconception is that gluten-free means low carb. It does not. In fact, some gluten-free foods can have more carbohydrates than the normal version of the same.
People suffering from celiac disease now have entire sections devoted to gluten-free foods in supermarkets, but if you have celiac disease, you should be super careful of cross-contamination, which occurs when gluten-free foods are mixed up with foods which have gluten either during manufacturing or harvesting (sometimes). Also, eatables to avoid unless they are labelled gluten free are many, including beer and breads.
Other eatables including cookies and pies, candies, cereals, cookies and crackers, croutons, french fries, gravies, imitation meat or seafood, matzo, pastas, processed luncheon meats, salad dressings, sauces – including soy sauce, seasoned rice mixes, seasoned snack foods – such as potato and tortilla chips, self-basting poultry, soups and soup bases, vegetables in sauce etc also have a high probability of not being gluten free.
That is quite a list, isn’t it? And that’s not all, people with celiac disease have to avoid gluten all the time, and in any form, but since gluten is used to manufacture various other things, including lipbalms, they must always check products for gluten and be careful. Therefore, for people with celiac disease, going gluten-free is not just a diet – it is a way of life and they have to avoid gluten in all forms and items to have a healthy life.
If you feel like you’re gluten-sensitive or have celiac disease, try going gluten-free for a few days and see how you feel and don’t forget to go to a doctor. But, you should also keep in mind that going gluten free just might be a “placebo effect”, that is, you feel good going gluten free because you think it will make you feel better.
However, along with the health benefits of going gluten free for people with celiac disease, and the “feel good” effect it has on people with gluten sensitivity, there are a lot of dangers associated with going gluten free for the large number of people who are termed as “gluten avoiders”, that is, those who avoid gluten, but really have no reason to do so except hearing about the miraculous benefits of going gluten free from friends, family, co-workers and their larger social workers. For example, they have very low to low nutritional value when it is compared to foods with gluten, as already stated, for one. However, with the recent demand increasing for nutrient rich gluten free foods, companies have started giving in to this demand and manufacturing goods such as quinoa pasta.
Slowly but surely, the cost of gluten free products is also equalising with the cost of products with gluten. They are now 162 percent more expensive, on an average, rather than 242 percent. It can be said that one of the reasons for this might be the competition in this segment of the market.