Live (Gluten) Free or Die?

Hi readers! I feel like my sophomore year is now in full swing, including getting back into my college eating pattern. And I’ve been finding, as I always do, that I eat less, and feel much better physically and emotionally when I eat mostly whole plant-based foods than when I eat highly processed foods and sweets…just something to think about ;).

This week I wanted to write about gluten. You know gluten- that thing everyone seems to have stopped eating but you don’t really know what it is?

It’s always been on my list of possible blog topics, but now it’s especially relevant to me, because my thirteen-year-old cousin, who for all intents and purposes I consider my younger brother, has just been diagnosed with celiac disease.

For those of you who don’t know, celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder which causes the immune system to attack the intestinal lining upon ingestion of gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, rye, and malt. Consuming anything containing or derived from wheat can cause a whole range of uncomfortable, painful, and yucky symptoms in celiac patients. Even worse, the damage to the intestine can drastically limit nutrient absorption.

Needless to say, this disease is no fun, and my cousin was very upset by this diagnosis, as was I. Imagine being told you can’t eat multiple things that were a regular part of your diet. You either have to find gluten-free substitutions or eliminate them altogether. The bright side is that if he steers clear of gluten, his intestinal lining should heal and he should have no further symptoms or complications.

Celiac disease is certainly a real thing. Celiac patients will certainly benefit from eliminating gluten. Beyond that, though, the benefits of removing gluten from one’s diet get a bit murkier.

“Gluten sensitivity” is now a term used widely to describe a non-celiac condition which causes some range of negative symptoms, usually gastrointestinal, upon consumption of gluten. According to my limited knowledge, it is true that even the healthiest people don’t fully digest gluten, so the probability of gluten’s causing digestive symptoms being a public health problem is quite logical. The weird thing is that gluten sensitivity is becoming more prevalent, even taking into account that diagnosis has become more accurate. As far as I know, no scientist can explain this trend, so I find myself a bit skeptical. Perhaps some people are incorrectly attributing their symptoms to gluten, because of the negative connotation gluten has recently acquired.

Whether or not gluten sensitivity is really becoming more widespread, it is definitely true that people have incorrectly raised a health halo above gluten-free food products. Gluten-free has become a fad diet not only to avoid negative gastrointestinal symptoms, but to achieve weight loss. Now, before the food industry hopped on the gluten-free trend, I would have said that a gluten free diet probably would help with weight loss, because it would have meant avoiding all foods containing refined flour (white bread, white pasta, white rice, cookies, cakes, crackers, pretzels, pizza, sugary cereals etc), which are very easy to overeat. But now that you can find gluten-free substitutions for all of those things, you are just as likely to overeat all of those things. I do not give credence to the theory that gluten inherently makes you gain weight or that it keeps you from losing weight. As a population we’ve been consuming gluten since way before we had an obesity problem. Most nutrition professionals I know would tell you the same thing: if you are not gluten sensitive and if you do not have celiac disease, there is no scientific foundation for the idea that there are health benefits from eliminating gluten from your diet. Better idea? Eat whole grains instead of refined grains.

That being said, if you are experience some elusive gastrointestinal symptoms, go ahead and try cutting out gluten for a few weeks and see if the symptoms go away. Then try eating some gluten, and if the symptoms come back, you may very well be gluten sensitive.

And even though the world seems to be rampant with gluten-free foods now, people like my cousin still don’t have it so easy. They have to make much more of an effort than the rest of us to find something they can eat in any situation, and especially in situations where the ingredients are unknown or unclear. I send my love and support to my cousin as he begins to navigate the food world anew.

As always, I appreciate your comments. Thanks for reading!

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