Should I go "gluten-free?"
Often during my training sessions, clients will ask me about gluten, and “going gluten-free.” It’s a hot topic right now. Celebrities like Kourtney Kardashian and Gwyneth Paltrow tout a gluten-free diet as part of a healthy lifestyle. Grocery stores stock shelves with more and more products labeled as being gluten-free. But what is gluten? And is a gluten-free diet actually healthy, or is it just another fad?
What is gluten?
Gluten is a naturally occurring protein commonly found in wheat, barley, rye, and triticale (a cross between wheat and rye). Pastas, breads, and pastries tend to have gluten, but it can also be found in things like salad dressings. We speak about gluten as if it is one protein, but it is actually composed of two different proteins: gliadin and glutenin.
How does it affect me?
For most of us, it doesn’t affect our health at all. The people who are affected by gluten are those who have wheat allergies, a non-celiac sensitivity to gluten, or full-blown celiac disease. For people with these chronic conditions, gluten can wreak havoc on their small intestines, impairing their inability to absorb vital nutrients – a serious health issue. Symptoms of wheat allergies include nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, irritation of the mouth and throat, hives, nasal congestion, eye irritation, and difficulty breathing. People who have celiac disease or a non-celiac sensitivity to gluten experience fatigue and bloating, but celiac goes the extra mile and also causes infertility, osteoporosis, and depression and anxiety when left untreated (full list of symptoms for celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity can be found here).
Should I go gluten-free?
Only if you suffer from a wheat allergy, are legitimately sensitive to gluten, or have celiac disease. Otherwise, there is no hard medical evidence that a gluten-free diet is healthy in and of itself. According to Lisa Cimperman, a clinical dietician at the University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland, “There are no beneficial health effects [to a gluten-free diet]. Wheat and gluten have recently become popularized as dietary villains by a number of books and media outlets. Unfortunately, talk show hosts and celebrities are able to amplify such messages while having little to no health or nutrition credentials. There is no research to support gluten-free diets for anyone other than those affected by celiac disease” (via Medical News Today).
In fact, some argue that a gluten-free diet can result in nutritional deficiencies for otherwise healthy people, as gluten-free products tend to be low in B vitamins, calcium, iron, zinc, magnesium, and fiber.
So I don’t have to give up bread or pasta?
Bring on the gluten!
Not so fast! You may not have a reaction to gluten, but that doesn’t mean you can go overboard on the carbs. For a 2,000 calorie diet, the USDA recommends a total of 6 ounces of grain per day (one ounce is a slice of bread, or a half cup of rice or pasta - via SFGate). Over-indulging can get your blood sugar out of whack, make you gain weight, and cause mental fatigue (“brain fog”). Remember: everything in moderation!