Nowadays, I encounter more and more people with dietary restrictions. Some for personal preference. Others due to intolerances of various degrees. More than ever before, grocery store items are being branded as gluten free, dairy free, non GMO, etc. I’m loving all the options out there! So many of these options were once unavailable. Even if you’re not avoiding any particular ingredient, it’s nice to see more transparency when choosing grocery items. In particular, I’m noticing the gluten free market is growing fast. A quick trip to the grocery store shows us there’s been an explosion in the demand for gluten free products. There are a ton of options available. These include flours, cereals, pastas, sauces and more.
What’s the deal with gluten?
First of all, let’s define exactly what is gluten. According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, gluten is a generic term given to the proteins found in wheat, rye and barley. (https://celiac.org/) This ingredient helps food maintain its shape and gives dough its elasticity. Think about stretching pizza dough. It may be a little tougher to do so with gluten free varieties. Common foods that often contain gluten are breads, pizza, baked goods, pasta, and even soups and sauces.
So now we have a very basic understanding on what gluten is. So the real question. Why are so many people avoiding it? Is it bad for you?
Is gluten unhealthy?
Gluten is not necessarily unhealthy. I will say it again. Gluten is not NECESSARILY unhealthy. That is for the average person. In fact, when avoiding particular ingredients, it often gets replaced with another. Sometimes the replacement is far worse. Many gluten free packaged products found at the grocery store contain added sugars and empty calories. This forms bad habits and actually harms our diet. The best practice is to consume as much fresh produce as possible. Then, not only are you avoiding gluten, but you’re consuming more ‘good for you’ foods. Trying to maintain a healthy diet? Shop around the edges of your local grocery store. This is where the fresh and natural ingredients are found. Avoid the aisles and packaged products as much as possible. Make meals from scratch using ingredients, rather than cans and boxed items. This guarantees that you’ll know exactly what’s on your plate.
Getting back to the question of, is gluten unhealthy? While it is not unhealthy for everyone, it is extremely unsafe for some people. The severity ranges from an intolerance or sensitivity, to the most severe disorder, celiac disease.
What is Celiac Disease?
Celiac disease is a serious autoimmune disorder. It effects approximately 1 in 100 people worldwide. (https://celiac.org/) That is 1% of the population! This estimate means that a large portion of the world produce an abnormal response when their bodies break down gluten. People with celiac disease can face serious damage to their small intestine if continuing to consume these proteins. Eventually, the damage may result in insufficient absorption of nutrients from food. This can be very serious, even life threatening! So if you do suspect a gluten intolerance, whether it be mild, moderate, or severe, do not ignore your body. Some symptoms include abdominal pain and bloating, chronic diarrhea or constipation, unexplained weight loss or gain, joint pain, and many others.
So now what?
If you determine that you do have an intolerance of some degree, just avoid wheat, rye and barley, and all is well, right? Wrong. Gluten is also found in foods where you would least suspect. Some examples include salad dressings, seasonings, and condiments. Bottom line, always make sure to read labels and ingredients carefully! I know this may sound daunting, but there’s good news. As I mentioned earlier, there are a ton of substitutes available at the grocery store. Or make your own! Truly, nothing beats homemade!
Here are just a few easy substitutions for you:
- Wheat pasta can be replaced with chickpea or lentil pasta. Or even spiralized veggies can satisfy like pasta. For example: zucchini or sweet potato noodles.
- Wheat pizza dough can be subbed with Polenta Pizza dough. Highly recommended!
- Try this Enchilada Casserole dish with quinoa or rice, instead of barley.
- Swap the wheat flour in your favourite baking recipe for brown rice flour.
- Steel cut oats are another great substitute. Go for these Sweet Potato & Banana Cookies. YUM! ***Just make sure to look for the gluten free label when purchasing oats. Even though oats are naturally gluten free, they are often produced in facilities that also make wheat products and cross contamination is a possibility.***
Avoiding gluten is not on its own an indication of a healthy lifestyle. Rachel Begun, M.S., R.D.N. tells us “It is a myth that eating gluten-free is healthier. Those with celiac disease and gluten sensitivity have to eat gluten-free for their safety, but, despite what you may have read or heard, gluten-free foods aren’t more nutritious or better for weight loss than their gluten-containing counterparts.” (https://rachelbegun.com/)
Want to live a healthy lifestyle? There’s no surprises here on how to accomplish that. Just eat a balanced diet, exercise and of course, don’t forget to listen to your body.
***This article is in no way meant to replace medical advice. Please speak to your doctor if you suspect an intolerance of any kind in yourself or loved ones.***