In our second nutrition related blogpost, we’re changing things up by stepping away from the basics of nutrition and talking about a hot topic instead: going gluten-free.
As a disclaimer before we begin, I have to acknowledge that we are not talking about going gluten-free with Celiac’s disease. We are concerned with going gluten-free when someone doesn’t have Celiac’s.
Now if you’ve known me for a while or have been following my blog, you might know that I was gluten-free for about two years. Why? During high school, I experienced a plethora of gastrointestinal (GI) and skin issues, and read a lot about how gluten, a protein found in wheat, can cause inflammatory responses that trigger GI and skin issues. At the same time, I began to eliminate processed junk foods in my diet, replacing them with whole fruits, vegetables, and nuts/legumes. I continued by eliminating dairy from my diet, which I had known (for a while) to be triggering a lot of discomfort as well.
All of these changes significantly changed my outlook on food while partially lessening my discomfort. I took several blood tests to see if I had Celiac’s, but all tests came back negative. Despite these results, I continued to eat gluten-free because I couldn’t pinpoint what was causing the remaining discomfort. A few months into my first semester of college, thanks to the insufficient amount of food at the dining hall, I began to test my tolerance of gluten-containing products again -- I discovered that my GI issues didn’t get worse. I gradually incorporated gluten-containing products back into my diet, like bread, eating them much more regularly. Looking back now, I realize that a lot of my health issues were attributed to dairy and stress; cutting out dairy and eating more whole foods when I cut junk foods and gluten out, were responsible for my improved health; whenever I’m under a lot of stress (which was the majority of high school), I experience awful stomachaches and breakouts. I’ve learned to manage the remaining discomfort through experimentation, learning which foods and in what amounts don’t work well with me.
So why do I share my story? Well, I have personal experience, which lends a little bit more credibility to what I’ll be sharing in this blogpost. I’ve experienced both sides –eating a gluten-containing diet and a gluten-free diet – and can offer what I like to think a moderate view in a debate that is often seen as very black and white. So let’s cut to the chase: is a gluten-free diet inherently healthier?
The short answer: no. Saying that a gluten-free diet is inherently healthier is the same as saying that a vegetarian/vegan diet is inherently healthier. As there are plenty of vegetarian/vegan junk foods out there, there are plenty of gluten-free junk foods too. You can still be a vegetarian/vegan by eating only vegetarian/vegan junk foods, but will you be able to have the benefits (improved heart health, longer life spans) that people tout about vegetarianism/veganism? Probably not, and the same applies to gluten-free diets.
Taking out the gluten-containing foods and replacing them directly with gluten-free foods, many of which contain refined grains and gums, can actually be unhealthier. In the 1900’s, a law was passed in the U.S., mandating that all wheat products must be fortified with vitamins and minerals (riboflavin, niacin, etc.). Nearly all of the gluten-containing products on grocery store shelves are fortified, but gluten-free products do not have the same requirement for fortification, and are more often nutrient empty. Of course, there are other ways to obtain these vitamins/minerals, but there is value in having fortified gluten-containing products. Gluten-free products also tend to be higher in calories and gums (which are added to mimic the textural effects of gluten but are known to cause negative bodily reactions too). (Disclaimer: We don’t need to preoccupy ourselves with calories 24/7, but it is important to be aware of calories.)
Would you like the long answer? Well, the long answer is that a gluten-free diet has the potential to be healthier, but is not inherently healthier.
What’s the difference? When someone cuts gluten out of their diet, they open themselves up to possibilities: assuming that they ate mostly junk/refined foods before, they can either continue their unhealthy eating habits and simply replace the gluten-containing products with substitutes, or, they can broaden their horizons and start incorporating more whole grains and foods into their diets, eating the gluten-free substitutes in moderation.
I would say that those who choose the latter option experience a lifestyle change that is triggered by the decision to go gluten-free, but the health benefits are not directly linked to being gluten-free. Rather, they are linked to an overall healthier, more wholesome diet.
There are plenty of naturally gluten-free foods out there, and my personal experience of eliminating gluten significantly opened my diet up to healthier varieties, like quinoa, wild rice, oatmeal. I started baking with almond flour, which has more nutritional value than white flour. I began to eat more vegetables and fruits, and experimented with chia seeds, hummus, zucchini noodles. These are just a handful of examples, but I think you get the point :).
Now I have to acknowledge potential criticism I might receive on this hotly debated topic: to begin, there are people who say that gluten is inflammatory for most people, and causes more GI stress than we realize. (1, 2, 3) To this, I respond by saying, with a tentative yes, that there is a rise of gluten-intolerance because of increased social awareness of gluten’s varying negative effects on health. At the same time, however, in addition to the healthier lifestyles that are triggered by going gluten-free, there’s not enough evidence that gluten is the sole cause of the plethora of health issues many blame it for (1, 2, 3).
Another point that I think is important to bring up is flexibility. I think that by going back to omnivorism and to eating gluten, I’ve finally begun to truly understand what it really means to apply the overstated ideas of balance and moderation into my diet. Not all places in the world are as catering to special diets, and though we are seeing more flexibility and variety from restaurants and manufacturers (which I think is great, especially for those who have Celiac’s!), it can actually be very inconvenient and more expensive to seek out gluten-free places. Yes, you can make substitutions and work around menus, but as someone who was pescetarian (predominantly vegetarian), dairy & gluten-free for 2+ years, it all gets exhausting. Explaining to other people why a diet is so rigid is awfully tiring too, and nothing’s worse than having others look at you and demand explanations for your rigidity, no matter how good and genuine your intentions are. More importantly, gluten is widely prevalent in cultural foods, and as someone who treasures experiences and good food, I find it very unfortunate when someone cannot enjoy the opportunity to experience a culture through food due to a dietary restriction. I think it’s also difficult to be cultural respectful with excessive dietary restrictions that are not caused by allergies/intolerances.
But to close, let’s return to our original question: is going gluten-free inherently healthier? No, it is not inherently healthier, but it can potentially lead someone to eating a more wholesome diet, which is healthier :). Do you have to eliminate gluten in order to be healthier? Nope. Some people will find that eliminating gluten is better for them, and some people, like me, will find that eliminating gluten becomes too inconvenient and unnecessary. Apply the rule of moderation here as well; there's plenty of room to eat a wholesome diet full of whole, fiber rich grains while enjoying gluten-containing foods in moderation. You can also consume more favorable gluten-containing products, such as Ezekiel or rye bread or 100% whole wheat goods (homemade is even better!).
At the end of the day, if you do not have serious health issues in response to gluten consumption, then it is not necessary to cut out gluten from your diet; similarly, if you are looking to become healthier, you do not have to cut gluten out of your diet.