They fill up whole sections of your local Publix or Whole Foods. New menu sections are designed for them at PF Changs and Cheesecake Factory. In the past 5 years, the words “Gluten-free” have become a hot topic of conversation in the health community. But what does it really mean to be Gluten-free? Is it healthy? Is it something you should be doing? Let’s take a closer look.
How did Gluten-free come about?
Gluten-free diets first emerged as a treatment for Celiac Disease. Celiac disease is an auto-immune disorder that affects an estimated 1/1750 people with clinical symptoms, but as many as 1/105 people have positive blood tests. It’s a disease where the body creates antibodies attack the inner lining of the digestive tract. The symptoms can range from moderate to severe abdominal pain with diarrhea, fatigue, malabsorbtion, or no symptoms at all. It was determined the immune system was reacting to proteins found in wheat and other grains leading to inflammation in the gut. The inflammation in the gut lead to damage in the intestinal lining causing pain and an inability to absorb various nutrients from food. When wheat and offending grains were eliminated from the diet of these individuals, the symptoms ceased, and the intestines healed within a matter of weeks. Thus, a gluten-free diet was born.
If it happens in less than 1% of people, why is it so popular now?
While many people don’t have Celiac disease, many people are finding that they may have a sensitivity to gluten. While it’s not highly recognized in traditional medicine, the fields of functional medicine and natural health fields have been studying the physiological effects of gluten for several years. While it may not show up as a digestive problem, people have found problems such asheadaches, allergies, and thyroid problems lessened or vanished when they went gluten-free.
One thing is starting to become clear; whether people have Celiac Disease or not, many people are finding some definitive health benefits from switching to a gluten-free diet.
Is Gluten-Free Right for Me?
One of the biggest reasons that many health professionals are leaning towards reducing or eliminating gluten from a diet is because of the way gluten reacts in most of our bodies. The way gluten stimulates the immune system to cause gut inflammation is a big reason why many people have what’s called a “leaky gut”. When a person has a leaky gut, it means that the food that goes through the digestive tract can get loose into the blood stream before it’s properly digested. When this happens, the immune system can cause inflammation throughout the blood stream, and the body creating symptoms like fatigue, allergies, and headaches.
Additionally, the grains aspect that’s gluten is attached to is often loaded with anti-nutrients. Anti-nutrients are substances in certain plants that serve as a defense against animal predators. They have complicated names like phytic acid, lectins, and saponins, but that’s not what’s important. What’s important is that these proteins are designed to make us feel badly so that we avoid eating them in the future.
Whether you have Celiac disease, digestive issues, other secondary conditions, or you’re just a health nut who’s looking to try a new approach, there are lots of upsides to making the switch, with the only t rue downside being a mild inconvenience.
Allow me to preface the next statement; I am neither 100% gluten free nor grain free, but I do pay close attention to how much of it I eat on a weekly basis. For better or worse, my body is not overly sensitive to the effects of an occasional piece of bread or bowl of pasta.
Why do I do it? A few reasons:
A. I feel better with less grains. Though I generally feel pretty well most of the time, you begin to notice the little things like more refreshed sleep or higher mid-day energy levels. Once you get a taste of that, you don’t like to let it go.
B. I treat gluten with the same watchful eye that I treat sugar and trans-fat. Even though you may not feel the difference, we know that our bodies are generally better off without them.
My recommendations? Give gluten-free a try for 2-3 weeks. You may be surprised with how you feel as you go along the process. Here are some tips and resources:
1. Cook at home as much as possible. It’s way easier to control what’s going into you when you make it yourself. Pick one day each week, determine what you want to eat for the week, and shop for those ingredients.
2. Just because something is “Gluten-Free” does NOT mean it’s healthy for you. If you want a sweet treat that’s gluten-free, have at it, just remember that it’s not a free pass to gorging on cookies for the simple reason that they use a different kind of flour.
3. Check out this Bestselling book by Diane Sanfilippo. It is loaded with recipes and easy to understand instructions for living Grain-free.
4. Cravings will come, so be prepared. Listen to what your body is craving. If you have a hankering for something salty like potato chips, then find some nuts instead. If you have a desire to eat a candy bar, find a fresh juice or a whole piece of fruit.