what’s the deal: gluten free

The gluten-free trend has taken off in recent years. Food brands are advertising “gluten free” on any and all foods that don’t contain this mysterious ingredient; most restaurants have now added gluten free options and, in some cases, entirely separate menus showcasing gluten-free dishes. Everywhere you turn, someone is starting a new gluten-free diet. It’s time to find out: what is gluten, and what’s the deal?

According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, gluten is a general term for the proteins found in wheat, rye, barley and triticale. Common sources for these proteins are breads, pastas and beer. Giving up gluten means giving up the standard forms (and nutrients) of these foods, but have the health benefits proven to be worth it?

For a short while, gluten free was the coolest trend in town. However, it didn’t take long for doctors and scientists to rain on the parades of all who thought gluten was the devil. One study found that those who cut gluten out of their diets are at a higher risk for heart disease. Other studies found that gluten may actually boost the immune system, and removing it from the diet can have adverse effects on immunity.

“If people are healthy and can digest and metabolize gluten and have no health issues with gluten, then removing it from their diets may not be beneficial,” agrees Dr. Shahla Wunderlich, professor of nutrition and food studies at Montclair State University.

Someone who wants to go gluten free is going to shell out quite a few dollars more for this designer food label. For example, an added charge of anywhere from$3-$7 can be tacked on to a pizza for those who want gluten free crust.

Everyday Health also examined the gluten-free craze, citing both positives and negatives of going gluten free as told by an expert dietician. There was a positive to the trend – cutting out gluten would force people to eat healthier whole-grain options, such as quinoa and rice, which do provide the body with nutrients like fiber and iron that some other gluten-free foods lack. There were also a few negatives, like the possibility of developing a nutrition deficiency from too many prepackaged foods and the possibility of weight gain from confusing the idea that gluten-free food means one can eat more of it (not the case – dietician Tricia Thompson notes in her Everyday Health interview that gluten-free is not the same as low-carb).

When the gluten is removed from certain foods that rely on it, such as pizza dough, a lot of the original flavor is removed as well. As a result, some gluten-free foods are packed with extra fats and sugars to make them more palatable – another issue to watch out for when going on a gluten-free diet.

So here’s the deal: Going gluten-free is a great option for those with Celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. However, someone who suffers from neither of these health issues will see no real benefit from removing gluten from the diet. Don’t be fooled by every diet trend that comes around; they can be trends for a reason. Rather than cutting out gluten, opt instead for foods with more whole grains, such as whole wheat breads and pastas.

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