The gluten craze that has swept our supermarkets, bakeries, and conversations, is surprisingly popular in spite of gluten’s mystification. Comedian and late-night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel puts it best in this funny video, in which he asks pedestrians who claim to have adopted a gluten-free diet what gluten actually is. While some can speak to its health benefits, none really know it is…. Let’s backtrack a bit to better understand what gluten is, and why we think we feel better without it.
The gluten trend was sparked by those suffering from celiac disease or a gluten-intolerance. Simply put, gluten is a mixture of two proteins present in wheat, barley and rye, that are responsible for the elastic texture of dough. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder in which the body reacts to gluten as if it were a poison. Symptoms can include bloating, gas, and fatigue or weakness, to name but a few. Though only around .75% of Americans actually have the illness, many self-diagnose, and often misdiagnose. One can be properly diagnosed through a series of blood tests, followed by a biopsy of the small bowel to see if the lining is damaged.
Although gluten is technically a protein, it generally goes hand in hand with carbs, so people tend to perceive the gluten-free diet as a low-carb diet. This assumption is a misconception as gluten can be found in unassuming places like salad dressings, vitamins, and even lip balms, according to Time Magazine. Moreover, cutting out the whole grains associated with gluten isn’t necessarily healthy. While many are attracted to the weight loss benefits associated with cutting out carbs, those carbs are often replaced by highly processed gluten-free foods, which are no better for you.
Michael Pollan has called the gluten-free hype a “social contagion.” While some people truly do need to cut the protein out of their diet, others are simply experimenting with what is perceived as a new means of dieting and improving health. No harm done either way, but it’s always useful to know the facts.
As if gluten isn’t tough enough for us to wrap our minds around, recent studies claim that the large population of people who aren’t sensitive to celiac but claim that cutting out gluten from their diets indeed makes them feel better, may be sensitive to a carbohydrate called fructan. This carb is a member of a group of carbs, referred to by the acronym FODMAPs (fermentable oligo-di-monosaccharides and polyols), that gastroenterologists claim are irritating the guts of many. FODMAPs are another story entirely for another post – though you can read an overview about them in this recent NPR article.
While it’s important to be in touch with our sensitivity to food, it’s dangerous to misdiagnose ourselves and make assumptions about what we ingest, as we may be missing out on important vitamins and nutrients. When in doubt – consult a nutritionist, dietician, or doctor – after all, holistic eating requires being holistically informed. Enjoy your carbs, or lack thereof!