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July 26, 2013

The Gluten-Free Lifestyle. ~ Erin Walton

Going gluten-free is trendy and hip.

Initially made popular by slim celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow, the gluten-free trend is now sweeping the nation. Despite its alluring qualities, many individuals assume that going gluten-free is synonymous with healthy. While this is true for some individuals, for most others, the restrictive nature of a gluten-free diet is detrimental.

Part of the confusion surrounding a gluten-free lifestyle stems from the misconception of what qualifies a gluten intolerance.

Gluten is a small protein used as a binding agent in wheat, barley, rye and spelt. In bread products, gluten creates the gooey consistency we often associate with warm bagels, fresh breads and bakery muffins. In addition to being found in common bread products, gluten is often found in nearly every processed food; from cereals to granola bars.

Because most individuals consume too many processed foods in general, many people deem gluten the culprit. Consequentially, individuals blame the physical symptoms of headaches, anxiety and fatigue on gluten and fail to see that most processed foods also contain high qualities of white flour, sugar and artificial ingredients. While many individuals may be sensitive to gluten and benefit from a gluten-free lifestyle, eliminating gluten is not a prerequisite for optimal health.

According to a recent study, only one percent of the population has a true gluten allergy. For individuals with a true allergy, consumption of any gluten will prompt a plethora of symptoms; from digestive distress to drastic weight loss and mineral deficiencies. The medical term for an individual with a true gluten allergy is celiac disease—an autoimmune disorder. Celiac disease is inherited and can be best diagnosed through a blood test. For individuals with celiac, a gluten-free diet is an absolute necessity. For most other individuals, going gluten-free is a choice.

Why go gluten-free?

Individuals with celiac or sensitive digestive systems may reap a myriad of benefits from the gluten-free lifestyle. By omitting gluten from the diet, individuals naturally decrease the amount of starches, processed foods and sugars in their diet. More specifically, individuals who substitute gluten products with natural and wholesome foods will reap the benefits. The most common and compelling benefits of the gluten-free lifestyle include:

  • Increased levels of energy
  • Weight loss
  • Better concentration
  • Fewer digestive issues – including bloating, gas, constipation and/or diarrhea.

 What are the pitfalls?

When the gluten-free lifestyle is embraced for honest and thoughtful reasons, it offers tremendous benefits. However, many individuals omit all gluten foods and naively replace them with a plethora of processed gluten-free products; many of which contain more calories than the gluten-containing originals.

A recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine found a positive correlation between weight gain and diets high in the non-gluten foods of meat, sugar, fats and potatoes. Contrary to popular belief, gluten was not the culprit. Instead, unhealthy food choices and lack of awareness were to blame.

A similar area of concern when exploring the gluten-free lifestyle is the restrictive nature of the diet. By eliminating the healthy whole grains of wheat, barley and rye, an individual may miss out on vital nutrients—specifically folic acid, iron and magnesium. Similar to the any diet that eliminates whole food groups, the gluten-free diet might entice men and women struggling with eating disorders.

Although the gluten-free lifestyle will not cause an eating disorder, the correlation is concerning. If you suspect that someone you love maybe suffering from an eating disorder, please call to get help.

 What are some healthy ways to go gluten-free?

Regardless of your reasons for adopting the gluten-free lifestyle, honest awareness and accurate nutritional information are necessary for maintaining optimal health. The gluten-free diet can be healthy, if approached correctly. The following are some healthy gluten-free substitutions to try:

  • Choose gluten-free whole grains – quinoa, amaranth, rice
  • Eat more fruits and vegetables
  • Limit gluten-free processed foods – including cookies, crackers, bagels
  • Maximize on healthy non-gluten foods – dairy and meat
  • Substitute gluten breads with brown rice bread

While trendy, going gluten-free is a lifestyle choice that is not for everyone. The decision must be approached with knowledge, care and honesty. Food is simply one way to nourish our bodies; gluten-free or not.

 

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Assistant Ed: Dana Gornall/Ed: Bryonie Wise

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Erin Walton