Over the past few years, the gluten free diet has gained popularity by way of a tiny “GF” label making its way onto grocery store shelves and restaurant menus. It seems more and more gluten free brands are surfacing while pre-existing brands tweak their recipes to appeal to the GF community as the demand for gluten free alternatives rises. As someone with a gluten allergy, I feel indifferent towards this demand, or rather, the motivation behind it.
Last year I was diagnosed with a severe allergy to a protein found in wheat, also known as gluten. Since then, I have had to adjust my eating habits completely and now approach eating out with caution. When I do eat out, I’m pleased when I see that gluten free items are available. However, I’m not so thrilled about why allergen disclaimers and warnings about cross-contamination are always in microscopic print at the bottom of the menu. It makes me feel as though these gluten free items are being catered to the wrong people. The ones without a sensitivity to it and that those of us with an allergy are ordering our food in the hopes that we don’t get sick after.
Once, while ordering a gluten free pizza with my mom (who also has a gluten allergy) we were asked if our gluten free request was for an allergy or preference. The word “preference” threw me off as I tried to understand why anyone would have a gluten free preference to begin with if they weren’t allergic to it. The word “preference” is the problem with the gluten free diet. It has turned a serious health risk into a trend, causing people to misunderstand what gluten is and why people are avoiding it.
So what is gluten and why does it need to be avoided by some? Before my diagnosis, I had a limited understanding of what exactly gluten was and how it affected people. I talked to my doctor and dove deep into my own research and found that gluten is a general name for a protein found in a variety of grains such as wheat, barley and rye to name a few. Gluten acts as kind of glue that helps food keep their shape and basically makes breads and cakes and other such things so fluffy and delicious. Gluten also shows up in pastas, sauces, soups, breads, salad dressings and more. When a person who is allergic to gluten eats these grains, their body responds negatively. The effects are not always immediate and can vary in intensity depending on the severity of the allergy. For me, in the days to follow a gluten indulgence, my stomach and intestines pay the price. This is because my body rejects it. In fact it does a lot of damage that can lead to other seemingly unrelated health problems. The issue with gluten starts in the lining of our stomach and small intestine where we have finger-like projections called villi that exist to capture the nutrients from food we eat. But gluten destroys these villi making it difficult or impossible for our bodies to absorb what we need for our overall health. As a result, people like myself suffer from vitamin deficiencies, stomach problems, headaches, skin reactions and a variety of other awful things.
Marketing gluten free items to people, especially in a restaurant setting, without an allergy invalidates the legitimacy of gluten free options for those living with a gluten allergy and seems like an uneducated decision driven by the media and the fad that going gluten free is perceived to be. Gluten free labels on food have morphed into a kind of “healthy” label for items that perhaps once had gluten, like a cake mix or foods that never had gluten in them to begin with, such as potato chips. At this rate I wouldn’t be surprised if they start putting GF stickers on carrots and bottled water. Gluten free does not necessarily mean healthy. In most all cases it doesn’t mean healthy at all. All it means is that it’s free of proteins that contain gluten. A box of gluten free sugary cereal is just as unhealthy as a regular box of sugary cereal and gluten free bread is still an unhealthy carb. Sorry.
The gluten free diet has been ridiculed, discounted and I would even say glamorized. I believe this ignorance comes from a lack of education about food, health in general and what it means to truly care for our bodies. If we don’t take our own health seriously, it’s easier to find something to poke fun at when it comes to “new” diets we don’t understand. Gluten allergies are not new. Many people say we’ve been eating bread for centuries as an attempt to discredit going gluten free, and yes, we have. It’s also true that we’ve been suffering from the ailments gluten causes for centuries and now we have a solution, not a cure, but a way to manage.
If you’re not allergic to gluten, have a gluten sensitivity or suffer from Celiac Disease, there is absolutely no justifiable reason for you to avoid or reduce your consumption of gluten. Don’t blindly follow a misguided trend. You’re not helping or hurting yourself by avoiding it. So commence eating your delicious gluten filled pastries. But remember, all in moderation.
You can learn more about gluten and those suffering with Celiac Disease at www.celiac.org.