Transitioning from Berkeley to Los Angeles this summer, I noticed quite a few striking differences between cities. The weather, for instance. LA sunshine means never having to put on pants, and that’s been fantastically liberating. Transportation isn’t quite the same, either. I sort of miss being able to walk from home to school to Trader Joe’s without provoking bewildered looks from passing drivers.
But I have picked up on one consistency between my bundled up Bay Area brethren and all the tanned, scantily-clad Angelenos: Everyone, everywhere is afraid of gluten.
The interesting thing is that the reasons behind gluten hysteria seem to vary depending on region. In Berkeley, I’m used to Farmer’s Market patrons and vendors extolling the benefits of gluten-free foods along with anything and everything organic, vegan, sustainable, locally grown, free-range, and non-genetically modified. Gluten is basically just another nutritional barometer of moral virtue.
But in LA, the glorious land of no pants, gluten-free eating has gotten a reputation for being reliably waistline-friendly. If we’re playing word-association here, the related terms might be “detox,” “cleanse,” “juice,” and “fast.”
These are of course sweeping generalizations and self-reported observations, but when I went to take a sip of almond milk the other day and noticed the label’s oversized lettering assuring me that the contents was “gluten-free!” I realized that this anxiety really does run deep and rampant. I mean, it never occurred to me to carefully inspect my almond milk for any strains of poisonous, environmentally-unfriendly, fattening gluten in the first place. But are any of those descriptors even accurate, or has gluten just gotten a bad rap?
What Are We Talking About When We Talk About Gluten?
Well let’s back up. What the heck is gluten, anyway? Contrary to popular belief (which is—surprise!—often based on misinformation and lots and lots of marketing), it’s not a devil particle sent here to wipe out the human race. It’s actually just a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. And that sort of takes the sexy sinfulness out of it and brings this whole thing back to boring, doesn’t it? Sorry.
Now, there is a very real, very serious autoimmune disorder known as celiac disease. Someone suffering from celiac absolutely can’t eat gluten because doing so causes the immune system to attack the teeny tiny hairs of the small intestine, which keeps the body from absorbing nutrients. Continuing to consume crackers, cookies, and other gluten-laden carbs can actually lead to intestinal cancer in celiac patients.
But let’s look at the numbers. While no one is discounting the fact that celiac exists, it only affects 1 in 133 Americans. That’s certainly not super rare (and not nearly as rare as experts once thought it was), but it also isn’t as common as say, having brown eyes, or being a 28-year-old Twihard (okay, maybe it’s more common than that. I’m coming to terms with my uniqueness).
In addition to celiac disease, however, there’s a whole not-so-fun spectrum of gluten-related disorders. So someone doesn’t necessarily have to have celiac to experience the abdominal pain, headaches, diarrhea (yeah, we’re going there), etc. associated with gluten sensitivity.
So Shouldn’t We All Be Scared?
But the question is, should we all be shunning gluten or this just a convenient way for marketers to make us carbophobic and for compulsive dieters to restrict a whole food group?
“Unless you’re gluten sensitive or unless you have celiac, there’s no good reason to go gluten-free, and you might even become malnourished,” says Beth Kitchin, an Assistant Professor and Nutrition Sciences Patient Educator at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “Gluten is not an evil protein. It’s good for you as long as you’re not sensitive to it.”
“It’s not something that everyone should avoid,” agrees dietician Pamela Cureton, registered dietitian at the University of Maryland Center for Celiac Research. “It’s not like trans fat—it’s not the same thing.”
But “I Really Want To Lose Three Pounds.” – Regina George.
So what’s the harm in cutting some extra carbs to shed pounds? Well, if you’re planning to replace your traditional bagels and breads with the pricey gluten-free alternatives, you might be surprised—and not in a pleasant way.
“When people who do have celiac cut out gluten, they may gain weight because they’re not having diarrhea and malabsorption,” Kitchin says. “When they go gluten-free, they feel better and gain weight back because they’re absorbing nutrients and calories.”
Say what? Gluten-free living is intended to increase the number on the scale?
“It’s the diet du jour,” says Dr. Julie Miller Jones, Distinguished Scholar and Professor Emerita of Food & Nutrition at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, MN. “Because gluten is in so many things, you will get a temporary caloric restriction if you use other things in its place. People may think that’s causing weight loss, but the simple fact is weight loss requires fewer calories and they have put in a system to help them eat fewer calories.”
So the point is, if you need to lose weight, all those tempting, adorably packaged gluten-free brownies and cupcakes aren’t going to be your magic “diet foods.”
“If you eliminate carbs completely, you have the Atkins diet, but if you take on a gluten-free diet and eat all the products available, you will find a weight gain versus a weight loss,” Cureton said. “It is not recommended for weight loss. It’s not meant for that.”
But I’m On This Detox/Cleanse/Spiritual Starvation Diet…
Just because all those delicious looking treats at Whole Foods boast “gluten-free” ingredients doesn’t mean they’re entirely wholesome. “Not all gluten-free products have been formulated to be honestly healthy,” says Kantha Shelke, Principal and Food Scientist, Corvus Blue LLC, a Chicago based food science and research firm. “The replacement of wheat is often done with a mixture of ingredients, many of which are often more glycemic (producing more sugar when digested), and not as high in fiber or protein.”
“Of course manufacturers need a group to sell products to and once they see that there’s a market, they will produce to that market,” Cureton says. “That’s happened through history. When the Atkins craze was at its peak, you saw “net carbs” on everything and everything had “no cholesterol” on it. As the food trend goes, so does the marketplace.”
I’m Just Gonna Try It Out…
So is all this gluten hysteria just another money-making scheme? Not entirely. There are of course people who suffer from celiac and other iterations of gluten sensitivity, but if you suspect you’re one of them, do not—I repeat, do not–self-diagnose.
“I always emphasize not to just try it as a diet, but to ask your doctor to test for celiac first,” Cureton says. “That’s so important because you can’t test for it if you’re already on a gluten-free diet.” The reason is that the typical tests—which include blood samples and something super intimate known as an endoscopy—examine your body’s reaction to gluten, so if you’ve quit consuming it, your doctor won’t know whether or not you might have a real problem.
But I’m One Gluten Disorder Away From Reaching My Goal Weight
And if you’re sitting there crossing your fingers, hoping you have celiac, you might want to redirect your wishes and prayers because being really committed to a gluten-free lifestyle can be a huge pain in the butt—and not just for you, but for anyone you live with too.
“People who really on gluten-free diets have a very difficult time and there’s a lot of really strenuous protocol,” Jones says. “If one family member has it, even if you’re buying the gluten-free bread, my recommendation is to buy another toaster. A lot of people say they have it, but they don’t take the kinds of strenuous precautions to make certain there is no contamination.”
Seriously, Malnutrition’s Not Something You Want
And one last word of warning if you think there’s no harm in skipping gluten: you can be eating all the fruits and veggies in the world and still be malnourished.
“It’s mandatory in the US to fortify grains like wheat with folic acid,” Jones says. “Since that’s been done, the incidences of neural tube defects have decreased dramatically, as have severe birth defects. It’s important to make certain that you’re getting some regular, reliable source of folic acid to prevent problems that might occur with intended or unintended pregnancies.”
And even if you’re light years away from getting preggers, other nutrients might be missing from a gluten-free diet if you’re not super careful. “A risk for cutting out grains is really reducing your intake of certain B vitamins that are in whole grains that are related to a lowered risk of chronic disease,” Kitchin says. “Carbs are our primary energy source, and really from a pure enjoyment standpoint, giving up bread and pasta and other foods that are interesting is not necessary.”
So if you really think you have a disease, get tested STAT. And if you’ve just been playing the gluten-free card as a way to cut calories, do yourself a favor and see a nutritionist for healthier tips instead.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some LA sunshine to soak up before the Bay Area breeze makes pants a mandatory staple again.