A gluten-free diet is one that eliminates any foods containing gluten. This restrictive diet is typically prescribed for individuals who cannot properly process gluten, such as those with celiac disease or gluten intolerance. It may also be helpful for people with wheat allergies, irritable bowel syndrome, type 1 diabetes, or other types of autoimmune conditions such as Hashimotos, lupus or rheumatoid arthritis.
Many people who have no medical reasons to eliminate gluten have also jumped on the gluten-free bandwagon, thinking it is a healthier way to eat. But is it? And should people who don’t need to eliminate gluten due to health concerns follow this type of diet?
Here is some information about gluten-free diets to consider before making the switch.
What is gluten?
Gluten is a type of protein found in wheat, barley and rye. It is in foods you would expect to contain these types of grains – such as bread, pasta, cereal and baked goods. But since it also used as a food thickener and stabilizer, it may also be found in other foods that aren’t as obvious, including sauces, dressings, soups, beer and processed foods.
What are the benefits of a gluten-free diet?
If you have a medical condition that warrants eliminating gluten from your diet, there are certainly health benefits to doing so. But if it is not medically necessary, there are few documented benefits of gluten-free diets.
There is nothing inherently unhealthy about gluten. But since eliminating gluten may result in you eating fewer refined carbohydrates and processed foods, some people have reported the following benefits:
What are the drawbacks of going gluten-free?
Unless medically necessary, making some foods completely off-limits can set up a cycle of cravings and binges, which can lead to unhealthy eating.
Additionally, many wheat products in the U.S. are enriched with important nutrients, such as iron, folic acid, riboflavin, niacin and thiamin, while gluten-free versions of similar products often are not. So you may find yourself lacking in some of these nutrients. If you completely eliminate all grains from your diet (even though some are naturally gluten-free), you may be missing out on other nutrients, like fiber.
It’s also important to keep in mind that just because an item is labeled “gluten-free” doesn’t mean it is healthy. For example, highly processed foods, like gluten-free cakes and cookies, are still high in sugar, fat and calories. And there are many unhealthy foods that naturally don’t contain gluten, like chips and candy.
So what’s the verdict? Should you go gluten-free?
If you suspect gluten may be an issue for you, you can do a trial elimination for 14-21 days and keep track of your symptoms. Unless you find that gluten is causing specific symptoms, keep in mind that eliminating gluten without paying attention to the other foods you eat may not provide any health benefits. If you replace foods containing gluten with fruit, vegetables, healthy fats, lean meats, low-fat dairy and whole grains that don’t contain gluten, your diet would be considered healthy. But if you eat lots of processed gluten-free snacks or don’t make other healthy food choices, you will likely not be any better off than before you went gluten-free.
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