In recent years, the gluten-free diet has gained popularity by way of a tiny “GF” label popping up on grocery store shelves and restaurant menus. It seems more and more gluten-free brands are surfacing while pre-existing brands are tweaking 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 at most places, I’m comforted to know that gluten-free items are available up until the point when I notice the allergy disclaimers and warnings about cross-contamination in microscopic print at the bottom of the menu. It makes me feel as though these gluten-free items are being offered to the wrong people.
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 gluten. The word “preference” is the problem with the gluten-free diet. It has turned a serious health risk into a trend leading to the misunderstanding of what gluten is and why certain people aren’t eating it.
So what is gluten and why is it a problem? 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 its 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 even various hygiene products. 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 in the individual. For me, in the days that follow gluten indulgence, my stomach and intestines pay the price. This is because my body doesn’t digest 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 stomachs and small intestines where we have finger-like projections called villi that exist to capture the nutrients from food we eat. But gluten destroys these villi in some people, making it difficult or impossible for their bodies to absorb what they need for their overall health. As a result, people like myself suffer from vitamin deficiencies, digestive issues, headaches, skin reactions and a variety of other awful things.
Marketing gluten-free items to people, especially in a restaurant setting where cross-contamination is inevitable, without an allergy seems to invalidate the legitimacy of gluten-free options for those living with a gluten allergy. It appears to be 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” stamp of approval for items that perhaps once had gluten, like a cake mix, or foods that never had gluten in them to begin with. 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.
If you’re not allergic to gluten, have gluten sensitivity or suffer from Celiac Disease, there is absolutely no justifiable reason for you to deny yourself. 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.