What once seemed like a fad diet: trendy, exclusively reserved for the likes of athletes, food bloggers and celebrities has steadily gained more recognition. This is due largely to those with Celiac disease and other autoimmune conditions by which avoiding Gluten-Free becomes a necessity.
It is extremely unlikely many adults are not at least marginally aware of what gluten ‘is’ and how it can cause stomach distress and exacerbate sensitivities. Food allergies are now recognized on a much wider scale. Publicity from talk shows, to magazines, to blogs, to cookbooks, to advocates, to celebrities has propelled ‘gluten’ into the spotlight and made it an unavoidable topic.
We know various autoimmune conditions are dramatically helped by eliminating gluten-containing grains from the diet. And many have come forward about their health improvements once cut gluten from their diet completely.
However, for those without Celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, is avoiding gluten worthwhile? Are there any health benefits for everyone that makes trying a gluten-free diet a worthy endeavor?
What Exactly ‘is’ Gluten?
Most simplistically, gluten is a protein found in wheat and some wheat-related grains. It can be extracted and added to other foods and is often used to retain shape and texture. This is why gluten is prized as an ingredient in things such as pasta. Gluten is a general name for the varieties of proteins found in these wheat grains – these are also known as gliadin and glutenin.
Gluten Containing Grains and Products
It is most commonly associated with wheat products – bread, pastries, baked goods, cakes, etc. Oftentimes, this is why you see substitutes for “gluten-free” cakes and other treats. However, other grains contain gluten and gluten-associated proteins, which may be problematic for many. Barley, rye, and spelled all contain gluten proteins.
Other grains, like oats (especially oats), maybe cross-contaminated with wheat due to harvesting, processing facilities, or crop location. It is important to look for brands, such as Bob’s Red Mill, that offer specific gluten-free certified oats which are handled in separate facilities and tested.
Different types of wheat, of course, need to be avoided as well. These include:
Spelt, Durum, Kamut, Semolina (couscous), Einkorn …
Many pre-packaged foods or prepared foods can also have wheat or wheat-based ingredients in them. Especially pastries and baked goods. These include:
Bread, pasta, cereals and granolas, cakes, muffins, cookies, pastries, bagels, croissants, tarts, pretzels, sauces (soy sauces, dressings, marinades), drinks (alcoholic – beers, stouts, ales, and non-alcoholic) …
What Should I Be Eating? What Should I Avoid?
Otherwise, no other particular foods need to be avoided or emphasized once you cut out all the aforementioned types of products and gluten-containing grains. Generally, as long as you check ingredients and avoid pre-made or pre-packaged food (a good idea in general!), a gluten-free diet is easy to maintain or substitute for.
Wheat flour can easily be substituted with things like cassava flour or rice flour. While durum pasta (traditional pasta) can easily be switched to lentil pasta, corn pasta, or brown rice pasta.
These options also generally provide more nutrition in the form of naturally present iron, protein, zinc, and other minerals your body needs.
Most refined flour is nutritionally void, and only has b-vitamins and minerals added back in to the product after processing, and in forms that are not ideal for the body to utilize or absorb.
As with any healthful dietary choice, it is always important to optimize whole food as the primary source of calories and nutrition. And rather than look for less healthy substitutes to replace already unhealthy snacks like cookies or pastries.
This is perhaps why many people assume a gluten-free diet is more expensive. Gluten-free diets absolutely do not have to be expensive, and can easily be affordable.
Often, switching to a gluten-free diet can increase your intake of fiber, minerals, and other healthier whole grains (or legumes).
Benefits of a Gluten-Free Diet
Do the benefits of a gluten-free diet extend to everyone?
In general, even among those that did not explicitly have gluten sensitivity, intolerance, or Celiac disease. A gluten-free diet still reduced inflammation and antibody levels. And appeared to reduce bloating, and fatigue, and improve digestion in test subjects.
Research from a 2017 study indicated that gluten proteins can cause intestinal symptoms such as altered gut junction function, and IBS. This was in participants that were not sensitive, nor had Celiac.
Research also shows that, in comparison to a high-gluten diet, a low-gluten-containing diet improved the gut microbiome and leads to improvements in symptoms like bloating and digestive upset. Gluten peptides can escape from gastric digestion and impact intestinal permeability, among all individuals – some more predisposed than others.
For those that experience IBS or constant digestive malaise. Then going gluten-free is a wise choice and an easy option to rule out wheat as a potential trigger.