Helpful or Harmful Diet Review: The Gluten-Free Diet

(Originally posted on on May 10th, 2012)

Welcome back to the Helpful or Harmful Diet Review for Week Six. This week we will continue our discussion of the Lifestyle diets. One of the more recent additions to the lifestyle diet list is the Gluten-Free diet and it has gained quite a following. All that most people know about this diet is that those following it can’t eat wheat. So why is that and what is gluten exactly?

Gluten is a protein found in cereal grains such as wheat, barley, and rye to name a few and constitutes a high portion of the total protein in these plants. Gluten is the substance in flour that gives dough its elastic texture and is added to other foods to provide this texture and add bulk. It is even a component in imitation meats. It has become extremely prevalent in our diets.

So what’s the problem with this? Gluten is an inflammatory protein. That is the problem. If you remember our discussion on inflammation you know that inflammation damages tissues and when present chronically can lead to serious health problems and exacerbation of pre-existing conditions.

But why is it such a problem now when we, as a species, have had wheat and grains as a staple in our diets for about 10,000 years? According to Dr. William Davis, the author of “Wheat Belly” (2011), the selective breeding of wheat over the years has drastically increased the gluten content of the strains of wheat grown in agriculture today, combined with the fact that the human digestive system is still at the same state it was in before the development of agriculture when gluten was barely present in our diets. We are taking a digestive system that has not evolved to be able to handle gluten and assaulting it with higher and higher levels of gluten on a fairly consistent basis.

There are major health conditions where a reaction to gluten is the culprit such as Celiac Disease or Wheat Allergies. Celiac Disease (present in approximately 0.5 – 1% of the population) is a condition where exposure to gluten literally wears away that the intestinal lining and decreases our ability to absorb nutrients. If untreated, this can lead to malnutrition and even death, especially early in life. A wheat allergy is just like any other allergy and does not necessarily have to be to gluten but commonly is due to its prevalence. Both of these conditions require strict avoidance of gluten products. On the other hand, gluten sensitivities are common and highly under reported. A gluten sensitivity, like most sensitivities, can manifest as anything from bloating and diarrhea to chronic pain and headaches of even chronic infection.

The Gluten-Free Diet suggests that everyone should avoid gluten. Eliminating gluten is not an easy thing to do. It is in so many of the staple foods that we love such as pasta, bread, many processed foods, and even things like soy sauce and soup stock. It comes from any foods made from wheat, barley, rye, or spelt (for a more extensive list click here). Food labelling sometimes cannot be trusted in this regard. Most recently Domino’s pizza came out with a “Gluten-Free” Crust which was found to contain sources of gluten. Reading the ingredients list on our food becomes very important on this diet.

Luckily, gluten awareness has increased significantly over the last decade and gluten-free alternatives are being produced in abundance. Most involve nuts of different kinds but some are made with tapioca or rice for a nut-allergy safe alternative. People on the gluten-free diet do tend to end up making many things on their own that most people would buy in a store so that they don’t feel restricted by the often limited and expensive in-store items.

Going gluten free is an excellent step towards a healthy lifestyle but really that is all it is. A step. It is just as easy to eat unhealthily while being gluten-free as it is with the Standard American Diet. Other healthy changes are needed. Gluten is an excellent and important aspect of dietary change but it is not the whole picture.

There is a very large gluten-free community online who are incredible supportive to everyone who wants to try this lifestyle. Many bloggers and health sites provide tips and recipes and their own trials and successes with the gluten-free diet and hundreds of books have been published on the topic. If you decide to accept this lifestyle you are no alone and you will find a friendly and welcoming community waiting for you.

Overall the gluten-free diet is a great first step on improving your diet. It is one of the more difficult diets to master, but it is important to remember that it is just a step. Combining a Gluten-Free diet with proper exercise and healthy, whole foods is essential to a well rounded and healthy lifestyle.

Thanks for reading, and come back next week for another lifestyle diet under the microscope.
Dr. Ben

Here are some of the Gluten-Free blogs that I have found in my travels;
Adventures of a Gluten Free Mom
Lexie’s Kitche
Real Sustenance
She Let Them Eat Cake
Simply Sugar & Gluten Free
The Spunky Coconut


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