The return of bread to restaurant menus everywhere is a sure sign that the gluten free trend is cooling. I am both happy that our sometimes-misinformed obsession with gluten is waning…and a bit worried about the backlash for those who are dependent on a gluten free lifestyle for their health. As we settle in on a new, gluten-optional normal, I think this is the perfect time to do a little myth busting and set the gluten record straight!
“Gluten is always bad for you, enough said”
The first myth is the most dangerous: that gluten is harmful for everyone. It is true that gluten proteins have a unique structure that is difficult to digest, and that some fragments of gluten digestion have been shown to activate the immune system or impact the gut. However, there is little evidence to show that for healthy people, gluten ingestion is harmful. What is harmful, however, is suggesting that gluten is always bad for you…as it incites a backlash from healthy people who tolerate it just fine, leading them to doubt those who truly need to be gluten free. Which leads to my next myth…
“There is no such thing as gluten intolerance”
Celiac Disease is a serious autoimmune disease affecting approximately 1% of the population. Celiac Disease requires the eater to strictly avoid every crumb of gluten to avoid aggravating a disease process that can lead to infertility and increased risk of certain cancers. Those with Celiac Disease can’t eat food made in the presence of gluten, as even flour dust in the air is enough to contaminate their food.
In addition, a decade of research has confirmed that non-celiac gluten sensitivity is very real, affecting approximately 6-8% of the population. Of course, if you add those numbers up, they are much less than 100% of us.
“I’m not gluten intolerant so I can’t benefit from eating gluten free”
Interestingly, there are others who may benefit from a gluten free lifestyle. Some believe that avoiding gluten, because of the potential for immune activation, may benefit those with other autoimmune diseases – but this is still hotly debated. For those with irritable bowel syndrome, the gluten-containing grains also contain fructans, a carbohydrate chain that can cause gastric distress. So while those with IBS may benefit from a gluten free diet, it isn’t the lack of gluten that is providing relief…it is the avoidance of fructans.
“I’m eating gluten free so I have to avoid corn and soy, too”
Another common misconception is that while you are avoiding gluten, you might as well avoid corn. Corn and its beleaguered friend, the soybean. When did these words become verboten? While it is true that conventional corn and soy are almost exclusively genetically modified, and that they are commonly used in unhealthy junk foods, organic corn and soy are nutritious foods that need not be avoided unless you have a confirmed allergy to them. They add variety to the gluten free diet and have plenty of nutritional benefits of their own.
“All gluten free is created equal – and is equally healthy”
Finally, we need to lay to rest the idea that simply eating gluten free food makes you healthier. We were in this jam with the fat free fiasco of the early nineties: millions of us eating whole boxes of fat free cookies because we thought them nutritional freebies. There are plenty of gluten free cookies, cakes, candy and other treat foods that should not be a staple of any healthy diet. Simply eating gluten free is not enough.
In order to be healthy on a gluten free diet, you need to choose healthy gluten free foods:
- Opt for foods with high quality ingredients that read like a recipe
- Choose organic foods whenever you can
- Focus on plenty of naturally gluten-free plant foods such as beans, nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables
So, while you can be exceedingly healthy on a gluten free diet, just looking for that label is not enough. What you put into your diet – whole, organic plant foods – is even more important than the gluten you may choose, or need, to take out.