Demystifying the Gluten-Free Diet

by Lauren on July 17, 2013

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I stop to gaze lovingly at the French bakery. And then I just walk right by.

Inside is a seductive ingredient that binds together the buttery goodness of a soft croissant: gluten. Some may wonder why I would pass up a bakery visit. “I could never live without bread!” is a common reaction. Well, 1% of the population is seriously and adversely affected by gluten – enter the gluten-free diet.

In today’s health climate, separating the signal from the noise is challenging. In this post we’ll wade together through some of the gluten confusion, and gain clarity along the way.

The buzz about gluten-free is overwhelming, and understandably so. It has confused me to no end. When I was 26 years old, a nice cab driver rushed me, doubled over, to a local emergency room. Several hours later I had no appendix, and many weeks later I was struggling with a serious infection. After having a persistently bad stomach for months, my doctor diagnosed me with gluten intolerance, potentially linked to the infection. Thus began my life of eating foods free of gluten.

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Forget the fact that some gluten-free foods are expensive.

Try explaining the gluten-free diet to your Italian grandmother, in whose home pasta is an antidote to the common cold. Or for us lovers of travel, journeying to distant locales where monkeys are plentiful but food is scarce– try explaining gluten-free to a generous native offering you a homemade empanada.

The thing is, 1 out of 133 people in the United States must eat this way. They have celiac disease, an auto-immune disease that wreaks havoc on the digestive system when a person ingests gluten. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. Translation: everything found in a French bakery (minus the macaroons). Affected persons must avoid gluten entirely, or raise their risk of having osteoporosis, organ disorders, and even cancer.

Many fall into a slightly different bucket. Including yours truly.

To make things more confusing, we folks with gluten sensitivity may experience similar symptoms as those with celiac disease, but without the long-term and damaging effects. At this point I reach for the science, and there is no better thought-leader than Dr. Alessio Fasano, Director of the Center for Celiac Research at MassGeneral Hospital for Children. Here he demystifies some of the talk on living gluten-free.

One of his key points is the myth that one will lose weight on the gluten-free diet. Many popular media sources suggest that eating gluten-free can actually make you gain weight, given that some gluten-free foods are more fattening or caloric than their “normal” counterparts. This may be true, but according to Fassano, “It depends on how you implement the diet.”

The fallacy committed by some mainstream sources is that they presume a dependence on processed and boxed foods to fulfill nutritional requirements. Of course a bowl of Raisin Bran provides you with 28% of your recommended fiber intake. But it also boasts 18g of sugar, nearly as much as there is in two Reese’s Peanut Butter cups. Gluten-free doesn’t necessarily mean substituting one boxed food for another. Fruits and vegetables, nuts, and lean sources of protein are all gluten-free. Replace cereal with a spinach omelette and a side of raspberries (a high-fiber choice) and voilà, you are starting your day with a healthy and gluten-free breakfast.

There are benefits to the gluten-free lifestyle, when the focus is on healthy choices. Recent studies from June of 2013 even indicate the benefits of a gluten-free diet in reducing inflammation. However, the overall science pointing to a need for “regular” folks to follow a gluten-free diet is unremarkable.

For those staying away from the gluten, below is a fine recipe. For those who embrace it, I hope you visit a French bakery soon.

Just don’t tell my Italian grandmother.

Mediterranean Eggplant with Crumbled Beef, Tomatoes and Mint by Karina Allrich, Gluten-Free Goddess

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