Adopting a gluten-free diet has been increasingly on the rise over the last several years, but is it the right diet choice for you? How do you go about starting or incorporating gluten-free options into your daily routine? In fact, what is gluten to begin with? Let’s discuss these questions and more.
But first, the basics.
What is gluten? According to the Celiac Disease Foundation (CDF), “gluten is a general name for the proteins found in wheat, rye, barley, and triticale.” The CDF goes on to provide examples of the types of food that include gluten some of which are bread, baked goods, pasta, cereals, beer and more. Wheat is the biggest gluten culprit of them all, which also happens to be the main staple in Western diets. Eliminating wheat products and providing alternatives in pre-packaged foods has become an integral part of the food industry and its manufacturers, especially over the last five years.
But why gluten-free?
A 2015 Gallup poll suggested that one in five people try to incorporate gluten-free foods into their diet, while one in six eliminates gluten altogether. The gluten-free products market (globally) was valued at almost 15 billion dollars in 2016 and is expected to continue to grow at a rate of nearly 10% between 2017 and 2025 as reported in a Grand View Research market report.
There are two main reasons people opt to incorporate gluten free products into their diet - either they want to adopt what they assume to be a healthier lifestyle choice, or they have been diagnosed with a gluten intolerance.
Eliminating gluten is likely a necessity if you have been diagnosed with Celiac Disease, as defined by the Mayo Clinic as “an immune reaction to eating gluten,” or have been diagnosed with sensitivity to wheat. Celiac Disease is an autoimmune disorder that recognizes gluten as a foreign invader and thus your body responds to the invader causing varying responses including abdominal pain, difficulty breathing, anaphylaxis, or an itchy rash to name a few. These gluten intolerances are actually extremely rare, affecting less than 1% of the population. If you’re curious about potential food sensitivities (including to wheat and gluten), there are several products in the market today that allow for home testing; the EverlyWell Health Home Kit is one such product. Keep in mind that if you don’t have a medical reason to eliminate gluten from your diet then you should consult with a physician and dietitian before altering your diet to remove foods altogether, including whole grains.
So, why do people without a medical reason to ‘go gluten-free’ opt to follow this diet? Some appear to choose gluten-free diets for purposes of weight loss, but as of today, there isn’t enough research to confirm weight loss as a positive outcome of a gluten-free diet. Some research actually suggests that following a gluten-free diet may cause you to gain weight, specifically because of the elimination of all (or most) whole grains. Grains can positively impact your cholesterol and help to lower your risk for heart disease. That doesn’t mean eating select gluten-free foods will cause you to gain weight; it just means you have to choose high-quality gluten-free foods, in proportion, and incorporate them into a well-balanced wholesome diet made up mostly of fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, fish, and lean meats (all of which are naturally gluten-free).
Luckily the ability to ‘go gluten-free’ exists today with relative ease thanks to the billion-dollar industry of gluten-free foods.
Finding gluten-free foods.
The FDA has regulated gluten-free product labels since August 2014 to ensure they are truthful and consistent. According to the FDA, “The rule specifies, among other criteria, that any foods that carry the label “gluten-free,” “no gluten,” “free of gluten,” or “without gluten” must contain less than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten. This level is the lowest that can be reliably detected in foods using scientifically validated analytical methods.” Therefore consumers can rely on the credibility of labels to choose their foods and follow either the medically necessary or self-chosen gluten-free diet.
7 Steps to Going Gluten-Free
If you have chosen to eliminate gluten from your diet, you’ll want to follow these easy steps to get started.
1. Evaluate all the food in your pantry, cupboards, and refrigerator.
If you haven’t been much of a label reader before, you will become one now! While this process sounds tedious, it will actually serve as a great learning tool to kick-start your new lifestyle. Carefully review the ingredients on each food label. Now, as mentioned before, most gluten-free foods are marketed as such and are easy to identify thanks to the FDA label regulations. However, some foods have always been or are naturally gluten-free, but may not be labeled as such; you’ll learn these over time and with practice, it will become second nature to know what is and is not gluten-free.
2. Aim to create a well-balanced wholesome diet.
You will want to balance your diet with a mix of fruits, vegetables, legumes, beans, fish, and lean meats. If you have a solid base to your diet, you can then enhance it with options that may include (gluten-free) pastas, (gluten-free) baked goods, and more.
3. Understanding grains.
You don’t need to eliminate grains from your diet completely, but you do need to know which grains are gluten-free. The top three to avoid are wheat, rye, and barley. The Celiac Disease Foundation provides a terrific list of grains to avoid and ones that are gluten-free safe. Check it out here. Amazon even has a terrific search for “gluten-free grains” to make shopping easy!
4. Hidden gluten.
Finding hidden gluten in foods really ties into label reading and understanding ingredients as we mentioned in #1, but because it can be tricky, it’s important enough to list it separately. You will need to educate yourself on the code words used to mask gluten in food. Check out this list provided by The Alternative Daily for hidden gluten code words.
5. Discover packaged gluten-free foods.
Again, thanks to the FDA approved labels, and the multi-billion dollar gluten-free product industry, it is increasingly easier to find gluten-free foods. Most large retailers even separate gluten-free foods into one section to make it easier for shoppers.
6. Gluten-free at restaurants is possible; challenging, but possible.
First and foremost, be your own advocate. Ask questions of your server. Have the server ask the chef. Or avoid complicated orders or meal choices and stick to a simple, clean, wholesome plan – fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, fish, and lean meats. Anyone can benefit from simplifying their order when eating out.
7. Plan ahead.
Learn to cook. Learn to love to cook. Like any diet or new lifestyle choice, planning ahead will solve most, if not all, of your challenges. Meal prep will save you from eating out at the last minute. Doing your research and planning out a weekly menu will help you at the store. Planning ahead will also help with tame any anxiety of not being prepared or having to wing it.
Going gluten-free can be easy thanks to the growing assortment of gluten-free products available at your everyday grocery store. From cereals, breads, baked goods to snack bars, like (all varieties of) Truth Bars, flavor is never sacrificed.