Back in the day, when going grocery shopping, I remember the biggest decision in purchasing a product was choosing between brands. Get the popular brand or the generic one that tastes just as good for less? That was when times were easier.
But lately, I’ve become overwhelmed with countless labels such as low-fat, no-fat, sugar-free, low sodium, no sodium, all natural and now, gluten-free.
Logically, I assumed gluten-free meant that the product was healthy so I didn’t shy away from packages containing that popularly coined term. But who am I kidding? I should have done my research. Despite the amount of products that are gluten-free or offer a gluten-free alternative on shelves, many people don’t know much about it or make assumptions, like I did.
A survey by the certification organization NSF International found that while 90 percent of Americans have heard of gluten, 54 percent are unable to correctly define it. And yet, another study reported that one in three adults have decided to decrease their intake or completely avoid gluten.
Gluten is a protein found in many grains, including wheat, rye and barley. Also, it’s found in most breads, cereals, pastas, and in many processed foods. People who should focus on gluten-free products fall under these two categories: People who have celiac disease and people with gluten intolerance or sensitivity.
Those suffering from celiac disease develop an immune reaction to gluten that damages the intestine; therefore, people with the disease can’t eat the protein. Only one percent of the United States population has celiac disease. As for those individuals with gluten sensitivity, they experience headaches, bloating, fatigue, or diarrhea after eating foods containing gluten.
Registered dietitian Sarah Formoza said that there’s no need for everyone to avoid the protein, despite what they may have heard about it. “People think it’s like another diet, like a low-carb or South Beach,” Formoza told The Oswegonian. “Overall there’s no reason to go on a gluten-free diet unless you need to medically avoid the grains. Otherwise you want to make sure you’re getting your whole grains, and a lot of time that’s from wheat and oats.”
Often times, people use a gluten-free diet as a way to lose weight. Whole grains contain gluten and are a good source of fiber, vitamins and minerals. “Gluten-free products are often made with refined grains, and are low in nutrients,” said Katherine Tallmadge to LiveScience, dietitian and the author of Diet Simple. “If you embrace such a diet, you’ll end up eating a lot of foods that are stripped of nutrients. Studies also show gluten-free diets can be deficient in fiber, iron, folate, niacin, thiamine, calcium, vitamin B12, phosphorus and zinc.”
Furthermore, Tallmadge said that people who go gluten-free might feel better because they end up cutting out desserts and junk foods to avoid the protein, thus losing weight. So really, their success has more to do with removing such things from their diet, not because they’re gluten-free. In fact, not only does a gluten-free diet not equate to losing weight, but it can also lead to weight gain.
According to experts, replacing foods in your diet that have gluten with gluten-free options can make you more likely to consume higher amounts of sugars and fats, which can inadvertently cause an increase in your weight.
So while it may sound like the right way to go, the gluten-free route that is, do your research first. Know that if you don’t have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, you could be setting yourself for a bigger waistline, bigger levels of discomfort due to the missing vitamins and fiber needed from a gluten-rich diet, and, worst of all, a bigger grocery bill. I mean, have you seen the prices for gluten-free food?