Health crazes and diet trends may come and go but every so often there are advances in the nutrition and medical field that are true game changers. For decades, individuals diagnosed with Celiac disease were simply characterized with ghastly gastrointestinal problems, but with further research this multisystemic autoimmune disorder is now known to be caused by permanent intolerance to gluten, predominantly found in genetically susceptible individuals. Gluten is the main storage protein of wheat, rye and barley. While gluten is mainly found in foods, shockingly it is even an ingredient in everyday products such as medicines, vitamins, lip balms, play dough, toothpastes, and adhesives. Gluten wears many hats- it provides elasticity to dough, acts as a binder in many recipes, adds flavor and protein and lends that much beloved chewy texture to delicious baked goods. With the increasing prevalence of diagnoses of Celiac disease in America, the demand for gluten free products has skyrocketed; the food industry has strongly met those demands by putting out numerous gluten-free products, making the life of sensitive to gluten easier. But, those burdened by this disease are not the only ones scooping the gluten-free brownies off the shelf of your supermarket, health conscious individuals are buying them too. So should you reach for your inner gluten freedom as well?
Well, truth be told, the only incontrovertible evidence showing the benefits of a strict gluten-free diet have been a result of research investigating its effectiveness in individuals with gluten sensitivity or Celiac disease. These individuals, when introducing gluten into their diet for a prolonged period of time, have flattened villi in their small intestine, meaning they are unable to absorb many of the vitamins, minerals and nutrients that are necessary for optimal health. Including gluten in their diet leads to a slew of gastrointestinal problems and, more often than not, can cause iron-deficiency anemia, reduce bone mineral density and chronic fatigue, and that’s only the beginning. Currently, the only scientifically proven treatment for Celiac disease is a strict lifelong adherence to a gluten-free diet and after sticking to this diet for a few months, the villi of the small intestine return to normal and the signs and symptoms begin to disappear.
Gluten-free diets have also been put under the microscope as possible treatment options for individuals with autism, ADD/ADHD, and IBS. Some parents, doctors and researchers say that children with autism or Asperger’s syndrome have shown mild to dramatic improvements in speech and/or behavior when following a gluten-free, casein-free (GFCF) diet. Also, while a gluten-free diet may alleviate some symptoms, it is not proven effective as the sole treatment option for ADD/ADHD and IBS, and it is best to consult your dietician and physician before completely removing gluten from you or your child’s diet.
So what about the rest of us? Oprah eliminated gluten from her diet during her “21-day cleanse” and claimed astounding results, is she personally responsible for deeming gluten the latest dietary bad boy? While doctors estimate just 1% of the population have Celiac disease, marketers estimate that 15% to 25% of consumers want gluten-free foods. Why? Surprisingly, even if you don’t have full-fledged gluten intolerance you still may be slightly sensitive to it, causing symptoms ranging from bloating and discomfort to rashes. So, if you think you and gluten don’t mix, you may actually be right. However, the health craze may not even be gluten-related but rather a placebo effect. Gluten shunners may actually be feeling better and lose weight because they are consuming fewer processed and fast foods and reaching for healthier options like fruits, vegetables and certain whole grains. A high gluten diet may mean that you are over-consuming simple carbohydrates and sugars, two things that are digested quickly making you eat more often than you should, upping your caloric intake causing you to gain weight.
Clearly there is a fad aspect to the diet, but if it gets college kids off pizza, bagels and beer, in my opinion, the fad doesn’t seem to be so bad. What we have learned is that what is more important than minimizing your gluten intake, is what you are replacing it with. A well-balanced diet full of whole grains, vegetables, fruits and lean protein will do the trick. And you have to be weary of gluten-free products. Many of them have an outrageously high fat content to compensate for the lack of flavor in gluten free products. Also, giving up too much gluten when you aren’t gluten-sensitive may actually put you at risk for not getting enough vitamins, most commonly iron, calcium, fiber, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin and folate, and decreasing bone mineral density.
But enough talk about gluten this and gluten-free that, what we all really want to know is which gluten-free products are best. And to save you from having to read a novel, I’m not going to list everything that gluten-sensitive people cannot eat, and rather the things they can. As I mentioned before, cutting out or reducing your gluten consumption has never been easier. Restaurants and bakeries have gluten free options on their menu, some have even devoted their entire menu to being gluten free, there seem to be more gluten-free products in your grocery store than not and gluten-free blogs are among the most visited on the internet. There are some things to be mindful of when choosing gluten-free foods, mainly fat content and fiber, so always check your nutrition labels on the packaging. Here is a little gluten-free cheat sheet to start you on the right foot and remember all fresh fruits, vegetables, fresh meats, fish and poultry (not breaded, battered or marinated) and most dairy products are gluten free! Reach your inner gluten freedom by trying out these delicious and healthy products.
Gluten Freedom Foods
Gluten-Free Grains and Starches:
Bars: Renew Life Organic Fiber bar, Oskri Fiber bar (both offer 50% fiber), and The Simply Bar
Cereal: Mesa Sunrise Gluten Free cereal
Bread: Food for Life Wheat and Gluten Free breads
Waffles: Van’s Natural Foods Waffles Gluten-Free Mini’s
Crackers and Rice Cakes: Health Valley Original Rice Bran Crackers and Mother’s Natural
Nut Butters: MaraNatha
Snacks: Sea’s Gift Roasted Seaweed Snacks
Frozen Meals: Amy’s Brown Rice and Black Peas and Organic Bistro Sesame Ginger Wild Salmon Bowl
Sauce: Amy’s Premium Organic Tomato Basil Pasta Sauce (Light in Sodium)