A few short years ago, eating a gluten-free diet meant giving up pretty much everything that tasted good except for meat and dairy. Thanks in part to celebrities such as Gweyneth Paltrow, Scarlett Johansson and Elisabeth Hasselback, gluten-free foods have exploded onto main stream store shelves.
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, rye, hops and malt. People with celiac disease suffer inflammation of the small intestine if they eat foods containing gluten. Celiac disease affects about 1% of the population, so this small community does not explain the massive growth in gluten-free foods.
There are many people who believe that they are intolerant to wheat or gluten in general. They typically experience bloating, gas, diarrhea and nausea after eating gluten and feel better after avoiding gluten for a short time. The gluten protein is difficult to digest, so it is thought that the bacterial digestion process for gluten causes these gastrointestinal discomforts. There are a few small studies that have investigated the topic of gluten intolerance, but no definitive results have come out. Experientially though, people who do not have the pathology of celiac disease who feel better when avoiding gluten are better off sticking with a gluten-free diet.
This surge in awareness, helped by a since-disproven connection between wheat and autism, has driving sales of gluten-free products up by over 15% since 2010. In most cases, recipes calling for wheat flour substitute flours made from rice, corn or garbanzo beans. Typically, xanthum gum is added as a binding agent, since gluten is the glue that holds bread together. Today, nearly every category of food is available in a gluten-free alternative, from bread to beer. But is it a healthy alternative for people without celiac disease or gluten intolerance?
Some people have chosen to follow a gluten-free diet believing that it is a healthier alternative to eating wheat. Associating gluten with carbohydrates, people sometimes think that they are cutting back on carbs and should lose weight by eating gluten-free. It turns out that nothing could be further from the truth. In order to create good-tasting gluten-free foods, producers add quite a bit of sugar and corn syrup to mask the grainy texture of the rice (or whatever) flour. That means that the gluten-free alternative may actually have more carbs than its wheat-loving twin.
Eating gluten-free also means that some nutrients must be sourced elsewhere. Supplements for fiber, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, calcium and iron should be obtained. These nutrients can usually be obtained by eating a good balance for fruits and vegetables (also typically gluten-free).
Is a gluten-free diet right for you? If you are looking for a trendy diet to lose some weight, move along, there's nothing here for you. If you suffer from wheat intolerance or celiac disease, congratulations! The market has rewarded you with shelves of delicious alternatives to gluten to brighten your every meal.