Going gluten-free popular, but comes with pitfalls
December 8, 2013
Remember the days, not that long ago, when you never encountered the word "gluten"? Unless you were an ambitious baker, it was a rare word, like threnody, or anchorite.
No more. Gluten today is nearly up there with yoga and latte, and way more common than twerk.
I know people who do not have celiac disease — if you are one of the 1 percent of Americans who suffer from celiac disease, letting gluten pass between your lips is not an option — who banished gluten from their diets just because, and so do you. They report feeling "so much better," that they are "less bloaty," have more energy and sleep like babies — all due to the removal of wheat, rye and barley from their diets (the problematic protein is found in all three grains).
Supermarkets contain expanding lines of gluten-free products; Boulder Brands, a growing Boulder company, is one of the bigger manufacturers (60 of their employees went gluten-free in October, as an experiment). Restaurants — even fine-dining outposts like Frasca Food and Wine in Boulder — tout gluten-free options. Some joints, like Fresh Thymes Eatery in Boulder, don't use gluten in anything.
The market grew by 44 percent between 2011 and 2013, and is projected to reach $10.5 billion this year, according to the market-research firm Mintel.
I wanted to feel so much better. So I largely removed gluten from my diet for October. And while I gluten-fasted, I talked with people who know a lot about the diet.
Before we turn to the experts, let me tell you that on Nov. 1, I did not feel so much better, or feel especially peppy or sleep-sated. I did, however, feel less bloaty. I didn't know I was especially bloaty until I got rid of gluten.
The results, for me, were not dramatic. But still, I'm cutting back on gluten. The experiment revealed how much I rely upon the grains of a grass to fill me up: samosas, burritos, sandwiches, pizza, fried things, crackers, toast, pasta, cookies, bagels, cakes, meatballs.
During the fast, my diet was better — more vegetables, fruits, lean meats and nuts, a wider array of grains, and sprinklings of gluten-free products, some of which are excellent.
Is going gluten-free something for everybody?
For celiac sufferers, it's a necessity. The science behind "gluten-intolerance" — that is, not celiac but a sensitivity to gluten — is inconclusive: Reliable tests have not emerged that measure gluten intolerance in people, said Martha Stone, a professor in the Food Science and Human Nutrition department at Colorado State University.
Test or not, Stone believes some people who do not have celiac do suffer from gluten intolerance. She also is convinced, she said, that "there are people out there for whom it's a psychological thing."
"They think they feel better, but if you did a blind test on them, they wouldn't have a reaction."
Most people have neither celiac nor a gluten-intolerance. For them, cutting back makes a lot of sense, but shunning every product that contains gluten, from many soy sauces to beer, is extreme.
"I see the fat content of my gluten-free patients skyrocket. You can be very unhealthy following the diet if you don't pay attention to your nutrition label," said Denver dietitian Jessica Crandall, a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "If the product misses the leavening agent that makes bread taste good, they usually add fat to make it taste good."
You've heard it a gazillion times, but it's worth repeating: A balanced diet is the way to go, said Crandall.
"Diversity in the way you take in your nutrition is important," she said.
For some people, embracing the gluten-free way has less to do with bloating and energy than it does with a fraught relationship with food, said Jennifer Gaudiani, assistant medical director at the Acute Center for Eating Disorders at Denver Health.
"There are the worried-well, who are constantly looking for something to cut out of their lives, which is a complicated psychological phenomenon among the well-educated, the well-off, who are too focused on thinness or what you might call the pleasure of deprivation," she said. "Many people feel good when they have the sense that they are depriving themselves of something or showing self-control. But for many of these people, cutting gluten probably has no influence on anything in terms of general health."
"It's a new fad, and I don't regard it as anything else but a fad," she added. "Gluten is the cool kid to restrict right now.
Gaudiani, who routinely deals with eating-disorder patients who are near death, said she has encountered patients who began their spiral by eliminating gluten, then other imagined dietary no-nos, until there wasn't anything left to eat.
In many cases, she said, people who complain about digestion problems, and then find relief by going off gluten, are fooling themselves: the problem is really anxiety that manifests in the digestive track. Eliminating food groups brings calm to these people — they are exercising control over something, which reduces anxiety and the resulting digestion issues. But a more healthy solution is to address the psychological issues in other, more direct, ways.
Gaudiani deals with extremes, though. Many people who never will flirt with an eating disorder swear by the gluten-free way.
Elise Wiggins, executive chef at Panzano restaurant in downtown Denver, has a brother who suffers from celiac disease. Her doctor urged her to eliminate gluten, after she complained of a variety of health issues, from a roiling stomach to arthritis. Now, she steers clear of gluten.
"I feel great," she said. "My stomach doesn't hurt, and I have less inflammation," in her hips, back and neck.
Wiggins has dedicated herself to experimenting with gluten-free cooking — 10 percent of Panzano diners request the restaurant's gluten-free menu — and is especially proud of her focaccia, which stands about 3 inches tall and unlike some gluten-free breads, is light and bubbly rather than dense and gluey.
One New York customer brings an extra suitcase, to take home her focaccia.
Food editor Kristen Browning-Blas contributed to this report.
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