Is Gluten-Free Right for You?

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by Donna Mazzitelli
Going gluten-free is becoming more and more popular, but should everyone consider a gluten-free way of life? What do we need to know to decide? Besides the benefits, are there also disadvantages to a gluten-free diet? What will eating gluten-free require? Many of us are asking these questions as we strive to create healthier lifestyles.

What is gluten and where is it found?

According to the Gluten-Free Goddess (www.glutenfreegoddess.blogspot.com), “gluten is the elastic protein in the grains: wheat, rye, barley, durum, einkorn, graham, semolina, bulgur wheat, spelt, farro, kamut, and triticale. Commercial oats also contain gluten due to cross contamination in processing.” Gluten provides the elasticity and structure to baked goods.

Hidden gluten can be found in an overwhelming number of prepared foods, condiments and desserts. In addition to food, gluten can be found in such non-food items as medicines, lipstick, spices, skin and body care products, and even the glue on stamps and envelopes. It’s important to read labels carefully. You can also call the manufacturer directly when you’re unsure.

What are the symptoms of gluten intolerance?

Many people are sensitive to gluten but don’t have the autoimmune response as do people who have celiac disease. (For more information on celiac disease, visit the Celiac Disease Foundation: www.celiac.org.) Symptoms of gluten intolerance often include bloating, gas and abdominal discomfort after eating. Others report brain fog, extreme fatigue and unexplained weight gain, as well as headaches and tingling of their extremities. Individuals with an identified wheat allergy can experience a skin disorder that causes an itchy, bumpy rash. It’s difficult to test for gluten intolerance since there are no markers in the bloodstream like there are for celiac.

What are the pros and cons and possible benefits?

Here are some points to consider:

  1. Although gluten may cause physical issues, gluten-free products are not necessarily healthier. For instance, gluten-free foods are usually made with starches derived from corn, potato, rice and tapioca. These dried starches raise blood sugar even higher than wheat does. Some of the packaged gluten-free products may also be made with genetically modified (GMO) ingredients.

  2. Although it’s getting easier to find gluten-free choices in grocery stores and restaurants, following a gluten-free diet requires thoughtful preparation and forethought at home and when eating out.

  3. Variety is one of the principle ways we ensure we’re consuming all the nutrients we need. Restrictive dietary practices such as going gluten-free can lead people to narrow their consumption to a relatively small range of food sources.

  4. It remains unclear whether gluten-free diets are beneficial for anyone who doesn’t have a condition requiring a gluten-free approach, such as celiac disease. More is being reported about anti-inflammatory effects, but research is not conclusive. Some people report feeling better when they consume a gluten-free diet, but is that because they’ve eliminated gluten or is it the result of eating more fruits, vegetables and lean proteins? It may be that by making better food choices, our bodies respond and feel better.

Is eliminating gluten right for me?

The primary question to ask is, “How do I feel after eating gluten or wheat products?” Since humans don’t necessarily fully digest wheat, the undigested portions begin to ferment, causing gas and bloating. Wheat is also considered by many to be a pro-inflammatory agent which when converted to sugar can cause a rise in the body’s insulin levels and a burst of inflammation at the cellular level.

If you believe being on a gluten-free diet is right for you, the best way to decide is to eliminate gluten for a while and then reintroduce it slowly as you monitor your symptoms. This process may help you determine whether gluten is the cause of symptoms you’ve been experiencing.

If you choose to eliminate gluten, the best way to replace it is to choose gluten-free whole foods, such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, meat and fish. Produce and proteins won’t necessarily cost you more than usual but gluten-free prepared foods tend to be more expensive than their gluten-containing counterparts. Not only are the natural foods better choices nutritionally, but they may be less expensive than the packaged food alternatives.

Donna Mazzitelli was a contributing author to Speaking Your Truth, Vols. I & II. She founded Bellisima Living, a place to find your voice and connect to a more beautiful life and world. As “The Wordsmith,” she helps others bring their writing to life. Learn more at www.writingwithdonna.com and www.bellisimaliving.com.