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.