To say America likes to be trendy (not just in terms of fashion) is an understatement. In the world of food and nutrition, trends are huge, and although at times they get people trying new things, these trends can also be harmful to peoples overall long term health.
One of the most common questions I get asked is… “Should I go gluten free?”. For me, this is a tricky topic and I have a hunch I am not the only person in the health and nutrition field who thinks so. To really discuss this question, I think it’s best to do a little science, so here we go.
Gluten is a protein that is used as a binding agent in many foods. Gluten can both be found naturally occurring in some foods, such as wheat and barley, and can also be added to foods. Take for instance pizza dough… most people like their pizza dough chewy. Much of this chewy texture that is desired by consumers is achieved by the addition of gluten into wheat flour being used to make the dough. This means that not only is there gluten naturally occurring in the wheat flour, gluten is then often added to the dough.
So what exactly is the big deal about gluten? Well, just with any chemical or food substance, some people are actually allergic to gluten. This allergy can range from indigestion and irregular bowl movements, and can become as severe as skin rashes, the swelling of the throat and any other symptoms that are known to occur during food allergy reactions.
If someone believes that they have an allergy to gluten (also known as Celiac Disease), they can be tested by their doctor. Testing can be done either with a blood test, or a biopsy of the small intestine. I personally have had both done and although my blood test came back as positive for Celiac Disease, my biopsy came back negative.
Whether you have celiac disease or not, gluten and wheat can effected your digestive system in a negative way.
Last week, I received a text from a family member who asked me this… “I haven’t consumed wheat in a month and a half. Last night I had two pieces of toast and was up all night with diarrhea. Is this just a coincidence or do you think I have a gluten allergy?”
This question was followed up by a few questions on my part that included…
- Was the toast you ate last night whole wheat?
- Was is sprouted bread?
- Although you haven’t had any gluten in the last month and a half, have you had any barley, spelt, quinoa or rice?
- Did your diarrhea come on immediately?
- Was is combined with any other symptoms such as rashes near the elbows and knees, itchy skin or indigestion?
After a thorough conversation, it seemed to me and my family member that this wasn’t an allergy, but instead a circumstantial sensitivity. Come to find out, my family member had been consuming mainly fruits and vegetables for quite some time and her body wasn’t really used to having to digestion a more chemically complex food, the wheat toast.
This is where the topic of gluten free gets tricky! There are easily 1,000 books on the market who either teach people to self-diagnose with a gluten allergy or explain (sometimes falsely) in depth how gluten works against your body. This has resulted in our society becoming hyperactive about this topic in the last 5-10 years, and some are prematurely removing wheat and grains from their diet because of this information overload.
I am not someone who is suggesting that all grains are bad, or that we need to eat them everyday in all meals either. Instead, I think it is vital to understand that when we are eating grains, we need to look at their quality. This statement comes from many trips to the grocery store in which I pick up box after box of items labeled gluten free to read ingredients listed that are almost void of nutrients and not any easier on the average persons digestive system.
It is my opinion (from observation as well as personal experience) that people are cutting out gluten and wheat to then replace it with nutrient void foods that are just as difficult to digest, absorb and transport by the body. This then leads to doctors office visits that are completely avoidable.
So what does all of this mean? Well, first off let me say that I believe Celiac Disease and Gluten/Wheat sensitivities are real and unfortunate health issues. I want you to realize that just because you are having digestion issues, it isn’t necessary to cut out an entire food group. Whether wheat and grains, meat, beans or any other source of nutrients, quality matters.
Take for instance canned foods. Many are rich in sodium, too rich for out heart health and healthy weight loss or maintenance. To combat this, we can make sure to rinse well all canned foods to reduce our risk of over consumption of sodium. For all negatives, there is a positive. For all of the cons to nutrition and food, we can mindfully choose options that help make these cons a pro.
Carbohydrates are vital to our health and especially our brain…. but carbohydrate consumption isn’t solely dependent on grain consumption. Besides grains, other forms of carbohydrates include fruits, vegetables, dairy products, lentils, beans and legumes. These other forms of carbohydrates also often have other benefits such as more fiber and more vitamins.
In America, our carbohydrate consumption is often quantity and not quality. If this is done by consuming large amounts of bread (which is extremely common), it is VERY possible that your digestion system may be slowed down by the lack of fiber and surplus of gluten which could be causing problems.
I highly suggest, that if you are having these issues, consider restructuring your carbohydrate intake before cutting out gluten. This will not only help you tune into your body a bit more, but also give you better control of your health.
Gluten may be a serious issue for some, but for others, it may not be an issue at all. By realizing this, and adjusting our diet appropriately, we could be saving our digestive system and health much trouble.