Ask Eartha: Some advice for those considering a switch to a gluten-free diet
April 24, 2014
What is the deal with everyone going gluten and wheat free? Is this just a new fad diet or is bread really that bad for you?
Oh, the fad diet craze! It does seem like people are all too willing to jump on the most recent bandwagon when it comes to nutrition. I don't admonish those who want to experiment with their diet, especially when they try to understand the link between what they eat and how they feel. The old adage "you are what you eat" holds true, and maybe this is finally hitting home for some people.
Many of us were taught back in grade school about the food pyramid. It was touted as being the path to a nutritious and balanced diet. The bottom of the food pyramid contains wheat and grains, and we were told these should be the most prolific in our diet. Let's face it, this outdated model is an oversimplified, one-size-fits-all approach to nutrition. It does not account for where our food comes from, how it was grown and how far it had to travel to get to us. Bread and other grains are not inherently bad. It is the way they are grown and processed that researchers believe has become problematic for some people.
Wheat, for example, has been crossbred considerably since the mid-20th century to produce ever higher yields. One of the oldest known grains, wheat, has been cultivated for thousands of years, but until recently plant hybridization was a much slower process. In his article "What Went Wrong with Wheat," Matt Sutherland explains that in the 19th century, when plant breeding became more sophisticated, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center set out to produce new varieties in an effort to combat world hunger.
The most common hybrids today are the high-yielding dwarf and semi-dwarf. They are very different from the wheat our ancestors ate. The genetic structures of the plants are different, which might explain why we see more wheat and gluten allergies.
Wheat allergies and sensitivities are less common than gluten allergies. Those who are "allergic" to gluten actually have an autoimmune disorder called Celiac disease, which affects the small intestine. Celiac disease is fairly rare, affecting one in every 100 people. For those with the disease, eating gluten can have serious adverse health effects.
Gluten sensitivity, also known as non-Celiac gluten sensitivity, is not as severe as Celiac disease but can cause problems such as digestive issues, chronic fatigue, migraines, mood issues, inflammation, swelling and pain in joints and hormone imbalances. Because these symptoms are signs of a variety of medical issues, gluten sensitivity can be difficult to diagnose. A good way to find out whether you have an issue with gluten is to eliminate it from your diet for a while and see how you feel. However, you may want to be tested for Celiac and wheat allergy before trying to learn whether you have a gluten sensitivity.
We hear the word gluten a lot but what exactly is it? Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye that acts as a binding agent. It gives bread its elasticity and chewiness. Many processed foods also contain gluten. The ubiquity of gluten in the American diet makes it difficult to avoid. Fortunately, more restaurants are beginning to offer gluten-free alternatives. You can also buy gluten-free breads, flours, cereals, baked goods and pastas at most grocery stores.
Buying gluten-free foods, which are more expensive, can be worth it if they make you feel better. The website Gluten Solution has some great articles on going gluten free. It also has a list of foods to avoid if you want to try a gluten-free diet. Whether your friends are following the latest diet craze or trying to experiment with their eating habits, it is important for you to pay attention to your own body and do what works best for you.
Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at firstname.lastname@example.org.