Going gluten-free is more than just your average crash diet
A woman at your yoga studio has lost 12 pounds since going gluten-free, your grandma is trying new gluten-free recipes for this year’s family reunion, and the cake you’re making for your best friend’s birthday party just needs to be made with gluten-free flour. Lately, the concept seems to be everywhere we look. Gluten-free eating in our culture can be anything from a health essential, to a diet trend, all depending on the person living it. As the fad steadily persists, more and more Americans are deciding to go against the grain.
Within the last decade, the amount of people pinning gluten as the root of their health issues has increased significantly and gluten avoidance continues to rise in popularity. In 2014, the percentage of people avoiding gluten had jumped to almost four times as much as that of 2010, according to data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. This percentage was made up of both individuals with and without celiac disease yet both numbers rapidly increased. Dr. Kenneth Fine, director of Enterolab, is a gastroenterologist who agrees that gluten sensitivity probably affects half the population. According to research, gluten sensitivity potentially affects far more people than celiac disease. It is estimated that 20 million people in the United States could have the condition.
“When we did the math, we came up with the number of about one in two are gluten-sensitive,” he said. It is proven that approximately 3 million Americans have celiac disease, so between individuals with gluten-intolerance and those with celiac disease, there are many Americans that can’t eat gluten.
Whether it was their digestion problems, headaches or even depression, millions have eliminated gluten from their diet and their health mishaps have vanished (along with the trips to their favorite downtown bagel shop).
Andrea Langston is an integrative nutritionist and dietician. Langston’s passion and focus for nutrition developed when she was diagnosed with celiac disease several years ago, and because of this, she specializes in helping clients understand and adapt to a gluten-free diet. She treats conditions such as celiac disease, and gluten sensitivity.
“I have seen absolutely amazing effects of people adopting a gluten-free diet, both with celiac disease and without,” Langston said.
She explained that she has seen in her work many individuals’ problems that they never knew were “symptoms” vanish after cutting out gluten. Until a gluten-free diet relieved their struggles, these people thought their medical issues were just a part of who they were.
Langston explains she has seen an array of problems in her clients including extreme fatigue after eating, headaches, irritability, brain fog, digestive problems, low blood pressure and stubborn weight gain. She claims that these problems faded for many patients once they began avoiding gluten, and improvements in energy and a clearer head surfaced. Anxiety, depression, and sleep concerns no longer bothered them.
“I’ve also had many clients who do not have celiac disease experience huge improvements in their overall health and well-being. Things such as joint and muscle pain, digestive issues, migraines, and skin problems have cleared up” she said. “In general, many people eat far too much gluten-containing foods on a daily basis and gluten tends to be inflammatory.”
The greatest benefit is often seen in those who not only avoid gluten but also many processed foods in general, moving towards a more healthy, whole foods-based diet.
In terms of an individual’s medical problems, adopting a gluten-free diet seems to have positively changed people’s lives, although there are still many people following the gluten free trend potentially as a diet fad. It is a popular perception that eating gluten-free is generally healthier, but studies show otherwise.
The NPD Group states that only 25 percent of those living in a gluten-free home say celiac disease or gluten sensitivity is the main reason. Among others, one of the main reasons is to improve health.
Professor David Levitsky teaches at Cornell University in The Division of Nutritional Sciences. Levitsky explained that in regards to gluten-free dieting strategies, any reduction of calories consumed will lead to weight loss, and reducing gluten leads to reducing most carbohydrates, circling back to less calorie consumption.
With that said, Levitsky warns that a gluten-free diet, similar to a low-carbohydrate weight loss plan, is many times a temporary fix.
“They all work for the short term,” Levitsky said. “There is nothing magical about gluten and weight loss.”
Levitsky is currently working on many research investigations and conducting studies on different dieting strategies, weight-gain as a result of dining hall food, and overall efficiency of maintaining weight loss in a safe way over holidays.
Yet, throughout all of these research activities, Levitsky claims that there is nothing in the scientific literature that suggests a relationship between gluten and body weight. Many professionals tend to agree, and nutritionists often warn against the gluten-free processed foods, explaining to their clients that just because it is labeled gluten-free doesn’t mean it is healthy.
“A cookie is still a cookie, whether it is gluten free or not!” Langston said.
Contrary to popular belief, many of these gluten free foods can be more unhealthy than their gluten-containing version because companies typically add a lot of extra sugar and unhealthy fats to try and compensate for the lack of real gluten in their treats.
The debate of whether going gluten free is the right decision, for either medical or dietary reasons, could be argued from all sides. It is the culture that surrounds gluten-free living that continues to evolve every day. The food industry and society as a whole share a similar attitude toward the gluten-free fad, unfortunately sharing the common tendency to not deal with it as seriously as it should be taken. Though a portion of the population follows a gluten-free diet for reasons other than medical need, there are people out there who risk their health and well-being every day by being surrounded by gluten. As for the food industry, Langston says, “While I think there has been a lot of progress in providing safe gluten-free options over the past years and the industry is continuing to grow, there is still a long way to go.” As the percentage of Americans consuming gluten-free products continues to rise, the food production industry should ideally be developing along with it. And though Langston says it is improving, in the variety of products offered especially, there are still many technical issues that make it harder for those who need gluten-free goods. “There are laws outlining criteria for a food being labeled “gluten-free,” Langston says. However, there have been numerous findings of gluten-free labeled food containing much more gluten than is allowed by law. These inconsistencies can lead to people continuing to be sick and have symptoms even though they believe they are doing what they should be doing to eat gluten-free. Langston explained that food can be labeled “gluten free” as long as it contains less than 20 PPM (parts per million) of gluten per serving. This advertising and labeling lead to gluten-free people consuming products under false pretenses and risking their health.
Culturally, society has a long way to go with accepting gluten free living. Among all positive and negative effects of the gluten-free trend, the popularity of it has raised awareness and brought plenty of attention from the public eye. This has positively led to an increase in the willingness of food manufacturers and restaurants to provide gluten-free options. But, in this case, not all publicity has been good publicity, and the spotlight on gluten-free living has also brought unwanted criticism towards the medically-required gluten-free consumers. Langston admits, “Some people believe that anyone following this diet is just trying to lose weight, be picky, or difficult.” If these people are the ones working in the kitchen or the store, the issue is often times overlooked, and not taken seriously enough resulting in health risks for celiac patients.
The war on gluten has proven relentless, and it may continue to persist in the future. Dr. Langston and the medically gluten-free community ask for patience, consideration, and an attempt at understanding what goes on in the daily life of someone who is gluten-free for health purposes. And as for those who continue to trial the gluten-free diet for any reason at all, you’ve got this! Don’t be too hard on yourself though: those of us who are lucky enough to be able to eat gluten should always enjoy a cupcake every once and awhile.
Lauren White is a first-year journalism major who sometimes gets a little hangry.